Right after Thanksgiving a year ago our daughter, Elizabeth Hope, flew back home from Chicago – her third such trip during a month her brother, William, was hospitalized. He’d suffered cardiac arrest after an accidental heroin overdose. All that month family and friends took turns at his bedside, talking to him, massaging him, playing music for him, looking for any signs of possible recovery. Hospital staff were remarkable in their tender care and consideration. “Mr. Williams, we’re going to bathe you now.” “Mr. Williams, we’re going to change your sheets.” “Mr. Williams, we’re going to shampoo your hair now.” There was no lack of respect or dignity, however precarious William’s condition.
I remember the nurses on duty Thanksgiving Day taking turns in a staff room eating their meal from what appeared to be a combination take-out and pot-luck Thanksgiving. Lots of plastic, paper plates, and aluminum foil while they shared food, time and good will with one another – ever alert to the needs of their patients nearby.
William’s Thanksgiving meal consisted of the canned nutrient he’d been given ever since his arrival, now administered through a feeding tube directly to his stomach. IV drips supplied his fluid intake along with various medications depending upon fevers, infection, and necessary sedation. Breathing depended upon another tube, running directly to the tracheostomy in his throat. Survival, and hence our hope, depended upon this umbilical triumvirate.
Shortly after Elizabeth’s return we were to learn that even the best of care was not sufficient to restore William. We gathered in his room, his mother, sister and I. I remember sitting at the side of his bed, holding his hand and arm, tears cascading, while a neurologist told us the results of a recent brain scan. The analogy she used was freshly cut flowers. Upon entering the hospital his brain was like a bouquet that had just been cut and put in water. Hence our hope. The lack of oxygen he’d suffered from cardiac arrest, however, meant that over time the “flowers”, his brain, had wilted and decayed. William would spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. Hope shriveled to grief, then to resolution.
In the days that followed we were presented the option of removing William from the ventilator. The alternative was to spend the rest of his days, uncomprehending, reliant upon tubes, machines, and the kindness of caretakers. It was an offer of a life that was not a life.
We determined instead to see if William could become an organ donor. Donorship was possible, though success was not a given. For a successful donation William would have to succumb within an hour after being removed from all life support in order for his organs to be fresh and vital. After several days of delay, we convened in an operating room, prepared to say good-bye to our dear boy. The tube from the respirator came out of the hole in his throat and he breathed on his own. He’d done this before, on good days, when there was still hope of recovery. The clock ticked, he survived the hour, and we returned as a family to his hospital room. He continued breathing on his own for another twenty hours. Cardiac arrest or no, his heart and spirit were strong until the end.
This year, almost exactly to the day, I drove again to the airport and picked up Elizabeth for the first time in a year. Not just Elizabeth. Elizabeth, our grandchild-to-be, and Johnny Anderes, a father-to-be. A year later we’re waiting again. This time until early March. Like a Russian nesting doll, there is hope inside our Elizabeth Hope. A proper umbilical cord connects mother to infant, an infant growing toward first breath, first steps, first words. There’s already a strong heartbeat. We’ve much to be thankful for.
And Thanksgiving today, like many holidays to come, will also be filled with the remembrance of an uncle this child will never know, but for the stories we'll tell. Uncle William we miss you.