The World Turned Upside Down:
New York and Massachusetts
People give themselves away as they cross streets.
-- Hans Rosenhaupt [Martin’s grandfather] penciled on a scrap of paper found years after his death.
THE LAST TIME I saw our son before his injury, my husband and I were walking toward Harvard Square. The three of us had eaten supper together. I turned to watch Martin cross the traffic-busy street, heading back toward Lowell House and his room. His navy pants hung loose about his tall frame. The wet streets shone with rain. A few steps farther on I turned again, and he had disappeared.
Always I am alert to disaster that might strike. Knowing this could be the last time I see someone, I lock their images in my brain— my husband, Tom, waving as he drives off to Utah, his car full with camping gear; Sarah, our daughter, turning as she vanishes down the airport corridor; my mother, looking from her doorway as I cross the courtyard and head home.
IT IS EARLY morning in New York, Wednesday, October 21st, 1998. Sarah and I are still half asleep on her futon when Tom answers our daughter’s phone.
“Where is Martin now? What did the surgeon say?” Something is terribly wrong. The room has run out of air. For long stretches between his few questions, Tom is silent. He says we will be there in a few hours, and hangs up. Martin—our son, Sarah’s brother—is in Massachusetts General Hospital. They have operated on his brain. “Shall I come with you?” Sarah asks.
“No,” I say, and Tom says, “Stay here in New York. We’ll call you. You can come on the train after we see how he is.”
Not taking Sarah with us is a choice I wish I could undo. I am not thinking clearly, only wanting to keep her safe. Do Tom and I imagine we cannot care for her while we are saving Martin? Will this be a trip to say farewell?
Still, our twenty-two-year-old daughter accepts our decree as if she were still a child.
BETWEEN NEW YORK and Boston in our car, we realize we could have flown. We could be there now. Will we get there in time? Tom drives, and I call our home in Santa Fe. Doctors have been calling all night and no one was home. Only in the morning has someone found, on a paper in Martin’s wallet, his sister’s phone number and reached us in New York.
On the answering machine, doctors ask, “Does Martin have a history of heart problems?”
I reach one doctor and tell him, “No problems—his heart is good.”
He says something else but I don’t understand what he is telling me. I only want to get to Martin.
At a gas station I buy coffee and doughnuts while Tom fills the tank. Back in the car we, who never run out of things to talk about, notice, or wonder at, are quiet.
The sun is bright. Trees are red and gold. I sip my sweet strong coffee. Will anything ever taste so good again?
Time doesn’t move. We are in a car, between our daughter and our son, knowing only that we don’t know what will happen. Soon we will know too much.
WE REACH BOSTON just past noon. The hospital is its own city within the city. Below towers of metal and concrete and glass, ambulances load and unload, taxis come and go, and gowned patients smoke cigarettes beside their IV stands. We run through continuously revolving doors, pass people hurrying through crowded hallways, go by ATM alcoves and coffee bars, and find the elevators.
On the tenth floor, a woman unlocks the Neurological Intensive Care door. She leads us to Martin—bandaged, bloody, unconscious. Tubes and wires run everywhere. At the center of the tangle lies our child. We touch him, we speak to him, we stay with him. We don’t cry. We must be with him, nothing else.
What if we lose him?
We ask no questions when Oliver, his nurse, says we must leave the room. Oliver’s efficiency and constant motion, along with the equipment in the room itself, tell us that Martin is in crisis. Experts know what to do. We must not get in their way.
A Little Help
"With a Little Help from My Friends"
-- The Beatles, Song Title
SENT OUT OF Martin’s room, we sit in the waiting room outside the locked Neurological ICU. door. A small, fair-haired young man, wearing a tweed jacket and carrying a dark green book bag, stops in the hallway. I watch him as from a great distance. When he sees us, he knows right away who we are. Does he recognize Tom from his brown eyes and dark hair, like Martin’s, from his trim build, his lean
features, his hiking boots, all like Martin’s? Does he spot me as Martin’s mother? Or is it that Tom and I are so clearly there together, companions in a stunned silence?
Gene McAfee’s title is Senior Tutor at Harvard’s Lowell House. Martin has lived in Lowell since September, where we presumed he would be based for the next three years. Harvard’s dozen undergraduate houses are more than just living quarters—each has its own dining hall, libraries, teams, drama groups, and traditions.
Designed to create a sense of community in the often intimidating university, each house has a presiding master and administrators, as well as associated graduate students, faculty, and university officials.
Gene McAfee came to the hospital with Diana Eck, Master of Lowell House, last night while Martin was in surgery. Beyond that, he has nothing more to tell and just sits with us, waiting.
Time doesn’t pass and it doesn’t stand still. It is as if we have been lifted out of time to where we simply are, and to where Martin simply is. Something will happen, but not now, not yet.
Diana Eck arrives. She is tall, with fading blond hair cut to just above her shoulders, serious without the frumpiness of so many Cambridge women. She is a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies. Her partner, and co-master of Lowell House, Dorothy Austin, is an Episcopal priest who spends several days each week in New Jersey teaching psychology and religion.
When, last summer, Harvard wrote that they had chosen two women as the new masters of Lowell House, Tom said the university was making a mistake. His own Harvard House master had been an old-fashioned gentleman scholar who proffered wisdom with port after dinner. For Tom, eleven when his own father died, Master Finley represented a fatherly ideal. He doubted that two women could provide
the atmosphere he had so valued.
TOM AND I met in my college dining hall, thirty years ago. He still claims he’d come for supper only because the food at Radcliffe, where Harvard’s women students lived before the university’s housing became coed, was better than Harvard’s food, but I don’t believe him. He showed up, some days later, to offer me a motorcycle ride. What I remember is the extra helmet he brought for me. He wanted to keep me safe.
We’ve been married twenty-five years. I’m not an easy wife. I cry easily, get angry fast, and foresee disaster long before he does. I don’t know whether the calmness he offers after my tempests means he’s forgiven me or just that he’s untroubled by my tears. But his calm is what I need, a gift.
Years ago, when he was starting as a real estate broker, he would tell me about someone who was “impossible, unreasonable, an idiot.” When he picked up the phone, I anticipated thunder. But then I heard him politely explain his thinking, often suggesting, “Put yourself in my client’s position.”
When Tom blusters, sometimes I forget it’s just noise. We show each other our harsher parts, parts we struggle to control so we can be the better people we want to be.
He expected Diana to fall short as a house master. Minutes after she arrives, she and Tom are walking in the hallway, their arms around one another.
MARTIN’S FRIENDS COME to the hospital—his roommate Dave, Ultimate Frisbee teammates, and Rachel. Rachel might have been Martin’s girlfriend last spring—we don’t know, because Martin is so private. Last night they all waited in the emergency room with Gene and Diana. Hours later, when there was no news and no hope for news, Diana brought them home to her Lowell House kitchen and made cocoa. They stand with us in the waiting room.
“Martin is strong,” one of the young men says.
“He’s an incredible man,” says another.
“He’s going to be all right.”
We put our arms around one another in a circle, silent.
Massachusetts General Hospital
. . . Why weave fantasies when reality is so fascinating and challenging? Truth is both stranger and more important than fiction.
-- Francis D. Moore, M.D., "Ethics at Both Ends of Life"
IN THE EVENING, Martin’s nurse is Annie. Like Oliver, Annie has only Martin to care for. We take care to anticipate her moves and stay out of her way. We hear that ICU rules limit the time we are allowed to be in Martin’s small room, but Annie does not ask us to leave. Does she think this may be our last time with him?
I sit by Martin’s bed all night, my hand touching his arm. A breathing tube is taped to his mouth. Another tube drains fluid from his brain into a calibrated receptacle. An IV drips a sedative into him. Last night, before we got the phone call at Sarah’s, a neurosurgeon opened his skull to perform a ventriculostomy, draining fluid off his swelling brain, relieving the intracranial pressure. Without that relief,
the swelling and the accumulating fluid would compress the brain and constrict the flow of blood. Martin’s brain would be further injured.
ON THURSDAY MORNING, Tom and Clint, a friend since college who still lives in Cambridge, go to where Martin was hit. Memorial Drive is a narrow four lane highway, shaded by sycamore trees. When we were in college, the city of Cambridge was getting ready to widen Memorial Drive. Students started a movement to Save the Sycamores. They made signs, marched in protest, and wrote letters. The road did not get widened. It stayed narrow, shaded by sycamore trees. I think, Perhaps cars now drive more slowly there than if the city had widened Memorial Drive. Perhaps the narrow road saved Martin’s life.
Unlike Tom, who wants to make logical sense of anything he can, I often look for small miracles. Perhaps that is my coping mechanism, my way of defying life’s uncertainty.
Tom and Clint examine the skid marks, the chalk lines, and, Tom says, the blood on the street. I ask him not to tell me any more of what they saw. He telephones a witness who was driving in the other direction when the car hit Martin. The man did not see Martin walking across Memorial Drive, but he did see the car that hit him. He says it wasn’t speeding.
The accident happened late at night. There was no moon. Martin was wearing dark clothes.
Clint has represented accident victims for years. Had there been any chance that the driver was at fault, he would have cautioned us about what we should or shouldn’t say or do. Because he and Tom are certain the accident wasn’t the driver’s fault, we do not need to monitor ourselves. We can concentrate wholly on helping Martin recover.