Most of my family is out in the Midwest, but I do have an aunt and uncle that live here in Washington. Their kids, thus my cousins, are about ten years older than I and in very different stages of their lives than me. For example, both cousins have three kids where I have none. Three of those kids, which are 2nd cousins to me, live closer than the others and I've gotten to know Bryce (12), Chloe (8), and Brody (5) pretty well.
Last night, while working late, I got a call from my Mom. She was using the voice that I was sure meant that my remaining grandfather or grandmother had passed away. But they hadn't. Instead, she informed me that Mei Lin had a brain aneurism Monday morning and was in intensive care at a hospital somewhere in Seattle. Mei Lin is the mother of the three 2nd cousins I know so well.
Long story short, I left work around 2:00 PM today and met my aunt, uncle, both cousins, Bryce, Chloe, and Brody and several other friends and family of Mei Lin's at Harborview Hospital on Capitol Hill in Seattle. The hospital was so overbooked that they had Mei Lin on the pediatric floor. Everyone floated around the waiting room and in the hallways of the mostly empty 9th floor waiting for the latest updates from the doctors.
As soon as I got there I gave my cousin Steve--the father of Bryce, Chloe, and Brody--and my uncle a key to my house. I live significantly closer (20 minute drive) to Harborview than they do (60 minute drive) and thought if they were going to spend another long night at the hospital a shorter drive might be appreciated. Then I just kinda' sat there and listened to anyone that wanted to talk to me, which was mostly just my aunt and uncle, and watched the kids play Nintendo. One of the advantages of being placed on a pediatric floor, they have cool things to keep kids occupied.
Eventually Brody noticed me and stuck his head out of the waiting room long enough to say, "Hi, Rob!" That was his cue to me that it was time for me to hangout with them.
Some time late in the afternoon, a family meeting was called to speak with the doctor. Now, I never knew Mei Lin really well. She and Steve divorced a year or two after I moved up here and at all the various family gatherings I mostly hung around the kids anyway. So, rather than being invited into the meeting with the doctor, I was left behind with the kids. This was more than fine with me since I was mostly there for the kids anyway. Did I mention that I really like Bryce, Chloe and Brody? I do, they are great kids.
At this point, time really started to crawl. Once, one of Mei Lin's sisters came down the hall crying. Chloe asked her why she was crying and got a weak smile and an even weaker answer. Later Chloe told me, "I'm tired of waiting" to which I could only reply, "So am I". But I would have rather waited there forever than have to explain to Chloe the possible outcomes of our wait.
Finally, one of the nurses found me and asked me to the meeting room. There Steve asked me if I would take the kids down to the cafeteria for dinner. Of course, I was more than willing. So, with the help of one of Mei Lin's friends and Brody on my back we got all kids--there were four, the three 2nd cousins and a younger one that belonged to one of Mei Lin's sisters--in the elevator going down to the cafeteria.
I have to take a moment and say how impressed I am with any single parents out there. Trying to keep three kids going in a relatively similar direction is an amazingly difficult task. Finding food that they will all eat is even more difficult. I must admit, I was quite happy with myself after successfully getting the kids food and sitting down and eating and having small conversation about baseball and Tae Kwon Do and french fries.
After dinner it was back to waiting. It wasn't more than an hour when the adults all came out and Steve took the three kids in to see Mei Lin. My uncle took me aside and asked if I had been informed at all. Of course, I knew nothing like the rest of the kids. So he remedied that.
Mei Lin had a brain aneurism early Monday morning that apparently broke the part of the brain that told her lungs to keep breathing. The lack of proper breathing for whatever amount of time it took to get her on a system to help her breathe again deprived her brain of oxygen. That deprivation of oxygen had destroyed 95% of her brain. Mei Lin as we knew her wasn't coming back. More importantly, the Mei Lin that Bryce, Chloe, and Brody knew wasn't coming back.
My Mom and I share many similar traits. The one most interesting here is our ability to operate well in unusual and high stress situations for extended periods of time. There have been several cases where we each got into an emergency situation and just "got the job done" without truly internalizing everything that was going on until the crisis was over.
In this case, me getting the kids fed and cared for without transferring the immense sadness felt by all of the adults just down the hallway seemed to be the right thing to do. It also seemed to be much appreciated by everyone later. To me, I was just getting the job done. The job I had assigned myself was to "take care of the kids."
Now, the majority of the day had passed for me without truly internalizing all that had happened. It honestly wasn't until I saw Chloe come out of the room where her mother existed only on life support and sit in one of the chairs in the hallway that I began to internalize the day's events. Mei Lin's father--one of Chloe's grandfathers--tried to give her a hug but she didn't respond well to that. I just stood there watching as the 8 year old girl slowly broke down into tears.
Brody came out next. The resilient 5 year old seemed only slightly disoriented and eventually stopped a few steps away from me and everyone else in the hallway. Without looking at anyone he finally said, "Rob." I bit back the tears, looked at him and touched his head. "Brody?" He eventually looked at me and said, "Lift me up."
Bryce came out later looking very shell shocked and quieter than usual.
What do you say to an 8 year old that is just now starting to imagine what life is going to be like without her mother? What do you say to a 5 year old that doesn't seem to understand? What do you say to a 12 year old that is just standing silently by the wall, fiddling with one of the new toys he got in the last three days? What do you do when the 5 year old wants to climb up on your shoulders like he always does?
I don't have answers for the first three questions, but the answer to the last question is you lift him up. You always lift him up.