the family bond. I once thought of it as a system of fragile chains linking me to these people who happened to have the same things running through their blood as me. Some of these chains stayed intact throughout the years, some broke and I imagined they would probably never be repaired. Sometimes I’d forget about them, only to be reminded by a sobbing phone call at three a.m.
That’s how I used to think.
Spending time with Uncle Mike, though, has made me realize that it’s not like that at all. Those bonds are there, without a doubt, but instead of chains holding us together it’s little strings of elastic. Those strings might get loose, or stretch to the point of almost breaking, but they’re only one event away from snapping us back into place.
* * *
It’s a Sunday afternoon, about fifteen years ago. A car is speeding up I-65 somewhere between Birmingham and Nashville. Inside, my father is driving, bloodshot eyes hovering above the steering wheel, focused on the road. Beside him, Mike’s wife Diane is asleep in the passenger seat, dark circles under her eyes. In the back, Mike and Diane’s two daughters are also asleep. Dad watches them toss and turn in the rear view mirror, their bodies restless even while dreaming.
The radio is turned down low. If you strain, you can barely hear a voice coming from it, but you can’t make out the words. This almost-silence is only broken by the occasional sound of my father crushing a beer can and tossing it into a plastic bag with other empties, then again a few minutes later when he opens the cooler behind his seat and fumbles around in the ice till he finds a new beer. The top pops open, and the silence returns.
In Nashville, the car turns onto I-24. An hour and change passes and the car turns off the interstate into Cadiz, a small town in western Kentucky. Dad drops Diane and her two daughters off at their house first. He watches in the mirror as she takes her time waking them up, then gets out and carries their bags to the door while Diane leads the girls by their hands. Inside, Dad sets their bags down just inside the door.
Diane thanks him for driving and he says he’ll call her tomorrow. It’s the first time they’ve spoken since they were inside the hospital, over five hours earlier. They don’t say the name of the absent brother, husband, father. If you asked, they’d say that it was for the children, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.
A short drive later and Dad is standing outside the door to our house. There’s an almost imperceptible sigh before he turns the handle and walks inside. There I am, one of four sets of eyes watching him enter, waiting for my turn to give him an obligatory hug before retreating back to whatever book or video game I’d been absorbed in before being summoned to welcome him home. Dad warms up a plate of leftover dinner in the microwave. Between bites, he recites the latest pronouncement from the doctors to Mom. His voice is empty. Exhausted. He rinses the plate off, then sits down on the couch and turns on the TV.
Sitting on the couch becomes lying on the couch, and lying on the couch becomes sleeping on the couch. Sleeping on the couch would have lasted until three or four a.m., like usual, but not that night. That night everything changed, again.
* * *
For me, the tug of the elastic comes hardest while I’m driving.
When I was growing up, my father practically lived on the highway, and upon the advent of reasonably priced cell phone service he began to drive us insane. He’d call several times a day, wanting to know how school went, how basketball practice went, how the weather was, if we’d done this, if we’d done that. He was bored, he wanted to talk to us. For us, though, it was annoying. An interruption.
Now, I do the same thing. The daily twenty-minute drive home has become my allotted time to fulfill my obligation of keeping in touch, of keeping up to date with people I’m supposed to keep up to date with. Parents. Siblings. Grandparents. Friends. How are you doing? How’s the weather? What have you heard from the other family members whose link to me isn’t strong enough for me to add them to my rotation of phone calls? Have you cooked anything good lately? Fifteen minutes after the conversation takes place, I’ll forget most of what we talked about, but that’s okay. It’s not the words but the conversation itself that’s important.
Most frequently, I have those conversations with Uncle Mike.
“Hello?” His slow, slurred voice is at once unsettling and familiar.
“What’s the word, Uncle Mike?” He can’t see my grin during this ritualistic opening line.
And so our conversation begins. At some point during the phone call, several things are guaranteed to happen. I will ask about Fred, the third member of Dad and Mike’s household. I think of the three of them like a pyramid, each holding the others up, and I worry about what’s going to happen when one piece falls down. It bears mentioning at this point that Fred is a dog, a dog who has become so ingrained in Uncle Mike’s daily life that it’s hard to think of one without the other. Years of being at home all day, every day, with Uncle Mike has given Fred an intensely humanized personality—he uses a pillow, appears to watch TV, and gets very, very nervous when he realizes Uncle Mike is leaving the house.
Mike will ask about Carolina, my wife, and our pets. I will ask about my brother and sister. He will ask about the weather in Texas, and what I’ve been cooking. We will make fun of one of my father’s many eccentric habits. Twenty minutes later, I’ll pull into the driveway of my house and feel guilty about needing to end the conversation so that I can bring the trash in, take the dog out, do the dishes.
Besides my wife, I talk to Uncle Mike more than anyone else, even if we never really say very much.
* * *
Two a.m. Monday morning, the phone rings in our house. It wakes Mom up first, but she doesn’t raise her head from the pillow. She already knows who it’s for. One ring later and Dad jolts awake on the couch. He presses a button on the portable phone and sits up before quietly saying, “Hello?”
It’s a nurse working the night shift at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s intensive care unit. Uncle Mike has had a seizure and is now in a coma, she tells Dad. His brain has shut down, protecting itself from the attacks by the cryptococcal meningitis that infected his nervous system. Dad is silent. The nurse is silent.
After a minute, he clears his throat and says, “We’ll be there tomorrow.”
The coma ended a scary time in Mike’s life. During recent visits, he hadn’t known who any of us were. He was vomiting so hard and so often that things were coming up that no one should ever have to see—or smell. He had been in and out of three different hospitals over a dozen times. He’d been medivaced, ambulanced, scalpeled, treated, diagnosed and rediagnosed. The disease was taking its toll, and not just on him. Everyone close to him was exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. Waiting rooms, sleepless nights, counting down hours until surgery drained them, until there wasn’t enough energy to be scared, just enough to keep going one day at a time.
Dad waited until five a.m. to call Diane and tell her what had happened. There was nothing they could have done in the middle of the night that they couldn’t do a few precious hours of sleep later, and Diane’s daughters needed to get to school that morning. They were on the road by six, making the trip yet again from Cadiz to Birmingham.
Mike’s seizure was just one more step in his horrifyingly downward spiral. While the coma did not mark the end of the spiral, it did mark the most difficult part of his body’s fight with the disease.
* * *
Twelve years later, when Mike moved in with Dad, Dad’s goal was to rescue him. It was a jailbreak. He was going to save Mike from the prison, the small world that had been imposed on him by his disease and the exhaustion of those closest to him. Their lives had grown separate, and each man was not where he had expected to be, but the elastic was bringing them back together.
Dad worked to make Mike’s life as big as possible. He pushed against the boundaries. He bought an electric wheelchair, and researched how Mike could use public transportation to get downtown. He worked hard to make a kitchen and a living space that Mike could use easily. They got Mike restarted on physical therapy. He connected Mike with a local head injury support group, and even today Mike serves on the board for the group. After decades of driving Suburbans, Dad went out and bought a mini-van.
They took vacations. They saw their old haunt, New Orleans, for the first time post-Katrina. They visited me while I was living in Washington, D.C. Mike took his daughter on her first legal trip to a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, and he played Texas Hold’em in person after years of only playing it on the computer. They dealt with poorly equipped “handicapped” hotel rooms, buildings that weren’t very wheelchair accessible, and feeling like an inconvenience at restaurants. In D.C., I couldn’t even show him my apartment—it was on the second floor, with no elevators.
There are good weeks, weeks where Mike could be living by himself if he wanted to, making it through his days without any help from anyone. If there are good weeks though, of course there are bad weeks, when his speech is a little more slurred, his responses slower. Maybe there’s more fluid built up in his brain than usual, maybe the pressure is just a little more than normal. His balance is a little bit more “off,” and it can cause him to fall. That’s the worst—when he falls. He can’t get back in his chair by himself. Maybe he reaches a little too far for a remote control, maybe the phone rings while he is in the wheelchair and he can’t quite grab it. Maybe he slips transitioning from bed to wheelchair, or from wheelchair to recliner, or he misjudges his hand placement when trying to move around in the bathroom. There was a day a few years ago where he fell like that twice, but it wasn’t a huge deal. The first time he was getting dressed on his bed, and he fell when trying to get back into his wheelchair. The phone was on the nightstand, so he just called Dad and Dad came home from work and helped him up. The second time, he fell in the bathroom and had to drag himself from the bathroom to the living room to get to the phone. Again, Dad ran home and helped him up. An inconvenience, but Uncle Mike wasn’t hurt.
Later that day though, when he fell a third time, it wasn’t so simple. He was getting the mail, like he did every day. Dad’s driveway is a slight incline, going down into the garage, the mailbox being on the side at the top of the hill. Mike got the mail and was on his way back down when one of the pieces of mail slipped out of his lap. Instinctively, he reached for it. He reached a little too far though, a little too far for his diminished balance. He tipped out of the wheelchair and fell, hard, onto the blacktop driveway.
He was hurt bad. He’d knocked out some teeth and had hit his head right above his left eye. His nose and upper lip were both bleeding and his forehead was scraped. It was ninety-six degrees that day. Mike remembers that detail pretty well, because for the next hour and a half he lay on blacktop that had been sitting in ninety-six degree July sun. His body was roasting, and he was losing blood. Slowly, he dragged himself twenty feet to the back door and a little shade. Fred was inside, watching him, barking like crazy, not knowing what he could do to help. Mike was trying to figure out how to navigate his way inside the door, trying to figure out anything that he could do. Eventually he heard their neighbor, Ken, in his yard. Mike yelled for help, and Ken heard him and came running. Ken called an ambulance and then Dad, who rushed home. While they were waiting for the ambulance, Ken sat him up in the shade and Ken’s wife came over with a cold towel and cleaned up Mike’s face as best she could. Dad got there just in time to see Mike being loaded into an ambulance, an all-too-familiar scene.
If Ken had not been in his yard and heard Mike’s yells, there is a good chance that Mike would’ve died right there, on his own driveway, slowly bleeding his life away.
Mike spent two nights in the hospital. He had a hairline fracture in his skull above his eye, three missing teeth, eight stitches on his cheek, and two more on his nose. All because an envelope slipped out of his lap while he was getting the mail, something that he had been doing every day for months. The fall was a reminder of reality for Mike. A reminder that if something small slips up today that he might be a bigger burden on others, that he might lose some more of the few teeth he has left, that he could end up back in the hospital. Again. For most of us, a small accident results in a paper cut. A stubbed toe. Maybe a short ER trip because you cut your finger while chopping up something for dinner. For Mike, a small accident is all that needs to happen for his delicate existence to come to an end.
As is to be expected, with every little reminder, Mike’s world gets smaller. The electric wheelchair now sits collecting dust in a corner of the garage. He waits for Dad to come home and bring the mail in, because he knows that no mail is worth the risk of another fall and subsequent hospital trip—or something even worse. Maybe it would be an absent-minded driver who doesn’t see him sitting by the mailbox, maybe he’d lose control and roll down the driveway and not have the coordination to stop it. Maybe it would just be the same fall, but this time Ken wouldn’t be around. It could be anything really. Since his fall in the driveway, he makes sure to have a phone within reach no matter where he goes, which makes everything a little more tedious. Reaching out to get a scoop of food for Fred? Bending over to put the newspaper into a pile for recycling? Gotta be careful to not drop that phone.
Aging doesn’t help any. Every day he loses a little more muscle, gains a little more weight, and in his condition neither of those things is going to change. But he learns to make do, he adapts, and the end result is more caution, more work. He keeps his Tupperware container of M&M’s less full after a few afternoons spent keeping Fred from eating its spilled contents from the floor, waiting for someone to come home and help him clean them up.
For all the effort Dad has put into getting Mike to expand his world, that just isn’t what Mike is looking for; the risks aren’t ones he’s willing to take. His life is a routine, and even if it is difficult to imagine it as anything other than a prison, he seems content with it—place yourself in his position and consider how you could be anything except content and have made it this far? Dad has often said that were the situations swapped, he would have given up on life long ago. But Mike has held on.
It’s a carved-out niche of a life. It’s very rare these days for Mike to need help from someone, but at the same time he can live knowing that he always has someone, if not a few feet away, then a phone call away.
In the evening, Dad gets home from work. They cook and eat dinner together. Mike feeds Fred, then goes out to the garage and calls “Here kitty, kitty” and gives the cat his food as well. Dad falls asleep in front of one TV while Mike watches the news and then the late night shows, one after another. He gets himself into bed and a few hours later he’s awake again, ready for another day.
* * *
I was ten years old when Uncle Mike got sick. At the time, it was a pretty simple thing to me. Uncle Mike was sick. Uncle Mike needed to stay in the hospital for a while. Uncle Mike would get better soon. Don’t worry.
It was also a very terrifying thing being around adult family members who were nervous and scared. The only time I’ve ever seen my father cry was at the dining room table, shortly after Mike went into a coma. He was saying a prayer before dinner, asking God to be with Uncle Mike and our family, when his voice broke in mid-sentence. I opened my eyes to see tears rolling down my father’s cheeks. This was also one of the few stretches of time I can remember (outside of holidays) where our meal prayer was more than a quickly chanted “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Amen.” The change was different; it was outside of our control. Something was wrong.
Lots of things made me afraid as a child, but for ninety-nine percent of those things I could run to Mom or Dad and be completely safe. Seeing your father scared of something affects you more than any number of sleepless nights worrying about the unnamed monsters outside your window or under your bed because suddenly, the sanctuary you’ve been relying on isn’t as unshakable as you thought.
After a year of being in and out of hospitals, Uncle Mike came home. In my life, his sickness then faded into the background. I was in fifth grade, and between passing notes and beginning to discover that girls might actually not have cooties, the distance of my uncle’s illness combined with Dad’s traveling and the uneasiness everyone had with talking about it made his poor health just a blurry abstract in the background of life. That sounds bad, but it happened pretty easily. After all, it wasn’t a big deal. Uncle Mike was sick right now, but he was going to get better soon. Real soon.
Only he never did. Not really, anyway.
Now, as an adult, I know Uncle Mike’s story is a relatively unusual one. He’s been handicapped by his illness now for well over half my lifetime, so pausing and thinking about the time before he was sick is almost surreal. When someone says Uncle Mike, I don’t think of the tall man working at my dad’s lumber store, or him sitting at my grandparents’ dinner table drinking a Pepsi, always wearing blue jeans. I think of the Uncle Mike that I know, struggling to lift himself out of his wheelchair to collapse into his recliner. I think of him playing tug-of-war with Fred and losing because he’s on wheels. I think of him reading Facebook with a magnifying glass, relying on his news feed to keep in touch with friends and family. I think of him taking an hour to cut up a few potatoes to fry for my arrival from Texas. I think of him in elastic-waisted sweat pants, because nothing else is as easy to get on and off. I think of the way his face lights up when people visit, and I think of the insurmountable distance between him and the milestones of his daughters’ lives as they enter the adult world. I think of him offering to get me something from the kitchen on his way, and me not able to feel anything but guilt that I take for granted how easy it is for me to go get a drink from the kitchen, how easy for me it is to live life in general. But this is how it’s been for almost as long as I can remember. So when someone asks, “What happened to your uncle?” it takes me a while to remember that anything happened to him at all.
Uncle Mike got sick, and he didn’t get better. Unlike a lot of stories today, there’s no looming evil behind this one. Uncle Mike’s vices of being a smoker or having the occasional cocktail did not contribute to what happened to him. No doctors were sued in the making of this disability. There was no faceless uncaring insurance company who refused treatment for an ailing man. It’s easy to look back now and see that some things along the way could have been done differently, but this is not a story of anger or regret. Mike’s story is about how a man blacked out one day and his life has never been the same since. It’s the story of a group of people becoming acutely aware of those elastic strings between us that draw us together. It’s the story of those strings pulling people down to their knees to pick a man up off the ground.
It’s a story about family.
Graham Oliver’s work has been featured in Cenizo and The Front Porch Journal, and will appear in the 2013 Texas Poetry Calendar. He begins the MA program for Rhetoric and Composition this fall at Texas State University. He lives in Round Rock, Texas, with his wife, dog, and two rabbits.