February 8, 2001 - Part III
Because of his complicated health, Kai had a host of specialists he saw regularly, including two neurologists: Dr. Gates, who had been treating him since he was a kid and focused on his MLS, and Dr. Vadlamudi, originally from Detroit and who Jon had turned to after Kai’s transplant, when the side effects of oxygen deprivation and twenty hours on a heart-lung bypass machine during his surgery had fried his memory. Initially, the neuros who’d examined Kai had told Jon that Kai was hopeless, that his concentration and memory issues, which made it nearly impossible for him to follow an English conversation, would mean he’d never have any kind of normal life even after he recovered from the physical effects of the surgery, but of course, Jon was a Taylor, and Taylors never gave up.
Neither did Vadlamudi. His treatment style had been radically different from the other doctors. Aggressive and practical, and though it had taken a lot of hard work and determination on Kai’s part, Kai had improved far beyond even the young doctor’s expectations. Now, Kai followed up with him every three to six months, depending on how he felt he was doing, to make sure he was still on track, to ensure there weren’t any other neurological issues they needed to worry about popping up along the way.
Kai had been evaluated by Dr. V not long after his fever, and now Kai was back to see if the intervening weeks had shown any improvement on Kai’s part from the decline he’d displayed at the end of last year. He’d already spent a couple hours in testing, and Kai knew he probably had done terribly. He was still getting used to his hearing aids, distracted as hell about what had happened last night, and he probably should have postponed. But then he figured he was distracted all the time, and his aural memory was shit even without his hearing issues. It could take weeks for him to get another appointment, and he just wanted to get this over with.
It took time to properly analyze Kai’s test results, but Dr. Vadlamudi had wanted to see Kai today anyway. He usually gave Kai a quick exam, did a few of his own memory/concentration tests (since he didn’t administer the full ones himself), asked Kai some questions, and gave him his initial assessment. It wasn’t the way most neuros in his field worked, apparently, but that was probably one reason he’d helped Kai so much.
Kai sat in one of the chairs in the exam room, his back screaming at him although his legs had relaxed and were only a little tighter than normal. Kai leaned his head against the wall, stretching his neck and trying not to let his thoughts spin off into dangerous places.
There was a rap on the door, and then it opened hardly before Kai could process it. A tall, lean Indian man with a friendly face wearing slacks and an oxford shirt with a white coat and a novelty tie stepped through. He cleaned his hands quickly with some antibacterial gel before offering his right to shake. “Kai, good to see you. How are you doing?”
Kai shook firmly, though it was stronger than his smile. “I’m here.”
Dr. V laughed and sank down onto the rolling padded stool, flipping through Kai’s chart as he swerved around a little. The man always had this intense, excited energy about him, but not like he was over caffeinated or anxious. More like a little kid stuck inside on a rainy day. He loved his work, and it showed. His enthusiasm was probably one reason he’d helped Kai as much as he had. “So you have permanent high frequency hearing loss,” Dr. Vadlamudi said as if to himself as he studied Kai’s chart. “And you got--ooh the good hearing aids. Good. I’ll be interested to see how your brain adjusts to them.” Then he looked up. “You’re hearing all right with them?”
“Still adjusting. Men I have no problem with. Women, it’s hit or miss.”
“OK, OK, OK,” Dr. V said, then he closed the chart, tossed it aside almost carelessly, rubbed his hands together and focused on Kai. “So tell me how you’ve been. And none of that shrugging that you love to do. Part of the reason you’re here is for me to hear you talk, after all.” He flashed Kai a huge grin that said he was partially teasing.
Kai felt some of his anxiety uncoil in his stomach. “I finally opted for interpreters for two of my three classes. So far only had them with one class, but it made an enormous difference. I’ve gotten so used to what the teacher says going in one ear and coming out the other, but I actually remembered everything from the lecture. Even now.” Kai found himself smiling.
“That’s fantastic, Kai. And what about outside school? How has your memory and concentration been?”
“My memory during a conversation has been pretty good. But I have trouble remembering a lot of stuff that’s happened. Like, my girlfriend will mention something that I said to her or that we did and I don’t remember it at all. I also have holes in my memory that happen throughout the day, but I’m not sure if that’s my PTSD or what.”
“But you’ve been functioning well?”
“Mostly, yeah,” Kai admitted.
“What was the first thing I did when I came in the room?” Vadlamudi did this. He’d grill Kai with questions and then surprise him with one that was meant to test his memory.
Kai furrowed his brows. He didn’t remember, but he could guess. “Washed your hands?”
But Dr. V saw through Kai, smiling. “You’re guessing. But good adaptation. Do you remember the first question I asked you? After I asked how you were doing,” he added as if he knew Kai would have guessed again.
“I could guess you asked about my hearing loss, but it’s a guess.”
Dr. Vadlamudi nodded with a friendly face to signal that it was OK. “A lot of people wouldn’t have remembered that. How’s your MLS been lately?” Dr. V also liked to jump around to keep Kai on his toes, force him to focus since Kai couldn’t always anticipate what he was going to ask next. Anticipation was one of the tools Kai had learned to help him follow conversations, and it was Dr. V’s job, he’d reminded Kai more than once, to challenge him. Challenge was what kept the brain running smoothly.
Kai was about to answer and then he realized he totally blanked. It was only when Dr. V threw him curve balls that Kai began to realize how much he unconsciously had come to rely on a lot of his tricks. He shook his head. “I don’t remember what you asked.”
“It’s OK. How often does this happen to you? A lot, a little . . . ?”
“Enough that anyone who knows me well would notice, but not so much that it affects me too much. I get lost in my head sometimes. I start following all these trains of thought, tangents, and before I realize it I don’t remember what we were talking about.”
“What about in class? Do you have trouble focusing? Following the teacher? I know you said the interpreters helped.”
“Sometimes. Psych is the worst. So many people talking at once. It makes me anxious, and with the hearing loss, almost impossible to follow, and I get this negative thought train that takes off in my head and it’s dizzying. But I think the interpreters would help. I still had some trouble with getting distracted, but it wasn’t too bad. I think . . . I think I have to listen more consciously when it’s spoken English, but with ASL, it just sinks in. I know that doesn’t make sense.”
“Makes perfect sense. English will always be your second language. Probably more so now.” Dr. Vadlamudi pointed to Kai’s chart. “You know I won’t have the full test results for a while, but it’s looking like while your aural memory has suffered, your visual memory has improved. You reconnected with your Deaf best friend and he took care of you while you were recovering from the hospital, right?”
Kai nodded, not sure where Dr. V was going with this.
“And your brother’s improved his ASL fluency, too, right?”
“And your girlfriend is also learning to sign?”
Kai’s brows furrowed, but he nodded again.
“It’s possible that you’re signing a lot more in the past few months than you had in the months before that. And what do I always say?”
Kai sighed, but he was smiling. “The brain is a muscle and it needs exercise. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.”
“Right. Your visual memory was always better, and it’s possible that signing so much has helped improve it even more. You might surprise us both when you come in for your next round of tests after having interpreters for your classes for weeks.”
It was hard for Kai to believe he’d actually gotten better in some ways, and not just worse. Every time he got lost in a conversation, or he couldn’t come up with English words, or Renee reminded him about some memory she had of them that he just didn’t, it rekindled how fucked up his brain was.
Vadlamudi pulled a stack of flashcards from one of his white coat pockets.
Kai groaned. He hadn’t eaten anything all day, he was in pain and had already done hours of cognitive testing. He wasn’t in the mood for any more.
“Just a few.” Dr. V plucked a card from the center, but didn’t let Kai see it yet. “I want as many words as you can think of associated with this picture. In English.” Then he showed Kai the card. A picture of a school bus.
Kai groaned again. The pictures were always hardest for him to come up with English words for. As soon as he saw the picture, he immediately saw a dozen signs in his head: SCHOOL, PAPER, CLEAN (those three signs were all very similar). TEACHER, STUDENT, WRITE, BOOK, LIBRARY. And more.
“English, Kai. No gestures, no signs. Come on. You can do it.”
“English,” Kai said, still trying to put English words to what he saw in the jumble of his head.
“No cheating,” the doctor said, though there was no harshness in it. “Come on, deep breath. Use the association technique if you need to. Find the written English word first.”
“Good. Now give me some more words.”
“School bus, school bus, school bus,” Kai muttered to himself, picturing the written word in his head. “Apple,” Kai said slowly, like he had to pry it carefully out of the depths of his brain.
“Good. Give me at least two more.”
In his mind, Kai saw the sign that meant a surface with four legs. “Table. No. Desk.”
“You’re translating in your head. Try to let the English come to you. You can do it. Don’t think so hard. You’re locking yourself up. Take a few deep breaths. Give me one more word.”
Kai nodded, focused on the English words: school bus, apple, desk. He saw a notebook in his head. Not the sign, the actual object. “. . . Book. Notebook.”
“Good. Let’s do a couple more.” Vadlamudi did the picture-to-English association game with a few more cards, and Kai got better with each one. “Good. See, you do great when you relax and don’t let the committee in your head take over. Have you had any problems with English since I saw you last?”
Kai remembered Pelto’s class, but then he also remembered interpreting yesterday. “When I get really anxious, yes. It’s like my brain locks up and I can’t even understand English, hearing loss notwithstanding.”
Dr. Vadlamudi nodded. He’d told Kai before that he believed it was possible Kai had had an auditory processing disorder his whole life, a problem where his brain struggled to interpret spoken language. He had no way of knowing for sure, since he’d only treated Kai after his transplant, but he’d tried to reassure Kai that he shouldn’t be so hard on himself in the moments in which English did fail him. “OK, a few more quick exercises. This time, I’m going to say an English word. I want you to repeat the word to me so I know you understood it, then I want you to do the association game with it. Say as many English words as you can that pop into your head related to the original word. OK?” Kai was even worse at this game than the one before.
“Do I have a choice?” Kai said with a tired laugh.
“All right, ready?” When Kai nodded, Dr. V said, “Flower.”
Kai hesitated, then remembered he was supposed to repeat the word. “Flower.” He took a breath. “. . . Sneeze.” Squeezed his eyes shut so he could focus. “Bees. . . . Rose. Renee.”
“Good. You did really well with that one. Did you notice that two of your words rhymed, and two had the same first letter?”
Dr. Vadlamudi smiled. “OK. Let’s try a few more.” And they did. Kai actually got a little worse with these as they went on, but Dr. V was encouraging as always. “Do you still have your flashcards?” He meant the ones like he’d used earlier, which had pictures or English words on them, which Kai had used relentlessly as part of his cognitive therapy after his transplant to improve his memory, concentration, and ability to process and speak English.
Kai thought for a moment. “I think so.”
“I want you to drill yourself regularly. If not every day, at least a few times a week. It’d help if you could practice at least once a week with someone else. I’d also like you to record either yourself or your brother saying some practice words, and use those in addition to your flashcards. Especially with as much signing as you do now, it’s important for you to exercise your aural processing and memory. It’ll help you adjust to your new hearing aids faster, too.”
Kai sighed heavily.
“Nothing. . . . Just . . .” Kai sighed again. “Just feeling overwhelmed. I’m struggling to keep up with the reading and homework and all that for my classes already, and now you want me to find time to do flashcards, too?”
Dr. V smiled warmly. “You don’t need the flashcards. You can exercise your memory and association throughout the day using the world around you. For instance, when you’re in the elevator going to class. And you see a girl with a red backpack. Pick ‘red’ as your word and try to come up with some English words that come from it. Or use the image of the backpack. You could even do the exercises while you study, and they may help you remember things. What’s one of the classes you’re taking that you struggle with?”
Kai knew that “all of them” was a smart ass answer, so he said, “History,” instead.
“OK. Well, you could say, ‘Industrial Revolution,’ and then try to come up with words that are related to it. That may help cement key facts in your memory for tests and it’ll exercise your brain.”
Kai nodded but in a defeated way that didn’t escape the doctor’s perception.
“You are doing amazing, Kai. Eighteen months ago I honestly wasn’t sure you’d ever be able to communicate in English beyond a few words. Be proud of yourself. Now I want to do a quick neuro exam and a few more exercises, and then you’re free to go.”
Kai hadn’t eaten all day, which wasn’t really new, but maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t had a break mentally or physically since he woke up. Even if he didn’t feel it, he knew he was starving and his body and brain were suffering from it. If he was going to still make it to Martin’s, he needed to eat something. He’d honestly debated cancelling, using the afternoon to sleep, exercise, study, instead. But their afternoons together were important to Martin, and who knew how many days the boy had left? Kai would feel worse than shit if he skipped today and Martin ended up in the hospital next week.
Kai tried the main cafeteria first, but even from the entrance the smells overwhelmed him so powerfully he barely made it back out the door without throwing up. That was definitely not happening. He could go home and make one of his prescription shakes, throw in some ginger to help his stomach (he always kept fresh chopped ginger in the freezer). He was still trying to figure it out when he passed “vending machine alley,” a hallway filled with them that served as an adjunct to the cafeteria and serviced the ER and outpatient clinical services.
Kai wasn’t much for vending machine food, because it was junk food, and Kai didn’t really like junk unless it was sweet, and he didn’t want a repeat of yesterday. He skipped over the chips--honestly, how did people like those?--avoided the candy and cookies and was about to give up when he saw peanut butter crackers. That was safe, nutritious, and easy to eat, too. Kai shifted his weight to one crutch so he could free up an arm to get his wallet out and a dollar bill, then fed it into the machine and pressed the code for his prize. It was only after it fell that he realized his blood sugar was even lower than he’d thought. Bending more than about ninety degrees at the waist was challenging enough for him on a good day when he was standing. Today he’d never be able to bend far enough to get his snack. And even if he could, he would probably get dizzy and fall or pass out. Dammit.
Kai stood there for a moment, trying to figure out if there was any way he could do this without either falling over or getting down on the floor (and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get back up again) when a female voice nearby spoke to him. Kai turned his head to the source of the sound. The noises of the cafeteria and ER waiting room nearby made it harder for him to pick out what she was saying specifically without looking at her. “What?”
The woman was a nurse, blonde and bubbly, dressed in colorful scrubs. She looked familiar, and Kai was certain they knew each other, but he couldn’t place her, and he certainly didn’t know her name. “Can I get that for you?”
“Oh. Yeah. Thanks.”
She bent and fished the crackers out of the bottom of the machine and handed them over. “Kai! It’s good to see you upright,” she said with a smile. “But wow, you are tall. Taller than your brother, even.”
Kai blushed a little, tucked the crackers into his pocket so he could use his other crutch to shift his weight. “Uh, it’s the shoes. But I guess I’m a little taller. Uh . . .” Kai wasn’t sure if he should just go or admit he wasn’t sure who she was.
“Alice,” she said with a smile. “I don’t blame you for not remembering me. Most of the time I’ve taken care of you you weren’t fully conscious.”
Oh. Alice. She was a critical care nurse Jon and David had mentioned more than once. She’d taken care of him during various ICU stays, including during his fever. Kai had a nagging feeling in the back of his brain, a shade of a memory, that she’d also been his nurse at least part of his time post-transplant, but his memories of that time were so fractured it was impossible to know without asking her. “After my transplant . . . my second surgery, to remove the ties . . . I feel like you were my nurse for a chunk of time.” Kai didn’t inflect his words but he did raise his brows the way he would if he’d signed a yes/no question.
Alice smiled. She had a comforting, reassuring smile, and Kai had the vaguest memory of it even if he couldn’t be 100% sure where the memory was from. All he knew was he remembered seeing it from a hospital bed looking down at him. “Yes. Initially I wasn’t, but I ended up being your day-shift nurse for the rest of the time you were in ICU.”
A few more scattered memories formed. “You used to talk to me. Even though I couldn’t understand, not really. I liked the sound of your voice.” Kai blushed, surprised he was revealing so much. Most of those first weeks to months post-transplant he’d been fighting pain and his own brain, but even as a hazy memory, he recalled Alice’s kindness and tenderness. She’d never let his confusion deter her, and had even used gestures and a few signs she’d learned to help communicate with him. Most clearly, he remembered the feeling she gave him of reassurance, that he could fight through the fog and eventually climb out of it.
“Sometimes I think even nurses forget that patients are people, especially in ICU. I was just doing my job.”
Kai felt suddenly very self conscious and hurried to change the subject. “If you’re critical care, what are you doing down here?”
Alice smiled as she dropped some coins into the machine, pressed the buttons, and retrieved her own snack. “Better vending machines.”
“Nope. So much traffic with the ER. Better variety and they’re restocked more frequently. I’m pretty sure there’s some cheese pretzel things that have been in the machine near the intermediate care waiting room since Bush was president. The first one.”
Kai laughed. He liked Alice. A part of him figured it should be awkward between them, like he should be embarrassed that this woman he hardly knew had likely seen every part of him, cleaned his skin and hair and mouth, and moved him and fed him and every possible little detail while he was unconscious or semiconscious, but he just wasn’t. Maybe proof of how much of his life had been spent sick.
“Well, I should probably be getting back. It’s really nice to see you healthy,” Alice said with sincerity. “Unless it’s in front of another vending machine, I don’t want to see you again any time soon, OK? Take care of yourself. And listen to your brother. I know he fusses, but he loves you.”
Kai smiled. He was in no hurry to be sick again any time soon either. “Alice?” Kai’s heart was thundering, but she seemed to really care. About him. He’d done a quick calculation in his head. Most critical care nurses tended one to three patients per shift. Depending on how many days off she had, and whether she had the same patient more than one shift, that could be up to a thousand patients a year. Yet she remembered him.
He’d expected her to be impatient, to say she had to get back and didn’t have time for him, but she didn’t. She smiled her amazing kindergarten-teacher smile and asked, “Yes?”
Kai took a difficult breath. Shifted his weight. “This is a crazy question, but . . . you’ve lost patients before, right?”
Alice’s smile fell. She nodded solemnly. “It’s part of the job, unfortunately.”
Kai squeezed his crutch grips. Licked his lips. “But what if a patient of yours survived your care but you found out they died later? Maybe not even in the hospital. Maybe . . . in an accident, or something. Would you be upset?”
Alice folded her arms on her chest and eyed Kai for a moment as if trying to figure out where these questions were coming from. “Some of my patients, yeah. It’s impossible not to get attached to someone, especially if you’re their nurse for half a day for weeks.” Then Alice smiled again. “I would miss you, Kai,” she said, reaching over and smoothing his arm just above his cuff. “A lot of people would. So, like I said before. Take care of yourself. OK?” She gave him a look that suggested she suspected his questions weren’t just hypotheticals, and then she waved and turned to go.
Kai had just settled into his car when his phone started vibrating in his pocket. He hurried to fish it out; he had left the handsfree cord that went with his new hearing aids attached to it, and the thing was all tangled and difficult to extract. He saw on the caller ID that it was Renee, but he’d only had the hearing aids a couple days and couldn’t plug the thing in quickly by feel yet. So he answered, talking into the mouthpiece on the cord to tell Renee to give him a minute. Then he reached up with both hands, using the fingers of one to feel for the plug while the other held it, fumbling and getting angry until he finally inserted it, Renee’s voice immediately flooding his ear.
“Kai? You OK?” For some reason, hearing her voice directly like this rather than in a normal situation with all the background noise and angles and all that made it easier to understand her, although he doubted he’d ever prefer a phone conversation over a face-to-face one with his hearing loss.
Kai let out a huge breath. “Yeah. Sorry. I have this thing that plugs directly from the phone into my hearing aid and I was having trouble getting it in.” Kai could get by just putting the phone to his ear, but especially with cellphones, it messed with the hearing aid’s tech and created a lot of feedback and echoing. Something about too many mics too close together, or something like that. Or at least that’s how the audiologist had explained it when she’d encouraged him to get the handsfree device.
“Oh. OK. Uh, so you can hear me OK?”
“As well as possible.”
“Good. I didn’t want to bother you, I just wanted to check. See how you were doing.”
In any other situation, Renee’s call might have irritated Kai, but today he was grateful for it. “I’m OK. I mean, I’m not, but I am. I know that makes no sense.”
“I think I understand.”
“I have some time before I have to be at Martin’s, so I’m going to go home and study for a bit and then head over there.” The truth was, Kai wanted to take off his braces and go to the pool. Not even to exercise, just to soak in the hottub forever. But he would have to come back home after that because he wasn’t confident the Gomez’s house was accessible to him in his chair, and so it would be better if he used the time to study anyway. He hadn’t gotten to read any of his education theory materials because of his crazy. Great, and now he was starting to feel overwhelmed and hopeless.
“Kai?” The way Renee spoke it, it was like she’d repeated his name several times.
“What? Sorry. I’m just tired. It’s been a long morning.”
She paused for an extended moment, like maybe she didn’t believe him. After all, he’d probably used the “I’m tired” excuse on her before, and now she knew that was a cover for his low mood. “You’re welcome to come study here at the store. It’s pretty quiet right now.”
Kai smiled faintly. “I’ll think about it. I should go. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Love you. I have my cell on me today so you can text me if you prefer.”
Kai’s smile grew at that. She really did love him, didn’t she? As hard as it was for him to believe. “OK. I’ll try to text you when I get to Martin’s.” Kai had only just hung up when his phone buzzed in his hand and rang in his ear. The ring sounded strange and loud via his hearing aid’s direct connection, the caller ID flashing Jon’s name. Kai had actually been surprised he hadn’t heard from his brother earlier. Jon had been in a deep drug-assisted sleep when Kai and Renee had left that morning, so Kai had left him a note to assure him he was fine. “Jon?”
Noise Kai couldn’t quite interpret at first, and then he realized it had to be his brother breathing heavily. “Kai. Oh God. You’re OK?” Jon’s voice sounded strange, and Kai didn’t think it was his hearing aid’s fault.
“You didn’t see my note?”
More heavy, ragged breathing. “I . . .” A long pause. “I just woke up. I didn’t mean to sleep so long. You weren’t here. I dreamed . . .” Another sound Kai couldn’t quite understand, but he’d had enough of his own anxiety attacks to recognize that Jon was having one or damn close to one. As much of a worrier as Jon was, Kai had never heard him or seen him act so . . . panicked before.
“Jon, take a deep breath. I’m OK. I’m actually heading home now.”
“But . . . but I smelled blood,” Jon said. His voice was trembling.
“It was a dream. A nightmare. I’m fine. I’ll be home in a few minutes and you can see for yourself.” Kai remembered their session with Dr. Miller, how Jon had admitted how much he worried about Kai’s safety, and he felt a pang of guilt and self-loathing.
“I have to go. I’m going to be late for my shift. I shouldn’t have taken that pill. Dammit.” Jon still didn’t sound himself, still sounded like he was hyperventilating. There was a long pause, like maybe Jon was trying to get his breathing under control. Finally, he said, “Promise me you’re OK.”
Kai wasn’t OK. In fact, he wasn’t sure he’d ever really been fine or that he ever would be, but Jon had given him reassurance more than once in his life. It was time to return the favor. “Yes. And I promise that if I’m not, I won’t let myself be alone. OK?”
Another sound Kai couldn’t interpret, and Jon finally choked out, “Leave me now, after everything, and I’ll kill you.” A sound that might have been an attempt at a laugh.
Kai smiled faintly. He tried to remember that the last few months were just as hard on Jon as they were on him, only his brother was so much stronger and it was only now that it was beginning to show through. “I’m not going anywhere,” Kai said, but he couldn’t help the thought of how when he broke his promise--and he probably would, because he was a failure after all, wasn’t he?--how much he would destroy Jon in the process.
The apartment was too quiet since Jon had left for work not long after Kai arrived. The few crackers Kai had managed to eat sat uneasily in his stomach, and it took all his willpower to keep them down. He felt dizzy and lost and part of it could have been vertigo, but he was convinced it was his fucked up brain. He’d tried to drink a cup of ginger tea, to read some of his education theory textbook, but as interested in the subject as he was, he couldn’t focus. It was like he’d used up all his good brain power for his cognitive testing and now he stared at the English words on the page for minutes at a time and couldn’t seem to figure out what they said.
And he couldn’t decide what was worse: turning his hearing aids off to eliminate distractions, which made his heart beat too fast in his throat, wondering why it was so quiet, or leaving them on and trying to make sense of the distorted background noise as it filtered through the FLE tech. Now would be a great time for his emergency Xanax, but he needed to be able to drive because he was damned if he was going to let Martin down. But that made him think if he’d succeeded last night, how crushed and disappointed would Martin have been? And he felt even shittier than he had before.
Kai finally gave up on his studies and decided he needed to do something that would keep him busy but didn’t require a lot of higher brain functioning. Like cooking or cleaning. But the fridge and freezer were packed to the brim already, and the apartment was spotless. He could start packing for the move to Vicky’s, though. Jon had already gotten a few boxes, and had suggested Kai go through his closet and get rid of some of his old clothes.
So Kai stood in front of his main closet, staring at all the T-shirts and sweatshirts, not sure where to start. This was the first time in Kai’s life that he had the luxury of having too many clothes. Of not needing to settle for stuff that didn’t fit or that had stains and holes. And at Vicky’s, he’d have the convenience of washing clothes whenever he wanted. So he could afford to have only enough shirts for the week. So Kai worked on the top rack first, pulling off anything that looked like something he would have worn while living at County House--too big, too faded, too stretched out, holes in the neck or under the arms, stains--and dumped them in an ever-growing pile on the floor beside him. And when he finished the top rack, he got in his chair and worked on the second.
He had an impressive pile of clothes to discard and his closet was looking pretty empty when he noticed something in the back corner, near a pair of shoes he almost never wore because he couldn’t fit into them with his braces anymore, and now that he had options, he hated wearing his orthotic shoes when he didn’t need to.
It was a struggle for Kai to get to the mystery object since it was way back in the corner, but now that he had a third of the clothes in the way, he was able to push a little closer and grip the rod for balance while he leaned down and snagged it. It was dusty, and when he picked it up, dust billowed in the air, making him cough violently, his chest tightening immediately. Mental note: clean back corners of the closet more regularly. Kai grabbed one of the discarded T-shirts and used it to wipe the surface clean.
“I thought I lost you,” Kai said out loud, awed. It was a blue leather hardcover book with gold embossed lettering and flourishes. The fanciest thing Kai had ever owned. A beautiful copy of The Count of Monte Cristo that Art had given Kai for his high school graduation. Kai had asked Jon to bring it to him more than once while he was in long-term care waiting for his transplant, and Kai had been convinced someone had stolen it. He wasn’t even sure how it had ended up in the back of his closet, but it didn’t matter. Finding it again was almost like being reunited with an old friend.
Kai opened the cover to read Art’s inscription, May you find your way out of your own prison. Congratulations. Art. The book had been only half the gift; Art had also included an envelope filled with cash. More money than Kai had ever even seen before. A few hundred bucks to help tide Kai over once he aged out. Kai had tried to return the money after Jon showed up, but Art wouldn’t have it. He’d insisted Kai open a savings account and put the money away for a rainy day.
Kai closed the book and looked around his room, the emptiness of it overwhelming, and he knew what he had to do.
Art came out of his office in search of coffee, but he paused when he heard voices near the front register. Renee’s and a man’s, and at first he ignored it, figuring it was just her helping a customer, but then he listened a little harder and recognized the voice as Kai’s.
“It’s OK not to be OK, remember?” Renee was saying. She’d called early this morning to tell her Kai wasn’t feeling well and she’d be a little late coming in. She’d been distracted all day, and he’d caught her calling Kai more than once to check on him. Art knew enough about Kai to put the pieces together. Kai wasn’t sick. He was having one of his bad days, most likely. “Why don’t you go sit and I’ll make you some tea?”
“I already had some before I came. Didn’t help.”
Then there was silence, and Art knew they signed to each other sometimes since Renee was learning. Then she said in English, “We can study history together, then.”
“Yeah, OK,” Kai said, but there was something off in his voice.
“It’s all right. No one is here but us and Art.”
Just then, the bell on the front door jangled and a flood of women’s voices filled the store. Art checked his watch. Right on time. The Senior Women’s Book Club meeting.
“Oh, no. I forgot today was the second Thursday of the month.”
Art had walked a little closer, and he could see Kai now. He was standing at the front counter, and his posture was as stiff as a two by four.
“I can’t. I can’t stay here with all these people,” Kai said in a harsh whisper.
“I’m sure Art wouldn’t mind if you sat in the break room?” But the slight inflection of Renee’s voice suggested she didn’t think Kai would like that idea.
Before Kai could respond, Art jogged forward. “Hey, Renee, I just remembered I have an errand I have to run. Do you think you could handle the book club ladies? There’s fresh coffee if they want any.”
Renee looked between Kai and Art, signed something to Kai and then smiled and nodded at her boss. “Of course.”
“I’ll be gone about an hour,” he told her as she left. “You’re coming with me,” he told Kai as soon as she did. “No argument. Come on.”
Kai felt like he was in a daze. When Art had commanded he follow him, he hadn’t argued, simply adjusted his weight on his crutches and trudged out to the old man’s truck. It had been a relief stepping into the bitter February afternoon, to get away from the mob of old women, to breathe the biting air and feel like some of his anxiety went out with it in a puff of frost. But he still had that strange, not-quite-nausea feeling in his stomach, and his head was a little floaty, and he wasn’t entirely sure if he was really here or if he was dreaming or dissociating or something in between.
Art had driven the same mid-1970s brown and tan Chevy pickup Kai’s entire life. It was a little rustier and more beat up now, but it still ran, and Kai knew Art planned to keep that thing until he died. It had been a gift from his late wife, and he didn’t need to say it for Kai to know it felt like Art’s last connection to her.
It may have still run, but the heater didn’t work for shit, and the metal of Kai’s braces had never felt so cold. “Where are we going?” Kai finally asked when he couldn’t seem to figure out why they were heading out of town rather than in.
Art didn’t respond right away, and when he did, he didn’t answer Kai’s question. “Have I ever told you about my sons?”
Kai pushed against the seat to sit up a little straighter and face Art more. “A little. They were killed in Vietnam.”
“Two were. The first in an helicopter crash and the second in the jungle. The third came home, but he was injured and died a few months later.”
“I’m sorry,” Kai said, because what did you say to that? Those men had died before he was even born, but it had to be hard losing three sons in quick succession.
Art nodded in acknowledgment. “Martha went not long after,” Art said with heavy sadness. Martha was Art’s wife.
Kai wasn’t at all sure why Art had brought up family that had been dead for more than twenty-five years. He was still trying to figure out what to say when Art pulled into the cemetery. Was it the anniversary of their deaths or something? And he didn’t want to be alone, so he’d brought Kai with him? Would it be rude to ask to stay in the car? He could use his MLS as an excuse, but the real truth was cemeteries freaked Kai out. Especially now. Maybe because of too many nightmares about being buried alive, of dying and being forgotten. Kai wasn’t sure, but he didn’t really want to trudge through the cold to see the graves of people who had died years before he even existed.
Art pulled into the parking lot into one of the handicapped spots and set the brake. When Kai gave him a look, Art shrugged. “They won’t enforce it if there isn’t a funeral. And trust me, no one’s getting buried today.” His eye gaze went up, through the windshield, where the trees that fronted the cemetery’s main gate were being blown about in the vicious wind. “Come on.”
“What?” Kai said, realizing when Art opened his door he meant for Kai to follow him. It had been what he’d expected, but it didn’t make it any more palatable.
“Something I need to show you,” he said, and Kai could barely make it out over the howl of the wind that screamed in his ears thanks to his hearing aids.
Kai pouted, but he adjusted his scarf, double-checked his gloves, and took a minute to switch his crutch tips. (He kept a pair that worked better on ice in his coat pocket, but he didn’t like to use them indoors because the extra grip that helped on ice made navigating on carpet a bitch.) Then he reluctantly followed Art out into the cold.
The trudge was slow going. Kai’s legs weren’t working well today anyway, and the cold made him even more stiff. Kai was starting to wonder if Art was going senile when they finally arrived at their destination. Three headstones, two attached to each other, one beside them but obviously from a different time. The names were partially covered in frost, but this was clearly where Art’s family was buried.
The headstone for his wife was a beautiful granite with angels carved into it, but what really caught Kai’s eye was the larger dual headstone beside it, engraved with patriotic symbols, an eagle and a flag, draped on top of each stone, facing each other, almost as if they were mourning the people buried beneath it. Kai looked around, but he didn’t see the third son’s grave, and it was evident from the engraved lettering that only two people were buried there, not counting Martha, of course.
Kai didn’t say anything right away, gripping his crutch handles hard to help keep his balance as he shivered, just watching Art, who kissed the fingers of his gloves and then laid the kiss on each stone, one after the other. Finally, Kai’s curiosity got the better of him. “What are we doing here? Where’s your other son?” He had to shout to be heard above the wind. Kai wasn’t sure if it sounded as loud to Art as it did to him.
Art looked sadder than Kai had ever seen him. He shook his head, then beckoned for Kai to follow him.
They walked for far too long, the path treacherous, and Kai was glad he’d switched his crutch tips. He couldn’t feel his legs anymore, and he had to rely on his upper body and trust his braces and crutches to keep himself upright. Finally, just when Kai was about to say, “Fuck this, old man, I’m going back to the car,” they reached a relatively secluded part of the cemetery.
A huge, skeletal tree dominated the space. Ice had created a frozen coating on its branches, giving it an even more ethereal look, and there was something very unsettling about the plain stone that lay beneath it. Kai didn’t believe in ghosts since he was convinced souls moved from body to body throughout history, but this would definitely be the place for one. Unlike the other graves, which were well tended, this one seemed more neglected. Forgotten, almost, and that made a chill unrelated to the weather race up Kai’s spine.
Art sank down to his knee and wiped the ice and snow and dirt off the headstone, revealing the name beneath. His third son. Robert. Kai’s stomach contracted. Why had his other sons gotten such a lavish and beloved resting place, while this one was tucked away and neglected? Art got back to his feet with some difficulty, using the headstone and the tree to help him. Kai was shocked to see tears in his eyes, although it was so cold, and he hadn’t covered his face the way Kai had, so it was possibly not from emotion, but Kai didn’t think so.
“This is what he wanted,” Art said, and Kai had to mostly rely on reading his lips because the hearing aids made the wind far too loud. “He arranged everything before . . .” Art shook his head, patted the plain headstone like you would a child. “And I was angry. Sometimes, I still am.” His other hand went to his mouth, and Kai didn’t know what to do or say. He was so cold he was beginning to shiver violently, and he knew Art was trying to make a point, but he didn’t know how much longer he could stay out here and still be able to walk.
Fortunately, Art noticed and waved for Kai to follow him back to his truck.
The trek back seemed to take forever, but Kai realized that Art’s third son was actually not that far from the entrance, it was just that his other family and Robert’s graves were about as far apart as it was possible to make them within the grounds. Art started the truck and turned the heat up as far as it would go, then reached into the backseat and grabbed a thick wool blanket, offering it to Kai.
“I’m sorry. I know you have trouble keeping warm,” Art said, helping Kai unfold the blanket and tucking his legs in like a father would his child at bedtime.
Kai was still shivering. He could regulate his body temperature much better post-transplant, but the metal of his braces held onto the cold, and being so thin didn’t help.
“Robert was injured in the war, but it wasn’t physical,” Art said in a low voice. “Not really. Understand?” Art pointed to his head and looked Kai straight in the eyes.
Kai lost his breath for a moment.
“He wasn’t the same when he came back. Never got over that he came home and his brothers didn’t. Things that happened over there. Wouldn’t talk about it. He . . . started seeing things. Hearing things. Having nightmares. He wasn’t sleeping. Angry, depressed. Drank constantly. He’d go into these rages. He’d totally changed. Martha and I didn’t know what to do for him.”
Kai swallowed thickly. “PTSD?”
Art nodded. “We didn't realize it at the time. I wish we had.” His cheeks were still red from the wind, and he sniffled, but Kai suspected it wasn’t from the cold. “He was only 25 when he died.”
Even though Kai was beginning to warm up with the blanket and the heater, he felt himself grow cold. “He took his life.” Kai’s mouth was dry.
Art nodded. “Swallowed a bullet.”
Kai sucked in a breath. Pointed to his ear to make it clear he was asking to make sure he’d understood and not to be callous. Put his fingers in his mouth like they were a gun.
Art’s eyes teared up but he blinked them away. “Martha found him.” He wiped his eyes hurriedly.
“Art--” Kai started to say, but the old man shook his head.
“I always thought that was what killed her. Not long after, her heart gave out. There’s only so much grief a mother can take, you know?” Art took a grounding breath and laid a hand on Kai’s shoulder. “I didn’t bring you out here to guilt you, or to make you feel worse. I just want you to know you’re not alone, kid.”
Kai grit his teeth, unsure what to say. How many years had he known Art and this was the first time he’d ever told Kai what had really happened to his third son?
“I know when you’re young it feels like the whole world is ending and you have no one who could possibly understand what you’re going through, what your pain feels like. But that’s not true. And I also know that sometimes it feels like death is the only possible way to escape that pain, and that the people you leave behind are genuinely better off without you, but that is so far from the truth. Your family never really recovers from something like that.” Art let out a difficult breath. “I’m pretty sure if my son were alive today that he wouldn’t regret all the extra years he got to live, getting to marry and have children, and see those children grow up. You see what I’m saying?”
Kai’s sinuses burned, and he struggled to fight the tears. “Is . . . is that why you always came to see me? As a kid? Cheer me up when I got so sad?”
Art’s only response was a genuine smile. He cuffed Kai’s neck for a moment and said, “I expect to be at your wedding someday. So don’t disappoint me, OK? Now what do you say about getting a hot drink and a slice of pie to warm up before we head back?”
Continue to February 8, 2001 - Part IV ------>