60: A Quiet Night in Mexico

60: A Quiet Night in Mexico

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

A Quiet Night in Mexico

It takes two men to make one brother.

~Israel Zangwill

My mother, father and I sat for a very long time, mostly abstaining from conversation and food, avoiding eye contact. We chewed on the silence, picking its sharp bones from our teeth. An entire meal with only the sound of boards bending and creaking in the winter cold, of clearing throats, of crickets chirping, and of forks scraping against plates as they rearranged small piles of spaghetti; those millions of sounds you notice when there is nothing you can say.

I noticed that maybe a dozen cookbooks were scattered across the kitchen counters, books with the names of countries I’d never been to printed on their covers. Most nights, the smell of seared monkfish or steaming moussaka wafted out of the kitchen accompanied by loud jazz music and my mother’s singing if she thought no one was listening. Tonight she served undercooked spaghetti with store-bought pasta sauce and scooped small forkfuls into her mouth. She seemed to forget that the pit in her stomach did not allow room for things like food.

My father managed to force down a few mouthfuls, then pulled his cheeks up in a fake smile, making his jaw labor hard enough that I could almost hear it tremble and groan, like an old wooden bridge sagging under its own damp weight.

I sat with one hand resting on my knee under the table, hiding the not-yet-healed cuts across my knuckles. I could never stop picking at the scabs. My mother was looking at me, waiting for me to force down even one bite, but I just kept pushing around my heap of undercooked pasta until it got cold and I could dump it in the trash, go to my brother’s room and just sit—maybe hit play on his CD player and blast whatever was in there.

My brother was in a hospital fifty miles away, living on clear fluid from a tube stuck in his arm. Every hour or so his eyes would start fluttering and he would moan louder and louder until a nurse came into the room and pushed a button, quieting him for a while longer with a push of some drug I couldn’t name. A hospital blanket, stiff and uncomfortable, hid his broken and scarred leg. Nothing covered his fractured skull.

A doctor who would forget my brother’s name as soon as he took off his stethoscope had come into the room with his Latex-gloved hands clasped on my brother’s thin shoulder and told us that there was nothing they could do about the swelling in his brain. It felt to me like they were telling us that all they could do was wrap a line of crime scene tape around it and tell everyone to stand back.

“Right now, you just need to be patient.”

I could have killed him. But instead I nodded and said thank you.

He peeled off the Latex gloves and threw them in the trash before he left the room, as if he didn’t want to carry our despair into the hallway with him.

My brother looked as if he might only be asleep, but periodically he flailed as much as his body could muster, maybe fighting through broken dreams of shattered glass and screeching tires.

A tear fell from my mother’s cheek into her spaghetti. My father didn’t move to lay an arm over her shoulder; he never said that everything was going to be all right and not to worry, and it wouldn’t have been right if he did. Why even open our mouths? We had all been there when the doctor said; “He might not make it out of this without some brain damage.”

Just two days before, I had stepped off a plane to be picked up by my father and brought to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. The day before that, I had talked to my mother from a pay phone by the side of the road in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

I can’t really remember what my mother said to me that night because I was in shock. A boy walks his girlfriend home just a few nights after Christmas, holding her hand, down a well-lit street. So well lit that neither of them see their shadows cast in front of them, as the screaming headlights of the cherry-red killer bears down on them. The boy now lay in a coma, and the girlfriend’s family was hoping they would be able to have an open casket funeral.

I remember the last three words my mother said to me: “Are you okay?” Her question was honest and so was my answer. I slammed the phone down into its cradle.

Again and again, harder each time. I wanted to feel something being destroyed in my hands, even if it was a public telephone in a poor Mexican city. I walked around for hours, a crazy American kid bleeding from the cuts in his hands and stumbling around on a quiet night in a foreign city.

My mother picked up my plate and used her fork to scrape the heap of cold spaghetti onto the pile of her own scarcely touched food along with my father’s, an entire empty meal consumed by the garbage disposal in a few short seconds.

We left for the hospital after my mother did the dishes and later that night it rained, washing away the other sounds of the night like patches of blood and bone fragments.

My brother’s leg eventually healed and the swelling subsided in his brain. He would mention the accident very rarely. On one occasion, he told me about the final conversation he had with his girlfriend. He said they were walking hand in hand down that well lit street, talking generally about the future. That they no longer spoke in terms of if’s but of when’s. When I hear him talk now, I know his leg is still broken somewhere and his skull is still fractured, and at night he’ll have to curl up in uncomfortable hospital blankets. And I think about how vastly the if’s in our lives outnumber the when’s, how chance plays a much greater role than we might like to think. And I think about how, even when chance drives through and devastates some of the things we might have been secure about the moment before it happens, there is a glue, a tougher-than-chance rock that we should all be so lucky to have. And that is the love of our family and friends and the people around us whose support makes our lives and the small world we live in better and brighter.

~Dan Bornstein

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners