As I’m writing this, exactly six months ago today was the worst day of my life. No, I didn’t lose my job or break up with my boyfriend. I didn’t miss tickets for my favourite band, get in a fight with my best friend or get a bad haircut. As part of a generation who exaggerates as readily as we breathe, I can without contemplation say that July 8, 2014 was actually the worst day of my life. It was the day my brother died.
Jordan, my brother.
It’s easy to go about your life not taking responsibility for the place you hold. It’s easy to blame other people or say, “good things come to those who wait.” Passivity is, let’s face it, the easy way, and we all do it at some point. But when my brother got into a car accident all I could do was wait and wonder, “why him? Why my brother?” and on that day I’d have done anything to have had an active choice.
Jordan was driving on his way home from work in the rain. It was the worst rain we had all summer. I spoke to a cab driver some months later who remembered this as the day his entire basement flooded—but I’ll always remember it as something more. While the reports are mixed, speed and the weather were most likely the factors that lead to my brother’s accident. After swerving into the opposing lane, he hit an oncoming van and veered into the ditch. The family in the other vehicle was fine, if a little banged up, but my brother was not. An ambulance was called and, according to a paramedic I later spoke to, it arrived on the scene within seven minutes. They pulled my brother from the car, and at this time he was unconscious and seizing for over five minutes. The paramedic said that in his experience, when he has seen an accident victim seizure for more than 30 seconds the person is, as he put it, a “goner.” He said he was sure that my brother wouldn’t make it. And according to my brother’s lawyer’s reports, he should have been right: Jordan died on that scene.
But he was revived.
All the while that my brother was fighting for his life I had no idea. I was at home. It was just like any other day and my brother should have been back in an hour or so. But when a knock came at the door it wasn’t one of his friends arriving to see him. It was a police officer. I had to assume Jordan or my mother had done something wrong. It didn’t even cross my mind that something genuinely horrible could have happened. I dialed my mother’s phone number since the officer wouldn’t tell me what the problem was. It wasn’t until I overheard their conversation that I knew something terrible had occured. My chest tightened up in a panic I’ve never felt before, but one that, since, would become very familiar to me. The police officer hung up the phone and told me that someone driving my brother’s car had been in an accident and was in the hospital.
I pictured the worst. Why couldn’t they recognize him? He must be unconscious and disfigured, I thought. But then I remembered that he left his wallet, as usual, on the kitchen table that morning. That gave me hope as far as disfigurement, but reasoning led me to believe he must still be unresponsive. How bad was it?
Whilst these thoughts whirled about my mind I brushed my teeth, changed my shirt, tied my hair up. I think I was in shock. When your brother might be in the hospital dying, the colour of your shirt ought to be the last thing on your mind, but my mind hadn’t fully grasped the situation. Led by the now heightening panic I had felt initially, I ran to the hospital. During that run, I’ve never felt more afraid or weaker. In that moment my legs were too slow and my lungs were too tight and my body seemed to barely move while my mind went a mile a minute. I got to the hospital and asked a janitor where car accident patients would be. He answered in a nonchalant way, not realizing that saying the words out loud to him was the hardest thing I had ever had to do up until that moment. Saying it out loud made it real. And as I moved in the direction appointed, hearing my mother crying made it realer still.
In a room with lighting and wallpaper as bleak as the immediate prospects of any person forced to sit there, hospital attendants briefly explained what happened. I barely listened. The only thing I wanted to see or hear was my brother. They lead us down the hall into a private room, and there I got my wish. My brother was lying on a stretcher in the middle of the space. His face was fully intact. He looked like he was asleep, except for the seizing and the machines that were hooked up to his body. It was the most surreal moment of my life. That man laying on the hospital bed unconscious was the same one who came home every day from work, the same one who played with our dog and cooked us steaks and made us laugh harder than anyone else could. But it is easy for the mind to compartmentalize and disassociate. From the moment I looked down at my brother in that hospital bed I separated him from the memories of everyday life. There was Jordan before the accident, and now there was this new person whose outcome was as of yet unclear. To allow my mind to fully grasp what was happening was too much.
Jordan and me at our cottage, May 24 weekend, 2014
I realized that my father still had no idea. I called him, and when he answered I could barely speak.
Whether it was my dad’s bad hearing, my muddled speech, or the inability to comprehend such a life altering statement, my father asked me to repeat myself.
“Jordan is in the hospital. Just come here.”
I hung up.
I don’t know how long it took my father to get there. I don’t know where he was driving from but it can’t have been far. When he arrived he looked confused and worried, but perhaps that is an understatement. As he walked into the room and saw his son’s unresponsive body, all colour left his face. At some point we were informed that Jordan was next in line for the helicopter that would take him to get the treatment that could save his life; it was between him and one other patient, and the patient whose situation was direr would go first. My brother was chosen to go first.
I don’t remember much of the scene that followed. I think we can’t have waited more than an hour but it felt like years. Looking down at my brother I felt constantly dizzy and fought my body’s instinct to pass out. My mind had decided that the situation was too much for my body to handle but I fought it. Throughout the wait, I called two of Jordan’s best friends and my father called my cousin. Hearing my father say the words out loud hurt more than saying them myself. Anyone I spoke to sounded like they didn’t believe me when I told them what happened. But when the time came to drive to Hamilton to meet my brother at the ICU, there they all were. I only called two people, two of his best friends, but when I walked out of the hospital three or four were there waiting. When we got to the Hamilton Hospital, there were at least ten. And by the end of the night as we all waited to hear whether my brother would live or die, there were at least twenty of his closest friends and family there waiting.
It’s possible that amongst all the pressure, my narrative and timeline might differ from that of the other two-dozen people who were present. But what I remember the most as we waited for the best or worst news we would ever hear is that the only thing that got me through it were friends and family. Any time it got to be too much, which was a phenomenon that occurred more often than not, there was always a shoulder to cry on, for any of us. By the end of the night we were told that it looked like Jordan would live. But there was swelling and bleeding in his brain and the next 72 hours would tell if he would need surgery. That night we all went home, emotionally and physically exhausted, except for my father. Knowing that my dad was still there in case any thing took a turn for the worse was as big of a relief as we could have asked for at that moment.
We took a photograph of just some of the people who were still there the first night and everyone signed it for Jordan over the weeks to come.
The next day, or maybe it was the day after that, we were told that Jordan would need a bi-frontal bone flap removal of his frontal skull. They would remove two pieces of bone from his head on either side in order to relieve the now growing pressure of his ever-swelling brain. The surgery was done routinely, and my brother’s life was saved once again—but just how much of a life that would be, no one knew.
For the next while, I went to the hospital wearing Jordan’s plaid shirt every day. It made me feel closer to him in a time when, even though I was right beside him, he had never felt further away. I made it to two weeks straight before my mother said it would have to be washed, and she was probably right. Throughout the next few weeks Jordan’s vitals remained relatively stable but his blood pressure was high. High blood pressure meant the swelling in his brain could not go down, and it was this that would cause permanent damage. I sat next to his bed quietly, holding his hand and watching the numbers on the machines. I memorized every medication being fed into his body— Fentanyl, Ciprofloxacin, Propofol, Midazolam—and I listed them over and over in my head to keep from crying. The nurses said he could hear us crying, and I knew this to be true from watching the numbers. Anytime some one would get audibly upset in Jordan’s vicinity, his blood pressure would rise. So I sat there in silence and waited.
One day, during what I think was still the first week post-accident, we were called into a private room for a meeting with a neurologist. Immediate family only was requested, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s who came. My mother, father, and cousin came in the room, but so did three or four of his best friends. When the doctor asked each person his relationship to Jordan, each friend said, “I’m his brother.” The doctor didn’t question it, even though one of the friends was visibly of a completely different ethnicity. For this I’m glad, because in this moment, we all needed to be there—for Jordan, for ourselves, and for each other. It was in this meeting that we learned that the areas of the brain responsible for personality and memory were, though damaged, relatively the least affected. But the motor function areas had been hit the worst. It was called a “shearing” head injury, and one nurse said it was the worst possible brain injury one can acquire, before stopping to correct and compose herself. A few days later we were told that the damage was irreversible.
These days were the hardest thing I have ever experienced. When I was with my friends and family I was distracted. They brought a solidarity and necessary humour into a situation that was otherwise dismal. They wouldn’t for a second—at least not out loud—let anyone believe that Jordan wasn’t going to get one hundred percent better. And sometimes, I believed them. When I was alone, it was harder. When I wasn’t depending on Xanax for temporary mental relief, I felt genuinely crazy. I wondered if my brother would survive, and if he did, would he have a life worth surviving for? I knew that if he came out of his coma without being able to function, that he would have rather died. I feared this the most. I wondered what I would do if Jordan didn’t live, if I would even want to remain living, but knowing that Jordan would need me when he woke up kept me strong.
And he did. Jordan woke up from his coma about two weeks after the accident. This was both a blessing and a huge shock. We still had been holding onto the flimsy hope that when Jordan woke from the coma he would be himself. But he wasn’t. His eyes were open but they couldn’t register. He couldn’t see us and we weren’t sure if he could hear us anymore. But I talked to him and told him stories. I told him about what had gone on since the accident and tried to sound as hopeful as possible. There were a few nurses who said Jordan would stay in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. I couldn’t let myself believe this because any moment where I did was the darkest I’ve ever had. But not long after waking, within the third week, Jordan started proving those nurses wrong—and from there, he hasn’t stopped since.
The first indication that Jordan was still responsive came in the form of a simple hand gesture. We asked him to squeeze our hand if he could hear us, and he did, but it was hard to be sure that it wasn’t his brain misfiring. Then one day, my father asked Jordan to give him a thumbs up, and he did. My dad told the doctors, and they confirmed it to be true and ran and got more doctors. They were all impressed. Jordan was acting against all odds and medical precedent. From there progress was small but steady and significant. Jordan’s eyes began to focus more, he responded to more gesture commands, and he was sat up in a wheel chair with support. Still, despite all progress, even after moving back to the hospital in our hometown with secure vitals, it was unclear whether Jordan himself was still there.
Amongst the hardest days of my life was also one of the best. One of Jordan’s friends, my father, and myself were sitting beside him. I was playing his favourite songs, which he had been responding to by tapping his feet and looking to see where the sound was coming from. Roy, the friend, was making fun of Jordan light-heartedly, and I suggested that Jordan should “kick Roy.” Jordan lifted his leg, and booted Roy in the chest. I don’t think Roy has ever been so happy to be assaulted. As if that wasn’t enough, my dad made a joke, which I won’t repeat here, and Jordan laughed. Seeing him smile and laugh for the first time since the accident was one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced. I left the hospital that day feeling genuinely hopeful not because I had to be, but because for the first time, I really felt I could be.
Jordan and some of our friends in our hometown hospital. Still kicking Roy.
From that day on Jordan continued to progress at a remarkable—even miraculous—rate. He went from a man who was predicted to be catatonic for the rest of his life to being fully responsive. The first time we heard him speak was one of the best sounds we’ve ever heard. Steadily from there, Jordan got his voice back and started physical therapy. He went from moving his arms and legs to sitting up and eventually to standing and shuffling. After being moved to a physical rehab centre, Jordan began walking. Each day he walked further than he had the day before. It was a surgery that saved his life, but Jordan’s motivation and will are what got him as far as he has come—that, and according to him, the support of all of his friends and family. A few months after the accident occurred, Jordan finally got to come home.
Jordan finding out the expected day he could finally go home from physical rehab.
Now, my brother is walking almost entirely unassisted. He no longer needs a wheelchair and he’s doing more and more things on his own. He has been walking on a treadmill and swimming. But most importantly, he is completely himself. His personality hasn’t changed at all. He still has the exact same humour, the exact same stubborn streak that we love because it was that stubbornness that made him survive. It’s hard not to repeat the fact that this has been the most difficult thing that any of us—especially Jordan—have ever done. Even writing this was a huge challenge. The entire experience is one that I will never get over because from the moment I saw my brother’s comatose body, some part of me had no choice but to start grieving his loss. Emotionally, we all lost something that day we may never get back. But today, exactly six months after the accident, Jordan got his final surgery to place the pieces of his skull back inside his head. Now, both symbolically and physically, Jordan can only get better from here.
On the day of the accident, when we first arrived outside of the hospital as Jordan’s helicopter touched down, there were two rainbows casting their mark in the sky. Though I’m a notoriously unspiritual person, I chose to interpret this to be a sign that Jordan was going to be okay. I took a photograph of it and decided I would show it to him when he woke up. Now, six months later, the shadow of that fateful day has finally retreated, and I think we are all better people for having gone through it. Jordan is alive and well and I couldn’t possibly be more relieved and thankful to know that today…
I have my big brother back.
July 8, 2014