As it turned out, he was in the coma for two and a half weeks.
Even now, three years later, my mom tells me they knew something was changed in him immediately. Beyond the physical disabilities—partial paralysis in his right leg, almost full paralysis in his right arm, being unable to speak—it was (and still is) the mental and emotional disabilities that were the hardest. When my mom tells me this, it’s usually over the phone, late at night, when the memories creep in and haunt us.
When he came out of the coma, we all hoped for the miraculous. That he’d wake up and be himself again. That his stupid sense of humor would remain, the humor that he and I shared. That his carefree attitude with life, his love of reggae music and his pacifistic kindness to others, would still be there. The kinds of things that make a person who he or she really is.
But he didn’t. He came out a different person. A stranger to all of us. And, what’s worse, a stranger to himself. He was both physically and mentally changed, walking with a heavy limp, unable to speak sentences, incapable of controlling his anger.
Over the past three years, we’ve all grown up; we’ve all changed. Life has continued for each of us. My wife gave birth to our son; my sister started a business. My brother’s girlfriend moved on and began to live her life again—it wasn’t her choice, but instead came from the urging of everyone around her; she was constantly told that the person she loved would never fully come back to her. I got a new teaching job back in California, so my wife and son and I packed up our things and, for the second time in four years, moved across the country, where we’ve been able to start anew, again, this time with family living nearby to share in our excitement and confusion with raising an infant. Now a toddler.
It hasn’t all been good, though. Over the past three years, I’ve watched my parent’s marriage deteriorate. A marriage that withstood constant financial difficulties, job losses and heartbreak, a marriage I used to look to as a dream goal of mine; it was always a marriage I was proud of. But this marriage that could withstand nearly every setback in life couldn’t come through my brother’s ordeal unscathed. And though they’re still married, my parents are broken. My sister and wife and I talk about it all the time; we talk in whispers during barbeques, while we sit on the back patio and watch my son playing in the yard with my parents bickering in the kitchen behind us.
Broken beyond repair, one of us said about my parents during one of those whispered talks. I can’t tell you which one of us said it. Maybe it was me.
Yet while we’ve all moved forward in life, either positively or negatively, my brother’s life has remained neutral. Stuck in amber, his past clouded to him, his future uncertain.
For the past two and a half years, he’s been a shell of what he once was. After months of physical therapy, he’s able to walk, though with a heavy limp, his right leg violently swinging out to the side with each step, his knee snapping almost painfully, a heavy hitch. His right arm hasn’t gotten better. It hangs limply at his side, and his vocabulary is stuck at about fifty words, most of which are four-letter expletives—something he’s retained throughout everything he’s gone through. Though that’s about it. Communication with him is largely through pantomime; time spent with him is like a perpetual game of charades.
From what my sister tells me, he spends his days on the couch watching TV, flipping between the Food Network and the MLB Network. Since the incident, my once messy and careless brother has developed an extreme case of OCD: a common side-effect to brain injuries, we’re told. If the house isn’t spotless, or if my wallet is set somewhere beside the correct one-foot section of the counter it’s meant to be on, then he throws a tantrum. And these tantrums can last hours or even days, with threats of suicide coming between his moments of quiet anger. When he isn’t watching TV or cleaning the house, my brother is angry, violent to those around him.
My son has been pushed down, violently moved aside, had pillows and placemats thrown at him by my brother. Each time it happens, I look at my wife and she gives me a look of being completely lost, a shrug of shoulders that simply say, What else can we do? We now have to watch my son protectively, knowing that my brother, the gentle kid I grew up with, is capable of truly hurting my son, or one of us. I think in the back of our minds we’re all waiting for the injury to come. Maybe that makes my wife and me bad parents, but it’s pointless living in constant fear. So we wait. And do what we can to protect. And we hope.
One of the hardest realizations for me is that my son will never really know his uncle. That my brother was unable to hold my son in his lap when he was born. That the person my son knows and will always know of his uncle is a stripped away version of who he used to be. That one day I will tell stories about my life growing up with my brother—one of those moments when we made fools of ourselves, the moments I always expected us to be laughing at when we’re sixty years old—and my son will have no context. He will have missed out on time with one of the most fun and funny and loving people I’ve ever known.
Every week my mom calls and tells me about another violent outburst from my brother. She tells me about the bruises, the cuts, the broken glasses and torn fabric. And she tells me about his apology. How he realizes his faults and mistakes. How he breaks down in tears, the kind where his body convulses and he loses sense of time and place. This is a weekly ordeal for my brother, and for my parents. And there’s no getting better. At least none of us can see that kind of future with him. When I talk to my mom, I hear her voice shake—just a little—like one more sentence, and she’ll lose control of herself. When I ask her how she’s doing, her normal answer of, “Doing good, sweetie,” has been replaced with a sad, “It’s okay,” or a quiet, “I don’t know.” And she means it.
When we visit my parents and brother, we are forcibly removed from the house at nine o’clock. He takes our bags, my son’s toys, our phones and keys and glasses, and drags them out to the entryway. Then he walks up to me and points at the door.
“Nine. Go,” he tells me.
It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, what we’re in the middle of. It’s the same words and actions every time. And he’ll repeat those words over and over and over until we leave.
Because of it, we don’t see him much anymore. When we do see him, the drive home is quiet. My wife reaches over and holds my hand, much like she did on that airplane three years ago.
I wish he’d have died, I think. I don’t think it in anger or frustration, but in serious truth. I hate myself for thinking those words, but I see what he’s become. I see how he’s lost his drive, how he doesn’t have any purpose.
He’s lost his sense of who he is, or was. His family hates being around him. We fear him, coddle him. Cry ourselves to sleep, praying wasted prayers for health and recovery. When he does have those moments of clarity, where he realizes what he’s become, I can only imagine his complete loss for words. The bitter paralysis that must come over him, knowing that he cannot return to the person he once was. How, try as he might, he is stuck the person he now is. The person everyone loved being around is gone forever. I’ve put myself in his shoes many times, and each time I’ve come to the same conclusion: I wouldn’t want to live knowing that I once had everything and now I’m simply a façade of a person. I think he wishes it too: that he hadn’t survived. Because if he died, he would have died knowing that he was loved. Instead, he’s turned all of his greatest supporters against him, and left himself with nothing but a TV, a couch, and his anger.