You started coughing in mid-November. You were hospitalized with pneumonia on a Sunday, and we all figured you would get out after a few days of antibiotics. Five days later, my sister Liana (aka your wife of 11 years) texted me: “Google ARDS. Then pray hard.” I Googled ARDS, prayed hard, and was on a plane to Columbus a few hours later.
On the day you marked your first week in the hospital, we celebrated Liana’s birthday. We had you on speakerphone so you could participate from your ICU bed. We got her a cake and a few little things. As she blew out her candles, we knew what she was wishing for.
Your wife grinds her teeth at 5am. I know this because I moved into your house and slept next to her for twelve nights. A few times I could barely hear her breathing, so I reached out to make sure she was there. Sometimes she wasn’t; she would arise in the middle of the night and go to the ICU to sit with you. She didn’t want you to be alone.
Your boys were very worried about you and did some acting out. The boys pummeled each other and made huge messes all over the house. Psycho Sally the dog ripped apart a lot of stuffed animals. Then again, that might not be a stress reaction, that might just be boys being boys and dogs being dogs. There was not much we could do except try to exhaust them all. Each day I would grip Trevor’s hand and Sally’s leash, and run as fast as possible across the green in front of your house. It seemed stupid until it actually started to work. It seemed really stupid when Sally broke free and took off for the neighbors’ backyard at top speed. I don’t know what spirit animal Sally is . . . Evel Knievel?
The house was struggling too. The dryer only worked for ten minutes at a time before stopping, rendering the clothes inside smelly and damp. No one had time to call the repairman. The kitchen sink was backing up. The tub where the boys took their baths drained at a glacial pace. The coat hooks were falling out of the walls. Sally was crazy from being cooped up in a cage but no one had time to walk her. The turtle tank was bright green with algae . . . then again, when we could see him, Frisky seemed fine with it.
You grew steadily worse. You needed more oxygen. Your organs were stressed. Each morning the overnight ICU nurse would call with an update, rousing Liana out of her too-short slumber. Liana would hear the report and reply, “Oh, okay,” hang up the phone, and go back to bed to fortify herself for another overnight. I paced the house and looked for something, anything to clean or organize, to keep from being terrified. We were expecting eighteen relatives for Thanksgiving. They were coming to be with my mom, who is battling a rare neurological disease. They offered to stay home, but we needed and wanted them more than ever. I decided we would tackle a bunch of home improvement projects, to make it easier on you when you came home. If you came home.
The day before Thanksgiving, my husband was sitting in the tub fixing the drain. My mother was sitting in her wheelchair folding your clean laundry. I was hanging up clothes in your closet. My father returned from visiting you and Liana in the hospital. “There’s not much else they can do,” he said with tears in his eyes and pain in his voice. The pneumonia was gone but they didn’t know why your lungs were still filling with fluid. No diagnosis, no treatments. ”Pete will be on a ventilator soon.” I couldn’t leave the bedroom until my eyes were dry.
Liana came home from the hospital at 4am on Thanksgiving morning. We talked, then she took a sleeping pill and we went back to bed. You called two hours later, your voice soft but clear through the hiss of the oxygen mask. It was time for the ventilator. I awakened the boys, threw them in the car for the short ride to the grandparents’, then drove your groggy wife to the hospital to see you before the procedure. You looked thin, tired and resigned. I took this photo because I didn’t know what else to do.
Not being an ER nurse like your wife, I only knew one other person who was placed on a ventilator, and she only lived a short while afterwards. I said the same thing my father had said to you — that I’d take care of your family too, if necessary. I’ve never had to say that before. And then I asked you for your email password, because your modem had broken too and I had gotten you a new one, and there would be no way to install it without your password. You gave me an incredulous look and told me the password.
I walked Liana to the waiting room. We stared at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV, with our arms around each other, while they were working on you. We came back in an hour later. Your body was controlled by machines. I held your hand and prayed the Rosary.
Liana began to shout at you through your deep sedation. “Pete! Don’t fight the vent! Breathe with the vent.” To my astonishment, your eyes flew open. You began to try to shape words around the tube in your mouth, but we couldn’t understand. You frantically pointed to your chest. “Heart?” We played a surreal game of charades, trying to figure out what you were trying to communicate. “Heat? Hot? Hurt?” You gestured again and we got you a pen and paper. “I LOVE YOU,” you wrote to Liana. Then you wrote, “THIS SUCKS . . . SCRAMBLED EGGS (that’s what you wanted to eat) . . NOT SO BAD . . .” and finally, “ANXIETY.” Liana had the nurse give you more sedative, and then you were out. You missed the Green Bay Packers game but we made sure everyone knew you were a fan.
We drove home in early afternoon to find the whole family busy, working on projects around the house. My mom was delighted to have all her family around, and we managed to have a warm family holiday. We laughed and even talked about something other than hospitals.
Liana went to bed and I stayed wired and awake, wondering when the phone would ring. It didn’t. Day passed into evening and we slowly realized that the situation was very serious, but . .stable. We played our traditional family card game, called Pit. Each of us traced our handprints for Harry’s “Family Holiday Traditions” banner project, which was due the following Monday. We wanted him to get an A plus. We wondered how we would trace your hand.
When the furnace died at 8pm that night, Liana and I just shook our heads and piled on a couple of blankets. One crisis per day.
The next morning, I called the furnace repair company. I called every half hour until someone showed up at 10:30. After an initial visit and a second visit to estimate, we discovered it was going to be a very expensive job, and unlikely to be fixed that day. I talked to the estimator as she stood next to the dead furnace. I told her the truth. Then she looked at me and said, “I’m not leaving this basement until your repairman is here.” And she stayed and starting dialing like mad. I heard her say, “I need someone at this house NOW. The homeowner is coming home from the hospital tonight and he needs heat.” When she got off the cell phone I said, “You know, he is not coming home tonight, he’s far too sick. I don’t know if he is ever coming home.” She said, “I understand, but I have to say it that way to get the repairman to come today.” The repairman was there in an hour, and we had heat an hour after that.
You had a lung biopsy on Friday. The surgeon said he didn’t know if he would be able to find the cause of fluid in your lungs. He was maddeningly clinical. “Sixty percent of the time we never find out,” he said. I heard that, and started cleaning anything I could find. On Sunday morning at 1am, Liana texted that you looked “icky” and her nurse-sense was sending off warning alarms in her head. You turned waxen and unresponsive; you had been given too much sedation. Liana paged the intern, had it reversed, and you began to revive. If she hadn’t been there . . . .
After that night, the reports from the hospital began to contain some hope. You needed less oxygen. You could breathe a little more on your own. You were flirting with your wife. The ventilator was buying you time to heal. Meanwhile, a friend of Liana’s had read about you on Facebook (I finally decided that respecting your privacy was not as important as marshaling support. TMI be damned!!) and showed up on Saturday morning. She proceeded to clean and organize the house for the next fourteen hours. She made a chore chart, taught the boys to put away their laundry, and gave Sally some obedience training. She MacGyvered the dryer so it worked, and we demolished the large pile of laundry at last. We were nourished by homemade meals brought by your coworkers, and the boys even had a slumber party with Grandma and Grandpa.
At Mass for the first Sunday of Advent, Trevor sang at the top of his lungs. He didn’t know the words to “O Come O Come Emmanuel” but he recognized the verse numbers, so he sang them instead. “Three FIVE, four TWO, Eeeemaaaaannneeelll. . ..” Whenever the music stopped he would say loudly to the choir, “Good job!”
Incredibly, less than 24 hours later you were removed from the ventilator. A day after that you moved out of the ICU. The miracle we hoped and prayed for actually happened. We brought the boys to see you. When they walked into the room, your heart rate jumped and there was a lot of happy beeping from your monitors. Your sons forgot about you and checked out the monitors, and then they found the stash of chocolate . . .
After two weeks in Columbus, I returned to Rhode Island. You are getting better and better. I don’t jump every time the phone rings, and I don’t worry constantly about your wife and sons; they have lots of help and support for the weeks and months ahead. You’ll be home in a few days to continue your recovery. You’re drinking milkshakes and eating delicious food made by your coworkers. Liana brings her laptop to the hospital, and the two of you pay bills and balance the checkbook. You wondered about the large HVAC charge on your credit card that you didn’t authorize. Just wait ’til you get home! You won’t be able to find a thing! It will be a litany of, “Where are my socks?” (I mixed them up with Liana’s.) “Who moved all the plates?” (Nanny Meg moved them closer to the dishwasher.) “What happened to that half-wall?” (It’s now a full wall, finished by a group of beer-fueled cousins just prior to a big turkey dinner.) “What’s the password for the modem?” (Same as before, bro.)