57: The Man Behind the Voice

57: The Man Behind the Voice

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

The Man Behind the Voice

It is such a secret place, the land of tears.

~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I stumble out of bed from a deep sleep to let the dog out during the wee hours of the morning only to discover the light flashing on the answering machine. I press play. “Rick has been in an accident. He has a brain injury. He’s in surgery right now. They don’t know if he will survive.”

I am now wide awake and in shock as to what I should do next. The frightening reality is that my brother might be dying in a hospital four hundred miles away. My brother is having brain surgery. Brain surgery! What can I do?

Speaking with my parents by telephone, I seek solace in the predawn hours. They say the doctor informed them that if Rick survives the operation to remove damaged tissue in his frontal lobe, he will likely have a dull, unemotional personality. Then I call my younger brother Kenny, a truck driver who just two hours earlier had driven through Lubbock. He U-turns his rig and heads back.

As the first rays of light pierce through the darkness of night I call a close friend who lives in Lubbock. Before the devastating news even stumbles from my mouth, Martha interjects, “I’m on my way!” She throws on clothes, a dab of make-up, and rushes out the door.

Two days later my parents and older sister Katrinka arrive at the hospital. Being the self-appointed family historian, I ask Katrinka to take Rick’s photo to chronicle his progress. She agrees, but then after seeing him, she rescinds the offer.

Within days, the doctors begin reducing the medications to ease Rick out of his drug-induced coma. He’s beginning to respond like someone talking in his sleep. We all wonder: when he is alert, what he will be like? Will he know who we are? Was the doctor correct? Will he have a flat affect?

I am on my way to the hospital. I have a car full of kids and as we approach the outskirts of Lubbock I call Katrinka on her cell phone. She and my parents have been on duty and are ready for relief. Dad is spoon-feeding Rick. He stops to pull Rick upright as he has begun to lean. Rick slurs, “Let go of me, you old fart.” The kids hear this and shriek, “He called Granddaddy an old fart!”

The number of visitors in Rick’s room is a rule-breaker but we all need a look-see at this rebel who calls his dad an old fart. His eyes are open and we badger the poor guy with questions. “Do you know who I am?”

“My sister,” he replies.

Another asks, “Do you know who I am?”

It goes on until he passes the test on each family member.

His eyes track Katrinka like a baby does its mother. She has been his primary caregiver and now it’s my turn. As Katrinka, my parents, and the kids prepare to leave, Katrinka says, “I love you, Ricky.” He cracks flatly, “I love you, Lucy” and we all scream, “We got Ricky back!” We are thrilled that he is his quick-witted self and is joking about I Love Lucy.

We keep a journal on the nightstand. A family member logs what Rick eats or spits out like a baby when he doesn’t like his puréed food. We also log the names of visitors. Numerous friends make a two-hour drive to visit. He won’t remember these challenging days. Hopefully reading the journal someday will encourage him.

One friend, a man named Roy whom I do not know, phones long distance. I give him the rundown on Rick’s progress. Then Roy asks me to put the phone to Rick’s ear. And he prays. After several daily calls I immediately recognize the voice on the phone as Roy’s and, without fail, he asks that I place the phone to Rick’s ear. And he prays.

It’s amazing how slowly time passes in a hospital. Finally, Rick is transferred for cognitive rehabilitation. He doesn’t remember the early days of hospitalization, nor that he had been at a class reunion and a classmate shoved him. We are all trying to move forward. Four more months away from home is a lonely and fearful time for Rick.

At last, free to return home and independent living, Rick remarks, “Faith is easy to talk about and hard to live.” Not quite the jovial prankster and perhaps a bit more serious, he’s still the same old Rick to us. We are grateful for his miraculous recovery and elated he will return to his job.

Remembering names of those he meets remains an asset and vital in the sales position he’s held for ten years. Eight months after his return, he loses his job. Being fired is a new life experience. He changes careers, passes the real estate licensing exam and loses another position.

I telephone Rick almost daily and I hear the recurring muffled whimper of repressed tears, the uneven breathing. I know he is struggling with depression.

“How can I help?” I ask.

“Just pray,” he whispers. He is with it enough to know he’s not with it. I am gravely concerned. I ask friends and family to pray for him.

On a crisp October afternoon Kenny telephones. “Rick shot himself.”

“God, why did you save him and then let him take his life?” I bawl in agony.

If I had known the high risk of suicide after a TBI, I would have . . . what? Eventually I must release the “wish I would haves” and “wish I could haves” for my own sanity.

At his funeral, many well-wishers offer condolences. A stranger begins to speak. Before he can introduce himself I smile and say, “I recognize your voice. You must be Roy.”

~Belinda Howard Smith

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