Angels, Hope and Bagels

 

We were by the bagels.  I was pulling out the wheat kind from the bin, the waxy sheet of paper in my hand, and placing them, two at a time, in the paper bag.  Damon was a few feet away in his wheelchair, playing on his phone.  He was excited this morning when I told him we had no plans for the day, except for a haircut, that it was his day to choose whatever he wanted to do.   The world was his oyster today and where did my son choose to go? Wegmans Market.  Seriously, I asked him.  Wegmans?  For their Chinese food buffet, was his answer.  We enjoyed our lunch there, and decided to do some grocery shopping, starting with that bagel aisle. And that’s when I heard the voice say, “Are you Damon?”

This isn’t unusual for us.  It’s actually quite common.  Wherever we go, Damon is spotted by someone who either follows us on Facebook, has read about him in the newspaper or knows someone who knows someone who knows him.  I wistfully joke that I only ride his coattails of fame, but I absolutely love when someone stops him because Damon loves nothing more than to meet new people, or meet people in person he’s talked to online.

It usually goes something like this: “Hi Damon, I’m Mary.”

“Hi Mary.  What’s your last name?”

“Brown.”

“Mary Brown.  What’s your middle name?”

“Ann.”

“Mary Ann Brown.  What’s your maiden name?”  And then that’s repeated as well.  Repeated and locked in the steel vault that is his new mind, to be taken out the next time he sees that same person, whether it be the next day or the next year.  I swear his memory is better now than before his accident, as though he has accessed some previously unused part of his brain. Names of people I’ve long forgotten come so easily to him.

Sometimes, after meeting someone for the first time, Damon will immediately log in to his Facebook account to look that person up and send him or her a friend request.  Other times he may talk a little more and answer their questions or ask a few of his own.

“How are you, Damon?  You look great!”

“I am great!   You look pretty good yourself!”

Unless, of course, you’re Luke Bryan, backstage at his own concert.  “Hey, Luke,” Damon greeted him first, in the meet and greet line last summer.  “How you doin’?”

Damon always has a smile on his face.  He always is very pleasant to talk to.  And people just love conversing with him.  I call him The Mayor.

I was expecting the same type of thing today when I heard that voice say, “Are you Damon?”  I turned to see who had approached my son, and the bag of whole wheat bagels almost fell from my hand.

I hadn’t seen her in a little over four years, although I’d thought about her often.  I never had a way to contact her.  I spoke of her in the speeches and presentations I gave on brain injury, at schools and hospitals.  She was my first angel here on earth after Damon’s accident.   At my lowest point, she had been a light in my darkness.  The only hope in my crashing world.

She worked on the floor in the intensive care unit and she came into our room sometimes two or three times a day, every week day during the five weeks we were there.  She is a tiny thing, not weighing much more than 90 pounds and stands no taller than 5 feet high.  But she had a strength within her that was immeasurable.  A strength in her faith and in her beliefs.

She wasn’t a doctor or a nurse or even any part of the medical staff.  She wasn’t anyone who most people would even notice.  She was the woman who cleaned the hospital rooms.

I remember her taking such pride in her work and cleaning her assigned rooms until they were spotless.  Monday mornings following her two days off, she’d come in and complain about the job the weekend crew had done, because she’d find dust curls or plastic wrappings under the beds.  She’d find spots in the sink.  Never on her watch. Never. And she’d work harder to get the rooms back to her level of par.

But it wasn’t her cleaning that I looked forward to every day.  It was her. It was the her attitude.  It was the way she came in, and spoke directly to my son.  She learned his name right from day one, when he was resting somewhere in the deep corners of his mind, in his coma.

Her name tag said “Joan”.

“Oh, you’re a handsome one,” she’d say to Damon, not caring that there was never a response.  “But don’t get any ideas. I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”

“Wake up, Damon.  Your mother needs you.  Wake up.”

And she’d turn to me and say, “He’ll wake up.  Just wait and see.  I’ve seen it all.  He’ll wake up.”

“But the doctors tell me there is little hope,” I confided in her.  “I’m scared of what they’re saying.”

“They don’t know anything,” she’d spit back at me. “Listen to Joan.  Listen to me.  He’s going to wake up and he’s going to be OK.”

And she’d pat his hand, and I’d see a tear drip down her face, and she’d say, “You’re going to be OK, Damon.  It’s time to wake up.”  She told me she prayed for him every night.

The medical staff would come in to our room without a greeting and talk above us as though Damon were an object, as though he were not a son or a brother or a grandson or a nephew.  They never told him to wake up.  They never patted his hand.  They pricked him and pinched him and said he’s not responding. There is nothing there. And they’d walk out, as coldly and callously as they had walked in.

Not Joan. When Damon’s one eye finally opened after a few days, she was as excited as a family member, as if she had known him for years.  I told you, she’d tell me.  He’s going to be OK.  I just know it.

“Now you can see this old lady, Damon,” she’d say to that one eye staring into nowhere.  “Now you can see me.  You’re going to be fine.”

She bitched to me about hospital policy of making employees get a flu shot.  She “didn’t need no flu shot,” and she refused to get one.  So they made her wear a mask.  And she bitched about that, taking it off and on while she cleaned and talked, because it bothered her.  She was irritated with it and the hospital staff in general.  Her feisty-ness made me laugh when there was so little to laugh at.  She was a fighter, no matter what the battle.

She had no medical background, whatsoever.  But I chose early on to listen to her instead of the neurosurgeons with their impressive degrees and their cocky attitudes and their prognoses of doom.  I chose to listen to Joan because I felt a power in her; I felt her power in her God.  Teams of doctors and residents and nurses and therapists passed through that door, but it was Joan I believed in.  And I hugged her when she walked into that room every day and I hugged her when she left.  I hugged her, probably against hospital policy, because I wanted her faith and I wanted her knowledge, and I needed her beliefs to transcend into me and then through me into my son.  I felt I was hugging hope and hope was tangible.

When we left that hospital for the next one after our five week stay, I had the ambulance driver wait until I found Joan. I said goodbye and I handed her the 8×10 framed school picture I had on the shelf of Damon, taken just months before.  I had brought it in to the hospital room from home in the beginning days so the doctors and nurses could look at it and see who they were treating and understand that he wasn’t just a patient in a coma; he wasn’t just a head wrapped in bandages; he was Damon.  I handed her that picture and I said, please, Joan, please take care of this and continue praying for my boy. And she wiped her tears and took the picture.

Today, she told me that she had placed it on her shelf in her house and whenever she passes by she says a prayer for my boy.  For four years, she’s been praying for my son.

For four years, I’ve thought of Joan when anyone in the medical profession tells us we are at the end of recovery, there is to be no more progress, what you see is all you’ll get.  I wonder, with all their years of schooling why they don’t see what I see, why they give up so easily. And I don’t listen.

So, this afternoon, when she asked, “Damon, is that you,” she wasn’t amazed at how far he’s come from those early days, although she was so incredibly joyful.  She had known from day one. She believed in her faith and in her prayers and in a boy she hadn’t even known.  She had believed in a mother’s love.  She was so gleeful to see him sitting in his chair with both eyes open, hear him say a few words and see him smile, but she wasn’t surprised.  There was never a doubt, she said.

31550 (1)She asked her husband to take a picture of her with Damon to put next to the picture she had at home.  She will continue to include us in her prayers, she told me

I will continue to include Joan in my own prayers and in my speeches and presentations I make on brain injury.  Because the medical world needs to know that sometimes healing comes from more than their science and their medicines. It doesn’t always follow the path of their charts or their graphs. Sometimes, even in the bleakest prognoses, it comes from hope and love and faith.  Sometimes, it rides on the backs of angels and prayer.   And sometimes, miracles happen.

I will be forever grateful for that one lone voice in the ICU, that life line thrown to me in the darkness, that tangible hope.  And I will be grateful that today Damon chose to go to Wegmans when he could have chosen to go anywhere else.

Why Not?

He opened his golf umbrella on that sunny, blustery day as he walked toward us, meeting us for the first time. “To keep the wind away from him,” he said.

I looked into his eyes and searched his face, not quite believing he was that concerned. Not after the other school bus driver. Not after the Troll.

The Troll, with his fuzzy reddish hair standing up on the very top of his head, had said nothing to us as he helped as little as possible to secure us in the bus, closing the doors and starting the engine before we were totally buckled. He drove way too fast considering his riders, speeding through the windy country roads. He dropped us off on the cul-de-sac in front of my long, snow covered driveway, with the sleet hitting our faces, the wind whipping around our ears, and he drove away without a word, with me staring at the back of the bus wondering how I was supposed to push the 100-pound wheelchair which held my 170-pound son, the distance through the driveway slosh and up the steep, icy ramp at the back of the house, and carry my huge, purple Nike duffle bag at the same time.

Tears poured down my face at the unfairness of it all that day as I struggled to get my son into the empty house, knowing he was cold and uncomfortable. Knowing I was not strong enough to do this on my own. We had just gotten him back to high school for his senior year after more than a year off, most of it spent in acute care rehabs and ICUs. He was not supposed to even be alive. At the most, he was supposed to just exist as a vegetable, if you believed the doctors, but here he was back in school, and I wouldn’t, couldn’t, leave his side.

I had been so excited for him to return to school, but at that point, at the end of that day, I was exhausted and had little strength to be excited for anything. I had no strength to push the chair. The end of the driveway may as well have been the end of the school parking lot. And the Troll drove away, leaving me there. Leaving us there.

So, that next day, in the windstorm, I was reluctant to even hope it would be different.

“Can he communicate?” this new driver asked me.

I nodded. “He understands everything. He speaks just a little.”

“My name is Tony,” he said to my son, bending down to make sure Damon heard him. My son surprised him by reaching his only working limb up in a handshake, the strength of that handshake never failing to shock most people as they never expect such strength to come from such a compromised body.

“Backwards,” he continued, “Tony is spelled YNOT. My friends call me Ynot.”
Damon smiled slightly, his gorgeous lopsided half smile. And a friendship was born. The best kind of friendship. Beautiful, pure, and totally unexpected.

“Do you mind,” Tony-Ynot asked me. “How did this happen? I just want to know.”

“Car accident,” I answered. “A year ago.”

That day and every school day after that through Damon’s graduation day, he drove us home from school, to the top of the driveway, and insisted on pushing the wheelchair to the back of the house and up the ramp, making sure my son was safe, making sure I was ok. He wouldn’t let me lift a finger. You do too much, he’d tell me.

Some days he drove us to the school, when we had no other appointment before class. Other days he arranged to pick us up at the rehab facility when we were finished with our 8:00 am appointment, so I wouldn’t have to arrange for other transportation to get us from rehab to school. Often he’d stop with the school bus next door to the rehab at the Dollar Store, and run inside to do some shopping or bring Damon a gift. A train whistle, a hand exerciser, a fedora hat or an umbrella hat.

He was always early and we were always on time for Damon’s Chemistry class, his only class that marking period. From the windows of the bus, we watched winter turn to spring and spring turn into summer, the three of us together that year. He purposely drove past horses and fields, dropping any other students he might have that day off first, so that Damon could see the sights, so Damon could be last to get off the bus, and Tony could visit with us a bit on my back deck. And he would talk.

I learned so much about him through his stories, the stories that 80-year-old men tell of their lives, with that far-away look in their eyes reliving the past, the happy, the sad, the memories. I knew he had been walloped with the passing of his wife a few months back. He would never get over that loss that devastated him, that rocked his world off its axis.

I learned about his daughters, of whom he was so proud, his sons-in-law, and his own sons. I learned of his grandchildren, his great grandchildren and his friend from Arkansas. I learned of the lengthy list of jobs he had had through the years to support his family.

He was a New Yorker at heart and no matter how far away he lived from the City, he would always be a New Yorker at heart. He had driven cabs, had an oil company, a printing company, a landscaping business. He took care of the love of his life through her very last breath. He had a story a day, and better yet a great sense of humor. Self-depreciating humor. “I only use nickel words,” he’d say. But he had million dollar stories. He had million dollar advice.

He had bad hearing back then before his hearing aids, and I would have to scream from the back of the bus to tell him something. We laughed then and still do at the day about one week after we met, after four bus rides home, when he looked at me in the mirror of the bus and told me about the house sale he was having. “Where do you live?” he asked me.

What? I thought, He’s driven me home for a week and today is asking me where I live?

“Um…..” I answered, yelling from the back, “……with Damon?”

“I know,” he yelled back, not quite hearing and definitely not understanding. “But where do you live?”

This went on for a minute or two. “I’m his mom,” I said, praying that dementia or senility hadn’t set in so quickly. “I’m Damon’s mom.”

“What?” he yelled back. “What?”

“I live with Damon. I’m his mom,” I was screaming at this point.

“Oh my,” he laughed when it finally hit him. “I thought all this time you were his aide. I never thought you were his mom.”

“And I thought you were losing your mind,” I laughed.

From that day on, even though he was younger than my dad, I adopted him as my Grandpa and Damon’s great Grandpa. Because he had thought I was too young to be Damon’s mom. Because he felt like family.

When he told me he ate Dollar Store cans of soup for dinner I made sure I made a little extra food when I was able to cook dinner, taking him some the next morning. Greek salad was his favorite in those days when I had more time to make something.

I laughed at most of the stories and told him I’d write a book someday. A book on his life and his stories.

When the lady at the front desk of the high school told him she’d like to introduce him to her dog, because he loved dogs, I teased him that that pick-up line was better than “Would you like to come to my apartment to see my fish tank?”

Two years later, wanting to give Damon the fish tank he had for years in his house, he wrote to me, via text, “I can’t stop laughing,” he said. “I really need you to come over and see my fish tank to see what you think of it for Damon’s room, and I keep thinking of your comment when the lady wanted to introduce me to her dog, and I can’t bring myself to ask you if you want to come see my fish tank.”

So many stories, but the story he couldn’t get enough of was Damon’s story…..the story of the miracle boy he drove home from school every day.

When both newspapers ran articles that winter on Damon and his recovery, Tony was first to ask for his autograph, his glee obvious as Damon wrote “To Grampa Ynot; Love, Damon.” I gave him a 120 page printout of every update I had ever posted to Facebook on Damon’s accident and recovery. He wasn’t a reader, but he couldn’t put it down. “What an inspiring story. You can help people. You have helped me,” he told me. “You don’t know the people you’re helping.”

He named Damon “Rocky” and me, Mrs. Stallone. And he says he will be the one when the time comes to drive Damon to the Court House stairs so Damon can run up those stairs with the music of Rocky blasting in the background. It will happen, he keeps saying. Write a book he always tells me…except the last chapter isn’t ready yet…the last chapter when he runs up those stairs.

When I told him that first spring with tears in my eyes that Damon had a beautiful date and would be attending the senior prom, a miracle in itself, he insisted that he would be in the driveway with the school bus and drive him and his friends to the event. I laughed. They won’t allow that, I said. You watch me, he said. And the bus was delivered the morning of the prom so we could decorate it with streamers and balloons and he showed up later in his dapper suit, playing the role not of bus driver but chauffeur.

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Prom night 2013

I had planned a pre-prom party to get some pictures of my boy who was not expected to be alive let alone go to his senior prom. I nervously fretted about the weather for two weeks prior to that day.

“I’ll get you sun,” Tony told me. “I have an in with the guy upstairs. He owes me.”

And it rained all day. “Where’s my sun?” I texted Tony in the morning.

“Believe,” he texted back.

It rained as the beautiful girls in their stunning gowns and handsome boys in matching tuxedos piled into my house. “Tony? It’s raining,” I panicked.

“Believe,” he replied.

And it rained until, on cue, after everyone arrived, it stopped, and the sun broke through the clouds and heated everything up while it gave us chills. Immediately the ground dried, and it somehow was magical, unworldly, and pictures were gorgeous and the day was perfect.

We joked after that: Can you get me sun for graduation, as well, Tony? What about for Damon’s grad party? For the weekend? I told him he reminded me of George Burns in the movie, “Oh, God”.

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Prom night, 2013

He also managed to secure the bus for graduation that year and my entire family rode in style to the huge event, not having to worry about parking or anything for that matter. Television crews came to film Damon take a few steps across the stage. And we felt like celebrities and that school bus was our limousine.

Damon’s graduation ended our bus rides but not our friendship. Armed with donuts for Damon’s sweet tooth each time he visits, he never turns down a cup of coffee. We trade my Greek salad for his Easter pie. He stops by also to visit, unannounced, at therapy, noting Damon’s progress, cheering him on. Everyone knows his name. Tony-Ynot.

He plays the lottery for Damon. “Wait for that 11 pm call,” he always tells us. “When we win, I’m calling immediately.”

“Yo, Tony!” is Damon’s greeting, every time he sees him. “Antonio Josepe” Damon always says, using Tony’s Italian name and then reciting some of the Italian words and jokes Tony has taught him.

He’s 82, now, and celebrates his birthday each year by wearing a T-shirt that sports his age, and he increases the number on the shirt by hand with each birthday. I’ll wear this shirt on my birthdays ’til I’m 100, he jokes each year. He has a Facebook account and a smart phone and just a few times has needed instructions, but otherwise manages this new technology quite impressively.

We text instead of call, because I know his hearing won’t have any impact with texting, and besides he likes to use smiley face emoticons with mustaches.

He was there for me when my dad died, but I never told him about my husband leaving. He figured it out eventually, but with his Italian temper, I didn’t want to be the cause of him getting him riled up and upset when the leaving was fresh. He was the only one I thought of when I needed help with my daughter’s recent graduation, having to push my mom’s wheelchair, maneuver Damon in his power chair, take pictures and watch the event. “What time should I be at your house?” he texted back the minute I asked him his availability. He drove us in our wheelchair van like in the old days. He pushed my mom into the stadium even though he’s just a few years her junior. He made it all doable.

He just recently traded in his house for an RV, which has added a spring to his step and shaved years off his features. “I feel terrific…years younger,” he said. “I’m getting into the driver’s seat and just going he told me. No real destinations, no set plans. I’m taking off in the fall and I’ll return in the spring. Unless of course Rocky is ready to run up those stairs. Then, I’ll return immediately.”

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Riding high, 2015. Courtesy of Jen Rae Monte

So many people have come into my life, especially since Damon’s accident, and even more people have gone out of my life. But the special ones don’t come often enough. The special ones with their smiles and their stories, their huge hearts and their golf umbrellas are a rare find and a true blessing, especially for a 20-year-old disabled boy with a middle aged mom who pretends she’s young enough to have an 80-year-old grandpa.

This friendship is a true two-way street, two people helping each other, each thinking they have gained more than the other. This friendship, like Damon’s story, thankfully doesn’t have a last chapter yet, either. Somehow I am sure it will tie into the other last chapter of the other story I’m writing, on the Court House steps.

Believe. Because…. Ynot?

***update March 6, 2016*****

I thought my heart couldn’t break any more. I was wrong.
This is not how I had written the final chapter in my mind. But I am happy I wrote the rest while he was alive to read it.
“Get better,” I told him a couple weeks ago.
“Make sure you get Rocky to those court house steps,” he answered.
“I can’t do it without you.” I replied. “We need you to get better.”
“You will and you have to,” he wrote. “Don’t you dare let me down.”

Yo, Tony. Rest in peace. We love you.