Friday, November 30, 2007

To Find Hope in Suffering

We call her Didi, which is the shortened form of her birth name, Deanna. My grandfather said that her first spoken words were Shut up and No. She was dragged through a manure pile by a wild 4H calf when she was about thirteen as she tried to halter train it and teach it to obey commands in preparation for the county fair. Barbed wire scarred her leg when her ornery horse, Little Star, tried to rub her off by galloping nonchalantly along the neighbor's barbed wire fence. I often wondered if Little Star was my sister's kindred spirit. With determination, she finally broke Little Star, but the crafty colt managed to have the final word by biting her in the rear while she saddled the young horse. These toughening years prepared my sister to endure pain that lay in wait, lurking, years later in her life.

* * *

On top of the hay wagon, Didi jabbed the long tines of the fork into the bales of hay, stomping on them a few times to be sure they were secure, as though her life depended on it. She signaled to Dad on the tractor that the bales were ready to be lifted. The tractor moved forward, tightening the rope that went over a pulley at the top of the hay mow, and the bales ascended. Upon hitting the pulley, the bales rushed into the hay mow, and then dropped when my brother, who was waiting in the steamy mow, tugged hard on the rope that hung from the bales. This released the bales and they tumbled to the top of the other bales like giant building blocks. Inside the hay mow, Gary had the arduous task of removing the tines from the bales, stacking the bales to keep some semblance of order, and signaling to Dad that he was finished. The process would be repeated again and again, load after load until after the sun set.

* * *

As we gingerly walked by the thornapple tree in the farm's pasture, Didi stepped on a thorn, its angry wooden barbs jabbing halfway into her foot. Realizing that we couldn't remove the thorn ourselves, my Gary knelt down in silence while Didi climbed onto his back, holding the thorn-punctured foot clear of anything that could touch it. Tears streamed down Didi's cheeks but she remained quiet until we reached the house. I ran ahead to tell Mom what had happened and she held the door open as Didi gingerly climbed off Gary's back, putting weight only on her good foot. Mom ran a shallow warm bath with Epsom's salt, which was the cure for nearly everything, and Didi soaked her foot for a while, screaming if Mom even attempted to look at the injured foot. Gramp slowly walked into the bathroom and ordered Didi to show him her foot. From the pliers pocket of his denim overalls, he slowly removed his pliers, the same ones he used to pull out loose teeth and knock butting calves on the head during feeding. Gramp carefully but firmly tugged on the thorn with the precision of a brain surgeon while my sister screamed. After about three good tugs, the thorn reluctantly gave out and Gramp's firm voice shamed my sister, "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" My sister sat on the edge of the tub with her foot in her lap, whimpering, casting angry looks at Gramp and Mom. Mom quickly made a milk poultice and wrapped it around my sister's foot, pressing the milky bread over the puncture. Gramp confirmed this would help to heal and draw out any infection or germs lurking inside the wound.

* * *

Dad had Didi pinned against the wall in front of the stanchions as he kept hitting her in the face, over and over again. What did she do? My nine-year-old mind couldn't make sense of what I saw. I quickly ran to the house for Gram.

"Gram! He's killing her! Quick, you have to come to the barn. Dad's killing Didi!"

Gram plodded quickly into the kitchen from the living room where she was watching the nightly news or Hogan's Heroes. Winded, she looked at me with a mixed expression of not knowing what to say and disbelief. I turned and ran back to the barn. By the time I returned, the incident was over. Didi was crying quietly, but back milking cows, dabbing at her bloody nose with coarse paper towel from the milkhouse. Vivid red blood marked the white paper towels that she threw into the gutters and were proof of what had just taken place. Mom was very quiet and angry and she busied herself to finish the chores. Dad was nowhere to be seen.

Gram came into the barn shortly after me. There was an odd sense when Gram visited the barn; this was a rare occurrence and signaled that something was out of order. She asked a few questions and looked around, then turned and went back to the house, not knowing what else to do.

* * *

Didi was twenty-one when her first child, Brandon, was born. He was the first grandchild in the family. He was robust with smiley blue eyes. We all bragged that he weight 9 lbs. 5 oz., and my sister delivered him naturally. Didi took only the best care of herself while she was pregnant with Brandon, quit smoking as soon as she learned she was pregnant, and gave the habit up for life. She milked the cows morning and night and performed all of the odd jobs in the barn after the chores were done, right up until Brandon was born, providing all the exercise she needed. Even in the hottest month of August when the cows are hot and there is not a breath of fresh air in the barn or outside, she continued to milk the cows so her husband could finish the fieldwork.

Didi breast-fed Brandon until he was nine months old because she wanted only the best for him. The whole family couldn't seem to get enough of him. He was the focal point of all family gatherings.

When Brandon was eleven-months-old, he came down with a cold. The doctor gave him baby aspirin and told my sister to bring him back in a few days if he didn't get better. Didi took Brandon back to the doctor the next day because he still had a fever and was generally miserable. Doc Lindberg gave him more baby aspirin. On the way home from the doctor's office, Brandon started having convulsions. My sister rushed him to the hospital where he continued to have convulsions growing with intensity all through the night, while my sister clung to him and begged the nurses for help. He was not seen at the hospital by a doctor and the nurses only came in to take his temperature. The next morning my sister left the hospital and took Brandon to the emergency room at a larger hospital. Before medication could be administered for the seizures, the baby aspirin had to be pumped out of his system. The doctors speculated that an overdose of baby aspirin was the cause of his seizures.

Brandon's eyes said something was wrong. He looked right as us but didn't register anything. His seizures were very strong and could not be masked with Dialantin or Phenobarbital. He actually bit off a piece of his tongue during a seizure. CAT scans showed a great deal of seizure activity and the cause of the illness as baby aspirin overdose was ruled out.

The doctor gathered us all together to tell us there was something to be grateful for in all of this. The CAT scan showed no sign of brain damage. Once this virus ran its course and the seizures were under control, Brandon was going to be himself again. But our hopes plummeted when Brandon's nurse called us all together again about thirty minutes later.

"It seems the doctor has made a terrible mistake," she cried. "He read the wrong CAT scan. Brandon has severe brain damage."

Of course a parent can only imagine what it must feel like to learn that your previously healthy, robust eleven-month-old now has severe brain damage. We all grieved for my sister and brother-in-law, and for Brandon. My sister is a hard-working, determined individual and an exemplary person. Her friends flocked around her and tried to comfort her with irritating, awkward statements about how this was meant to be.

When Brandon got sick, Didi was three months pregnant. She has said that if she had not been pregnant, it is possible that the trauma of Brandon's illness would have kept her from ever wanting to have another child. She also doubted if her marriage would have survived without another child at that time. I cannot describe the pain and anguish that she went through during Brandon's illness, the pained expression on her face as her second child grew inside of her.

Brandon went through many medical procedures to help save his life. He was quite a healthy baby, and babies veins are difficult to find, so the only way they could find his veins was to perform a procedure called a "cut back." In this procedure, veins are located by cutting through the baby fat. He had about seven of these in different areas over the duration of his six-month-stay in the hospital. He developed a bed sore about two inches in diameter on his ankle that took months to finally heal. He had to be fed formula through a tube in his nose. A suction tube was used to suction mucus from his lungs and esophagus to prevent pneumonia, and chest clapping was done daily to help his body handle the mucus which developed from inactivity.

Brandon's illness was finally diagnosed as herpes encephalitis of the brain. It was caused by an airborne virus that settled on his brain. There was no way to stop the damage being done by this evil virus. It just had to run its course.

Initially Brandon looked like his usual self. But as time went by we started to see signs of the brain damage. His thumbs were tucked inside his fists. He turned his head vigorously from side-to-side and stretch both arms straight out in front of him as seizures ravaged his body. It was true. The doctor had made no mistake this time.

As Didi gave birth to her second child in the hospital across town, she grieved for her firstborn son lying in another hospital.

Brandon is now thirty years old, and from what we can tell, he doesn't suffer. He is approximately the developmental age of a two-to-six-month old. He vocalizes, smiles, and seems quite peaceful most of the time.

* * *

As my brother's casket was lowered into the ground, we all stood around quietly and wept as the wound reopened. Didi and Gary were born two years apart on the same day, like twins separated by twenty-four months. I was always the nuisance little sister, the one who ratted her out so she was caught smoking under the bridge, the one who reported every wrongdoing to Mom because it was the right thing to do. She and Gary shared a special bond, one that I could not understand.

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