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Fireworks shoot into the sky and plummet to the ground, like a shower of falling stars banished from the heavens. The Fourth of July arrives at our house smelling like burning barbecue and sweaty friends. One by one cars hobble down our driveway, hesitating in front of every pothole before gathering the confidence to totter further. After a few pleasant minutes, my friends and I slowly venture from the cool house and in the sun's angry rays, striking at us with searing frustration. Panting, my friends and I start a game of volleyball. Perspiration is beginning to gather on my cheek and slide down the arc of my neck when I receive a foot full of sand in my face from my friend, Rachel. Unsuccessfully capturing my attention, she kicks a second spray of sand at me. Turning, I frown at Rachel and ponder if I like her right now while allowing tears to spill from my eyes to clear the sand away. Just a year older than me, Rachel and I are close enough friends to have exhausting sleepovers together yet too distant to be sisters.
“Mary, you want to jump in the pool? It’s too hot to play," she whines.
The idea is infectious. My team evaporates in seconds, running and leaping in my pool with speed and dexterity that was invisible during our volleyball game. Chemical free, tadpole infested, my natural pool is my parent's experiment gone terrific. I toss a water ping-pong paddle at my brother’s girlfriend, Gina. After a year and a half of dating, Gina is visiting my family for the first time and is eager to light fireworks since her firefighter father banned her from playing with the sparkling menace.
“Let’s go! Me, you, right now,” I taunt her.
“You ready for this? You about to be blown away,” she brags.
Splashing, joking, playing, I toss a water ball at Rachel and tackle her. We flounder in the water, refreshed, until the delivery of a platter of atrociously burnt hamburgers. Timidly tasting, I smile at Rachel and generously shove the blackened food into her unsuspecting hand. After swallowing the snacks, my friends dive back in the pool, seduced by its cooling quality and silky touch. I walk around the edge of the pool and watch them enjoying their festivities. Rachel’s brother, Michael, holds his breath underwater in the middle of the shallow end of the pool while Jackson, a friend, and my brother, Matteo, fight for a floating device. The air gushes with laughter and frivolities and ripples with shrill screams coming from giggling girls. Lazily, I watch my friends frolic in the reviving water while I suck on a slice of unripe watermelon, pink and white. Closing my eyes, lounging on a wooden chair, I listen to the voices that waft on the hot air that is too tired to stir.
“Throw the ball to me.”
“My turn. I want to try.”
“Jackson, poke Michael and see if you can scare him.”
“Are there any chips left?’
It stops. The frogs, voices, laughter, and people freeze as Jackson pulls an unconscious Michael out of the water.
Then sound and movement explodes. My mom screams to keep Michael’s head above the water. Flying to the house, I yell for my father. Clumsily handling the phone, my brother dials 911. Jackson drags Michael from the water. My father bursts from the house. Michael’s mother and father follow close behind.
Laying Michael on the ground, my father begins CPR on the lifeless body. Panic harnesses the air and lets terror gallop wild, chasing my friends in the house and trampling on every heart. Michael’s mother and father clutch each other while my father and mother try to resuscitate their son. His body is so blue and his lips are an artificial, inhuman purple. Releasing Rachel and his wife, Michael’s father attempts to help my parents, holding his son's hand and pleading with him,
“Come on, Michael, you can do it.”
Michael’s mother also untangles herself from Rachel and stumbles towards her son. I run to Rachel and hug her, feeling her tears pour down my neck and listening to her whisper,
“O please, God, please let him live. Please let him be ok. Please. Please.”
I hold her so tightly I am scared I will hurt her and murmur in her ear," He is going to be ok. I know he is. The ambulance is on its way and they will take him to a hospital. Everything is going to be fine.”I want to believe the questionable truths I comfort her with, but watching my father pump vomit from Michael's stomach, I waver.
"Come on, Michael! Come on!" the voice of Rachel's father borders on hysteria. "Come on, Michael, you can do it."
Pleading, Michael's mother begs her son to return to her. Panic rises beneath my stricken face as I stare at his body: so blue, too purple. Time has slowed to crawling. Crying, sobbing, Rachel clutches me as if I too am going to be snatched from her. She pleads for her brother's life and tells me how much she loves him. I love him too now. He is so close to dying; I understand how much I want him to live. Holding her, I am Rachel's anchor, but she does not know how violently I too am dragged and tossed about, in the unmerciful sea of terror, frantic when I rise to a swell of the roaring fear. My friends are gone inside our house, too terrified to watch this scene of hell on earth. Minutes inch by.
Without ceasing CPR, my father announces Michael has a pulse. This does nothing to break my fear. Living among doctors, I know humans retain your heartbeat from seconds to minutes after you have died, but I reassure Rachel that Michael is improving; a hollow hope. So far away, too far away, I hear the faint screaming of the ambulance's siren. "He's going to be fine. The ambulance is on its way, I can hear it now," I mutter.
Rachel's fingers dig in my back but I do not wince; I do not feel the sting, only sickening fear. After painful minutes the ambulance departs with Michael and my father, and Rachel and I are separated when she climbs in a car while I am questioned by a policeman.
"Was that your father who left with the ambulance?" the police officer inquires.
"How old is he?"
"What's his name?"
"How old was the boy who dove in your pool?"
"Fifteen." For the first time my voice trembles.
After the police officer and a useless fire engine slink away from our house, I begin winding up an extension cord with Gina, needing to feel I am in control, even if it is a little action like cleaning my yard.
"I saw him," I whisper to her. "I saw him in the water almost two minutes before Jackson pulled him out of the pool. I thought he was holding his breath. What if he dies because I didn't think to even question the possibility that he was unconscious? If I had told someone to nudge him we could have pulled him out minutes earlier."
For the first time in years I begin to cry. Gina gently takes the wire from my hands, drops it on the ground, and holds me in her arms. Gasping, I inhale rough air that hurts my throat as I suck at it. Crying for only a couple seconds, I quickly regain control, having much practice stanching my tears. I release Gina and deceive her with a recovered smile. Someone comes up from behind and hugs me. I think they are attempting to comfort me, but when they release me, I realize they are the one who needs me.
Cars speed towards the hospital, infected with a new urgency and touched with more acceleration than before. Slouching in the front seat of one of the cars, I imagine Michael sitting up in bed, smiling at our concerned faces and joking with nurses. Louis, my driver, leans over to me and mutters,
"I'm gonna run a few stop signs here, so be on the lookout for police."
What seems like the first time in days, I smile. When we arrive at Cardinal Glennon, I leap from Louis's red Toyota and sprint to the emergency entrance. I try calling my mom who is with Rachel and her family but she does not pick up her cell phone. I wait. Friends from our summer party and ones who just received the news pour into the waiting room. They wait. My mom finally calls me back and the guard allows me in the emergency ward. Snuck between two operating rooms, a tiny waiting room juggles Rachel, her mother, her grandmother, her father, and my mom. Every face is clawed with fear and bleeding with tears. I hug Rachel while we sit and pray the Rosary, trying to calm our screaming minds with the whispering of our prayers. We wait.
My dad spends the night at the hospital but my mom and I drive home with our friend, Steve. I listen to my mom and Steve, a doctor, talk about Michael's condition,
"The doctors did an MRI on his spinal cord because Michael wasn't moving his left side," Steve murmurs to my mom," and they found he had a C5 vertebrae injury. The doctors aren't sure if the vertebrae is just bruised or fractured yet. Tomorrow they're going to place a rod on the vertebrae to support Michael's spinal column." I watch my mom nod at Steve's comments but I know she has long been aware of this information. Pressing my face on the cool window and fogging it with my heat until I cannot see what is before me, I close my eyes and wish the coiled roads would delude me to sleep.
Birds chatting in the cool morning, leaves flickering in the light breeze, cars buzzing on the crooked roads, crickets humming in the drowsy sun, I wake the next morning. The house is quiet, deserted, and a note on the kitchen table relates my mother is at the hospital and I can ride with my neighbors later to Cardinal Glennon. Scouring the kitchen, I hunt for the food that never enters this house: cookies, candy, and cake. After stumbling down the stairs and hunting for a distraction, I insert disc four, season nine of the Friends TV show. Enjoying the show I laugh and smile, but know the entertainment is only a temporary interruption from the fear that stews in my stomach, churning and simmering. The phone rings and my friend, Sophie, tells me she is leaving for the hospital in ten minutes. I hurry to get ready, dashing to the shower, forgetting to shampoo, flying to my room, looking for clean clothes, and dressing without style. The honk in my driveway announces my friend's arrival. Silence dominates our car ride, a shadow we do not try to shake. Once pulling up to the hospital and boarding an elevator, we press the second floor button and we again ride in quiet and walk in uncertainty: searching for Rachel. Finally, we find her in the Pediatric Intensive Care waiting room. Ruthlessly cold with blinding white lights, this room is ugly with staring sick walls; it is my home for the next two weeks.
"Let's go do something," I mutter to Sophie and Rachel. When I glance at Rachel, I think she needs to leave this room. In the snack room we argue whether to buy the banana split or rainbow flavored Dip and Dots, in the bathroom I turn off the lights and jump out at her, up the stairs I tease her of a secret crush, on the elevator we wrestle and accidentally hit the assistance button, under a doorway we hide until positive no angry staff are coming for us. With every laugh I coax from her, I shatter a layer of her worry and anxiety. Rachel is giggling when we return to the nauseous room.
As Rachel, Sophie, and I play Rummy, a nurse comes in and tells Rachel's mother and father they need to come with her now if they want to see Michael before he goes to the operating room to have the rods placed. We all rise to go. The nurse rolls Michael on a stretcher; fear shoots up like a geyser and steams off helplessness when I see him so still. Noticing the hard terror caked on our faces, a priest offers to pray for us and we instantly accept. An hour later, my mother and I drive home.
As we speed up the entrance ramp to highway fifty-five, I glance at my mom: eyes bordered red from a sleepless night, hair disheveled from lack of brushing, forehead clenched from forgetting to smile. I wait for her to talk.
"Mary, I am so worried about Michael. When I get home I am exhausted and have no energy. Your dad and I just hold each other and cry together. I don't know how much this has affected you, but your father and I are sick with worry for Michael. Your father and I both know that Michael might be paralyzed for life, and his own parents don't know this. He is so young and may never walk again. I can't tell you how worried I am about him." The sky is dark with a light sprinkling of stars when we pull up the driveway to our house.
At eleven o' clock the next day, I enter the ailing room and find Michael's three best friends: Aaron, Alex, and Luke. Alex's mother decides Rachel and I will go to Ted Drews with the three boys, tempting us out of the hospital. At the famous ice cream parlor, I throw a cup of icy water on Rachel and she retaliates by trying to drip her chocolate concrete on my arm. On the way back to the hospital, Rachel and I drive alone together and I listen, intently, as she tells me what happened earlier today.
"You know what Aaron said to me?"
"He said, 'what if Michael had dove into the deep end of the pool. Then we would not have found him until it was too late.' "
Fear strikes me so hard and unexpectantly that I gasp and say," Don't say that. Don't even say that." Panic makes my words harsh.
Rachel slows down for a red light, comes to a jerky stop, and looks at me.
"That is exactly what I said to Aaron," she whispers.
After spending four hours at the hospital with Rachel and her family, my mother and I drive home.
Day four since Michael's accident. Sipping melted Dip and Dots, Rachel and I roam the zoo and bounce around every corner of the people and animal infested park. Attempting to find the animal our families are most related to, I find Rachel's distant relation in the large animal section; the warty pig (actual name). Two hours later, she finds mine, the hippopotamus. I try to convince Rachel the word hippo is actually long for ippo. After breaking one of her shoes and cracking my sunglasses, after accidently cheating and riding the train free, Rachel and I leave the zoo sweat soaked and laughing.
The next afternoon I see Michael for the first time since his operation. Buzz, the doors to the Pediatric Intensive Care ward open after my mom and I beep the staff and we enter before the doors can crash closed. Scribbling my name on the sign in sheet, I begin washing my hands for the required two minutes. A passing nurse points my mother and I to the room Michael is lying in, and fear and nervousness choke my thank you. He is sleeping when we enter the room, eyes fluttering. Lines, tubes, monitors are attached to his body and beep and light up every couple of seconds. There is a hole in his neck where a ventilator is keeping him breathing. I watch his chest collapse and inflate with incredible violence. Up down, his lungs are a vacuum; the ventilator pushes and pulls air away from him so emotionlessly that I am scared it will hurt him. Acid releasing in my stomach, I am sick with worry. I hate this. I hate the lines that drip fluids into him. I hate his robotic breathing. I hate that he got hurt instead of me. Pain flows through me but I emerge from the ward smiling.
"He looks great. He was asleep when we got to his room, but he looks so much better," I lie to Rachel and her mother. They grin when they hear my mom's and my approval. Two hours later, my mom and I leave the hospital and drive home.
Day eight since Michael's accident. I spend the day with Rachel at the hospital. Teasing and joking, I help her laugh, diminishing her anxiety. Worry and fear are reflexes for her, and I try to splinter this reaction into hundreds of grins. Sitting on a windowsill, I tell a story about the picture of the baby on the wall across from us. After she stanches her giggles, she turns to me and says,
"Mary, Thank you so much for being here for me. You don't know how much better I feel when you're here. I really needed you."
Studying the floor, I murmur,
"I needed you too." Glancing back at Rachel perked on the windowsill with her hair cropped short like a little girl's, I realize I found my sister.
I drive home in the dimming light and listen to my mom.
"Michael's family now know that Michael might be paralyzed. His doctor did a scan of his spinal cord and there is a white patch on his C5 vertebra. They finally understand their son may not walk again. He is fifteen years old."
My mom and I talk until I park the car in the driveway. Muttering hello to my brothers when I stumble in the house and changing into my pajamas, I crawl into bed; it is seven thirty.
For the first time since the accident, I let myself feel the weight that has been crushing me without anyone noticing. I cry; I sob. So much fear is thrusting down on me, and as I cry the pain grows and consumes me. When someone's life is in the balance, you love them as deeply and painfully as your closest relation. I love Michael now as I love my family: indescribably much. As I silently cry in my bed, terror makes it hard to breath. While I am at the hospital I choke on fear that suffocates me. Finally, as I lay in my bed, it is too hard to smile. Just like the day of the accident I allow myself to be dragged into the sea of raging fear, while every second fighting against the swirling undertow of panic. No one knows how much Michael's accident has affected me. My mom does not know that while she talks to me in the car, I am casually wiping away tears that slide down my cheeks. After sometime my breathing slows and my eyes dry, but fear still clutches me so tightly that even if the hand of terror releases me its imprint is too deep to leave.
The next morning I smile for Rachel; the weight crushing me with my laughs. While it pounds on me, I am surprised no one hears it hammering, cracking me into shards when I am huddled in bed. Laying in hundreds of pieces beneath a shell of blankets and surrounded by darkness, I pray to God please let Michael get better. Do not let him be hurt anymore.
Three months after his accident, Michael walks for the first time without any assistance at the recovery program in Atlanta, Georgia. The motor skills in his right arm are excelling rapidly and his progressing recovery is terrific news. Michael is returning to his sister, his family, and to his home on the twenty-second of October after hard weeks of physical therapy. My grasping fear is gone, but its scars still ache. The voice of Michael's father filled with hysteria, the stream of prayers Rachel whispered in my ear, the color of Michael's purple lips echo in my present. Michael's accident showed me how much I care for people I did not even know matter to me. When I remember holding Rachel while watching my parents trying to restore Michaels pulse, I will never forget how I pleaded if I could have one wish fulfilled it was to let this fifteen-year-old boy live. Michael's accident was the hardest and scariest event that has happened to me; I am so glad I had to suffer through the pain. Today the sun is radiant.