It is Monday morning in Los Angeles and the traffic is bad and I am in a Lyft on my way to the airport and I know for absolute certain that I am going to miss my flight. It’s my fault. It has been an excruciating week and in my frenzy to prepare for this unexpected trip to Florida I miscalculated the time I needed to get to LAX on time. I try to breathe slow and deep because I do yoga and this is how someone who does yoga is supposed to respond to stressful situations. I check the time on my phone in between my deeply slow breaths. My flight is at 8:11AM. It is now 7:32AM. Me and Ze, my driver, are at a complete standstill as we merge onto the 405. I look out the window at the other cars and marvel at how calm I probably seem. My phone rings and it is my Mom who is waiting for me in Florida. I open my mouth to tell her that I am going to miss my flight and that I will try to get on the very next one that is available but her sobs break through before I can say anything. She is crying so hard that I can barely understand her. Nick has to have an emergency surgery, she says. It’s so risky that the doctors are telling her to call all the family members to FL so that they can say their goodbyes in case he doesn’t survive. Nothing has changed about the bright, already hot sun beating through the window of the car but it feels like everything around me has gone dark- it’s as if my eyes used to hear and suddenly my vision is silent. Dim. I know I am alive but I think my body must have stopped working. But after the jolt of my mother’s words hits me, I come back to life and start sobbing in the back of Ze’s car, deeply and slowly, and telling my Mom that I will be missing my flight but that I will be there as soon as I can, to hang on. I hate that she is having to go through this alone. I hate that I am having to go through this alone. She asks me to call our Dad, whose week has been as horrific as mine has, and tell him this news so that he can fly to FL and be with us. I hang up and start calling him, my fingers moving from memory since my eyes are too blurry to see clearly. He won’t answer his phone. I call him five more times. Then I text my wife and tell the news, that Nick might not survive. I wonder what Ze is thinking because he won’t meet my eyes in the rearview.
When my Lyft car pulls up to the departures terminal, I am overwhelmed. I am about to have to navigate one of the most densely populated public spaces in the city, one that I am barely successful at handling even with a week of good sleep and good news. Ze hurriedly gets out of the car, pulls my suitcase from the trunk and tells me to have a great day before speeding off. I can’t believe he is saying that to me when I know for a fact that he could hear my moms screams traveling through the phone and soaking the backseat of his car. I want to punch him in his gut. Inside the airport, my fear stricken, teary face makes most people look away from me while others stare, unashamed. I don’t try to hide my emotions. I’m used to performing grief because of my job, but I realize I haven’t ever felt it, not for real, not for something so big. I wonder if this crisis will make me a better actor. I immediately feel ashamed at the thought. I don’t understand how there is enough room in my brain for terror and ego. The woman behind the Spirit Airlines counter tells me I have not checked in in time to make my flight. I nod yes, I understand. The earliest I can get you on a flight would be at 5:43 this evening, she says. My eyes are buckets, I have no idea what to do to keep myself upright. I don’t want to blubber in front of her, I want to be clear and concise. “My…my….my brother….is dying”, I sputter, “and I need to get to Tampa as soon as possible. Please.” My voice comes out quiet, and I am still breathing deeply and slowly, but my face has exploded all down the front of my shirt, on top of the Spirit Airlines counter. The woman behind the desk averts her eyes and doesn’t say anything, she just types away on her keyboard, and I am afraid she didn’t hear me, that I am going to have to say those words again, words that not even my Dad has heard me say yet. Finally she tells me that she can get me on the next flight, which leaves in an hour, and hands me my ticket. My relief only lasts for a few seconds before it gives way to fear again. I will be on this emotional seesaw for weeks to come.
My sweet brother Nick, eight years my junior, who was not always sweet, who was actually kind of a butthole when we were growing up but who ended up becoming one of the most compassionate and lovely people I’ve ever known, lives in Tampa, FL with his wife Tori, his girlfriend since middle school, and their 18 month old son Levi, who I adore to no end. My Mom lives in the same apartment complex as they do with my sister, Sedi. Nick and Tori had gone to the ER a week prior when he started vomiting and experiencing painful stomach cramps that wouldn’t let up. He was admitted to the ICU and diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, which was scary, but fine, and then told he would need to have a massive diet and lifestyle change to address his health from here on out, which was surprising, but manageable. I decided I would fly down for a few days to see him in the hospital and help cheer him up, maybe offer some help to Tori by picking Levi up from daycare and making dinner while she was at the hospital. But within a couple of days Nick’s organs started shutting down, and then his kidneys were failing, and then we were told he might need to go on dialysis, or have a plasmapheresis, or get a blood transfusion, and then he was having trouble breathing and he got aggressive with the nursing staff and threw an IV pole at a window, shattering it. It turns out that his liver was shutting down with the rest of his organs and leaking ammonia into his brain, which causes this kind of erratic behavior, but the doctors didn’t know that at the time. They just strapped him down to his hospital bed for being a “danger” to the staff.
I get to my gate and try to call my dad again, who still isn’t near his phone, which is a relief honestly because how can I tell him this news? So I sit down on my suitcase and begin texting everyone that would want to share this pain and worry with me. My closest cousin Kaylan, Mandy from high school, Larry from college. I talk to my wife, Claire, who asks me if I want her to catch a flight and meet me down in FL. I tell her no. I want her with me so very badly, but I realize, with tears streaming down my face, that she might have to come down later for a funeral and I don’t want her to have to take off more work than necessary. Even through my grief I maintain my high standards of codependency. I board the plane right as my brother is being wheeled into the surgery that doctors aren’t sure he will recover from. The surgery entails cutting open his abdomen from his ribs to his belly button so that they can relieve the pressure on his organs, which have been shutting down because they are so swollen from all the extra fluids that his pancreas isn’t properly processing. This is why he can’t breathe, because his body doesn’t have enough room in it for his lungs to work. After they cut him open they will cover his stomach with a piece of plastic called a bogota bag (don’t google this thing unless you’re the kind of person who googles these things) and wait for the pressure to subside. But he has to make it through the surgery first.
Two hours later we begin our descent into Chicago where my layover is, and my world dims again. My heart is beating fast and steady, despite these deep breaths I am taking. I am terrified for this plane to land, because I know that when it does, I will find out whether Nick survived. I am so afraid of bad news that I think I would rather live the entire rest of my life on this plane than be vulnerable to it. My eyes are welling up again, and I feel conspicuous, packed into the middle seat between two strangers who have no idea that my life seems to be collapsing at a rapid rate. The plane touches down. I hear phones dinging and beeping as passengers turn them on. I hold mine in my hands tightly, still in airplane mode. I squeeze my eyes shut. I am an atheist, which I am not ashamed of. I don’t pray because it doesn’t feel real in my heart and offers me no relief. But I am ashamed that I don’t know how to handle the deep waves of fear flowing in with each (deep) breath I take. I have to do something; no matter how terrifying it feels, I still have to show up for my life. I tell myself that this is what it means to be brave, to find yourself stuffed into the darkest part of your fears and to force yourself out of your hiding spot. It seemed like such a small thing to do, turning my phone on, but I had to trust myself, had to have faith in my own power, in my own ability to handle whatever came next, whether good or bad.
I turned my phone on. The first text I saw was from my Mom. It read “He made it!”
When I finally made it to the hospital in Tampa late that night, my Mom, surprisingly calm, greeted me in the lobby and took me up to his room (my poor Dad couldn’t get a flight til the next morning). Nick was in a medically induced coma with a tube coming out of his mouth that was connected to a machine that was breathing for him. He was feverish, his blood pressure kept spiking, and his body was massive from the swelling. It would be days before I saw him open his eyes and even longer before I would hear his voice, which came out gruff, pained and scared. Once he was finally conscious, he drifted into ICU psychosis, a fairly common but sometimes dangerous response that occurs when physical trauma is combined with lots of meds and a 24/7 loop of beeps, whistles, and nurses. His poor brain just wasn’t clear and he was paranoid, confused, and constantly asking why his arms were tied to the bed, which at this point was more for his safety than the staff’s- he didn’t understand that he had just had a surgery in which the contents of his abdomen were completely exposed and he kept pawing at the mound of bandages on his belly.
Me, Mom, Dad, Tori, and Tori’s mom and little brother Tate cried on each other, laughed with each other, took turns holding Nick’s hand. We were exhausted and we felt powerless, but all we could do was share the space with him, be witnesses to his labored breathing, his pain. We tried to remember all the funny stories we would tell Nick about the experience once he was on the other side, like how he made me lean in close before quietly asking me to please make an announcement to the hospital. Sure, I said, what do you want me to say? “Drinks…are on meee!” he rasped. The television in the waiting room of the ICU was playing Steven King’s IT for what seemed like days and days and days. That movie never scared me, but compared to the agony of what was happening in Nick’s room, it seemed like a romantic comedy.
I never got comfortable with praying, but I came up with something that kept my thoughts out of the dark realm and into something that felt more optimistic. For father’s day, I had made Nick a leather wallet, cut and stitched by hand and stamped on the front with his initials. But he had gone into the hospital the week before father’s day and had not had a chance to open the package beforehand. Instead of obsessing over the possibility that he might never open it, which I would do late at night in my hotel room, I would close my eyes and visualize him holding it. In my head I could see him sitting at a table, with the same patient grin he always has on his face, slowly taking out all the cards and pictures and bills out of his old wallet and moving them into the crisp slots of his new one. Out with the old, in with the new, over and over again. It wasn’t a request or a wish. The scene never changed, and it became a bit of a mantra for me. Whenever I felt scared about what the doctor was telling us or worried about his lack of progress or stressed about having to leave Tampa without seeing him fully healed, I would imagine Nick at his table, chillin’, not a care in the world, holding his new wallet. It was another way for me to be brave, focusing all my energy into visualizing him as healthy and happy rather than letting my negative thoughts create a narrative that felt too hard to escape, which is unfortunately a much easier thing for me to do. And I guess that is like prayer, a little. It didn’t get rid of the fear. But the hope felt good.
It is nearly two months later, we are in his living room and Nick is sitting up on his couch. He spent a month in the ICU, a couple of weeks in a rehab hospital, and now he is home, surprising each of his doctors with his tenacity and dedication to recuperating. He is 40 pounds thinner, and he moves slowly because his stomach is, unbelievably, still open, though this time the hole is covered not with a piece of clear plastic but with a mesh material that works in tandem with a device that squeezes his belly closed a little each day. After weeks of laying down with his stomach open, gravity has made his insides splay out and it will take time to smoosh everything back together again. A tube hangs out of the bottom of his tank top which is connected to a small machine that continues to suck fluids out of stomach. His energy is low, he takes long naps each day and we are waiting to find out the details of the last surgery he will need, a skin graft that will close his stomach up for good. But his sweet grin is still there. His sense of humor is still there. His eyes sparkle whenever Levi runs up to him to give him a hug. It’s still Nick, beautiful and alive. He opens the envelope that I put in the mail what feels like three lifetimes ago and releases the wallet from bubble wrap. “Aww, cool!”, he says. I am staring at him with an intensity that is probably unnerving. He has no idea how much of the last two months of my life have been balanced on whether or not this moment would come to fruition. The buckets behind my eyes are teetering, but I steady them, and this time I am successful. I want this moment, for Nick, to be normal. Because I can feel how important it is for him to move forward from the crisis we have all endured. I can feel the distance between us when we try and tell him the stories we collected during those weeks when he was “out”. He wasn’t really there, and he doesn’t want to be. Those are our war stories. He just wants to be here now. Me and my brother are such different people- I like to bask in my bottomless cauldron of emotions and Nick likes to take it all in stride, get through it with a grin, meet me on the other side. We are both right.
I give him a kiss on the cheek and I say “I am so glad you like it!”. He deserves for this moment to be normal, because he has been the bravest of us all.
This post is obviously different than what usually goes up on my blog, but it definitely belongs here, as Nick’s health scare was a really big part of my life this summer. When I sat in the airport waiting for my first flight, I felt helpless and terrified and I surprised myself by sharing what was going on with my brother on instagram- I had already made one post about Nick when things were initially looking bad earlier in the week, but I didn’t imagine I would bring so many people with me on the bumpy journey that followed. It was one of the best decisions I made. My heart was warmed by the kind words, prayers, and virtual hugs that strangers shared with me from across the globe. Many of these people contributed to my brother’s family’s Go Fund Me page, too, which was amazing and which we are all so thankful for! I think we can safely say that Nick is out of the woods now (although we are still waiting for that skin graft surgery), but he has been out of work for months and we are unsure of when he will be able to go back (even though he is itching to get back to his regular life ASAP). A recuperation of this magnitude obviously will take many months so he is trying to be patient while he gets his strength back and does physical and occupational therapy. We are continuing to raise money to help pay for their bills while Nick’s body keeps getting healthy. Tori has been steadily working and supporting the family since Nick first went to the hospital, but without his additional income they need all the extra help they can get. During these VERY TRYING times, I know that our pockets are stretched thin donating to hurricane relief, political candidates, civil rights and advocacy groups, etc. So if are unable to donate, a share of their Go Fund Me on social media or a kind thought in the direction of my brother’s family in Tampa would be so appreciated! If you are already a follower on IG, I thank you so much for your support thus far, and I thank you all for reading.