Your son or daughter is still your child, whether at 2 or 20. My son is at that awkward, difficult, transitional stage – no longer a rebellious teen but not quite launched into independent adulthood. We are often at odds with each other. We had a brief period of harmony during his first year of college. His university is local but he was in a dorm and I tried to give him some space. He began to appreciate the comforts of home, especially the endless supply of free food, on his few weekend visits. Then came the break-up with his girlfriend, which triggered deeper issues of self-doubt and depression. He became vulnerable again, often calling me late at night, sad, even weepy. As a young boy, he would cry as if his heart were breaking over a broken cherished toy. As a young man, his broken heart and sadness made us both cry.
Waiting in the small room at the ER, my ex and I sit numb and silent. When can we see our son? Soon. Is he OK? The nurse will talk to you soon. A fireman comes into the room and introduces himself as a liaison between the crew at my burning house and all of us at the hospital. He apologizes but has to ask us questions about our son’s emotional well-being. He’s gentle, but there’s no easy way to ask questions whose purpose is to discover if the fire was deliberate. My ex and I answer nervously, without looking at each other, knowing our son’s issues with depression. To my relief, a firefighter at the house calls the liaison and confirms that the fire was caused by a gas leak, perhaps some faulty wiring, too. It began from behind the stove. An unlucky accident.
The nurse enters and gives us Jacob’s cell phone, wallet, and clothing. They had cut his clothes off in ER, not due to injuries, it’s standard procedure. Later, Jacob would tell us he remembered this because he told the medic, ‘Dude, that’s one of my favorite shirts!’ The nurse and social worker warn us that he’ll look worse than his condition really is. He’ll be full of tubes, mostly as a preventive measure. One tube is inserted into the windpipe, they explain, just in case of possible scarring, infection, and inflammation. If his throat swells, no tube can get down and then the patient suffocates. They don’t phrase it quite like this, but I get the message and it’s not comforting.
When I enter his room, a cry and some tears betray my attempt to appear calm. My son looks so helpless lying there, sedated, a thin sheet covering him, with tubes and other paraphernalia connecting his body to a variety of beeping or flashing machines. I talk to him, trying to comfort him just in case he can hear me. A few times the sedation begins to weaken and he shakes, gags, and jerks his fingers. Quick! He needs more sedation! I tell him if he can hear me to squeeze my finger and he does. Then the sedation does its job and he’s still again. He is on a ventilator, and my mind jumps to the memory of my father years ago, suffering from emphysema and fighting for his life on a ventilator in the hospital. My father survived that ordeal, and the medical staff assures me again that my son is probably fine. But just in case, really, it’s just preventative, they repeat, they are going to airlift him to San Antonio, to the burn unit of the Brooke Army Medical Clinic for further examination.