I have no idea how to write this up so I guess I’ll do what you always do when confronted by that challenge – just write. I had avoided calling Ryan’s family figuring they would contact me when they were ready. Turns out they had lost their phone and were worried they had lost touch. For my part I couldn’t wait any longer and called – to the relief of each of us. And it turns out a lot has happened in the intervening fortnight. When I spoke with his mother last Ryan was still in a coma. Now he is nearly ready to come home. Really? I spoke with his Dad first and he gave me a great update then suggested I call Ryan’s mum at the hospital, which I did. We agreed I would drop by on the way home from the office but she warned there was a possibility they might not be there since Ryan was well enough to be heading home. Startled? Sure am. I went back to my desk but only lasted five minutes (possibly less) and called her back. Can I drop out to the hospital now? Before I could even ask she was laughing – she was probably surprised I had taken that long to return the call. My work colleagues are troopers and let me cut away to see him.
What a disaster of a trip. I was an emotional wreck most of the way, taking wrong turns and missing street signs. Get a grip, get a grip. But it sneaks up quietly and shoots you from behind when you are least expecting it. I could figure getting emotional when I met him but here it was in anticipation. I should know by now there is nothing rational about any of this. Get a grip. But by the time I had parked some of the fragility had worked itself out though there were some short catches of breath as I ferreted around looking for the ward. Down the hall, past the nurses station, rising expectation. Room looms into view, emotions nicely in check and,… And then he wasn’t there! Is that him in the play area? I carefully scrutinise the faces of the kids, Twice. Thrice, And again. No. None of them. A cleaner suggested they were in a bathroom somewhere so I wandered into a sun room to wait a few minutes. Then I drifted back towards his room. And suddenly a woman was standing in front of me and we were both lost for words. A long pause, queried names and an emotional hug with both of us trying to be composed. We did a reasonable job. I think. Then she invited me to meet Ryan.
And boom, there he was, in a wheel chair, head braced up but as tousle haired and brown eyed as I remembered him. Funny what your mind does. “Yup, that’s him, recognize that jaw” came straight to mind. Yet that was not really what I thought I would remember. And he of course was just the tonic I needed – not because I could see he was well but because he had no idea who I was. In fact I was probably just another suit of which he had seen plenty over the last few days. We were left alone for a few minutes (I appreciated that trust) but we had little to say to each other, both as shy as each other. He had a photo album and so we spoke about him and his mate and camping and a friend’s car. Just the sort of conversation you might have with a three year old. Aha, yes, when I first met him he was three but on the 12th he celebrated his fourth birthday. He loosened up and chatted away to himself and eventually was not too perturbed by this stranger. His ambivalence to me, his focus on his photos (and then on his sticker book about Space) nicely took all the potential sting out of the visit. He was his own best tonic. He is the injured one yet here he was healing me.
Over the next couple of hours the story was filled in somewhat. Turns out they had taken a wrong turn that day and had no intention of being at that spot at all. Funny how life can turn these things up for you. Ryan’s recovery had been relatively slow up until two or three days ago when something triggered rapid and dramatic progress. From not being communicative a short time ago he is now chatting and laughing and singing and being cheeky and delightful and being well, just a normal four year old boy. He wears under his T-shirt a hard plastic shell which wraps around his torso and his neck and encapsulates the back of his neck and head. He makes no complaint about this stricture but seems to understand its importance. He has worked out how to get from his wheelchair to his bed and how to lie down without any of the floppy flexibility a four year old usually needs when going to bed. There is still the shadow of bruising in his face but he is bright eyed and beaming and glowing with life. The medical staff are worried there is brain damage which they still need to monitor but he is in a state where they are okay with him going home for the night. While I am chatting with his mother he heads for bed for a nap – out of his wheel chair and onto bed, encumbered by his brace which prevents him from just flopping down and curling up. But he relaxes as best he can and we chat on while he watches a cartoon and slows down.
We talk “damage” and relive the possibilities of what might have gone wrong. I am mildly surprised to learn his skull is in fact undamaged. I know what broken skulls feel like (will spare you the gory “how”) so I wonder now what I felt on that side of his head. But the most gratifying news is to hear that his neck was in fact broken as badly as I suspected. Before you wonder at my perverseness the gratitude is grounded in the need to understand that my assessment-at-a-glance was on the money. That when I peered into that wreck I had made the correct call and had responded appropriately, including my directives leveled at those others around the car who were trying to help. That my advice to the police, ambos and the two doctors was correct. That the firm locking of his skull against the little finger of my left hand which also carried the weight of his head was in fact what was needed. That I hadn’t dreamed up any nonsense about what went on in that car. That my response was appropriate. That my judgment and actions were sound. Not heroic, or clever, or brave or any of the other things kind hearted folk have tried to tell me and which I resist. Just sound. It transpires that the hospital wants to create a case study out of Ryan as an example of how to handle a C1 break and yet have him facing down a perfectly normal life four weeks later. I am gobsmacked but too embarrassed to ask if that will include my ten minutes in the car. But even if not, it’s enough to know he survived thanks to what I did and that what I did was sound. I hear myself introduced to nurses and others as “the guy who saved Ryan’s life” but that is not really me. Actually I am not so comfortable with that description and am not sure how to react to it really. I can hear a counselor ask how I feel about the label, me saying I don’t know. Other people save lives, I don’t. Its tough to make the connection between handling his bloody little head and seeing him curled up on the bed, video screen reflected off his face. Somehow it’s more than enough to know he is in one piece and is looking forward to going home and being a little boy again.
And that’s what its about. His mum hopes he will grow up to be a good citizen especially given he has had this second chance. I can’t disagree with that. I hope he grows up to be a man of character, reflecting the impish ratbag that is in him now, that he never loses his quirky sense of mimicry humour, that he loves his family then as he does now. That he never loses that glint in his eye. And I hope that maybe, just maybe I can be part of the journey, even if only watching from the sidelines.
We depart with hugs. His mother is an amazing woman – generous and kind to a fault. We start strangers, and depart having shared parts of our hearts we would not usually reveal to strangers. The emotion catches up with me as I walk the corridors of the hospital and I nearly collide with staff, stumble on the stairs and stop to catch my breath. I am shot in the back a few times driving to the office, overwhelmed by all I have just seen and heard. But this time it’s a feeling laced with relief and gratitude, the latter to a creator who has spared a life. And spared it for the blessing of us all, even and especially through all this madness.
The sun heaves into a pristine Sydney sky lighting up a glittering spring day. I drive with a weight off my mind. It’s a new day full of new beginnings. New hope. New gladness. New opportunities. New starts. All under the hand of an old God who renews us every day even though we don’t deserve it.
Postscript (and likely final note) to:
Cheek By Jowl (3)
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