If I Stay (If I Stay #1)(8)


by Gayle Forman

The social worker is at my bedside now. She is looking through my chart and talking to one of the nurses who normally sits at the big desk in the middle of the room. It is amazing the ways they watch you here. If they’re not waving penlights in your eyes or reading the printouts that come tumbling out from the bedside printers, then they are watching your vitals from a central computer screen. If anything goes slightly amiss, one of the monitors starts bleeping. There is always an alarm going off somewhere. At first, it scared me, but now I realize that half the time, when the alarms go off, it’s the machines that are malfunctioning, not the people.

The social worker looks exhausted, as if she wouldn’t mind crawling into one of the open beds. I am not her only sick person. She has been shuttling back and forth between patients and families all afternoon. She’s the bridge between the doctors and the people, and you can see the strain of balancing between those two worlds.

After she reads my chart and talks to the nurses, she goes back downstairs to my family, who have stopped talking in hushed tones and are now all engaged in solitary activities. Gran is knitting. Gramps is pretending to nap. Aunt Diane playing sudoku. My cousins are taking turns on a Game Boy, the sound turned to mute.

Kim has left. When she came back to the waiting room after visiting the chapel, she found Mrs. Schein a total wreck. She seemed so embarrassed and she hustled her mother out. Actually, I think having Mrs. Schein there probably helped. Comforting her gave everyone else something to do, a way to feel useful. Now they’re back to feeling useless, back to the endless wait.

When the social worker walks into the waiting room, everyone stands up, like they’re greeting royalty. She gives a half smile, which I’ve seen her do several times already today. I think it’s her signal that everything is okay, or status quo, and she’s just here to deliver an update, not to drop a bomb.

“Mia is still unconscious, but her vital signs are improving,” she tells the assembled relatives, who have abandoned their distractions haphazardly on the chairs. “She’s in with the respiratory therapists right now. They’re running tests to see how her lungs are functioning and whether she can be weaned off the ventilator.”

“That’s good news, then?” Aunt Diane asks. “I mean if she can breathe on her own, then she’ll wake up soon?”

The social worker gives a practiced sympathetic nod. “It’s a good step if she can breathe on her own. It shows her lungs are healing and her internal injuries are stabilizing. The question mark is still the brain contusions.”

“Why is that?” Cousin Heather interrupts.

“We don’t know when she will wake up on her own, or the extent of the damage to her brain. These first twenty-four hours are the most critical and Mia is getting the best possible care.”

“Can we see her?” Gramps asks.

The social worker nods. “That’s why I’m here. I think it would be good for Mia to have a short visit. Just one or two people.”

“We’ll go,” Gran says, stepping forward. Gramps is by her side.

“Yes, that’s what I thought,” the social worker says. “We won’t be long,” she says to the rest of the family.

The three of them walk down the hall in silence. In the elevator, the social worker attempts to prepare my grandparents for the sight of me, explaining the extent of my external injuries, which look bad, but are treatable. It’s the internal injuries that they’re worried about, she says.

She’s acting like my grandparents are children. But they’re tougher than they look. Gramps was a medic in Korea. And Gran, she’s always rescuing things: birds with broken wings, a sick beaver, a deer hit by a car. The deer went to a wildlife sanctuary, which is funny because Gran usually hates deer; they eat up her garden. “Pretty rats,” she calls them. “Tasty rats” is what Gramps calls them when he grills up venison steaks. But that one deer, Gran couldn’t bear to see it suffer, so she rescued it. Part of me suspects she thought it was one of her angels.

Still, when they come through the automatic double doors into the ICU, both of them stop, as if repelled by an invisible barrier. Gran takes Gramps’s hand, and I try to remember if I’ve ever seen them hold hands before. Gran scans the beds for me, but just as the social worker starts to point out where I am, Gramps sees me and he strides across the floor to my bed.

“Hello, duck,” he says. He hasn’t called me that in ages, not since I was younger than Teddy. Gran walks slowly to where I am, taking little gulps of air as she comes. Maybe those wounded animals weren’t such good prep after all.

The social worker pulls over two chairs, setting them up at the foot of my bed. “Mia, your grandparents are here.” She motions for them to sit down. “I’ll leave you alone now.”

“Can she hear us?” Gran asks. “If we talk to her, she’ll understand?”

“Truly, I don’t know,” the social worker responds. “But your presence can be soothing so long as what you say is soothing.” Then she gives them a stern look, as if to tell them not to say anything bad to upset me. I know it’s her job to warn them about things like this and that she is busy with a thousand things and can’t always be so sensitive, but for a second, I hate her.

After the social worker leaves, Gran and Gramps sit in silence for a minute. Then Gran starts prattling on about the orchids she’s growing in her greenhouse. I notice that she’s changed out of her gardening smock into a clean pair of corduroy pants and a sweater. Someone must have stopped by her house to bring her fresh clothes. Gramps is sitting very still, and his hands are shaking. He’s not much of a talker, so it must be hard for him being ordered to chat with me now.

Another nurse comes by. She has dark hair and dark eyes brightened with lots of shimmery eye makeup. Her nails are acrylic and have heart decals on them. She must have to work hard to keep her nails so pretty. I admire that.

She’s not my nurse but she comes up to Gran and Gramps just the same. “Don’t you doubt for a second that she can hear you,” she tells them. “She’s aware of everything that’s going on.” She stands there with her hands on her hips. I can almost picture her snapping gum. Gran and Gramps stare at her, lapping up what she’s telling them. “You might think that the doctors or nurses or all this is running the show,” she says, gesturing to the wall of medical equipment. “Nuh-uh. She’s running the show. Maybe she’s just biding her time. So you talk to her. You tell her to take all the time she needs, but to come on back. You’re waiting for her.”

Mom and Dad would never call Teddy or me mistakes. Or accidents. Or surprises. Or any of those other stupid euphemisms. But neither one of us was planned, and they never tried to hide that.

Mom got pregnant with me when she was young. Not teenager-young, but young for their set of friends. She was twenty-three and she and Dad had already been married for a year.

In a funny way, Dad was always a bow-tie wearer, always a little more traditional than you might imagine. Because even though he had blue hair and tattoos and wore leather jackets and worked in a record store, he wanted to marry Mom back at a time when the rest of their friends were still having drunken one-night stands. “Girlfriend is such a stupid word,” he said. “I couldn’t stand calling her that. So, we had to get married, so I could call her ‘wife.’”

Mom, for her part, had a messed-up family. She didn’t go into the gory details with me, but I knew her father was long gone and for a while she had been out of touch with her mother, though now we saw Grandma and Papa Richard, which is what we called Mom’s stepfather, a couple times a year.

So Mom was taken not just with Dad but with the big, mostly intact, relatively normal family he belonged to. She agreed to marry Dad even though they’d been together just a year. Of course, they still did it their way. They were married by a lesbian justice of the peace while their friends played a guitar-feedback-heavy version of the “Wedding March.” The bride wore a white-fringed flapper dress and black spiked boots. The groom wore leather.

They got pregnant with me because of someone else’s wedding. One of Dad’s music buddies who’d moved to Seattle had gotten his girlfriend pregnant, so they were doing the shotgun thing. Mom and Dad went to the wedding, and at the reception, they got a little drunk and back at the hotel weren’t as careful as usual. Three months later there was a thin blue line on the pregnancy test.

The way they tell it, neither felt particularly ready to be parents. Neither one felt like an adult yet. But there was no question that they would have me. Mom was adamantly pro-choice. She had a bumper sticker on the car that read If you can’t trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child? But in her case the choice was to keep me.

Dad was more hesitant. More freaked out. Until the minute the doctor pulled me out and then he started to cry.

“That’s poppycock,” he would say when Mom recounted the story. “I did no such thing.”

“You didn’t cry then?” Mom asked in sarcastic amusement.

“I teared. I did not cry.” Then Dad winked at me and pantomimed weeping like a baby.

Because I was the only kid in Mom and Dad’s group of friends, I was a novelty. I was raised by the music community, with dozens of aunties and uncles who took me in as their own little foundling, even after I started showing a strange preference for classical music. I didn’t want for real family, either. Gran and Gramps lived nearby, and they were happy to take me for weekends so Mom and Dad could act wild and stay out all night for one of Dad’s shows.

Around the time I was four, I think my parents realized that they were actually doing it—raising a kid—even though they didn’t have a ton of money or “real” jobs. We had a nice house with cheap rent. I had clothes (even if they were hand-me-downs from my cousins) and I was growing up happy and healthy. “You were like an experiment,” Dad said. “Surprisingly successful. We thought it must be a fluke. We needed another kid as a kind of control group.”

They tried for four years. Mom got pregnant twice and had two miscarriages. They were sad about it, but they didn’t have the money to do all the fertility stuff that people do. By the time I was nine, they’d decided that maybe it was for the best. I was becoming independent. They stopped trying.

As if to convince themselves how great it was not to be tied down by a baby, Mom and Dad bought us tickets to go visit New York for a week. It was supposed to be a musical pilgrimage. We would go to CBGB’s and Carnegie Hall. But when to her surprise, Mom discovered she was pregnant, and then to her greater surprise, stayed pregnant past the first trimester, we had to cancel the trip. She was tired and sick to her stomach and so grumpy Dad joked that she’d probably scare the New Yorkers. Besides, babies were expensive and we needed to save.

I didn’t mind. I was excited about a baby. And I knew that Carnegie Hall wasn’t going anywhere. I’d get there someday.

5:40 P.M.

I am a little freaked out right now. Gran and Gramps left a while ago, but I stayed behind here in the ICU. I am sitting in one the chairs, going over their conversation, which was very nice and normal and nondisturbing. Until they left. As Gran and Gramps walked out of the ICU, with me following, Gramps turned to Gran and asked: “Do you think she decides?”

“Decides what?”

Gramps looked uncomfortable. He shuffled his feet. “You know? Decides,” he whispered.

“What are you talking about?” Gran sounded exasperated and tender at the same time.

“I don’t know what I’m talking about. You’re the one who believes in all the angels.”

“What does that have to do with Mia?” Gran asked.

“If they’re gone now, but still here, like you believe, what if they want her to join them? What if she wants to join them?”