Crash and Burn - November 2002
I am fairly confident when I say that anyone who began his or her day the way I began this particular November morning would find it completely strange. The sad part is, I did not find anything regarding the following events strange, not this year at least. On this particular day, I woke up around six in the morning with this bizarre collection of paragraphs running through my mind. Based on all that had been going on in my life, I felt compelled to write them down. I ran straight out to my garage, sat in my car, and began writing. As I wrote, the words paragraphs that came out were about the life that I was living coming to an end. I knew my life had become one non-stop barrage of bad events, and I was certain that I was going to figure out a way to fix it. However, this batch of paragraphs were pointing in a direction that, quite frankly, made me a bit more confused with everything that was going on. I guess my life was more than a little out of control: it was completely out of control. I just wanted to do something right. Every direction I turned, I dug myself a deeper hole. The strange situations at work had a rollover effect at home, and as home life became more stressful, I brought that stress to work. I really could not win. The poem that I wrote in my car—I guess you would call it a poem—was about watching my own funeral. I believe what I wanted was to somehow stop the pain I felt and the pain I was causing. Although my poem never indicated how I actually passed on, it gave me the opportunity to feel at ease knowing that my life could not get worse. What was odd about this poem—well, actually the whole thing was a bit odd—was that in the poem I was watching over those who came to pay their final respects to me. Of course, there is always the possibility that they were there to stick a pin in me to make sure my batteries had finally run out of energy. The year had been one long string of bad events; actually, bad would be an upgrade.
The year 2002 started with me walking out of work just eleven days into January and not returning until sometime in April. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I saw it coming. There seemed to be an arrow pointing at me, at least from one person anyway, and he coincidentally happened to be the person I reported to at my place of employment. This particular company had been my place of employment since 1986. From the first meeting I had with him, there was this strange feeling of your days are numbered, and the number is not very high. A week prior to January 11, 2002, I told my wife, Mary Beth, that the tornado was going to strike any day, and I was the trailer park sitting directly in its path of destruction.
I had been hit by a tornado, for lack of better terms, close to ten years earlier and was warned about what I could expect if I was not careful. I was told that as a result of that event, my life and my ability to deal with certain situations like the one I was about to face could be quite hazardous to my health, especially in that region located above the neck and between the ears.
For some odd reason, walking out of my place of employment felt like a complete relief. Due to what had occurred ten years earlier, I had to keep notes on what I needed to remember, as well as notes that might prove valuable in circumstances like the one I was facing at work. Anyways, I walked out, got in my car, put on a favorite CD, and drove out of the lot. I was hopeful that I would get a chance in the very near future to tell my side of the story to those who might listen; outside of that I was going to try and figure my life out during this unplanned vacation.
I’ll never know why my manager, Ron, or possibly others as well wanted me out. Was it due to the limitations I had from my brain injury? Or maybe some people just didn’t like me; I don’t know. I guess it really doesn’t matter. The following Monday I was given the opportunity to speak my peace, and I was pretty sure the perception of me this person already had formed was not pretty. This individual's title was Human Relations Manager, and his name was Ted. Ron and I would meet with Ted to review the situation. Ted was close to retirement, very close, so I wasn’t so sure this was something he wanted to deal with. During the meeting, Ron stated his reasons for his discontent with me in regards to work, and I provided the documentation I had regarding my experiences at work. My assumption was that under no circumstances would Ted take a side, but he would try to determine a solution to this issue. We both presented our version of the situation, and I left. I really had no desire to stay, and for some reason, I had no planned date for returning. My doctors had recommended that I take a “disability leave.”
During the time I was off, my primary physician suggested I talk to someone, someone who gets paid to listen and advise—someone called a psychiatrist. I am sure I met with someone like that years ago following my injury; however, I was a bit apprehensive about meeting with a shrink. Maybe I was worried I would find out I had a lot more issues than I had thought. I remember thinking that with all I had going on, this psychiatrist would need a shrink by the time my sessions were complete.
I agreed and met with a female psychiatrist. It actually felt good to open up and talk to someone who wanted to listen. Of course, she was paid to listen, but that is beside the point. This went on for weeks, and I do believe it would have gone on a lot longer if she had had her way. After a few weeks, her recommendation was: “You need to quit where you work before you go insane.” Her thought was that I was being mentally beaten. I told her that if I quit, I couldn’t pay her bill. She was right; what I was going through at work was wrong, and due to the deficits left over from ten years ago, it was harder to battle. One side effect from having this type of permanent injury was insecurity. It was unbelievable how insecure I had become, and this type of hostile work environment just fueled my insecurity. Every time I had to go into an office to be scrutinized, which seemed to be how the majority of my time was spent, I felt like I was ten years old. I had absolutely no self-confidence; every ounce was gone. Outside of that place I felt fine—well, fine might be an exaggeration, but I will say I felt much better than I did when I was there. I just tried to remind myself that as much as I wanted to run away from this version of the company where I had spent so many years, I had to stay for my kids’ sakes. This large company where I had been employed for years suddenly seemed to shrink. The mistreatment I experienced at work was the foundation for the majority of what was going wrong in my life; from there everything else became worse.
Outside of the visits to the psychiatrist, I spent those next three months growing my hair, finishing a few basements, and working out. It just so happens that finishing basements and decks was a sideline of mine. Those skills were never affected by the injury. I felt quite relaxed, met with some lawyers, and felt good about the meetings, even though I am not a big fan of lawyers. I just wanted to be sure I knew where I stood, and they provided some relief, so I guess I became a fan of those particular lawyers.
During the time I was off, I received a phone call from Ron. The reason he called was to inform me that I was no longer being paid. The fact that I was not being paid didn’t bother me; it was the phone call and the tone of his voice as he told me I was no longer being paid that was bothersome. If felt as though he was hoping I would quit. Before I hung up, I asked Ron not to call again, and I told him I would return when my doctors agreed I was ready. The closer the return day came, the more stressed and irrational I became. I somehow got myself together and interviewed with a competitor. At the conclusion of the interview I was offered a position in sales, so I felt good about that part of my life. The interview with a competitor was my way of injecting a feeling of sanity into my life. Truth is, even though this other company seemed to feel I was a good fit based on their limited exposure to me, I knew that if they saw my medical history, they might change their minds. I was always worried about that particular detail. No college degree and being disabled was not a good combo on the job application. However, I was determined not to quit. I had been fighting something that no one could see for ten years, so one more fight couldn't hurt.
While I was out on disability leave, Ted, the Employee Relations Manager who was involved in this investigation, retired. I really had no reaction to his departure. He seemed somewhat cold to the whole ordeal. His replacement, Earl, had spoken with me by phone and promised to try to resolve this situation to the best of his ability. I will say that as much as I hoped he would be neutral, I was very aware that those to whom I reported would have had all the time they needed to create a visual of who they wanted Earl to believe I was, and what they thought should be done with me. All of those involved worked in the same building and, most likely, had plenty of time to get to know one another. Translation: I got problems.
After being out for close to three months, and against my doctor’s wishes, I returned to work. This was going to be a reunion neither side was looking forward to. The stress of waiting to see what it would be like was killing me; I just wanted to get what I knew was going to be horrible over. I wished it were the day I left, not the day I was going to return. My drive from home to work was about thirty-five miles; typically, there was heavy traffic and I caught every red light. On the day I returned to work, the traffic was extremely light, almost non-existent. And the red lights?-there weren’t any. I might be exaggerating here, but it seemed like the commute took about two minutes. On the one day I would have appreciated some red lights and traffic jams, no such luck.
I have to say that the day I returned to work was a test of how much mental torture one can handle. I sat in my car in the parking lot staring at the building. Life had become one huge nightmare, and going in there took every ounce of guts that I had. When I arrived, I had to wait in the lobby, which felt strange. Once inside I met with Tony, my manager’s manager. Tony gave me a rather dismal overview of my future with the company. I expected nothing different; a “Welcome Back” banner would have been nice, but this was more in line with what I anticipated. Now I knew Tony was frustrated with this situation and, most likely, wished his time was being spent on something more productive, so I was expecting to hear some comments that might have been the result of his frustration. However, I just kept thinking, This can’t be happening. You see, I worked in a one-story building, which was referred to as the region office. It was like another world compared to the rest of the company. Anyway, the walk over to my department felt like traveling through a war zone holding a “shoot me” sign. By the time I arrived at the door to my department, I felt about six inches tall. I just wanted to quit, I really did. One thing that kept me from quitting was the picture of my family that I kept in my shirt pocket; those five faces were the reason I could not quit. I loved them more than I hated the situation. The only good thing upon my return was that one of the staff members pulled me into his office and told me that what had gone down appeared to be personal toward me and was, in his opinion, handled horribly. He said that he was there if I needed to talk. The only problem was that as much as I appreciated his comments, I knew that what was ahead of me was not going to be pretty.
Prior to having a welcome back meeting with my manager Ron, I was told to meet with Earl, the Employee Relations Manager. Again, he was new to the position, and I had never met him before. I don’t recall anything significant about the meeting outside of two particular directives that Earl gave me. The first was that I was not to have contact with certain individuals within the company, specifically a former manager who had become a good friend. He was a vice president with the company and was now domiciled on the West Coast. I was told that I was no longer allowed to have contact with him; no phone calls made to or accepted from that individual. I just nodded. The second directive from Earl was to never bring up my disability at my place of employment. Now, that directive struck me as stranger than the first one; however, again I just nodded in agreement. I don’t know why I was told to never mention my disability. The vast majority of those domiciled in the building I worked in never knew I had a traumatic brain injury, nor did I find it necessary to mention the fact that I had a disability. Maybe they wanted to keep that quiet; I just didn’t know. Like I said, I didn’t fight either directive; I just kept hoping the clock would move faster. If I wasn’t so intimidated by returning to work, I do believe I would have questioned what I was told out of curiosity. For all I know, Earl may have been told to bring those two directives to my attention. He did tell me that the walk over to the part of the building where my department was would most likely be the longest and worst walk I had ever taken. Earl was one hundred percent right on that one. That was the bulk of this meeting. Now off to more motivational meetings.
I made it to my department and was then told to meet with the originator of this mess, my manager Ron. I just sat down and tried to prepare myself for what was coming. Ron told me they had replaced the computer equipment I had been using prior to leaving (it appeared I was given the oldest and slowest computer available), and he told me that from that point on I was to write down everything I did and what time that I did it. He wanted me to document everything I did from the minute I arrived at work to the minute I left. He wanted it done every day, and at the end of the day I was to bring the list to him, sort of like a management time card.
Ron also gave me some good news. As was the case every year for management, March was the increase-in-pay month. Now an increase in pay was not the first thing I was wondering about when I returned; as a matter of fact, it was the last item on my list. Anyway, he so eloquently told me that I was being given an increase in my monthly pay, and that increase was twenty-five dollars. Now I do believe that any increase in pay, regardless of size, should always be appreciated, and this certainly was appreciated. However, for some reason he found it absolutely necessary to tell me that it was the lowest amount possible he could give me, followed by: “I didn’t even want to give you that.” I had to hear, “I didn’t even want to give you that,” repeated at least five times. The last time Ron said it, he explained why he had even bothered to give me an increase. He told me that in the event I somehow, someway, qualified to receive a management bonus at the end of the year, I had to have been given an increase in pay in order to qualify. I endured his verbal abuse and left. The truth was, Ron lost, not that I won, because I certainly never felt like a winner. It’s just that I was still there, so he lost. His mission was to get me out of the company, and he was not successful. The department manager Tony, (Ron's manager) who I had referred to earlier, was stuck in the middle of this mess. He was new to our region and had walked right into this. In all honesty, he did an excellent job and was most often perceived as fair. I told him that one day he would see a different side of me, not just the skewed version of me described to him by Ron. I didn’t hold anything against Tony except that I wish he would have recognized this situation for what it truly was, and he did not. Then again, maybe he did and chose to support Ron, who worked for him, which I can understand. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I will say this, in order to avoid just breaking down and throwing in the employment towel, I kept trying to imagine that all this was not happening. I had to; otherwise, I would have gone absolutely crazy right on the spot.
I left Ron's office and walked back to my assigned "desk," a corrugated board on top of two filing cabinets, which was located as close to the back door as possible. During the walk back to my desk, nobody said a word to me, not a single word. This went on for weeks. My best guess as to why I received the silent treatment was that the other employees did not want Ron to see them talking to me. This silent treatment felt like something you would experience in grammar school; the only thing missing was recess. Every day was the same for me: I would mark down the hours as they passed, at noon I ran out the back door for my lunch hour, always returning at 12:59, and would bolt out that back door everyday at 5:01 p.m. However, I made sure to give Ron the list of things I had done for the day. The sad part was, I previously had a very successful career there and had proven myself every year, even after my brain injury. I did the best I could after the injury with the strengths that remained. I won multiple awards, was recognized corporately, I made a decent income and then this happens. This whole chain of events was puzzling to me. It felt like Ron had decided that a person with my type of disability no longer belonged, and this was not the first time I felt that way. By the way, one thing I was taught by the therapists was to document everything, which I did, and that helped me win as much of this fight as possible. However, it was nowhere near the end.
After returning to work, the demons between the ears continued to erode my well-being. My behavior was becoming more unusual, and my mood was continually in the mud. Sixteen years at a Fortune-500 company, where I had experienced great success, and now it appeared that my career was coming to an end because I had a TBI. This company had well over a quarter of a million employees at the time and at least two of them did not appear very fond of me, so I figured that two out of 375,000 wasn’t bad. As the worst part of returning appeared to be over, I had a feeling that another surprise was lurking just around the corner, and it wasn’t going to be a good surprise.
Outside of the normal everyday paranoia my brain was dealing with at work, something I was not expecting was coming my way. During the time I was out on disability, someone had gone through my desk. I am not sure who or why someone would do this or what he was looking for. What was removed from my desk was a UPS Air Shipping document with my name on it, no credit card number in the billing section, and my work address as the return address. Now the strange thing is, this was among many shipping documents in my desk; and mysteriously this person just happened to choose this one. Shipping personal items this way was a normal procedure for me, and I had done it for years. Every time I had shipped this way, the company sent me a bill and I paid it. This bill was for something personal I had sent right before my three-month sabbatical took place. What was strange was that this particular one had been billed to the company, not to me. Also, this particular shipping document was used for a personal shipment right before I initially walked out, so I never received the bill. The bill would have been shipped to my work address. While I was out, the fact that I made this shipment and never had the bill forwarded to me was the last thing on my mind.
I was called over to Earl's office to discuss this issue. The call came two weeks after I had returned to work. I guess it caught me a bit off guard, but even in the mental state I was in, I found this situation to be somewhat ridiculous. Prior to meeting with Earl, I made a call to the billing department and asked how this one shipping document could have been billed to the company. I had clearly checked “Bill the Shipper,” which was me. They had no clue as to how this had happened. I asked them to fax me my shipping history, proving I had no intention other than to receive a bill and pay it. What they faxed over was twelve pages demonstrating that this was exactly the way I had shipped for years, and they had billed me correctly every time.
I met with Earl and provided my billing history. I was sure the information I provided would put this fire out; however, Earl managed to convince me during this meeting that my career appeared over. He said, “It looks like you will not be returning; however, we will do an investigation, and you will be paid during this investigation.” I remember telling him, “Doesn’t this seem strange to you that the only one incorrectly billed was the one that was taken out of my desk, and all the rest were billed correctly?” He didn’t have a reply. At that point I volunteered to take a polygraph test and I offered to pay for it. This request was denied by Earl. With that, I was walked out the door…again.
When I returned home, Mary Beth and I sat in the kitchen, wondering how these individuals could do this. As big as this company was, somebody had to have the brains and integrity to stop this treatment. Two weeks after this fiasco, I was called back to work.
What I am now going to tell you was told to me by a staff member when I returned. What he told me was that my manager Ron had called in a company lawyer to look at the evidence he and Earl had collected against me. The same person who told me that this happened was present at one of the “Sweeney-status meetings,” and he said that the lawyer looked at what I had put together versus what was being held against me as evidence and made a very clear statement: “If you are trying to get this company sued, you are doing a great job.” Now whether or not that was actually said, I will never know; however, after that meeting, the call came to the house telling me I could return. I was not very nervous coming back this time; the whole chain of events began to seem pathetic, though I always remained confident that one day it would stop, it had to.
I honestly have to tell you that the way these events happened and the way they were tactically carried out would leave me to believe that their intent was to drive me out the door and watch me mentally crumble at the same time. Maybe they just saw me as someone completely different than I saw myself, which is possible. Maybe their opinion was that I didn’t belong there any more. The truth was, leaving the company permanently seemed like the only way out of this mess. However, somewhere in my mind, my belief that things would get better was stronger than my belief that they would get worse.
I was twenty-nine years old when my traumatic brain injury occurred in November, 1992. Since then, I have realized all too well that brain injuries are permanent. There are times when you think you have faced everything a brain injury can throw at you, and then a new set of life’s circumstances comes your way, forcing you to face another aspect of a brain injury that you never expected. The type of injury I have inhibits my ability to deal with repeated negative situations. Whether at work or home, it doesn’t matter. My mind takes these situations and builds on them. If something negative at work happened, it stayed on my mind constantly, and anything that followed built on it. Maybe the negative occurrences at work were not as bad as they appeared, and my brain injury brought them to another level; I really can’t say. Maybe I was the problem, and they didn’t have the heart to tell me that I was working somewhere that, based on my injury, I didn't belong. If in fact they saw me as someone with a brain injury who did not fit in their plans, then okay; I could deal with that. I would have preferred and respected just being sat down and told the truth. To put anyone through what I went through was nothing shy of torture and ethically wrong.
The summer came, and things were getting a bit more out of line. The first day of my vacation I tore out all the landscaping around the house, which I had put in five years earlier. Everything was taken out: trees, shrubs, and rocks were removed. I spent four days, non-stop, redoing the landscape; I had no conversations with anyone but obsessed with getting it done and for no real reason. That same week I sold my dream car, a black BMW, also for no reason. I also made sure my will was in order, put money into college funds for my two younger kids, went on an antique shopping spree, and had a few breakdowns. Actually, I think everything I did was due to a breakdown.
As the year progressed, there were more signs that I was close to a mental breakdown. I became a lot more depressed, and my tolerance for stress was down to zero. Waking up, going to work, eating, just living in general felt like a fight. I too often began to wish that I had died ten years earlier; I really did. My kids were walking on eggshells when they were around me. Things I once enjoyed doing had become a challenge. Motivation to exist seemed to be a struggle to find. My kids, no matter what they thought of me at the time, were my motivation. I knew something was wrong and had been warned for years that my resistance to doctor’s recommendations and my insistence that I fight this on my own were going to catch up with me. As the situations at work, home, and life in general continued to pose problems, my ability to handle life continued to diminish. When it seemed like my options for life were not rational, I would stare at my youngest son’s face, and this was like kryptonite for me. His face coupled with that perfect smile seemed to shed some sunlight on my life. Going to sleep was something I looked forward to, all the time. Once I was asleep, my only hope was that I did not wake up during the night, because going back to sleep was just south of impossible. My racing brain would not let me. When this did happen, I would go downstairs, sit on the couch, and look through the window at the street.
I stumbled through the end of the summer and the fall.
Now its sometime in November 2002, about six in the morning, and I am in my garage, sitting in my car, writing a poem about watching my own funeral. When you start your day writing about something so strange as your funeral, you wonder what the rest of the day is going to bring. The verses seemed to fly out of my fingers and onto the paper. I know now my subconscious wanted me to do something that maybe somebody would find and realize that I needed someone to talk to, because there was no way I was going to ask for it, not directly.
I wrote this poem, went back in, showered, and was off to work. When I arrived, I typed the poem in Microsoft Word. I figured it looked better in case it was read, and yes, there was someone at work I had planned on giving this to, in the hope that he would let his past take over for me. His name was Victor, a coworker at my company, and a former Catholic priest who I trusted. Victor eventually married after leaving the priesthood. Strange how, due to all the clouds surrounding the Catholic Church, leaving to marry a woman makes him look like a hero. Very strategically I placed the poem on the corner of my desk in hopes that he would read it when I called him over. It worked and he read my poem titled “From Above.” It went like this:
So this is the new life we all discussed so politely.
From above I watch my family and friends
Listening to the strange comments spoken so lightly
Reminiscing about how I was this, or how I was that,
Ending each comment with, “I know he’s happy where he’s at.”
I guess we all wonder what the end will bring
A dark tunnel, a bright light, or watching heaven's choir sing.
They stare at me as I lie so still
I listen as they whisper, “Doesn’t he look at peace,
No longer a member of the life we lease.”
There’s my kids, I see the tears on their face
I wish I could reassure them
Their dad will be waiting with open arms
When they enter this strange new place.
Next to them are friends, both old and new.
They always claimed I was the first to try life’s games
I hope they know I’ll see them again,
Though I’ll miss them just the same.
I watch them roll me away
Getting me ready for my trip to my final resting place.
Who will I be, who will I see?
I’m not sure if my prayers are still heard.
If they are, I hope my first sight is my dad’s smiling Irish face.
My wife of many years wonders where they all went.
She wonders to herself, now that I’m gone, how will her time be spent.
I hope she can hear me when I say,
Time will put a smile back on her face,
And the kids will fill her empty days.
I hope they know I will miss them all,
And from Above I wish them well.
Was I a good dad, husband, son, brother, friend?
I guess only their time on earth will tell…
“You wrote this?” Victor asked.
“Yes, yes, I wrote that this morning in my car.”
This is excellent,” he said.
I remember thinking, Here it comes, the line I am hoping for. The former priest who studied in Rome with the Pope is going to ask me if I would like to talk. Come on, former Father Victor, show me there is some sign of your profession left inside of you.
No dice. He placed it back on the desk and walked away. I wanted to ask him if he left the priesthood or if he was kicked out. Victor must have had a lot on his mind, because I know that on any other day he would have recognized the poem as a sign that something was wrong. He was a coworker I had known for years, and, looking back, I should have asked him to talk. However, there was a little paranoia with most things I was doing at that time. I was back to square one; something had to change. I was scared—just wasn’t sure what my mind would think of next.
It was around eleven in the morning the same day, and like an alcoholic who has a moment of clarity, I had one. I called the rehab institute I was assigned to after the accident and asked to speak with Linda Muller. Linda had handled my therapy and kept in contact with me. When she picked up the phone, my words were pretty much to the point.
“I am throwing in the white flag,” I said. “I need help.” It felt good to finally say those words.
Help was arranged; unfortunately, I would not be able to see the doctor until December 17. The doctor I would see on that December day was a post-brain injury specialist who would hopefully help me understand and get through this part of my life. The problem was that I wasn’t going to see him until a week before Christmas—a month away. I was so focused on the appointment that I was marking the days off on a calendar like a kid counting down the days until school is over. A month was a month too long, and I knew that was just enough time for something to go completely wrong. I felt like a ticking time bomb, and I did not want blow up. I guess somewhere inside of me, I knew the stress of my life coupled with the aftereffects of my brain injury were going to get the best of me.
Thanksgiving fell somewhere between my request to see a doctor and the day I was scheduled to see a doctor. Normally, Thanksgiving was a pretty quiet day around my house, but not this year. It was right around eleven in the morning, and the time I feared had arrived. In a fit of desperation I called my brother-in-law, Jon Popp, who lived four doors away.
“Jon,” I said quietly into the phone, yet with a bit of desperation, “you have to get down here. You have to get down here!”
“What happened? Is everything okay?” Jon replied.
“Just get down here. Something is wrong,” I quietly screamed.
Jon left his house and ran up to my door just as the police arrived.
As the officer exited his car, Jon asked, “What’s going on?” The officer looked at Jon and replied, “No idea. Probably nothing.” This being Thanksgiving, and Jon having no other thought than maybe someone slicing the Thanksgiving turkey had cut their finger, he grabbed a bottle of wine before he ran down to the house. No Band-aids; just wine. I will admit that there is a bit of humor here; my brother-in-law running down the street alongside the police car with a bottle of wine is a bit comical, but it didn’t seem like it then. As Jon and the police officers reached the front door, the ambulance could be heard approaching the house.
As the police entered, they encountered a family of all ages in a bit of shock. There was Jim, sixteen, sitting on the couch with his mop-top in a bit of disarray, and his mom, Mary Beth, holding him while she repeatedly asked, “Are you okay?” Behind Jim’s mom was his sister Katie, seventeen, comforting the youngest two, Brian, seven, and Jennifer, five.
“What happened here, miss?” asked the officer.
Mary Beth looked at Jim, hesitated, then replied, “He fell—he just fell…in the hallway.”
“Is that what happened, son?” asked the officer.
“Yeah,” said Jim. “I...I fell. I got knocked out when I fell. I feel better now.”
Looking at Jon, the officer asked, “You the dad?”
“No, no, I’m the uncle. I live a few doors down.”
“Where is the father?” the officer asked.
Mary Beth said, “He is upstairs.” As the paramedics began to look at Jim, Jon shot upstairs in search of yours truly.
“What happened?” Jon asked as he came into the bedroom.
“I knocked him out when we hit the floor,” I said through tears. “As both of went down, Jim hit his head on the floor. I didn’t hit him. I just snapped,” I replied. “I suppose they will take me in for this.”
Jon was staring at me somewhat puzzled; then he asked, “Did you see your head?”
“What are you talking about?” I replied.
“Your head. Look in the mirror. There is blood all over the side,” Jon said.
“That is all I need,” I mumbled. “I must have slammed it on the coffee table when I fell. Do the police know I am up here?”
“Yeah,” Jon replied, “and you should stay until till they leave.”
I tried to stay as calm as possible while explaining the mess.
“Jon,” I said, “I have no idea what is going on with me. This whole year has been bizarre. I am sinking. Work is a prison. It's killing me; has been for a few years. Kids think I’m nuts. Wife is way confused. I am in a state of mind I can’t get out of. I called the rehab center last week. You know, the one where I was after the accident, and told them I am throwing up the flag. I will do whatever it takes. I know I am dying inside, and I can’t stand it. I’ve got an appointment with that brain injury doctor in December; it’s just not soon enough. I’ve known that something is wrong for a while. No appetite, up all night, weird thoughts. Now look what I’ve done. This isn’t me, and it hasn’t been me since that injury!”
“Hold this rag to your head while I go downstairs,” Jon said.
I stood around the corner at the top of the stairs, listening to the paramedics talk to Mary Beth.
“He seems fine. Just keep and eye on him.”
Thank God they didn’t ask for me to come down.
The morning had started off quite normal, I guess. It was Thanksgiving. Company was to arrive later in the day, and things seemed a bit hectic but fine for the most part. The last few months had been hard on me, and I am sure a bit hard on the family as well. Actually, the year in general had been a complete disaster. The morning was okay until I opened my mouth, and in the angry tone, which Mary Beth had become accustomed to, I impolitely asked, “Do Katie and Jimmy do anything around here?”
Looking at me with the standard head tilt, she replied, “They are fine. Would you just relax?”
Not long after that, Mary Beth’s mom called, and as I walked into the kitchen, I heard her begin to tell her mom, “Those older two do nothing around here.”
As she continued, the blood began to boil. Just then Jimmy walked up the stairs, and I let him hear it. “You better start helping out around here, Jim, or I am taking the car away.” Taking the car away was my standard threat, and it never worked because the kids knew I wouldn’t do it. Mary Beth hung up quite quickly.
“What is your problem?” she asked.
As the rage began to creep into its middle stage, I screamed, “I am sick of it! They do nothing and get everything!”
(Quick side note: When depression, courtesy of a brain injury, has its grips on you, nothing makes you happy, and everything in your own domain makes you angry.)
As Mary Beth spoke, Jimmy stared at me. I walked up to him. We were face-to-face; he stood about an inch or two taller, and I just lost it. Mary Beth knew a snap was coming, and boy, did it. As I lunged toward him, she tried to get between us in an effort to slow me down. I grabbed hold of Jim and he grabbed hold of me, and the three of us went down. Slam! went my head right on the coffee table. I could hear the bells screeching through my head, and the rest was a blur. Mary Beth said I got up with such rage that it frightened her. I grabbed Jim with uncontrollable anger, picked him up, and threw him to the ground. I can remember the little ones crying and screaming, “Stop, Dad, stop!”
As we hit the ground, he was facedown and I was on top of him. As the whole family was hitting and pulling me, I rolled him over—nothing. He was out cold. We all stopped. No screaming, no hitting, nothing. Jim was out cold.
Oh God! screamed my brain. I began shaking him and screaming, “Wake up!”
Brian and Jennifer were still crying and swinging away, God love those two. Jim woke up; he was only out for about twenty seconds or less—just enough time for his mom to dial 911. Where was a busy signal at the Mokena Police Department when you needed one? I got up and walked upstairs. You have no idea how confusing this was—all I kept thinking is, What has happened to me? I knew the answer to that question.
After Jon left, I headed downstairs quite slowly. I could still hear the kids screaming and crying in my head, though it all ended as I entered the kitchen. The whole family was still in the front room. I made my way to the kitchen and stared out the window. I could feel the tears on my face, but for the most part the only thing I felt, or rather heard was this voice in my head asking me, How did this happen?
I knew the answer and was three weeks away, when I would return to the same hospital I was in ten years earlier to meet with a doctor who specialized in brain injuries. I was hoping, praying that he could help me get my life back on track. I sat there thinking how ironic it was that exactly ten years ago this very week my life was derailed. I relive that event one way or another every day of my life. It is amazing that something no one can see is so devastating. Traumatic brain injuries occur every twenty-one seconds, and like they say, you never see it coming. I absolutely agree with that statement. Let me take you a back a few years.
Life As I Knew It - November 1992, Chicago, Illinois
Up until the time I was in my late teens, I thought any place other than the south side of Chicago was nothing more than a place to visit. For the most part, I had a fairly simple childhood. I was the fourth of five children, we grew up on a city street filled with kids, and we all attended the same Catholic grammar school, St. Christina.
I lucked out and was given a Schwinn Continental bicycle for my Confirmation. Most kids got the Schwinn Varsity, but I think I drove my dad crazy just being around him, so he figured the nicer the bike, the farther away I'd go. I have to admit, it was a clever plan. I guess I was different than my brothers; as a matter of fact, I know I was different. My brothers and my only sister thought there were two things in life: school and baseball, and school came second. Me, I wasn’t into baseball, at least not as much as most kids. Sure, I played, but with no real commitment. I was more into tearing things apart and putting them back together or rebuilding old bikes that I found in the trash. As I got older, I was the one you called to install a cassette player in your car, or if your car needed brakes, I was the guy. On a few occasions I was asked to break into my neighbors’ houses when they had locked themselves out. I'm not sure why they would ask me to do that; maybe they thought I had locksmithing in my future. Or maybe they thought I would be a…no, I’m sure they were thinking locksmith or window cutter.
As I got older, I discovered a new joy: planning trips, or as they are sometimes referred to, road trips. Whether it was a trip to Schaffer Lake, Indiana with the boys or renting local hotel suites under false names, you could count on me. Somehow, I always seemed to be the one who went a bit overboard to make sure everyone had a great time; not that I didn’t, it’s just that for some odd reason it was more important to me that others have a better time. Some would call that being a “people pleaser”; I just figured I was good at making sure others were entertained.
I seemed to get bored easily. Coming up with things to do that were a bit unusual seemed to get the adrenalin cooking. Bob, a friend I had through my teens and early twenties used to say, “You are always the first.” I was the first one to get a car, and the first one to sell a car. I was the first one to get a checking account, and the first thing I bought, and Bob was with me, was the classic electric football game that would vibrate the players down the field. Nice first purchase, and believe it or not, twenty-something years later I still have that game. I was the first one to move out, and the first one to move back.
I called Bob one day and asked him to meet me at Big Mickey’s hamburger joint so I could spring another first on him. I had to tell someone, and at the time he was my closest friend. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Bob, get ready for this one…. I’m getting married.” Coincidentally, it was to a girl I had met at one of the hotel parties I had thrown a couple years back. If I had to write a list consisting of the best firsts, this one would take the cake.
The firsts continued: first to have one kid, first to have two, the first to get a house, and so on. No matter how many of life’s events I encountered, when I least expected it, the worst first came, and at a time when I thought those days were over.
The only thing typical about this November, 1992 weekend was the weather. The boys and I had been planning this road trip for weeks. This was our Bi-Annual Boys Only weekend at my in-laws’ cottage in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Lake Geneva was Wisconsin’s version of Las Vegas, minus the gambling. My partners on the trip were four friends I had known most of my life. We all grew up together in a small part of Chicago’s southwest side. It was an Irish Catholic, blue-collar, sports-loving, beer-drinking neighborhood known as the infamous Mount Greenwood area. It seemed like the majority of the neighborhood was comprised of City of Chicago employees. My dad was one of those city employees; he was one of Chicago’s finest, a Chicago police officer. Most of my neighbors, as well as my friends’ fathers, were either Chicago police officers or Chicago firemen. Mount Greenwood was the type of neighborhood where you knew everyone, and you were asked to abide by the Mount Greenwood laws. Those laws state that since you were born and raised in Mount Greenwood, you must stay there. You preferably marry someone from the neighborhood, and she should be a friend with one of your friends’ future wives. That makes the whole “hanging out with the same guys you grew up with” a lot easier. The two of you would raise your kids there, keep the same friends (forever), and for God’s sake, don’t ever move. It was and still is a great neighborhood. Personally, I only paid attention to the first two, the born and raised laws. By the way, if you do move, which is frowned upon, sell your house to a fireman or policeman.
One of the local Mt. Greenwood customs that I always found somewhat funny was the way by which you would typically have been judged or described when your name was mentioned in conversation. Here is how it works. Grades, looks, manners, brains, or anything else one would ordinarily find to be personally appealing were never to be considered as primary reasons to judge someone positively or negatively. There was just one measure: baseball, or, for that matter any sport, but in Mount Greenwood it was mostly baseball. If you, post-baseball, became a Nobel Peace prizewinner, lived a life of crime, saved a life, had a perfect grade-point average, became the president of the United States, or cured cancer, it wouldn’t matter. How well you hit during your Mount Greenwood baseball career was the barometer for life. You would always be defined by sports, specifically your Greater Mount Greenwood Baseball League batting average. My dad was always the gauge for knowing how I did; if I made an out and he gave me a one-hand brush away, it was a good hit; they just caught it. If I got the two-hand brush, I was walking home. Eventually, I just took my bike, the Schwinn Continental, to my baseball games. One more thing about Mount Greenwood: if you grew up there, you will always have a special attachment to the neighborhood and to others who grew up there. Hey, you can always exaggerate your batting average.
Although we were somewhat older now, we viewed these trips no differently than we had twenty years before; of course, we used bikes then, and we had to be home by a certain time. But for the most part, it was the same guys I would have been with at ten years old. It’s funny, but as our car inched its way toward good old Wisconsin, the conversation slowly moved from modern day to our childhood. We started out talking about marriage, jobs, kids, and by the time we passed the “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign, we were fighting over musical selections and reliving some of the most unusual stunts pulled by ourselves or friends on past road trips. Of course, if it was a stunt that you were responsible for, it always had to be told by someone else. That way you were made to feel even more moronic than when the actual stunt occurred. These trips typically lasted no more than three days, but during those three days, we were always laughing. Work didn’t matter, age was irrelevant, and we just seemed to disconnect ourselves from the pressures of no longer being a kid. I loved those trips.
The most senior member of the group was Kevin Ashe at thirty-three. If they cloned Norm from “Cheers,” Kevin would be the result. Nicknamed “Emit,” Kevin was single, owned his own company, as well as a tavern and several other endeavors. He has a heart of gold, is a genuinely nice person, and does not have a violent bone in his body. Outside of the fact that he hopes shag carpeting makes a comeback so he doesn’t have to remodel his house, he treats himself and those he calls his friends pretty well. Kevin has friends from the age of twenty-five to eighty-five. Quick story about how thirsty Kevin can get. We were golfing once and Kevin decided to sit out the back nine. When we came into the bar to get him, he turned to the bartender and asked for his bar bill. The bartender replied, “Two dollars a beer…forty-eight dollars, please.” Kevin looked at us and mumbled sarcastically, flashing his patented grin, “I got issues.”
Next on the list was Henry McPhillips, twenty-nine years of age and married. He was a stockbroker for many years and was always up for a good time. He had definitely been looking forward to getting away, since he hadn’t been on this trip in ten years. I hadn’t seen much of Henry in recent years, so I will admit that I was somewhat surprised he was going. Also along for the trip was Henry’s younger brother, Tim. Tim was twenty-seven, and we referred to him as “TP.” Tim, like Henry, was tall and lanky, extremely polite, and absolutely hysterical when the mood was right. Tim was newly married, an electrician, knew every tune from the fifties, and still believes that Elvis is alive. Tim seemed to come alive if there was a theme behind an event. No matter what the event, the number one question from all attending was, “Will TP be there?” Tim used to drag this mannequin around, actually half a mannequin. Tim named him Eugene. He took him to restaurants, weddings—you name it. By the way, Eugene, for lack of a better term, stood up in Tim’s wedding. This alone should make you wish you were with us, or maybe it makes you glad you weren’t.
Joe McAvoy, twenty-eight, was also a newlywed and an electrician like Tim. When you thought of Joe, the first thing that came to mind was his loyalty, especially to the Cubbies. To me, Joe, who was always a good time, was the perfect final touch to this boys’ trip. Joe always stuck with the basics when it came to wardrobes or cars. Joe liked his cars made in America and his wardrobe simple, as long as it was comfortable. Joe always went along with the program, as long as the program included having fun, and he had a knack for keeping things simple. Plus, he had just been married two months earlier, so he said he needed a short vacation.
As I mentioned earlier, I was always the one throwing the party or planning the trip. I was never good at sitting still. Kevin’s dad always said that any bizarre event had me behind it. At that time I had two young children, Katie and Jimmy.
I also like to keep everything I own in its original condition. Whether it is a car, a lawnmower, or a house, it doesn’t matter; I have to keep everything I own in perfect condition. I still have that Schwinn Continental I received when I was twelve, and yes, it is in perfect condition. I had been married to Mary Beth since I was twenty-one. Mary Beth was always the logical one. I was the dreamer and still am. I just figured the more dreams I had, the better my chances of one actually being realized. Mary Beth always thought things through. She was so pretty and still is. If I had a dime for every time I heard, “How’d you get her?”, I could have retired years ago. Mary Beth was the middle one of three sisters. She was very independent and relied on no one. Ever since the day I met her she was independent minded and somewhat on her own.
I have been employed at United Parcel Service (UPS) since I was twenty-three. How I ended up working at UPS was pure luck. I had been driving a truck for a marble company and was barely making ends meet. At the time I had a one-year-old baby and another on the way, and we were broke. We were somehow able to get enough money for a down-payment on a house we bought from my brother Mike. We put every dime we had down on the place, and at the time I was making seven dollars, thirty-five cents an hour, so there weren't a lot of dimes to put down. My brother Steve had applied to work as a UPS package car driver. When they called to offer him the job, he declined because he had recently been offered a job as a police officer and was preparing to enter the police academy. After telling this to my brother Mike, Mike recommended that he call them back and ask if I could have the interview. When I walked in the door, Mary Beth said, “UPS called to see if you would be interested in driving a truck.” I thought to myself, UPS, UPS…oh, the brown trucks. Sure I would, so I called and scheduled my interview for the following day. All went well, and I was hired as a driver; However, after almost a year, they asked me to interview for a management position in sales. I had nothing to lose, and the job appeared to be a good fit. Low and behold, I was awarded the position of account executive. Of course, this meant I had to buy and wear a suit—suits are something I am not a big fan of. However, the opportunity was great. UPS was good to me from day one.
This particular weekend getaway with the friends began with me dropping the kids off at my parents' house while Mary Beth was working. Upon leaving my parents’ house, my mom pleaded with me to stay home. On my way out of my mom's house all I heard was, “I got a bad feeling about this, Brian. All you guys do on these trips is drink beer. Why don’t you just stay home with your wife and kids?” I laughed on the way out the door. She said that exact same thing every time; however, this time she went a bit overboard listing all the reasons we should not go. I'm not sure I ever gave her a reason not to worry; she was pretty much right on most accounts.
We all met at Kevin’s house and piled into his white 1989 Lincoln Town Car. I volunteered to drive. Coincidentally, I was remodeling Kevin’s house at the time. I was converting what was a garage into a family room and was on the last step, the most important step: building the bar. Kevin suggested that we stop at 7-Eleven before we headed north. I had a bad feeling about this first stop. The four ran in and returned with a cheap cooler, ice, and a case of twelve-ounce alcoholic beverages commonly referred to as beer. I popped the trunk from the inside, assuming they would put what they bought in the trunk. The four of them walked right past the open trunk. I kind of laughed, got out, shut the trunk, and asked Kevin if grabbing a case of beer was a good idea. He had his usual sarcastic response, “You’re right. One case might not do it. Hey, Joe, run in and grab another case.” I just shook it off and said, “You guys do your thing and I’ll refrain and drive.” One of them mumbled that that would leave more for them.
The trip to Wisconsin was always interesting. Every ten miles we seemed to become a bit less attached to all our responsibilities. We forgot about work, bills, what my mom said, and just seemed to lose a few years, and it was mandatory that the same music we listened to when we were eighteen was on hand for the trip.
We stopped for lunch outside of Lake Geneva at place called the “Brat Stop.” This place was a taste of what the real Wisconsin was all about. Packers’ signs were everywhere, and every type of cheese made was sold there. We stayed for about an hour and then proceeded to the cottage.
When we arrived, I called every cab and limo company in Lake Geneva. However, each company only had one vehicle, and there were none available. I volunteered to be the designated driver, which meant I would drink half of what the rest did. Typically, that plan worked for about the first half-hour. So off we went to the dog track. While at the Geneva Dog Track, we lost some money, had a few beers, and, as always, verbally abused each other. We left the track at eleven that evening and headed to a bar down the street from the cottage called "Reilly’s North." I had been in there several times over the years. This place was a Wisconsin postcard. It was a small dump nestled in the woods and generally was not crowded. The jukebox hadn’t been updated since Jimmy Carter was in office. That night though, they had a karaoke, so it was busy. God forbid you missed the opportunity to sing “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” which, fifteen years after it came out, was still listed under the “new releases” column.
We arrived there about 11:15 and were greeted with a you're not a local stare by what looked like a sea of John Deere hats. No big deal. We proceeded directly towards the bar. As drinks were ordered, I requested “Cotton Fields,” an old Creedence Clearwater Revival tune for our karaoke song. Ten minutes later we were called. Henry, Tim, Joe, and I went up, while Kevin stayed seated at the bar. We did our thing, two on each microphone. We stirred up a few laughs and a few stares. Afterward, Henry and Kevin ventured to the men's room.
While we listened to the next person onstage, a fight started at the entrance to the men's room. I noticed that Henry was a part of it and was being pushed out the door, while Kevin was trying to be a mediator. Henry’s not a fighter and didn’t even know what caused the problem. Joe and I immediately went over and told him to get back to the bar, which he did. We sat down, but we could see that the trouble was not going to stop. Even though we had nothing to do with it, we decided to finish our drinks and head out of there.
As it turns out, the individual causing the commotion was a local man, Nick Smith. My wife vaguely knew him from her childhood days spent at the cottage. He was at the bar with his wife and her friend. Smith was asked to leave by the bar employees for being unruly. After throwing his drink at the female bartender, he agreed to leave. Smith was tall, skinny, and had long black hair and a beard. The bartender and bouncers escorted him outside. However, he headed back in to get his wife (I guess he forgot about her). The bartender greeted him at the door with profanities, and Smith greeted her with his fist. He knocked her out cold. After seeing this, the other employees and some patrons brought Smith outside the bar for an attitude adjustment. It was at this point that my friends and I decided to leave. The last thing I remember was putting on my jacket and heading for the door.
I was told that as we walked out there was a small brawl off to the right of us, but we kept walking towards the car. I trailed behind my friends. Nick Smith emerged from the brawl somewhat enraged and incoherent. The locals and a few employees had given him a good beating. We happened to be walking to the car as the fight ended, and I was the last of the five of us. Smith assumed that we were part of the group pounding on him and made his way towards us. He ran up behind me and struck me with an upward jolt to the back of my head. I dropped like a rock. I assume that I never saw or heard him coming. Smith proceeded to jump on Henry, screaming, “I am going to break your neck!” The other three removed Smith from Henry as the police arrived on the scene. Someone had called the police prior to the bar employees dragging Smith outside. A female bar patron stood over me so the police would not run me over on the side of the street—I appreciated that. One of the bar patrons and the lady who had been standing over me tried to wake me as the police attempted to sort out what had happened. Their efforts to wake me were in vain, so the lady who had been standing over me approached Kevin and asked him if he was with me. Kevin was shocked to see me lying unconscious on the road—they had not seen me get hit. They also tried to wake me but with no luck. With me still unconscious, Kevin and Joe decided to put me in the Lincoln. They each grabbed an arm and dragged me across the gravel road and laid me in the back seat. An Officer Garner walked over and asked how I ended up on the ground. The lady who had been standing over me when the police turned the corner was the sister of the female bartender who Smith had knocked out, and she had ran outside in pursuit of him in an effort to obtain his license plate number.“That guy hit him!” she said, pointing at Smith. With that being said, the police placed Smith in custody for questioning. While the boys were being questioned, Officer Garner asked if I was a diabetic, due to my rather loud snoring. He had witnessed that kind of snoring with people in a diabetic coma. Kevin replied that I wasn't. While Officer Garner continued to talk to Kevin, Joe very skillfully removed the twenty-four empty beer cans from the backseat floor. Just as he finished tossing the last one into the bushes, another officer approached Joe and pointed toward the empties. “Yours?” he asked. Joe looked over at the pile and responded, “Those, oh, no, those aren’t mine.”
The officer had called an ambulance. I have to tell you that this bar, Reilly’s North, was a classic. It was in the middle of all these cottages, just sitting there on a dirt road. Absolutely a local bar, it had been there for years with one light in front of it; you know, that ugly fluorescent light that stands about fifteen feet in the air and casts a strange light in only one direction. It was the kind of place where beer in bottles was an upgrade.
Joe McAvoy accompanied me in the ambulance, while the other three went back into the bar and had a few cold beers with the employees and patrons who were involved in the “mixed-up-no-martial-art-skill brawl.” They stayed there until the police took them back to the cottage. From what I was told, the drive back to the cottage was quite humorous. The house we were staying at was difficult to find if you were not familiar with it, and the remaining three knuckleheads spent an hour in the back of a squad, with the officer threatening to either drop them off where they were or bring them to the station if he didn't find the damn house. Keep in mind that the cottage was only three blocks from the bar. No charges were filed against Nick Smith that night, and the police escorted him home. The policeman, it turns out, was a childhood friend of Smith's.
I arrived at a trauma center in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, at ten minutes after one in the morning. As they wheeled me in, Joe said the doctor commented, “Another drunken casualty from the Geneva strip.” Joe disputed that remark, arguing that there had been a fight at the bar and I was struck in the head while walking to the car. Knowing Joe, he most likely worded that last statement a bit differently, but I’m sure you get the picture. Because I had been at a bar, the doctor assumed I was intoxicated. I suppose he also assumed that I normally bled from the back my head. No testing was performed. I was given an IV and placed in a room to sleep it off.
My wife, Mary Beth, was not notified until Sunday morning. When she was contacted, the nurse had told her, “We believe that Brian is sleeping off a hangover, so you can pick him up later. He should be released by noon.”
Mary Beth replied that although I like to have a couple of beers once in a while, it would be out of character for me to drink enough to pass out, let alone not move for what had been about ten hours. The nurse said that the hospital was considering doing a cat scan, since I was incoherent and could not walk. Sounds like this hospital had a pretty sharp staff; imagine having the ability to call for a cat scan when all you have to go on is a head that was bleeding hours earlier coupled with the inability to walk or stay awake. I lucked out. My wife called the cottage and spoke to Kevin, who told her that he had called the hospital, and they told him that I was okay and that she would be picking me up.
My wife notified my family of what had happened and was preparing to get me. My brother Steve, a police officer, was skeptical and wanted to make sure everything was okay, so he called the hospital to talk to me. Steve was always a hothead, loved to mix it up when he was younger, and had a true belief in the “don’t do the crime if you can't do the time” theory. He was an absolute pain in my side while we were growing up; however, due to his manners, all the adults liked Steve. The nurse told him that I couldn't get up because I was drowsy and there was no phone in my room, but I was doing well. The nurse also informed Steve that she was able to wake me up and I had told her that I worked at Citibank and had two daughters. Steve was not happy, because that information was absolutely incorrect. I didn’t have two daughters and did not work at Citibank. I’m sure Steve politely explained that to the staff.
Steve called Mary Beth and repeated his phone conversation with the nurse. She then called the hospital screaming. They told her they were doing a cat scan and would be finished by the time she arrived in Wisconsin. Before Mary Beth headed north towards Wisconsin, she had picked up my mother and her father, James. I wonder how many times my mom said, “I told him not to go…. I’m sure he’ll be fine…damn kid.” They arrived at the cottage at one in the afternoon to grab my belongings. When Mary Beth called the hospital to inquire about my status, the nurse asked, “How quickly can you get here?” When Mary Beth asked why, the nurse informed her that I had sustained a subdural brain hemorrhage and that they were preparing me for a transfer to a hospital in Milwaukee via helicopter (weather permitting, since a snow and ice storm was occurring at the time). They were unable to treat me due to the severity of my condition.
I was transferred via an Intensive Care Transfer Unit to a trauma center in Milwaukee and arrived around five that evening. Additional MRIs, cat scans, and tests were administered. I was diagnosed with a subdural brain hemorrhage, the dura (the sack around the brain) was leaking, and the brain was swelling due to the velocity of the initial strike and the impact of the pavement. My brain had sustained lacerations across the front, and the left side and was bleeding. Due to the severity, the initial intent was to have a helicopter move me to Milwaukee; however, the weather would not permit such a move, so an Intensive Care Ambulance was called. My wife and my mom followed the ambulance to the hospital.
Upon entering the intensive care unit, Mary Beth was greeted with this gracious question, “Would you like to complete the organ donor form?” Not, “Are you thirsty after your drive? Do you need to use the bathroom?” or maybe something like, “Would you like to know where the phone is located?” No, none of that; let’s have Nurse Pessimist greet the wife and mom.
The neurosurgeon told Mary Beth that it would be a few days before they even knew if I would make it, because the swelling had not peeked yet. He had seen patients with less damage than I had die. Nice little pick-me-up there. And if I did survive, they had no way of knowing to what degree I would recover. The neuro-intensive care unit was where I would call home until a move could be made to transfer me closer to home.
Most of this time I was unresponsive, sometimes being stirred by a deep sternum rub, where someone digs their knuckles into your sternum to stimulate a reaction. I was tied to the bed because I would become combative, as is the case with most traumatic brain injuries. There was swelling to the cranium, which makes you look like a basketball on a toothpick. Due to the fractured skull, bleeding had turned parts of my face purple. This is a very strange stage of the injury; you may say something after being given sternum rubs, your eyes may never open, subconsciously you may occasionally blurt out a statement, and some of these often came out of nowhere, with little to no real meaning. In some cases my comments were inappropriate. For example, there was the time I gave the nurse my personal comments on her breast size as she was leaning over me. Of course, my oldest brother, Mike, thought these were signs I would be just fine. They said my lack of inhibitions were normal for someone who had suffered a brain trauma. I guess if you were going to get Tourette's syndrome, this was as good a time as any. There were times the brief statements were a bit emotional, and that was due to the location of my injury. For whatever reason, I wish I could go back and just watch how I reacted when I was awake. It is quite strange to know that this and hundreds of other situations occurred involving me and I have no recollection of any of them.
I was given a Glasgow coma rating sometime during my arrival at the trauma center in Milwaukee. The Glasgow rating system is designed to determine the depth of a coma. My initial ranking was a six, and that was after eighteen hours. Let me give you an idea as to what that score means in regards to how severe my injury was: fifty percent of those with a score of less than eight die within six hours.
When I was awakened, though it was always brief, I was only aware of who I was and of the people I recognized; not the time, the place, or what had happened to me. I always wanted to be untied from the bed and to go home. One night I escaped from the intensive care unit while tied to the bed. I pulled out my IVs and catheter and proceeded completely naked out the electric-censored door and down the hallway to a bathroom. I must have dragged my right side, because there was partial paralysis on that side. So naked and dragging the right side, I was not a pretty sight. The nurses followed the trail of blood and found me lying face down on the bathroom floor. I guess, even though I have no memory of ever being in that hospital, I was and still am proud to be the first patient to escape from the intensive care unit. Unfortunately, because of increased swelling, my condition did not get any better.
My family spent Thanksgiving Day in the hospital cafeteria consuming mystery meat. My brothers Mike and Steve, my younger sister Marilyn, as well as my dad and last brother, John, were present. John is the one I have the most in common with in regards to my brothers. When John had spoken with my mom via phone two days after this happened, she told him, like most disillusioned mothers, that I would be fine. John asked to speak with Mike, and because my father was recovering from a stroke he had suffered months earlier, and Mom is, well, Mom, the doctors had spoken to Mike upon his request. Mike told John, “You best get here quick. The doctors told me they don’t see him living past Thanksgiving, and if he pulls through, he will most likely be a vegetable. My mom had told me that she was in the room when Mike had asked the doctor about my prognosis. When the doctor mentioned that I would have limited cognitive function and my arms and legs would never work, Mom could not handle it and walked out. The best part was her rational for walking out: "How could he say you would never walk, you just escaped from intensive care a few days earlier, so your legs were fine!" Right on, Mom.
My favorite “arriving in the room and seeing me hooked up to every life support system” story was the one about my brother Steve. I was told he walked in, looked at me, took a pair of rubber gloves from the table, ripped them in half, cried a bit, and told Marilyn’s husband, Jim, “Get the car.”
Kevin had driven up from Chicago and also spent that day with my family. Kevin was considered the mayor of the area we grew up in; if you wanted to know what was going on, ask Kevin. Prior to leaving with Jim to revisit the scene of the crime, Steve told Kevin, “Tell me what happened.” Kevin had been Steve’s best friend since childhood. Kevin said, “We didn’t do a thing to the guy. Brian just happened to be the first one he came across. I never even saw it happen. One minute we’re leaving, and the next Brian is sprawled out on the street.” The explanation from Kevin just made Steve angrier.
As for my typical demeanor, I’m told that if the nurses were able to wake me, one eye would open, and normally whoever was there with me would hear the same thing from me. I would ask them to hold my hand, and I would only call them by their complete first name—no nicknames, no cutting it short; I would tell them how much I loved them and ask them to rub my head because it was on fire. I am told this would turn on the human tear machine. I should mention that the other four who accompanied me on this trip went through extreme guilt over what had happened. According to their wives, they would not answer the phone, for they were afraid of what they might hear, and Henry took my situation especially hard. Henry cried for days. Henry knew that the person who hit me recognized him prior to hitting me, and that I was just a speed bump before he got to Henry. That little bathroom scene was obviously a bit more intense than we thought, even though I believe Henry was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have always felt bad about how much this affected those guys. It wasn’t their fault. To this day they still prefer not to talk about it, and if they do, you can still see it bothers them. I believe they always had the feeling that they could have done something. The sad thing is, I never see them anymore; brain injuries tend to leave those close to you thinking differently of you, unable to understand the changes. Here is a strange twist: Henry and Tim went to morning mass every day to pray for me, and the name of the priest was Father Sweeney, the same last name as mine.
I have to explain the trip back to Lake Geneva that my brother Steve and brother-in-law Jim took. Jim had told me that from the hospital to the bar where the incident happened, Steve held his loaded gun in his hand. Jim said that the circumstances they were possibly going to encounter were racing through his head; however, the momentum of the situation carried them right to the bar. Steve and Jim arrived at "Reilly's North" around three in the afternoon. Before getting out of the car, Steve asked Jim, “You with me?” to which Jim replied, “Yeah, I’m with you.”
As they walked in, Jim said you could just feel the anger and energy go in the door with them. There were several people scattered around the bar, and the two sat down. They ordered something to drink, and a few moments later Steve walked up to every person in the place and asked, “What happened here last Saturday?” Steve was not very quiet with his delivery of that particular question, and as he addressed one person, everyone in the place heard the question. The joint went silent. Jim told me you could hear dust fall. Jim was watching the faces of everyone in there, all the time knowing that if someone got one bit defensive with Steve’s questioning, the worst was possible.
Steve finally encountered the owner of the establishment and, without hesitation, asked him, “What happened here last Saturday?” Jim said he was sweating, absolutely convinced that something bad was going to happen. With a bit of arrogance, the bar owner said, “From what I understand, these guys from Chicago came up here, and it sounds like one got what he deserved.” Wrong answer. Steve grabbed the guy and told him, “That guy is my brother, and he’s dying, so you better give me another explanation.” The owner spotted Steve’s gun, which I believe was located quite close to his face, and discovered a more honest approach. “I thought you were lawyers. I wasn’t even here.” Jim was watching every face in the bar, waiting for someone to move, but nobody did. The same energy that carried the two of them in carried the two of them out. They went back to my in-laws cottage and sat down in the kitchen while the adrenalin proceeded to leave their bodies.
Jim recently told me that the chain of events—the drive back, walking in the bar, watching the faces as the place went silent, and, most of all, knowing the potential of what could have happened, and thank God for what didn’t happen—is a day his memory will never be able to erase. Jim finished by saying, “You see what we did in the movies, and when it was over, you can’t believe it happened. To see how that went down and to feel what I felt was indescribable."
Eventually, the two of them made their way to the local police station. That visit was a bit more relaxed. I think Jim just stayed in the car.
From Every 21 Seconds by Brian D. Sweeney, published by Tate Publishing & Enterprises. Copyright © 2009 Brian D. Sweeney. Reprinted with the author's permission. All rights reserved. www.tatepublishing.com.