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- Author Jayson Greene Writes Heartbreaking Memoir About the Death of His 2-Year-Old Daughter
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- The Rare Writer Who Hates the Word ‘I’
All that precious stuff in her head — what state is it in? Stacy and I are already silently calculating odds.
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We needed more time, we reasoned. We were sure we had it. The CAT scan reveals a bleed in her brain, and she is rushed into emergency surgery. After waiting an interminable-seeming amount of time in the ER, I seek out our social worker, a man whose face we had just been introduced to numbly minutes ago. Stacy accepts the bag without reaction and lets it dangle at her side. The social worker knocks on the big blue door of the CAT-scan room, then tentatively pushes it open; it is empty save for one team member.
We are ushered to another floor. There we sit, waiting, texting friends and loved ones listlessly.
Elizabeth sets the sandwich bag down on the floor and hugs us both wordlessly. They take their seats on either side of Stacy, who sits with her knees drawn up to her chest. I remember almost nothing from this moment, only the shape of the corner we sit in and then the dim figures of two police detectives standing near the elevators; they had arrived from the scene of the accident.
The rest — how much time passes, what I say to Stacy or Jack, whether I get up to go to the bathroom, whether I text anyone the news, whether I say anything at all in particular — is a penny slipping beneath dark water. I think about Greta, knowing that whatever of her that survives will be damaged. I imagine raising a shell of my child, a body that keeps growing while a mind flickers dimly.
Author Jayson Greene Writes Heartbreaking Memoir About the Death of His 2-Year-Old Daughter
I think about never hearing her speak again. I think about wheelchairs, live-in care, an adult Greta prostrate and mute, occupying our spare bedroom.
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I think, briefly, about expenses — how would we shoulder that burden? Eventually, the surgeon emerges. We stand up, pointlessly. He is the television-drama vision of a neurosurgeon: gaunt, gray, with hollowed eye sockets and some slight wasting at his temples. He seems to be made entirely of cartilage under his scrubs. He lowers his bony frame into the chair next to us and clasps his hands between his knees.
We removed as much of her skull as we could to allow the brain to swell, but the bleed was rather severe. I feel him choosing his words as carefully and severely as possible: Our false hope is a blockage, and his job is to cut it out at the root and leave nothing behind to grow. He looks at us, his eyes as sorrowful as his voice is laconic. We are sent down to another wing of the hospital, waiting for nurses to stabilize Greta. Susan is wheeled out in a hospital gown, her legs bruised and swollen and her face ashen. She breaks into sobs the second she sees us, her body folding in the chair as if our gaze were shriveling her.
Stacy rushes over, kneeling down. Susan cries like a small child into her shoulder until she grows still. We all settle in and wait. There is a fish tank to our right, separating the hallway and the bustle of the hospital from us in our misery. The bag of sandwiches sits, unloved, on the table. Stacy pokes at the bag disinterestedly. Where are these sandwiches from? Stacy brightens slightly, leaning forward.
She opens the bag and begins to inspect each sandwich, lifting the lids on their cartons, pincering the top slice of bread with two fingers to peek beneath at the distribution of meat to cheese, to confirm mayonnaise absence, and to hunt for the dreaded presence of raw onion. As she performs this finicky little ritual, Elizabeth starts laughing; suddenly we all are.
We eat and then sit with the cartons strewn around, forgotten next to torn-open mustard packets and balled-up napkins. The silence settles back in, and as the gray haze of hours stretches on with no updates, the dread consumes us again. None of us is ready for it to maraud through our subconscious, killing and burning everything it sees. But we hear the banging at the gates. Whatever comes next will raze everything to the ground. Lee, the pediatric ICU doctor on call, comes out after three hours to retrieve us. She hits a button, the doors swish open, and we enter the PICU. This place will become our Bardo, our place of death and transition, for the next 48 hours.
Our daughter is in a room on the left wing, but Dr. Lee guides us down the right wing instead, to a small room with a fake houseplant in the corner, and some granola bars on a coffee table surrounded by three chairs. She sits and beholds us. Her eyes are grave, attentive, compassionate.
You should know that before going in to see her. Her face is yellow and glistening with IV fluid, her skull swollen and blue, with obscene steel staples running down the center. We flank the bed, each holding on to a hand. The staff, gathered at the edge of the bed, watches us quietly. I can feel their tenderness toward us creeping into the room as our family shifts into focus: Greta is no longer a body they have spent fruitless hours trying to stabilize. She is ours, and we are hers. We sing her lullabies as nurses tend to tubes.
I almost snap a photo of her — I am a father, after all, and there is a certain logic to it.
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We had documented every new phase of her life, every outfit, every new playground or walk around the block, to preserve it, and in the haze of my grief, this feels no different. A nurse gently discourages me. My parents are boarding a plane. In her first months of life, we had a nervous habit of checking to make sure she was still breathing. Sometimes, Stacy would pull her out of her bassinet at night to lay her on her chest, where their breathing would fall in sync.
The first time we took her outside, wrapped snug against Stacy in her baby carrier, we paused at a stoplight so Stacy could lift the flap and count breaths.
A neighbor, a mother of a 3- and a 5-year-old, walked past: Stacy made a nervous joke, and the woman smiled in acknowledgment. Over the next months, we began to adjust to that reality. Their future begins to take shape in your mind, and you fret over particulars. Will she make friends easily at preschool?
The Rare Writer Who Hates the Word ‘I’
Does she run around enough? Life remains precarious, full of illnesses that swoop in and level the whole family like a field of salted crops. There are beds to tumble from, chairs to run into, small chokeable toys to mind. But you no longer see death at every corner, merely challenges, an obstacle course you and your child are running, sometimes together and often at odds with each other. By the age of 2, your child is a person — she has opinions and fixed beliefs, preferences and tendencies, a group of friends and favorite foods.
The three of you have inside jokes and shared understandings, and you speak in family shorthand. It is no longer useful to you; it was never useful to the child; and there is so much in front of you to do. What happens to this sense when your child is swiftly killed by a runaway piece of your everyday environment, at the exact moment you had given up thinking that something could take all of this away at any moment?
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What lesson do your nerve endings learn? But I will, soon. Some riverlike coursing of hours slips past, in the time that is no time. Eventually, Dr. Lee calls us back into the other room to discuss next steps. Heart, liver, kidneys — all of them untouched, in perfect condition. Lee says. Lee keeps talking for a moment, as I sit back and allow the idea to wash over me.
She stands up. Stacy and I sit alone. I am the writer, the overexplainer who strains to shut up so that others can avail themselves of oxygen. I nod.