The long wait
I picked his mother up from the airport. She looked at me from under the pink brim of her baseball cap, searching for answers in my eyes.
I had nothing.
New Year’s Day, a day of renewal. It was after dark as I led Mike’s mother to the car in the airport parking deck.
“What the hell happened,” she asked.
I went through the story. In my mind, it has the rhythm of a police report.
10:30 pm Friends are gathered at my west Midtown condo, planning for a night on the town.
11 pm We park our car somewhere near Blake’s. I am still drinking.
11:30 pm My wife says I should slow down. I start to cry a little. I’m worn out. I planned her birthday party, held the night before, and planned it for months. Her 30th on the 30th. I didn’t dare disappoint. Still think it was worth it.
11:35 pm I bid my friends good night as the champagne glasses make their way into the hands of the people at Blake’s. I tell them I’m tired. What I don’t tell them is that when I’m in a bar, I have to drink. I think I have no control over it.
3 am I’m home and in bed. My wife is in her wifey gown, a phone pressed to her ear. What is it? She looks at me, “They can’t find him.”
6 am Mike is missing. I’ve known him for years. He was in my wedding. My wife has known him longer. He’s missing. I’m calling the morgue. It is the last call I make, the one I make only to rule out the possibility. They check. There is silence. The receptionist returns. They tell me he isn’t there. But we don’t know where he is.
8 am I’m wearing the same clothes as last night, jeans and a wrinkled polo. I’m at the CNN Center. I can see myself reflected in the big glass door as the lobby teems with tourists. I am almost shoving my way through them. I go to the nearest police substation. I am begging them, pleading with them, to call the hospital.
I’ve called Grady several times and they deny my friend is there. I explain to the officer that he’s from out of town and due home this evening. I ask the officer to call, hoping that Grady staffers will be more forthcoming with them. I don’t know why my gut tells me he’s in the hospital. I just have that feeling.
My eyes search the eyes of the officer, hoping she will understand. She shakes her head no. Atlanta Police Officers are as impartial as death.
I keep looking.
3 pm I’ve gone by Blake’s. Nothing. Gone to where my friends last saw him on the sidewalk. Nothing. They had been trying to get him home, but he got away from them. It was 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day in Atlanta. The patrons swarmed to their cars and he was lost in the crowd. None of my friends that were visiting that evening has lived in Atlanta, or spends much time here. At this time, I’ve only been in town six months. I’m about to get a rude awakening.
I am at my neighbor’s apartment. We are printing flyers with Mike’s picture on it. The police will not open a case file on him because they say it’s too early, but something is wrong. His car is in my condo parking lot. He was supposed to leave today. He had to get back to work. He would never shirk his responsibilities. Not him. Not as long as I’ve known him. Something is wrong.
As I am about to begin passing the flyers around, his mom texts us. She asks me what happened. I tell her right up until the point we lost track of him.
“You don’t know where he is,” she asks.
“No,” I said. “And we were waiting to call you because we didn’t want to worry you unnecessarily.”
“Dan,” she said. “He’s in Grady.”
My wife collapses onto the sidewalk.
6 pm It’s New Year’s day. Mike lies in a medically-induced coma, tubes snaking in and out of him like he’s a cyborg transitioning into a full-fledged robot. He has a breathing mask and bruises. All I know is he was struck by a car. That’s all I know.
This happens often in Atlanta, I later learn.
After I finished the play-by-play, his mother sat there quietly staring at the dashboard as the lights on the interstate fluttered above us.
We found Grady, a task that proves elusive, even now. You go to Grady when you need to be there, not when you want to be there. The hospital has no effusive healing cheer or religious platitudes written on the wall. This night it’s a shadowy fortress. Inside, people who have brushed cheeks with their Maker struggle to survive.
The security guard assessed Mike’s mom and motioned toward the elevator. We went up to the Intensive Care Unit.
Only two people at a time can visit someone in an ICU room. One of us wanted to go in with her. I thought I could handle it. The automatic doors opened. The mother looked at her son, frail and subdued, ensnared by tubes. She let out a sound that made me think of a ghost wail.
She fell apart. Right there in front of me, she swooped to his bedside, picked up a hand connected by a tube to the evolving machine.
There are moments where life becomes crystalline for a second and the unknowable truth of it becomes fleetingly apparent before you can truly know it. One of those moments was my wife walking down the aisle at our wedding, always lovely, always in slow motion. This was another one of those moments, the mom at the hospital bedside of her broken child.
It was 12 pm, the day after the beginning of a new year, the day of Mike’s surgery. We began putting the mother’s baby boy back together.
Mike’s other family members had rushed in from out of town. The doctors had stopped the bleeding on Jan. 1 and on Jan. 2 they went in to fix what could be fixed.
Before the surgery, the doctor looked at the family gathered in the waiting room. “I bring babies back to their mommas,” he said.
He went to work.
The minutes dripped by. Every time a baby is born at Grady, a soft lullaby plays through the speakers. I updated people via Facebook. Friends from all over the country had begun monitoring the proceedings. Some people wanted to come by and see him, but I discouraged it. He’s in a coma, I thought. He looked terrible. The visits wouldn’t be for him, I decided.
I did many things hoping they were the right things. Even with the benefit of hindsight, you can’t be completely sure. More minutes passed.
The doctor walked back in and gave a nod. The surgery was over. The mending began.
Within days the doctors and his family arranged for Mike’s travel back to Alabama. He was in nursing school and would be closer to family there.
My vigil was over. I could rest easy, but I couldn’t shake it. I began waiting for my friend to wake up from his coma.
When he opened his eyes and looked at the room around him, who would he hold accountable for his predicament? My wife and I were terrified that it would be us.
I began writing my novel around this time.
I called it “The Art in the Park.” It’s about a group of 30 somethings who gather around a piece of art in a public park called “The Dream.” They each see in it what they want to see. For each person, The Dream is different, and when they stare at it the pain in their lives evaporates.
The protagonists learn the city intends to knock it down. The subsequent crisis forces them to admit their dependence on the trivial. It forces them to address their failures, professional and personal. Some handle it better than others.
Meanwhile, the world around them is spinning out of control because of the things they’ve done to save their Dream. I won’t tell you how it ends, because I’m not certain on that point.
Also, the Dream is a rift in space time. Or something.
I wrote it all down in three months. I was 31. It was 2012. I had to write a novel. It was inevitable. It needed to be crossed off my list, at least once.
We visited Mike in the hospital in Alabama. He was awake but unable to talk. He squeezed our hands.
One night a few weeks later Mike called us, his raspy voice asking for more details.
Three months later, Mike had fully recovered.
I hugged him for the first time and, thankfully, he hugged me back.
Months after that, I went to Mike’s graduation. I expected a cathartic moment, but graduations are incredibly overdone, like a Viking funeral for a portion of your future income. This was the day I put on my calendar as my benchmark for closure. It was a happy moment, but unmemorable. We did have a nice lunch, as I recall.
Closure, I think, came more than a year later. We were sitting at a brew pub in Birmingham. Mike lifted his glass high and I held up a cupped hand in solidarity because I’d decided drinking was a dead end. As we chatted, we got onto the topic of whether he could remember anything from the coma.
“Yes,” he said. “I can remember it, but the memories are like dreams. I remember feeling like there was someone in a room. Then I remember being at some old lady’s mansion, and that she had an incredibly long flight of stairs. I remember running on those stairs, like I was being chased.”
We discussed the future for awhile, successful careers, children and other dreams.
I didn’t make any promises about the future, but made a vow to see as much of it as I can.