On the following afternoon I put my head around my father’s door shortly after lunch. He had been moved into a private room, and he was lying asleep, his head and shoulders slightly raised by the angle of the bed. He was wearing a loose cardigan over his hospital clothes; there were two IV tubes leading into his left arm, and on the far side of his bed another machine was monitoring his vital signs. An open paperback book was lying face down on the bedside table. Outside the window the sky was grey and overcast.
I slipped quietly into the room, sat down beside my father’s bed and watched him sleeping. His head was now almost completely hairless, there were dark circles under his eyes, and his skin had taken on a translucent quality. His mouth was open a little as he slept, and he was snoring lightly.
I thought back to what Becca had said about mixed emotions. She was right; for as long as I could remember, my habitual stance toward this dying man had been resistance, and he had certainly given me plenty of reasons to justify that attitude. Now, however, watching him lying there, his frailty and suffering obvious to see, I felt something older and deeper stirring inside.
I must have sat there quietly for fifteen or twenty minutes, listening to my father’s light snores, my thoughts drifting. The past twenty-four hours had completely driven the whole matter of Wendy and Lisa from my mind, but I found myself thinking about them now, wondering how I was going to raise the issue with Wendy when I saw her again. For a few minutes my mind went around that situation, and then I told myself to put it on one side for now and concentrate on the issues at hand. I prayed silently for my father, and for Rick and Sarah in this same hospital, both of them also in serious need of help.
My father stirred and opened his eyes. I waited silently until he turned his head on the pillows and saw me sitting beside his bed. “Hello, Dad”, I said.
“Hello, Tom”, he replied, his voice a little hoarse; “How long have you been sitting there?”
“Fifteen or twenty minutes, I suppose. You were obviously sleeping well, so I didn’t want to wake you”.
He tried to push himself up on his elbow, but the effort was too much for him. “Could you put the bed up just a little?” he asked. “I haven’t worked out how to use those buttons yet”.
“Of course”. I surveyed the controls on the side of the bed, and then held down what looked like the right button; sure enough, the head of the bed started to move slowly upwards. When he was satisfied, I released the button and asked, “Would you like some water?”
“Yes, please – there’s a jug on the table there”.
I poured some water into a blue plastic cup for him and helped him sit up a little to drink it through a bent straw. “That’s better”, he said; “Damn drugs make everything taste like gun metal right now”.
“Have you got the sores in your mouth?”
“Yes; did Kelly have those?”
“I’m afraid so”.
“I’m always thirsty, but the taste of tea’s spoiled for me; water seems to be the thing I want the most”.
“Is Mum here?”
“She was sitting right there a little while ago; she must have slipped out after I fell asleep. I expect she’s gone over to the Trauma Unit to see Rick or Sarah. Is there any news about them today?”
“I don’t know; I came straight to your room when I got here, and I hadn’t heard anything earlier in the day. Last night Becca and I sat with Sarah for a while after everyone else had left, but she was still sleeping at that point”.
He rolled over onto his side a little, angling his body toward me. “How did she look?”
“Pretty bad. She obviously hit her face on the inside of the car somewhere; she’s got cuts and scratches and two spectacular black eyes. Of course, the really serious injuries can’t be seen”.
“No”. He rolled onto his back again; “I hope to God that poor child’s back isn’t permanently damaged”.
“So do I”.
He shook his head in disbelief; “I can’t believe my son would do such a thing”.
“The weather was really bad; I almost lost control of my own car a couple of times yesterday”.
“Don’t make excuses for him, Tom; you weren’t driving under the influence of alcohol”.
“No, I wasn’t”.
Once again he rolled over a little so that he could look at me. “Your mother tells me that you and Emma were extremely helpful yesterday afternoon. Where is Emma, by the way?”
“She’s at Marston Court; she went in first thing this morning, and she’ll be finishing just about now”.
“Are they paying her at that place yet?”
“Not today, but she’s put her name in for a paid position starting in mid-January”.
We lapsed into silence; he closed his eyes, and for a minute I thought he had fallen asleep again. However, after a moment he opened them and asked, “What sort of work will she be doing?”
“I’m not altogether clear about that; I think it’s just a general support kind of position. In a way it’s a narrower focus than the volunteer work she’s been doing there; she’s been helping with baths and recreation as well, and occasionally going in early to help people get up”.
“She really likes doing that sort of thing, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, she does”. I nodded toward the open paperback on his bedside table; “What are you reading?”
“Hardy – The Woodlanders. You know it, of course?”
“Yes, I know it quite well actually”.
“I’m not surprised; are there any nineteenth century novelists you don’t know?”
“There are a few, but I’m not interested in getting to know them any better!”
He laughed, and suddenly he went into a fit of coughing. After a moment I leaned forward, poured him some more water and helped him sit up a little to drink it. He sipped at the straw for a few seconds, nodding when he was finished, and I put the cup back down on the bedside table. “Thanks”, he said.
“Going back to The Woodlanders – it’s a dark and cheerless tale, but he is something of a genius, isn’t he?”
“Yes, I’m rather fond of him myself”.
“Do you teach this book at your school?”
“No, it’s rather hard to get pupils interested in Hardy, actually. Far From the Madding Crowd is on our list, but it’s such an unusual book for Hardy, since it has a happy ending”.
For a few minutes we chatted amiably about Thomas Hardy’s books; I was surprised to discover that he had read quite a number of them. “I thought you didn’t care for Victorian novelists?”
“I made that judgment after I’d read them, not before!”
I saw him looking over my shoulder, and I turned and saw that my mother had come into the room. She was dressed comfortably in slacks and an old sweater, but it was the distress on her face that I noticed immediately. “Are you alright, Mum?” I asked.
She shook her head; “The news is not good, I’m afraid”, she said in a small voice.
“The surgeon spoke to Alyson?”
“I’m afraid so; apparently the injury’s permanent”.
I got up and put my arms around her ; “Were you with Alyson when she got the news?”
“I was”, she said against my shoulder, “and so were the children and Becca. I’m afraid Alyson didn’t take it very well; none of us did. Now, of course, we have to work out how to break it to Sarah”.
“Surely that’s the surgeon’s job?” my father said.
My mother drew back from me. “Do you mind if I take this chair, Tom?” she asked; “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed just now”.
“Of course; do you want me to find you a cup of tea or something?”
“Would you, please? I need to spend a few moments alone with your father; can you give us a bit of time?”
“Of course. I’ll go and find some tea; would you like some too, Dad?”
“No thank you; as I said, it just tastes like gun metal right now”.
I slipped out of the room, asked at the nursing station, and was directed toward a dispensing machine in a visitor’s lounge down the corridor. I found the machine, bought myself a cup of coffee and sat quietly for a few minutes, trying to imagine my feelings if it had been Emma lying there with her spine severed, and I had to be the one who told her the news. It would be hard, I thought, but I was sure I would not want anyone else to take my place.
I finished my coffee, bought a cup of tea for my mother and walked back through the corridors to my father’s room. I knocked on the door, waited for my father’s response, and then entered the room; my mother was sitting very close to the bed, holding my father’s hand. I was surprised; public displays of affection between them were very rare in my memory. I handed the cup of tea to my mother, got another chair from under the window and sat down close to them both. “Are you alright?” I asked my mother.
“I keep thinking about that poor child”, she whispered, her face pale. “I try to imagine what she’s going to feel when she hears the news”.
“She’s going to be devastated, of course”, my father said in a gentle voice; “I can’t understand why the surgeon wants the family to break the news”.
“Now, I may not have got that quite right, Frank”, she admitted. “I think what he wants is for a couple of family members to be with Sarah when he talks to her”.
“Ah, I see. And Alyson…”
She shook her head decisively; “She can’t do it. She wants to try, but she’s totally shattered, and I don’t think she’ll be able to listen to him explaining it all to Sarah without breaking down completely”.
“I don’t think you can do it either, Irene”.
“I know I can’t”, she agreed, and I saw a single tear running down her face. I was surprised; my mother was usually very reserved about her feelings, and I was used to seeing her in the role of the strong and steady one in our family. I leaned forward and took her other hand; “Why don’t I talk to Becca about it?” I suggested. “Sarah knows us both, and Becca knows all the medical stuff. Perhaps she and I could go in with the surgeon”.
“Are you sure? If you think you can do it, that would probably be the best solution”.
“Are the children and Becca still with Alyson?”
“As far as I know”.
“Emma’s going to be here in a few minutes; I’ll go and wait for her in the visitor’s lounge at the Trauma Unit. After she gets here, I’ll talk to Becca”.
“All right; I’ll stay here with your father for a while now. Thank you very much, Tom”.
My father nodded his head slowly; “Yes – thank you, son”, he said.
“No problem; let’s hope Becca agrees. If she doesn’t feel she can do it, then I’ll go in by myself with the surgeon”.
“Are you sure?” my mother asked.
“I’ll be fine. Have you seen Rick this morning, Mum?”
“How is he?”
“He seems to be all right. His lung hasn’t collapsed, thank God, but they’re keeping a close watch on him to make sure that doesn’t happen. They’ve got him on oxygen at the moment”.
“Does he know about Sarah?”
“He knows she has a back injury, but the news about the cord being severed probably hasn’t reached him yet”.
“How’s he taking it all?”
“He doesn’t want to talk about it”.
“He wants to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions, of course”, my father growled.
I didn’t reply, but privately I was thinking that I hoped the staff were indeed keeping a very close watch on my brother. My thoughts had suddenly come up with a very different twist on the scenario I had been spinning earlier; this time I was imagining it being my own drunk driving that had caused Emma to be lying in a bed with a permanently severed spinal cord. In that situation, I couldn’t help thinking that I would very quickly become suicidal.
Over at the visitors’ lounge in the Trauma Unit, I saw Alyson and her children in the far corner, along with Becca and an older couple who I recognised as Alyson’s parents, although I had not seen them since Rick and Alyson’s wedding. Alyson’s face was pale and her eyes were red and puffy; Eric was holding one of her hands, and she had her other arm around Anna. Her parents were sitting on either side of the little group; they were dressed smartly, but I could see by their faces that they were as distraught as their daughter. Becca noticed me first, and I saw the relief on her face as I crossed the room, pulled up a chair and sat down with them. “Have you heard the news?” she asked.
“Mum just told me. I’m very sorry, Alyson”.
My sister-in-law nodded, obviously unable to trust herself to say anything. Eric tightened his grip on her hand and said, “We’re trying to decide how we’re going to break the news to Sarah; the doctor wants to have a couple of family members present when he tells her about her injury”.
“Becca, why don’t you and I look after that?” I suggested. “Do you know the surgeon?”
“We’re acquainted, but I don’t know him really well. Owen does; I think they did some of their training together”. She turned to Alyson and said, “Tommy’s right; he and I can go in with the surgeon”.
“I should do it!” Alyson protested in a voice charged with emotion; “She’s my daughter!”
“Alyson, you’re too upset”, her father replied; “It’s not your fault, but…”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Emma coming into the visitors’ lounge. “Excuse me a minute”, I said, getting to my feet and moving to intercept her. She smiled when she saw me, but the smile faltered when she saw the expression on my face. I kissed her gently, took hold of her hands, and said, “The news is bad, love”.
“Her spine is severed?”
“I’m afraid so”.
“Oh, Daddy”, she whispered, and when I heard the childlike form of address I knew that she was shaken to the core. “Poor Sarah”, she said; “Does she know?”
“Not yet; Becca and I are going to go in and tell her”.
“Isn’t the surgeon supposed to do that?” she asked, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Yes, but he wants a couple of family members present. Sarah’s Mum would like to think she can do it, but she can’t; she’s completely shattered”.
She glanced over at the others, then looked at me again and asked, “What would you like me to do?”
“Alyson’s Mum and Dad are there, but I’m sure Eric and Anna would appreciate you being with them while Becca and I are in with Sarah”.
“Right; I can do that. When’s this going to happen?”
“I think the timing’s up to us”.
“Give me a minute, okay? I need to take a quick walk”.
“Okay, love”. I kissed her on the forehead and then watched as she turned and slipped out of the room.
“Where’s she going?” Eric asked when I rejoined the others.
“She needs a minute or two by herself”, I said; “Have we come to a decision yet about who’s going to go with the surgeon to talk to Sarah?”
“It should be me”, Alyson replied, “but you’re right – I can’t do it; I just can’t. I’m sorry, Tom”.
“Don’t worry. Becca and I can do it, and you can come in a bit later and spend some time with her”.
“Would you like me to come with you, Tom?” Alyson’s father asked.
“No, you folks stay here together; Emma’s going to come and sit with you once she’s got her head around things”.
Becca had been watching this exchange; now she put her hand on my arm and said, “Tommy, can I talk to you outside for a minute?”
We excused ourselves and slipped out into the corridor; Becca leaned back against the wall and said, “If we’re going to go in with the surgeon, we may as well be the ones to do the talking”.
“Us? Is that a good idea?”
“I can explain the injuries every bit as well as he can, and who do you think Sarah would find it easier to hear it from – a stranger, or someone she knows?”
“Someone she knows, of course, but are you sure you’re up to it?”
“I’ll be fine”.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. If it makes you feel better, we can ask the surgeon to come in with us in case there are any specific questions about the injury”.
“I like that idea better”.
“Right – let’s go and track him down”.
The surgeon was a man of my own age; Becca introduced him to me as Dr. John Fellows. I had been expecting someone older and more authoritative, but Dr. Fellows was quiet and soft-spoken. When Becca broached her idea to him, he was hesitant at first; in situations like these, he said, lots of family members thought they were strong beforehand, but found their courage failing when they actually got into the room. However, Becca held her ground, and eventually he agreed. “I still think I should come in with you, though”, he said; “Then I can jump in if you find it harder than you thought, and I can answer any specific questions about the surgery”.
I glanced at Becca; “Is that all right with you?” I asked.
I saw the determination in her eyes; “That’s all right with me”.
“Good”, said Dr. Fellows; “just let me know when you’re ready”.
“I’m not sure that I’m ever going to be ready, so why don’t we just go and do it now?”
“As you wish”.
He led us through the double doors into the Trauma Unit; my own heart was beating fast and I hardly noticed the route we took. When we reached Sarah’s unit Dr. Fellows stopped at the nursing station, exchanged a few words with the young nurse on duty, then turned and nodded to us. “Sarah’s awake; are you ready?”
For a moment I saw Becca’s courage falter. She reached out and grabbed my hand; “Tommy” she whispered, “I’m about to go in there to tell my niece that she’ll never walk again”.
“Are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t prefer me to tell her?” Dr. Fellows asked; “I can do it if you want”.
She shook her head, and I saw the resolution returning to her face; “No, it’s better if it comes from me. Let’s go in”.
As we entered her room, Sarah looked much as she had the night before, lying in the hospital bed with IV lines attached to her body and bandages on her head and neck, the various monitors beeping in the background. But she was awake now, and saw the three of us coming into the room. Becca moved around to the opposite side of the bed, leaned over and gave her a hug. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“My head and my back are sore, and sometimes I can’t seem to feel my legs. What’s happening to me, Auntie Becca?”
I took my place beside the bed across from Becca, and Dr. Fellows stood quietly in the background. Becca took Sarah’s hand and spoke with a calmness that I knew could not possibly reflect the turmoil she was feeling inside. “Sarah, this is Dr. Fellows; he’s the surgeon who operated on you yesterday. He’s a very good surgeon and he’s come in with us this afternoon in case there are any questions about your injuries that I can’t answer. But I’m going to try to explain to you what happened in the accident. Do you remember anything about it?”
“I remember the car starting to spin on the ice, and Dad trying to bring it under control. I remember the other car trying to avoid us, and then we must have collided and I felt this awful pain in my back. I can’t remember very much at all after that. What happened to me?”
“You sustained a number of injuries. The least serious are the bruises and cuts on your head and neck and other parts of your body. They’re painful and ugly, but they’ll soon heal. But you have three very serious injuries, and I’ll try to explain them to you”.
Becca looked around, found a chair, and pulled it over beside the bed. She took her seat, her head now on the same level as Sarah’s, gripped the girl’s hand again, and said, “Two of those injuries are fractures of your pelvis. Do you know what the pelvis is?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Right, well, that’s going to make movement difficult for some time. Normally people who have that kind of injury take many months after surgery to get well; it takes time for the bones to knit together again, and we have to watch very carefully to make sure they knit properly. But I’m afraid there’s more, Sarah”.
The girl nodded, and I saw tears springing up in her eyes. “I knew it”, she whispered in a barely audible voice; “It’s my back, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so. The impact of the blow has severed your spinal cord at the bottom end of your back”.
“Is that why I can’t feel my legs?”
“Yes; bear with me while I explain this to you. The bones in your spine are called vertebrae. We doctors talk about them individually by giving them each a letter and a number. The letter refers to the section of the spine in which the individual vertebra is located, the number refers to how far down in the section it comes; lower numbers are higher in the spine, and higher numbers are lower – the opposite to what you might think, but that’s the way we do it for some reason.
“Now, in your spine, the damage is to the bones and the spinal cord in the area of vertebrae T12 and L1 – in other words, the very bottom of the thoracic region, which supports your ribs, and the very top of the lumbar region. Both of them are toward the lower end of your back. The damage in the T12 area means that your control over the muscles of your lower abdomen won’t be as good as it was – but because it’s so low in the thoracic region, the effect won’t be as bad as it could have been. But, my love, the really serious one is L1. That’s where your spinal cord is severed, and that means you won’t be able to feel your legs or have any control over them”.
“For how long?”
Becca opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out. I saw her look at me desperately, and I knew instantly that she couldn’t carry on. I crouched down beside the bed, taking Sarah’s other hand, and as she turned her head to look at me with confusion and just a hint of emerging terror in her eyes, I said softly, “Sarah, honey, I’m afraid it’s a permanent injury”.
The tears were running down Sarah’s face now. “Permanent?” she said in a tiny voice; “So I’ll have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life?”
I nodded; “I’m really sorry, honey”, I whispered. “Dr. Fellows did everything he could, but the damage was just too great”.
“No!” she sobbed; “it can’t be! The injury can heal, just like any other injury, can’t it?” She looked at Dr. Fellows desperately. “Tell, them, please!” she pleaded; “I’m going to get better, aren’t I?”
“I’m very sorry, Sarah”, he replied quietly, “but a severed spinal cord doesn’t heal”.
“But there must be something you can do for me! People with broken backs do walk again; you see it on television all the time! Why should it be any different for me?”
I knew instinctively that there was no point in us trying to explain to her the difference between a broken back and a severed spinal cord. Instead, I sat down on the bed and took her into my arms, holding her as close as the IV lines would allow. I held her head against my shoulder as the sobs shook her battered body. “It’s not fair!” she cried in anguish; “This can’t be true; it’s all a horrible dream, isn’t it? I’m going to wake up in a minute, aren’t I? Please tell me I’m going to wake up!”
“You’re right”, Becca replied in a voice that was only just under control; “It’s not fair, it’s horrible, and it shouldn’t have happened to you”.
For a long time I simply held Sarah close; Becca put her arms around the two of us, and I could see the tears running down her face too. I sensed that Dr. Fellows was still standing in the background, and I realized that he had probably seen scenes like this many times, as the reality of permanent injuries to the spine began to sink in to the victims.
Eventually the shaking in Sarah’s body began to subside. I kissed her forehead and held her close, and I felt one of her arms tightening around my neck. “Where’s Mum?” she asked in a small voice.
“Out in the visiting lounge. She really wanted to come in and tell you about this, but she was just too upset, so Auntie Becca and I offered to do it”.
“Can she come and see me?”
“Would you like her to?”
I nodded at Becca, but as she began to get up Sarah suddenly grabbed her hand; “Please don’t go, Auntie Becca!” she pleaded.
Sarah nodded at Dr. Fellows; “He can go”.
Becca glanced at the doctor; “Would you mind?”
“Not at all. I’ll go and find out if she’s able to come in”.
Becca and I continued to hold Sarah quietly for a few more minutes until Dr. Fellows returned with Alyson. “Here’s your Mum, Sarah”, I whispered as Alyson approached the bed, her face still pale. I got up and stepped back from the bed, and Alyson sat down in my place, putting her arms around her daughter and holding her close. On the other side of the bed I saw Becca get to her feet, and together we moved over beside Dr. Fellows.
“Well done”, he said in a low voice as we watched Alyson putting her arms around Sarah and talking softly to her. “It’s always hard, but you did well”.
“Are you going to talk about treatment and rehab?” my sister asked.
“Not today. If the family has any questions, feel free to give them a general idea of the process, but I’ll leave Sarah some time to get used to things before I talk specifically about where we go from here”.
“I thought there was no treatment?” I said.
“Come outside for a minute and I’ll explain”.
We followed him outside the door; he crossed his arms, leaned his shoulder against the corridor wall and said, “We’re not talking about treatment to fuse severed nerves; that can’t be done. But in the T12 region the spinal cord is only bruised, Tom, not severed; it will likely heal, which means that in a few weeks she’ll probably regain full abdominal control. There are things we can do to help that happen; that was what I was doing a lot of the time yesterday, and I’ll need to do some more surgery yet on the damaged vertebra. We may have to revisit the pelvic fractures as well. Also, there are things we need to do to treat complications such as pressure sores. Rehab will simply mean training Sarah to deal with this new situation she finds herself in, giving her and her family the techniques to help reduce further deterioration – that sort of thing. I’m afraid it will be a very long process”.
“Are there any other questions I can answer for you?”
I shook my head; “I’m sure we’ll see you again”.
“No doubt; tell Sarah’s Mum not to hesitate to call me if she has any questions. Now, if you people don’t need me for anything else, I’ve got some more patients who need my attention”.
“No, you go along”, Becca replied; “Thanks for being there with us”.
About an hour later, leaving Emma at Sarah’s bedside with Alyson and her children, I found my way to a different part of the Trauma Unit and stepped into my brother’s room. The setup was identical to the room Sarah was in, but the patient looked very different. His right leg was in a cast with a sort of pulley and weight contraption attached to it. His right arm was also in a cast, his chest was heavily bandaged, and an oxygen tube ran under his nostrils. He was staring vacantly into space, and although he turned and looked at me when I entered the room, he seemed at first to be having difficulty focusing on my face.
I took a seat beside his bed. “Does it feel as bad as it looks?” I asked.
“How are you doing?”
“How do you think?”
We sat in silence, Rick looking down at the bed, and me watching his face. Outside in the corridor a phone rang and someone answered it, and from somewhere on the ward I heard a quiet laugh, a strangely incongruous sound in that place where life and death lived in such close proximity.
“Have you seen Sarah?” he asked.
“I’ve just come from her room”.
“How was she?”
For a moment I didn’t answer, unsure of how to proceed. He noticed my hesitation, and I saw him searching my face anxiously; “What’s wrong?”
“I just don’t know how much you know; has anyone given you the latest news about her back?”
“No”. He laughed grimly; “Why should they? I’m only the father!”
“I’m very sorry, Rick; I assumed someone had been keeping you up to date”.
“Keeping me up to date about what, Tom? What are you being so bloody secretive about?”
I took a deep breath and said, “Sarah’s spinal cord is completely severed at the top of the lumbar region”.
“What does that mean?”
“It means she won’t walk again”.
The belligerence disappeared from his eyes instantly, to be replaced by a sorrow so deep that I felt a stab of fear when I saw it. “Oh my God!” he whispered.
“I’m very sorry, Rick”.
“Does she know?”
“Becca and I told her an hour ago”.
“Where was Alyson?”
“Out in the visitors’ lounge; she wanted to be the one to talk to Sarah, but she just couldn’t do it”.
“So you and Becca stepped in?”
“The surgeon wanted someone from the family there, and there weren’t any other candidates. Becca thought we should take the lead, because the surgeon was a stranger and we weren’t”.
“How did Sarah take it?”
“She was devastated”.
“Who’s with her now?”
“Alyson, and the children, and Emma; Alyson’s parents are around somewhere, too”.
“Gone down to the cafeteria for a bite to eat”.
“Is Mum still here?”
“She’s still in Dad’s room in the main part of the hospital, as far as I know”.
We lapsed into silence; he was fiddling with his oxygen tube and I noticed his hands had a slight tremor.
“Do you know what I feel the worst about, Tom?”
“Even though yesterday I was responsible for a traffic accident that killed one young woman, condemned my daughter to life in a wheelchair, and will probably send me to jail, that’s not the thing that’s occupying my mind the most at the moment”. He suddenly looked me in the eye; “The thing that’s occupying my mind the most is that I need a fucking drink!” He shook his head slowly; “Pardon my profanity; pretty pathetic, aren’t I? You’d better leave, Tom; no sense wasting your time here”.
“Are you insisting that I leave?”
He shrugged, and then winced with pain; “I keep forgetting not to do that!”
“How many ribs did you crack?”
“I think three. One of them made a troublesome little hole in my right lung, so they’re keeping a close watch on me; so far the lung hasn’t collapsed, but apparently these things are a bit unpredictable”.
“Hence the oxygen?”
“I think so”.
He looked away, staring out of the window. I watched his face, remembering what my mother had said earlier about his unwillingness to talk about what had happened. It was a very different Rick that I was meeting, and I wondered why that would be.
“I envy you, you know”, he said in a barely audible voice.
“Why would you envy me? I screw up as often as the next man”.
He shook his head, laughing bitterly. “No you don’t, Tom”, he replied; “Most of us screw up far more frequently than you do”.
“Well, it doesn’t look that way from where I sit, but there’s not much point in beating yourself up. If you want to do things differently, decide to do things differently, and look for the help that’s available”.
“It’s a bit too late for me, now, isn’t it? Doing things differently isn’t going to mend Sarah’s back or bring the other driver back to life, and it isn’t going to keep me out of jail, either”.
“No, it can’t change those things, but it could change the things that follow on from them”.
“I know you mean well, Tom, but I’ve fucked things up royally, and that’s all there is to say. Any changes I could possibly make wouldn’t come anywhere near redressing the past twenty-four hours”.
At that moment there was a light tap on the door and Alyson appeared, her face still pale. She moved over to the bed; “How are you feeling?” she asked her husband.
“Rather shitty, after the news that Tom just brought me about Sarah. How is she?”
“How do you think?” she replied, and I heard the note of bitterness in her voice. My brother heard it too; I expected him to respond defiantly, but he didn’t. “I’m really sorry”, he said quietly.
Alyson shook her head at his apology, and I saw her face beginning to crumple. “It’s a bit too late for ‘sorry’ now, Rick!” she said in a shaky voice.
My brother glanced at me; “Tom, would you excuse us for a few minutes?” he asked.
“Of course”, I replied, getting to my feet; “I’ll go back to Dad’s room and sit with him again for a while. Call me if you need me, either of you”.
“Thanks, Tom – thanks for coming down to see me. Sorry I was in such a black mood”.
“Not at all. I’ll see you later”. I put my hand momentarily on his shoulder, smiled briefly at Alyson, and then left them alone together.