I always thought hospitals stank—that medicine smell, that creeping sting that sneaks up on you—but that one didn't, not that night. The second floor offered empty silence and still air, especially once we ticked into the early morning. Ten of us gathered in the waiting room down the hall. Everybody else piled into the smaller room by the intensive care unit, where they were treating her: late teens, college student, traumatic brain injury.
We'd later learn that the damage revolved around her thalamus, a sort of gate or relay for the rest of the brain. Since the accident, we've all become amateur neurosurgeons, with two or three facts about that little egg-shaped thing that governs 98% of sensory input. The injury meant no more music—namely pop that she'd sing off-key in the car, wishing that the volume went past 100—and no more Netflix. She could still smell things, though. What a mercy that the hospital didn't stink that night.
There was us, and then there was "the grown-ups". We were all adults, but the ten of us down the hall felt like kids that night. The difference was that the grown-ups kept themselves together. Some of them were our parents, some of them were friends of the family. "I've never had a friend die before," one of them said, as if reading instructions.
The ten of us kids took over the empty waiting room by the neurological unit. None of us cried. Two of us played video games, and another two talked about music. I spent a lot of time ignoring them and staring out at the courtyard between buildings. The halls wrapped around a garden, and you could see lights on across the grass, in other units and other waiting rooms. A handful of souls other than us wandered the second floor that night.
I sat by my ex most of the time. "If you want to go for a walk, I can go with you," I told her.
"That's okay." She kept her eyes to the floor and cradled her bunched-up leather jacket.
I wanted to comfort her the entire night. She and I got the same ride to the hospital—as soon as I found out, I texted her, asking if she was going. She said yes, and our friend's dad drove us. Driving terrified us all that night.
When I met my ex in the lobby of her apartment, I wanted to hug her. Instead, I just held the door for her. Nobody said a word until our friend's dad asked where to turn on Alta Vista. "It's on the left, here," my ex said. I smiled at her voice. I still adored her, and I worried about her. She was closer to the family than me—she had dinner with them just the week before. Would she be okay?
At some point during the night, as we stared at the floor, one of us voiced a thought: "This is officially the worst Easter ever." It got a few laughs, more out of relief than anything. After being there for hours, I feared saying anything, expecting I'd miss a step between my brain and my mouth and say something irredeemably stupid.
After the joke, normalness came back to us bit by bit. I joined the guys to talk about music, and how their YouTube channel was doing, and what games they played that week. As we started to feel real again, we got some news: the family—the mother and sister, who had been cities away at the time—would be there soon.
* * *
Everybody gathered, lining the hall. Between the kids, grown-ups, and other stragglers, we numbered thirty or more. And when the mother and sister stepped out of the elevator, everybody hugged them. Nobody said much—what could we even say? But we held them, offering our love.
The doctors let them in. Nobody else could see her. The mother didn't take it well. The sister dealt with it better—she was a nurse, and had probably seen worse. I wanted to think I could imagine what she felt. But of course that was impossible.
Eventually, the family stayed in the room with her for a while, so everybody else drifted back across the second floor. I stayed close to my ex, hovering by the window, and kept an eye on that courtyard. It couldn't have been earlier than midnight.
The ICU itself was rooms and halls away, out of earshot, but everybody still worried that they'd say something wrong. We knew that it wasn't a time for our sadness. That night belonged to the family, and it was our duty to keep it from being any worse.
* * *
We got coffee at some point, around one in the morning. One of the girls and I made the trip down the hall, past the waiting room, around two sides of the courtyard, and downstairs to the Tim Hortons. The corridor from the elevators to the Tim's passed through the hospital's mall. I had no idea hospitals had malls.
Mirrors lined the ceiling instead of tiles, and empty storefronts sat in the dark, away from the fluorescent hall. I stared at our upside-down reflections. Who decided to put a ceiling of mirrors in a hospital? I felt like Freddy or Jason would jump out from one of the clothing stores at any moment.
My friend and I talked about something—I forget what—unrelated to the family or the crash. Our eyelids drooped and our stomachs grumbled. We got out of Tim's with coffees, bagels, and doughnuts, and made the same trek back, a little less tired than before. I worried about how bad a bagel would be for my diet, as if that was important at the time.
When we returned to the neurological unit waiting room, just the kids again, spirits lifted for food. We broke the midnight silence to touch base over the meal. Everything finally got to us after the family arrived, and reality confused us. "It still doesn't feel real. Nothing feels real," one of us said. The whole thing felt like déjà-vu that overstayed its welcome.
At some point, us kids ended up sitting on the floor in the middle of the hallway, hands joined in a group hug around the sister. We got her to smile, and even laugh.
* * *
Some of us went home for the night. After the first wave to leave, only four of the kids remained: the sister's boyfriend, my coffee-run partner, my ex, and me. The hospital staff got us a "family room" in the ICU, complete with couches and comforting art on the walls. The sister and her boyfriend stayed in there, and my coffee-run partner stayed with them. My ex and I must have had the same thought: being in there was hard, and we couldn't sleep.
She and I took some blankets and got as comfortable as we could in the main waiting room. We found a corner where she could lie down on a cushioned bench, and where I had an outlet to charge my phone. She slept, but I gave up on getting any rest. I flipped through Reddit for a while, desperate for something to pass the next eight hours. But I couldn't get myself to read. Instead, I ended up writing an untitled poem on my phone, just to keep my brain occupied. I finished it around four in the morning, after another coffee:
She can hear us now, they say
She can move her toes, they say
Will she even remember?
Will we have to tell her?
She's stable now, they say
We're doing tests, they say
Too weak to operate, they say
They bring her past us all
Doesn't look like her at all
Her freckles hidden, her fires burnt
Wild eyes in shadows, a quiet unlike her
She's breathing now, they say
You can see her soon, they say
She could lose a part of her
She'll be shaken to the core
And she'll be back for more
Too soon to be rash
We'll learn more as it goes
At least she can move her toes
I sat there, not sleeping, for the next five hours. I kept an eye on that quiet courtyard across the hall, watching the sky turn from black to pink to blue. And, whenever my ex tossed around in her sleep, I drew the blankets back over her shoulders for her.
Another seven hours passed like a fever dream. Guests flowed in and out with food and well wishes, and reality hid behind fatigue. At the end of the afternoon, a nurse visited our little spiritual army. We got the news: our girl's okay for now, but she's far from safe. She's locked out of her own mind, with years of recovery waiting for her beyond the gate.
Rob Sullivan is a writer, musician, fencer, and full-time human being. He is an Ottawa native, with a mix of Newfoundland and French-Canadian blood. He writes young adult fiction, but has a soft spot for essays. He is also known as "that guy who really likes Rush." Rob has recently written The Crush, an urban fantasy web novel.