Sometimes You Get What You Pray For

It is about time that I introduced my youngest sibling, my brother Robert Andrew, Bobby for short, who was born when I was seven. He is the last of the Robert Berrys, the very last of the line; the surname will be extinguished when he dies. Our family lineage hales back to the Mayflower Brewster’s with the first Samuel Berry sneaking in to the family tree around 1798. I could say that it is a distinguished Maine Yankee family but honestly, besides having a sea captain and Civil War general as ancestors, we are nothing special – our emblem should be a quahog shell. Like the clam we don’t stick our necks out too much, only when we are hungry, and then we eat and clam right up. Well, I don’t tend to clam up too tight, so my emblem ought to be an open quahog shell with deep purple around the inside edges.

Bobby was hit by a car when he was ten and I had just turned eighteen. I was opening the living room drapes just as he was struck by a car, struck again, and tossed into the air some 60-90 feet from impact. The driver claimed that he slowed down when he saw my brother in the road but judged that from his height Bobby was a teenager and would get out of his way, so he resumed his speed. Bobby landed like a rag doll (yet broke no bones including his skull, the impact jarred his eyes out of alignment and severely bruised both the front cerebral cortex and rear cerebellum of his brain). Mrs. Bird came running across the road from her house with a blanket and pillow, she was a nurse and she kept talking about preventing shock. She should have wrapped my sister up in a blanket because she would not stop crying and was absolutely no good to me, she could not be relied upon to be rational at all. I called the ambulance but apparently Mrs. Bird had also called before she flew out of her screen door, because they were already on their way.

I rode to the hospital with my brother who was not responding to the EMTs, he was dying slowly mile by mile as we sped, siren wailing, toward Burlington’s Fletcher Allen hospital. My parents were ending their day at their separate work places unbeknownst that their son had been signed into the ER trauma center, given last rites, put on the respirator, an EEG machine and was about to have pressure release holes drilled into his skull. My mother was en route home from Fairfax Academy along back roads when stopped by the state police, she must have wondered what she had done wrong when she saw the blue lights flashing and crumbled into tears when the officer told her about her son’s accident. My dad was leaving his work site at the White River Junction VA hospital in his red truck traveling north on I-89 planning on an easy evening, perhaps thinking of mowing the lawn when he too was pulled over and given the horrible news. All of our lives were turned horrifyingly upside down as we entered a limbo period waiting with hope against reality for my brother to regain consciousness.

My brother’s doctors met with my parents during evening rounds, his nurses kept them abreast of all of Bobby’s stats daily. Mom and Dad consulted with brain specialists and educated themselves the best they could. This was before the medical profession spoke in language that the ordinary layperson could understand. Our family life was put on hold, Susan and I held down the fort, we cleaned the house and took phone messages from concerned friends to be answered later when our parents dragged themselves home after visiting hours. The doctors didn’t think that Bobby would survive, in their experience patients with my brother’s head trauma didn’t last beyond 12-14 days, even when constantly monitored in the ICU. After weeks turned into  months, my brother’s muscles began to entropy; his feet dropped and he lay in a fetal position with his eyes half open.

Family and friends sent saint amulets that my mother hung on Bobby’s hospital bed. Both of my parents prayed novenas for the return of their son and prayed the rosary by Bobby’s bedside nightly. Susan and I came home from school, did our homework, made our own meals, saving portions for mom and dad to warm up when they came home, all in wooden silence. I took drivers ed. at school but couldn’t practice driving since both vehicles were at the hospital, so Susan and I waited without any transportation anywhere. Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went without any joy, we were all running on automatic, all conversation centered on how my brother was doing: had my brother really squeezed his mom’s hand, did he respond when asked a question by nodding? Was it wishful thinking or was Lent going to be especially meaningful this year?

The longer my brother lived the more hope the doctors had of the possibility that Bobby might, might, come out of his coma and less talk of preparing for a vegetative state was mentioned. Against huge odds Bobby struggled to break his coma and six months after the accident, while being visited by his grandfather and driven around the hospital ward in a convalescent wooden cart, Bobby returned ending my parent’s vigil. Their prayers had been answered and he has been their companion ever since. Rehabilitation therapists straightened Bobby’s arms and legs, and taught him to walk again, speech pathology worked on his language skills, surgery corrected the misalignment of his eyes and stopped tremors, medications helped tamper his outbursts but nothing could bring back the cognitive ability to function as much more than a preteen in a growing man’s body. With my mother’s help Bobby earned his high school diploma and endured several batteries of aptitude, social, functional, occupational, behavioral, and IQ evaluations, only to be left to my parents care.

I sound very efficient in this story, like I was meant to rescue my brother from death’s clutches, calm and automatically following an internal pre-thoughtout family-established emergency plan (What To Do When Younger Sibling Gets Mowed Down By A Car Plan). But I wasn’t – instead I was cursing my brother for being so stupid as to stand in the road in the first place. He froze when he saw the car barreling toward him, he must have – there was no other explanation was there? – why would he just have stood there and let himself get hit?

Bobby had been playing chicken with traffic ever since he learned to walk and it frightened my mother so much she put him in a harness when she took him on errands. When he was older he would step out from between parked cars into on coming traffic without thinking of the consequences and get hauled back to the sidewalk by our mother, a nervous wreck by the end of a our shopping trips. He would hide in department store clothes racks while our mother fanatically called for him, even going so far as to have him paged which mortified us girls. He would finally show himself with that goofy smile on his face which he has retained all these years later like, you were looking for me, I was right here all the time sort of look. Mom would scold and softly cuff him, and pull him in for a hug, giving him the seal of her approval and ensuring future “lost” antics from our brother. He was, and still is, very impulsive in his actions, he was incapable of thinking further than his initial idea at the time which he believed was comical. Again I would curse him, hoping against hope that the gypsies had stolen him away, cursing his golden boy brattiness that was totally lost on our mother.

Robert was hard to love even as a baby, mostly because he robbed Uncle John’s lap from Susan and I – we did not exist to my uncle once Bobby was laid in his arms. Bobby became the royal pain-in-the-butt apple of everyone’s eye, the much awaited boy child to carry on the Berry name. I lost yard work time with my dad and was demoted to the kitchen – my mother and sister’s domain – a place that I had little love or talent for. I hated the kitchen and the endless duties it required, its repeat cycles of boredom with added heat and misery. Plus it held the corners that I was still relegated to spend time in without even my sister’s company because she had long ago grown tried of my recurrent misdemeanors.

Bobby controlled the whole house from his crying to his laughter ending in hiccups. Uncle John thought that the sun rose and shone on our brother while Robert tormented us from his safety goal of Uncle John’s lap. Bobby would destroy a game Susan and I were playing, kick a doll house setup, leave our play-doh outside, topple our sandcastle, ruin whatever we were doing and when we tried to retaliate all the adults saw were two hateful girls that didn’t love their magnificent golden haired brother. How can you compete with that? Susan and I had been the Berry Girls, Eleanor’s daughters when in Lisbon Falls, Grampy Berry’s side kicks in Gardener and Brunswick on relative check-ups. Since we were older and more mobile than our baby brother we still held the two last positions until Bobby could be strapped into a car seat. We were basically told to grow up and get over it.

Along with Bobby’s tricks of riling up his sisters and watching them squirm in punishment (our mother had revised her tattle-tail policy with the birth of her son and now supported his exaggerated claims of sisterly cruelty) he now added bullying younger school children for their lunch money. I had ruffed up a school boy for the same crime when I was younger – how I wished that my brother would be caught red-handed and punished publicly, but as a Cub Scout and alter boy this had little chance of happening. Bobby crossed my sister’s sense of fairness, none of our complaints ever ended in anything but silence and condemnations of being bad hateful girls that didn’t love their only brother. We heard this from everyone, from Uncle John (who broke our hearts) from our anguished parents (how could we girls be so cruel/how could our parents be so blind?) and Nana even weighed into the fray by telling Susan and I to let Bobby be, that we were bad girls for taunting him so (as he jeered at us while hugging her legs). If you hear it enough times does it make it so?

It felt like a fairy tale without any end until the end came on Rte 116 in Hinesburg and my brother laid on the roadside in a heap not making a sound. You grow up fast in an emergency, you have to make snap judgments that you don’t even have the experience to make, you have to look strong and talk without any quavering in your voice and after you have made life and death choices you have to go to school the next day knowing that your brother, who you had wished would get his payback, could die at any minute no matter how strong you were, how superhuman you had been. If I had stayed after school that afternoon Bobby surely would have died because Susan wouldn’t have known what to do, and because of her young age couldn’t legally do anything; she was the peacekeeper, not the creative thinker.

It took awhile for Bobby to come out of his coma and when he came to he was a surly cuss, swearing up a storm at the nurses, rehab therapists and even at our mother. Most of his curses were wasted on mom because she couldn’t hear everything he said and when she did she blamed it on the orderlies and therapists for their gutter language influencing her son. I had heard Bobby use that language on the play ground at school where I did high school community service and taught elementary school art. Bobby chased little kids for money after lunch and one day a kid finally stood up to him and conked him on the head with a large piece of asphalt. When my mother got home from school to find her innocent son’s head wound up like a mummy she immediately called the aggressor’s father to insist that he make restitution. Instead, she was shocked at his response that Bobby, as well as his friends, had been bullying the younger kids for quite a while and that his son had defended himself. Our mother couldn’t believe this about her son and when Susan and I confirmed the story she wouldn’t believe us; Bobby took the opportunity to say the little boy was lying, that he would never do such a thing. The school investigated and found that my brother and his friends had indeed been bullies, clearing the name of the young boy and forcing my mother to apologize. Somehow Bobby escaped punishment for his part in the episode because he blamed his buddies and got off relatively scott free. And Susan and I were seen as traitors to our brother’s name when we sided against him, we lacked honor in our hatred and cruelty towards Bobby, and the tale spun on.

At every hurt that Bobby slung our way he would be coddled as we were punished – years later when I was in therapy and recounting my stories of how terribly hateful I had been, how loathing my behavior was toward my sister and brother, the therapist asked me to stop. She held my chin as she looked deep into my eyes and and said, “Monsters are made and Bobby was crafted into a perfect monster without your help. Your sister and you were beacons that never were acknowledged by the adults in charge. You weren’t a bad girl, neither was your sister. You were caught in a family drama that had become unhinged. You don’t hate your brother, because if you did you wouldn’t have come to his aid so long ago.”

My brother still lives with my parents, he is unable to perform any job in the workplace, instead he has a routine centered around watching TV, reading the headlines, funnies and a few short articles from the daily newspaper and eating. To be fair he has a few chores like collecting his dirty clothes for wash day, stripping his bed and helping to remake it, and vacuuming which he accomplishes in a hurry, much to my mother’s consternation, because he bangs and scratches the wood floors and furniture. He runs out to get the mail (the mailbox is on the house’s side of the road) and every so often he is allowed to drive the tractor around the yard (with adult supervision). His brain insists that he goes fast, faster than his balance can keep up with and he has injured himself severely a couple of times. He tends to spend his afternoons napping and then wanders around the house looking for food, he talks to his mother but not too much with his father. Our dad doesn’t know how to approach his damaged son, he can’t share a lot of his thoughts and memories with someone that doesn’t respond or when he does his replies are not appropriate to the subject. Little limit setting has occurred by adults in Bobby’s life because of the shear constancy of the patrol. A lot of people mistakenly praise his bad behavior (thinking wrongly that he needs all the encouragement he can get) enabling repeat performances.

Bobby works on the 50-50 plan, he figures that he’ll get caught 50% of the time and have to suffer his mother’s harangues which have little impact since he has grown immune. Fifty percent of the time he has been able to get away with whatever has been forbidden. Bobby can toss back scalding hot coffee without flinching; he has built up resistance. (When he thinks that no one is watching he pours some of Dad’s coffee into his plastic water cup so that he will appear to be drinking water while standing at the sink. Bobby can be pretty crafty.) Coffee is banned because Mom claims that the caffeine makes him cranky and can lead to nasty outbursts. But Bobby keeps on trying to bend the rules; it adds a little bit of spice to his otherwise stale routine. He only goes on trips to church, doctors, dentists, grocery store (and Wal-Mart when he is successful in cajoling his tired parents into taking him), he never goes out with any peers or community social programs. My parents do what they can for Bobby (my dad will be 81 in the fall with my mother not too far behind). I have given them respite so they could visit friends in Vermont but my schedule isn’t always clear and my brother can be a handful for other relatives to handle.

Bobby takes powerful medicine to offset bouts of outbursts and seizures, he has a history of physical ly violent outbursts directed at both of his caretakers, usually related to a remembered slight that would spike in his brain. When Lady, Dad’s Springer Spaniel, was alive she would sense an oncoming attack and herd Bobby into a corner to protect him and whoever he was about to go off on. The bouts of anger have decreased since his medications have been increased, his episodes of jealousy at anything that occupies his mother’s time has also decreased. He has become slower and more talkative, repeating what he has been told about his accident and times before; he is fast approaching fifty (I will be sixty soon enough) and is as healthy as an ox. Bobby is my parent’s legacy that Susan and I will inherit. Since the majority of my work with at-risk teenagers has centered around years of behavioral modification training, I believe that old dogs can learn new tricks with enough motivation. Thank God Bobby is strongly motivated by M&Ms (and Mountain Dew, loaded calzones, chocolate whoopie pies, ice cream sundaes, and occasional trips to Capt. Mike’s Restaurant for lobster pie).

KBP 5 August 2010

One response to “Sometimes You Get What You Pray For

  1. Horrific comes to mind.
    How life can change in an instant and impact so many. It seems no child should have to grow up as fast as you did on that day Kat. Looking back perhaps this horrific event glued us together on a level that we weren’t aware of at the time.

    My growing up quick happened on a specific day when I was three and 1/2. My mother had been having terrible headaches for months but was told by her doctor that it was simply a matter of motherhood stress. And whose fault could that be? Why me. Every young child is oblivious to how taxing their busy behavior and tantrums can be on their parents. You don’t know how far you can push a parent until you’ve exceed the limit. So this evening after one magnificent tantrum on my part my mother started screaming and holding her head. What I did not know or understand is that my mother just had a massive blood vessel in her brain explode and was beginning to bleed to death because her brain was swelling so fast. When someone is screaming this loud the world just freezes. My father knew something horrible was taking place, dialed the hospital to say we were coming, then ran carrying my mother in his arms to the car and lay her down in the back seat. All the while he yelled at me through her screaming to get in the front seat.I did as I was told shaking the whole time and didn’t even question why I was being allowed to sit up front something I had never done before. At top speeds we flew for 20 minutes through the darkness until my father drove right up to the ER door. The last thing I remember is a stranger pulling me out of the passenger window. And that was it. The end of life as I knew it.
    It would be several months before I saw my mother again, and when I did I was certain they had made a mistake and switched her with someone else. She came home with bandages around her head. She couldn’t form simple words or sentences. She couldn’t walk without help. She dribbled And to top of all off one eye rolled up and tracked off to the right. How could this all be? Better yet how could one small child have a tantrum so huge that this was the consequence?
    Life did continue as it did for you Kat, but not the same. You came to know this woman – my mother- much later in life after she learned again how to talk, walk, and be. But what we shared when you were 18 is knowing first hand what brain damage is like. You didn’t get the brother you had before back, and I didn’t get the mother I had before back. My mother became my inheritance, and your brother will become yours.
    But we have each other Kat and that means we can get through anything.

Thanks for reading my blog!

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