*Due to formatting restrictions, this was not shared on our Facebook page but we do not want to shy away from sharing stories because of it. We did not want to take away from the content by having to restrict the post to 600 words. We hope you appreciate Justine’s experience as we do.
My one and only experience with death happened when I was 15 years old. It was very sudden and unexpected and yet it also managed to last a long time — what felt like an eternity.
My dad — he wasn’t my biological father but he adopted me when I was 2 years old because he was in love with my mom and therefore also in love with loving me, and was, in every way, my father — dropped me off at my boyfriend’s house one afternoon. I remember we argued a bit that day — nothing big, but I was at that age where everything about my parents was an annoying, exasperating burden — and was relieved to be away from home for a while. A few hours into my visit, I got a call from my mom — she was wondering if I had heard from dad, an odd question, because he was supposed to meet her at church but hadn’t shown up. My parents were, honestly, never very religious but attending church was something they did for a short time. It was not at all like my dad to not show, but this was still early in the age of cell phones and he wasn’t answering his. I thought the phone call was odd but didn’t think much more about it.
Later that night, my boyfriend’s mom drove me home, and I remember pulling up to my house and seeing Jay’s van outside. Jay was a family friend and my dad’s boss, and it wasn’t common for him to be there so late, but I also had a moment of relief thinking they must have found dad and everything was fine. It wasn’t until I saw Jay sitting on our front steps with his head in his hands that I knew something was very wrong. When I walked up, he told me dad had been in an accident and we needed to go to the hospital right away.
I honestly don’t remember a ton from those following 12 days. I was too young to fully comprehend what was really happening and I stayed out of most of the in-depth medical talks with doctors and nurses, but what I knew was this: my dad had been dropping off Jay’s van — he had borrowed it for work and was returning it — and had his bicycle in the back to ride home. Early on that ride home he fell off his bike — whether it was a car tapping him or a patch of sand or a rock, we don’t know — and hit the pavement head first, sans helmet. He was lucky enough that there was a sandwich shop just at the top of the street and a literal car full of doctors noticed him on the ground and rushed to his aid. Without their help and knowledge, he very well may have died right there… but he was rushed off in an ambulance instead.
When he arrived, they couldn’t find any ID on him, but they knew they needed to operate immediately, as he had serious head trauma and bleeding. Eventually, my mom had started calling around to hospitals and despite not remembering what he was wearing — she felt great shame for this, despite it being totally understandable — she found him. When she arrived, his operation was finished and he was heavily bandaged and on painkillers. He was told he needed to remain still but when she arrived, he tried with all his might to get out of that bed and go to her. We honestly don’t know what his level of awareness was at that time, but it’s a part of the story that has always stuck with me. To prevent him from hurting himself further, they put him in a medically-induced coma… one that he never woke up from.
We spent that 12 days in the hospital for the most part. My brother was 11 so it was fun for us to go down to the cafeteria and get huge plates of mashed potatoes and eat them while watching Jeopardy. We fully believed — whether it was the naivete of youth or intense optimism or both — that he would get better. This was a bump in the road, pun not intended, but that he would recover. The idea that he would almost certainly need some level of physical and maybe further therapy afterwards was not something we were worried about — he’d get there. We were sure of it.
Time spent at home was sparse, but I remember the number of the hospital and his room number sitting next to our heavy, black rotary phone. I remember that phone ringing off the hook. I remember cards pouring in, food being delivered — so much so that our fridge couldn’t fit anymore. I remember eating casseroles and lasagnas and not even registering how they tasted. I remember just sitting on the floor by that phone, ready to numbly give information to whatever almost-stranger called to offer their support. I remember keeping the portable phone on my pillow when I slept because the hospital staff always told us they’d only call if he got worse.
I remember not even calling my best friend to tell her what happened. I was in such a state of shock, of blissful unawareness of anything outside of those halls, that it genuinely never occurred to me. He was going to be released any day now, why would I bother her? She found out through the grapevine and called me, beside herself — how could I not have called her?
I remember going into his room not nearly as much as I should have. It was too bizarre to see him that way — clicks and beeps from every corner, machines whirring, a machine breathing for him, this shell of a man, this battered and bruised human who vaguely resembled my dad. He had these grotesque metal staples holding his scalp together, purple and yellow bruises along his collarbone, salve on his eyelids to stop them from drying and sticking together. The nurses encouraged us to talk to him, said he might be able to hear us, but I could only bring myself to do it a few times. I’d save my words for when he was awake.
But, one night, that portable phone on my pillow rang. The hospital wanted us to come in… they weren’t sure he’d make it through the night. He had been fighting off brain swelling for days — a result of a minor infection he’d acquired from being opened up and in a hospital, sedentary — and it was looking bad. I remember my mom rushing around the house looking for an umbrella — dead set against leaving without one — despite the fact that there wasn’t a drop of rain outside. I remember Jay coming to drive us there, knowing we wouldn’t have been safe to go alone.
People once again poured in and out of the waiting room of the ICU, our home for the past two weeks, and I just waited. Eventually it was time for us to go in and say our goodbyes, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I stood in the doorway, hesitant, afraid. All I remember, truly, was my brother, sobbing, telling my avid reader of a dad that it was okay, he’d get to meet all of his favorite authors now. I remember my mom stoically holding his hand. A priest stood next to him, reading his last rites. He passed before his breathing tube was removed and I remember how unfair it felt that his lungs were still moving up and down, air moving in and out, but his soul was gone — it was so definitively gone.
We drove home around maybe 3:00am that morning, and the feeling of just being lost in a void cannot be overstated. We laughed on the drive home — I can’t remember about what, but we laughed about some silly story — and it felt both right and horribly wrong wrong. We got back to the house and it felt so hollow. Nothing felt right — time had been turned upside-down and everything seemed hopelessly irrelevant. It seemed unfair, brutally unfair, to just be expected to move on. How does one sleep after such an experience? Eat? Anything at all? I was floating in an abyss.
The wake came shortly after and my most vivid memory was walking into the room with my back to the coffin — I wasn’t ready to see him yet — but accidentally coming face-to-face with a large mirror on the wall and getting my first glimpse that way. It seemed appropriate somehow that it would catch me off guard — death does that. But I was both comforted and confused by how much more he looked like himself in that casket. His face was no longer swollen and bruised, he was in his normal clothing, and he looked… asleep, really.
But I couldn’t handle all of the sympathetic looks, the hand shakes, the hugs — largely from people I barely knew — so my uncle, my mom’s brother, snuck my brother and I off to Dunkin’ Donuts so we could have a breather. It was a simple gesture but I should really tell him someday how much it meant, how it still sticks with me as such a deeply thoughtful moment, a moment where he was truly able to read our expressions and know just what we needed.
The funeral felt more anonymous, somehow. Maybe because it took place in a large church where more people could pack in. Maybe because people didn’t seek me out as much to extend their condolences. I was able to sit towards the back, avoiding sad glances, and just let the experience roll over me — as everything at that point did — until it was over. And then it was.
It’s taken me well into adulthood to come to grips with, well, most of this. I’ve had only a few hard cries over the years and most of them are more focused on how unfair it is. He will never meet my husband, a man who is similar to him in many ways and who he would absolutely have bonded deeply with and loved. He didn’t get to see my brother — always wise and beyond his years — turn into a hilarious, artistic, generous, purely kind man. He won’t get to meet the son in my belly right now, our first child. But maybe most unfair is my mom — and all of us — losing his love, his goofiness, his dry sense of humor, his constant dad jokes, his willingness to give himself to help anyone with anything. We all lost something huge that day, something we will never replace, and we each had to do what it took to survive… but we’re still here, somehow.