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?”
“Mary Brown. What’s your middle name?”
“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 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, their heels clicking coldly on the hard vinyl floor.
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.
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 thoughts 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.