“Answer the phone, mom, I know you’re there. Just answer the phone.” My mind racing with confusion after my sister called me the morning on December 13, 2013. At 84, my mom’s hearing is nearly gone. It’s useless to keep calling her. She can’t do anything, anyway, and I called her more for me than to tell her what happened. At that point, I had no details; no idea of just how bad the situation. My head was swirling at the thought of one more tragedy with my sister’s kids, and especially with this nephew. He is the one that has overcome the past. Calling my mom was a way to for me to talk to someone. Anyone. I was useless here in Oklahoma. Helpless. Once again, I was 1,700 miles south of my heart—-my beloved Pacific Northwest.
My sister, distraught, told me, “Donna, Brucie has been life-flighted to a hospital in Richland, WA.
“What? What happened?”
“I don’t know. That’s the only message I got. He’s being life-flighted to Richland.”
I went to facebook to contact others up in Oregon where my nephew lives. Nada, no information. I called my niece in Seattle and she hadn’t even heard yet. Panic sets the tone for the next steps. I sent a text to his Aunt Eleanor and found out there had been a wreck on the icy roads that morning. He will be flown from the hospital in Richland to a hospital in Portland. My sister later told me he’ll have surgery later that day. There were two fractures in his spine, and he ‘pinched’ his spinal cord. I still don’t know exactly where the fractures occurred. What I know is that he is paralyzed.
And so this journey began. I was thankful that my daughter and I had finally been able to return to Oregon and Washington last summer to visit family. My daughter is 29 and the last time we made that trip she was 13. My dad was still living. When he was alive it was our annual ritual to road trip from Oklahoma to Washington every summer. There have been so many tragedies in that span of time. There have addictions and recoveries; marriages and divorces; births and death. I’d talked of making the trip so many times, but the money was never there. Then last summer it came together, and having my daughter with me turned this long awaited visit into a venture of joy.
Our first stop last summer was at Bruce’s place in the Wallowa-Whitman forest on the Umatilla Reservation. It was nice to simply walk out his door and be able to hike the mountains. No trails. Just the mountains. His place is twenty miles up from Pendleton, OR. For fifteen years he commuted up and down that mountain. My daughter and I freaked when we saw that sinuous little road he drove. Everyday. Fifteen years. No wrecks. This past fall he let his place on the mountain go. The money was no longer there to keep it, so he let it go and moved down to the valley. I try not to, but I keep asking myself, how in the hell did he drive up and down that mountain for fifteen years with no wrecks. Then within a month of living in the valley they spin out on black ice and barrel down a hill. I later learned his girlfriend was driving that morning. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is there are no do overs. This happened. Now we deal with it.
I try not to reminisce about the great times we had hiking last summer. I try not to think about the many tragedies my sister has suffered with her children. The loss of a baby daughter, a son that commit suicide after a tragic life, a son in prison, and the many struggles with her children’s fight to win the battle of substance abuse. Bruce made it. He is living the life of recovery. I try not to dwell on why this happened to him. Why Bruce? After everything he has conquered he is the one that is spiritually strong–in the Native way. He goes to sweat. Prays to the creator as he pours more water on the hot rocks inside the sweat house. He digs deep on the dark days, and mentors Native youth providing the positive male role model that many of the boys lack.
I’ve found myself fighting anger, wishing for a do over—-a rewind. I don’t get to make that call, so I medicate the anger on the treadmill. I cushion a potential explosion by lifting weights. But this is not a done deal. His spinal cord was only slightly transected, and the neurosurgeon told my sister that 2-3 out of 100 will walk again. The more I learn about spinal cord injuries the more I learn that each case is unique. The ultimate outcome of regaining the ability to walk or even to regain as much motor function as possible is largely dependent on the individual’s desire, commitment to therapy, work and their attitude. So, Bruce has that in his favor. He’s physically strong, and he’s spiritually strong.
He is less than one month into this recovery. Hope is alive. My mom has said little, and my sister seems to be coping. Lord knows she’s had more than her share of practice. My niece and her boyfriend are Bruce’s rock. They traveled from Seattle to be with him at the hospital, and will move to Oregon to continue their help in therapy and recovery. Bruce’s girlfriend seems to be solid. She is having her house remodeled to accommodate a wheelchair. This is not over.