Thursday, July 14, 2011

Coma, Part 2

My all-time favorite photo of Jen
Waking from a coma is a slow and dramatically difficult struggle. When a patient stays longer than four months in a coma, medical people start looking at the grim statistics; only 15% of them will come out again. They stop looking for the miracle of a recovery. For Jennifer, nearly five months passed before she began to signal her reawakening by frantically wiggling her left big toe.
(seated) Stacy and Jen with Sophie, top: June and Valerie

    We were alone in her hospital room the first time I saw Jennifer awake. It was a few days after her birthday. She was sleeping peacefully, and then, her eyes moved beneath their lids. “You’re dreaming,” I said. “You’re snoring a little bit, too.” And then her eyes opened and she looked directly at me.  I was so stunned I nearly fainted. I knew she’d been showing signs of consciousness, but I was not prepared for the shock of the moment when she opened her eyes and gazed into mine; they were brightly green, focused, curious. They were Jennifer’s eyes. Imagine how you might feel if a loved one had died and then, awakened from that sleep to look deeply into your eyes and your soul. What would you say? What would you do? Chills zipped up and down my arms and legs. I cried. And then she cried.
    “No, don’t cry because we’re alive and we all love you so! You’re getting better. You’re going to be all right,” I assured her in a mad jumble of works. Then I laughed, while I cried. I took her hand in mine and she squeezed it and smiled, a half smile on the left side of her mouth. It felt like she was showing off.
    “Hey, look at my hair!” She lifted her eyes to my head to examine the full mop of hair on my head. I’d been chemo bald and chemo beaten when her brain exploded, back in September. To her, I must have looked like a different person. But she seemed to recognize me. And surely, I recognized her.
Baby Sophie and Mama Jen
    Jennifer’s home now, with full-time nursing care. She’s busy with therapy and learning to do all the things people do to manage being alive. After a brain trauma the healthy brain cells learn to take over the work of the injured or destroyed brain cells. This is a miracle of nature, and no one knows how it works or how to make it work any faster or better than it does on its own. Does it matter that Jennifer is an extremely intelligent person? Maybe. Does it matter that she was in prime physical condition when it happened? Yes, surely her good health contributed to her survival.  How long will the healing take? Years, probably. But there is progress, and it’s quite remarkable. A month ago, for example, Jen could hold her neck erect, her head up, for seconds. Now she does this for minutes. She turns her head in any direction she wants. She uses sign language because she has a tracheotomy and cannot yet talk. However, she mouths words, and loves to sing along to her favorite music.
Jen with the Bunnies, Tessa and Sophie
    From my reading about recovery from brain trauma I know that every accomplishment, no matter how minute, is particularly exhausting for Jennifer. That includes receiving visitors. And so Jen pushes herself when she can, and rests often. Recovery continues, day by day.
    “Inch by inch, it’s all a cinch,” I tell her, repeating something she often told me. She smiles. She remembers.
    Yesterday I visited Jen and her wonderful nurse told me she wished she’d known Jennifer before her accident. She wanted to know more about Jen’s personality, what sort of a person she is. And so, with Jennifer nodding to confirm the finer points of my personality portrait, I told her nurse these things about Jen:
Somebody's birthday. Jen, June, Stacy, Whitney
Jen loved burgers at the (sadly defunct) Deli on Truman
    She doesn’t like strong perfume. She is allergic to eggs. She loves make-up, lipstick and clothes with just a bit of ruffle. She prefers her hair short and low maintenance. She eats like a bird. She is tall and regally trim and has always been so, built like her grandmother. She used to drink Coca-Cola, I always kept some in my house for her, but then she decided it was not good for her and quit. She is a minimalist and likes her home simple and serene. She is a poet and a writer. She is a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU in New York. She grew up in New Jersey. She is a certified lifeguard. She loves to swim. She is Catholic; she prays; she goes to confession. She has two daughters, beautiful and bright and well-raised as Jen takes the job of motherhood very seriously. She is the kind of mother who gives a toddler a leaf of fragrant basil to keep her entertained while Jen cooks dinner. Six years ago she went to a monastery in Kentucky and prayed, in total silence, for a week. When an ambulance drives by she pulls off to the side of the street and says a prayer for the person being transported. She loves gardening. She loves cooking. She loves coffee. She loves apple pie. And she loves me. I know. Yesterday, she mouthed the words and told me so.

Need a little cry? Cry to the good stuff. This always works for me.


  1. Welcome back, Jen. I will be leaving our mutual state of birth, New Jersey, and returning to Key West full time too. I will be so happy to renew our acquaintance and don't think for a second that just because you've gone through hell and back that I'm not going to continue to yell at you for being slim and gorgeous, as I'm even older and fatter than the last time you saw me. Some things never change!

  2. We all know as a writer, and poet, Jen also loves language, the preciseness of meaning, her minimalist side, and the liquid slipperiness, too, that defies quick understanding, her playful and searching side. As if she wants to roll it around in her mind's mouth to digest and give more flavor to ideas, feelings, and always, is able to exude through her bright, exploring eyes, now, even while laying so still, almost piercing through any veil. When I was at last able to visit with her, upon her return home, it was again, her eyes, searching for recognition, the clues and triggers to make the present potent, and not nostalgic, or mournful. Where words now are elusive, the strength of her spirit is fully evident, no matter how taxing and tiring it must be, and as she tightly though softly held my hand in hers, new synapses and exchanges creating a fresh fabric, her mind and heart seamless, and I felt quite vulnerable, and unexpectedly, healed. My pain of feeling she was lost to us was gently lifted. She's giving us new connections to living. May we all simply continue to generate the light needed so the way forward is clear.

  3. Hi - Love your writing and your blog - I'm a beach lover living in South Florida (via New England originally and California!).

    My hubby and I will be spending a week in Key West in August, so looking forward to that!

    Your posts are moving and gripping...thank you for sharing your talent and emotional vulnerability with all of us! Am your "newest" Follower :o)

    Best Wishes and Blessings!


  4. Michael: thank you for putting into words this incredible truth: Jennifer is healing us with the strength of her spirit. So powerful. Yes, in her presence one feels vulnerable, and, healed! The pain gives way to the new way of her being. I am quite speechless and very moved. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated. With love and great affinity, June.