My wife held my hand the entire flight. We hardly talked during that day—what was there to say?—but it was what we both needed. Just feeling each other’s hand. I don’t remember much about the flight besides the air-conditioning vent above me. I stared at that circular vent for the majority of those five hours. My mind kept returning to movies where someone wakes up from a coma and the family is huddled around the bed and smiling. I knew my brother would wake up when my wife and I were there. He’d be groggy, and we’d all be smiling, and maybe he’d smile, too.
I even had the perfect one-liner to say to him, to break the strange ice we were all standing on: “Dude, if you wanted us to come visit, all you had to do was ask.” I said that damn sentence a hundred plus times in my mind during that following day, through the entire flight to California, and all the way to the hospital from the airport. I never got to say it out loud. But I think it would have been funny.
AVM. It stands for an arteriovenous malformation, a tangled clot of blood vessels in the brain that ruptures. A lot of people have AVMs, though they usually don’t rupture. And they’re so insignificantly small that they barely show up on brain scans.
But my brother’s AVM burst, and he basically was bleeding out in his brain. To keep it simple now, I just tell people he had the equivalent of a stroke.
He had been with his girlfriend—they went out to dinner for Valentine’s Day—and he was standing in her kitchen, just about to leave when he said he had a headache; he turned, and then he fell. His girlfriend caught him just enough so he didn’t bang his head on the counter or on the tile floor. That’s how she tells it, at least.
He was twenty-two when it happened. He had just signed a professional baseball contract. He and I had been texting and talking back and forth for the previous couple weeks about the ring he was saving up to buy his girlfriend. It was February. He was going to propose in the fall.
Those were the thoughts and memories that ran through my mind when I stood at the foot of his hospital bed. Tubes came from his nose and mouth, IVs in his arms. He was naked, save for the light blanket covering his waist and crotch. His body temperature was so high that they had packed ice around him in towels. His head was shaved; it was the first time I’d seen him without his wavy, blonde, thin hair. And there was a stapled scar that stretched over the left side of his head, from just above his forehead to the middle of the back of his head.
When his eyes fluttered the first time we were standing there, my wife and I grabbed hold of each other tight, thinking that he’d waited until we got there to wake from the coma.
But the nurse came in just then and told us not to get excited. “It’s normal,” he said. “And his limbs will move too. Just so you know.”
My wife and I were in California for a week. He was only allowed three visitors at a time in the room, and so we all, my family and some of his friends, would take turns visiting his room. I say visiting like it was a fun event, but I think each one of us dreaded our turn, wanting it to be over as quick as possible, feeling the responsibility of it all, each of us silently wondering if we were bad friends and family. Half of the waiting room was taken over by our group, playing some grotesque version of musical chairs with the constant get-up-and-sit-down-and-repeat.
At the end of the week, my wife and I flew home. He didn’t wake for us, and all we had to show we’d been there was a bag of peanut M&Ms, his favorite, and an Atlanta Braves baseball hat we had bought at the airport. It was a strange kind of goodbye, one I never experienced before that day, and one I haven’t since. As I left him, I wondered if he’d still be asleep the next time we flew back home. I wondered if that would be the last time I’d ever see him alive.