John received more frequent visits with his family now that he was able to leave the iron lung in a wheelchair. He was very excited when he was finally allowed to leave the rehab area to eat in the hospital cafeteria with his parents and his 16-year-old brother Bill. His mother came early to get him dressed and ready to go downstairs.
When John saw her holding some of his old clothes from home, he almost felt like crying. He hadn’t dressed in normal street clothing in months.
His mother was adept at opening up the iron lung now. As it swung open, John still felt his breath suddenly being taken away from him. It always took him a few minutes to adjust. “Do you need the diaper changed?” she asked him.
“Yes,” John said.
He felt her changing his soiled undergarments. He wished he had more control over his bowels, but they loaded him up with laxatives in order to prevent impaction. Of course, even if they hadn’t done that, he had no control at all over any part of his body anymore. He had to learn to accept that.
When his mother was finished dressing him, she enlisted the help of Miss Foley and the two of them lifted him into his wheelchair. Out of the lung, John could see how loosely his old clothes hung on his new frame. The muscles in his body were nearly completely gone now.
His mother placed his hands neatly in his lap and wheeled the chair to the cafeteria, where his father and Bill were waiting. John looked down and watched the way his limbs bounced slightly as the chair wheeled on the uneven floorboards. His left hand slid across his thigh and John worried it was going to fall off his lap. But it somehow stayed in place.
This was the first time John had seen his younger brother since he got sick. As his mother wheeled him into the cafeteria, the sight of Bill’s freckled, smiling face came into view, which brought a smile to John’s own face. The two brothers had always been very close—John had been a very protective older brother.
“What’s up, Johnny?” Bill said.
“Not me, that’s for sure,” John joked, glancing down at his body.
John was known for kidding around a lot and he wanted to show his brother that nothing had changed. Bill laughed, but John noticed a touch of nervousness present. I’m making him feel awkward.
His mother touched his shoulder, “Johnny, I’ll get you some food, okay?”
John nodded. His left cheek itched, but he felt strange asking one of his family members to scratch his face for him. He tried to ignore the sensation. “How has everything been?” John asked his brother.
“Not too bad,” Bill said. “I got an A in math this term.” John had always tutored Bill in math.
“That’s great,” John said.
“He also has a girlfriend,” his father spoke up.
Bill blushed. “Pop…”
John knew he should have felt happy for his brother, but his first thought was of Clara and how she had quickly rejected him. She had looked at him like he was some kind of freak. Bill would never have to deal with that. John suddenly felt intensely jealous of his younger brother, who could have a normal relationship with a woman. John would never be able to do that again.
But he didn’t say any of that. Instead, he said, “That’s great, Bill. Congratulations.”
His mother returned with a tray of food for John. He watched as she scooped up a spoonful of mashed potatoes and held it up for him to eat. John noticed his brother was gawking at him a little bit, but he knew that this was the only way he’d be able to eat from now on, so he took the food into his mouth. Everyone became very quiet as his mother continued to feed him.
His mother wasn’t as good at feeding him as the nurses had been and about a quarter of the food didn’t make it into his mouth. It was only a matter of time before he had mashed potatoes all over his chin and dripping on his shirt. His father tried to help by dabbing at his chin with a napkin. Soon both his parents were making attempts to feed him and not doing very well at it. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” his mother said. “I’m not very good at this yet, but we have our whole lives to get better at it. We’ll change you when we get upstairs.”
We have our whole lives to get better at it. John shuddered slightly at his mother’s words. He had been so thrilled to be coming home, he hadn’t considered what this meant. He’d never be able to live on his own again, and if he didn’t want to go to a nursing home, his only other option would be living with his parents for the rest of his life. John’s face flushed as he imagined himself as a forty year old man, still living with his parents and still being fed and changed by them, like an infant. He hated the idea of it, but that was the reality of his situation and there was nothing he could do to change it. He knew a time would come when he’d be used to needing help for everything, but he wasn’t there yet. He still missed his independence and wished things could have gone another way.
It took three buses and most of the change in her piggybank, but Sally Jones eventually made it to the hospital where David Barnett was having his rehab. She didn’t know what would happen when she got there, but she knew that she had to see him. In the weeks since his birthday, she couldn’t stop thinking about the hurt in his eyes when she told him that his girlfriend had left him for another football player. She had never seen David look so sad in all the time she had known him.
Sally had only been in a hospital once in her life, when her grandfather was ill, so it was an odd experience setting foot in this large hospital. It was rather overwhelming. She got lost several times before she made it up to the rehab unit.
When she walked inside, she saw the signs leading to the gym. She followed them and found herself in a large room where several boys were walking along parallel bars, while others were walking with crutches. There were very few boys that had no metal on their legs.
Sally saw David before he saw her. He was wearing shorts and Sally could see the thick metal braces running up the entire length of his legs. His legs seemed very thin, stripped of all their musculature. He was leaning heavily on the crutches as he walked and there were sweat stains all over his shirt from the effort. It was quite a contrast from the days she had watched him tearing across the football field. But at least he was walking. She watched his brow furrow as he took a step. Sally wondered what it was like to know that without those crutches, he’d fall flat on his face.
David looked up then. As his green eyes met Sally’s, they widened in surprise. “Sally? What are you doing here?”
Sally’s face turned red as she struggled to come up with an explanation for her surprise presence. “Um… I just wanted to see how you were doing…”
David adjusted his grip on the crutches and hobbled over to her. It was a slow process but he seemed relatively stable. “Wow, you came all the way over here just for that?”
When he was close to her, she could see now that the tan from football was faded, the freckles across his nose had returned. He was still very attractive, even with all the metal on his legs, leaning on crutches. She swallowed hard. “Well, yes…”
“But it’s an hour trip, at least,” David said, shaking his head in disbelief. “How did you even get the money?”
Sally didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t want to admit how hard it had been to get the money to come here. David must have realized that, because his face finally broke out into a smile. “Never mind,” he said. “I’m really glad to see you, Sally.”
That was exactly the reaction she had been hoping for. “Do you want to show me around?”
“Uh…” David looked down at his legs. “Sure… I’m still a little slow, but…”
“I don’t mind,” Sally said quickly.
David smiled gratefully at her. He reaffirmed his grip on his crutches and moved them forward. She watched as he took a slow step with one foot, then the other. From the looks of it, he couldn’t move any part of his leg other than his hips. The metal braces seemed to be supporting his knees and his ankles.
He was slow, but he picked up speed as they walked, even though he repeatedly apologized to her and blushed when he stumbled. He showed her the cafeteria, the swimming pool, and then finally his own room. There were several beds in the room and David’s was the furthest from the door. There was a wheelchair next to his bed, which Sally guessed he used very frequently, considering how much difficulty he still had with the legbraces and crutches.
“I miss having my own room,” David told her as he collapsed onto the bed. He leaned his crutches against the nighttable by the bed and pushed the wheelchair to the side so that Sally had room to sit on the bed.
She sat down next to him. An awkward silence followed. Sally didn’t know what to say. “That’s a nice wheelchair,” she finally spoke up.
David frowned. “I guess it could be worse.”
“Do you use it much?”
“Probably more than I should,” he admitted. “I’ve been trying to stick with the crutches, but I get tired pretty quickly.”
Sally bit her lip, afraid to say something to make it more awkward. Maybe it was a mistake coming here.
David lowered his eyes, “Sally, I know I’m not the same person I was. I’m sorry.”
“To me, you’re still the same person,” she said softly.
There was some confusion on David’s face. She knew he still wasn’t sure what she was doing here. He looked like he was about to say something when a red-haired boy wheeled into the room. The boy was about their age, maybe 18 or 19, and she could see even through his shirt that his right shoulder was badly atrophied.
“Hey, did I interrupt something here?” the boy asked.
David glared at him. There was obviously some bad blood between the two of them. “What do you want, Tom?”
Tom looked Sally up and down. She felt her skin flush under his gaze. “Aren’t you going to introduce me, Dave?” he asked.
“This is Sally,” David said. He seemed to be struggling to keep his composure.
“This can’t be your little cheerleader,” Tom observed. “I guess she’s the best you can do these days, huh Football Hero?”
Sally wanted to crawl under the bed. With Tom’s words, she felt her chance of any sort of relationship with David going out the window. Tom was absolutely right—she was no cheerleader.
But to her surprise, David’s green eyes filled with anger. She had never seen him look so furious in her entire life. “You can’t talk about her that way,” he said quietly.
“Oh, did I hit a sensitive spot?” Tom said, raising an eyebrow. “What did you think? That you’d still be able to get the same kind of girls now that you’re crippled?”
David used the strength in his arms to transfer himself into his wheelchair. It all happened so fast that by the time David was propelling himself forward, Tom didn’t have a chance to get away. David stopped his wheelchair next to Tom’s and grabbed a fistful of his shirt with his left hand. Sally had never seen David act violently toward anyone except on the football field. Tom, on his part, looked terrified as David drew back his right fist.
“Apologize to her, Tom,” David said through gritted teeth.
“What? You gonna hit me?” Tom said, trying to sound brave even though his voice was choked.
“I swear to god, I’ll break your nose if you don’t apologize right now,” David growled.
Sally had known David all her life and there was no doubt in her mind that he had every intention of making good on that promise. Tom’s eyes met Sally’s, “I’m sorry.”
David looked back at Sally. “Do you accept his apology?”
“Yes,” Sally said in a small voice.
David released Tom’s shirt. “Okay, now get out of my sight.”
Tom quickly wheeled out of the room without another word. David wheeled back to his bed, where Sally was hugging herself. She shivered slightly. “I’ve never seen you act that way before,” she said.
“I know.” David lowered his head and buried his face in his palms. Sally heard his stifled sobs and her heart ached. “I never lifted a fist against anyone in my whole life, Sally. But Tom… he makes me feel like…”
She wasn’t sure what to do. She touched his shoulder gently. “Thank you for defending me.”
He lifted his face to show her his red-rimmed, watery eyes. “Thank you for coming here to visit me. I really appreciate it, Sal.”
Sally then did the bravest thing she had ever done in her life, which is reaching out and putting her hand on top of David’s. She slyly slid her fingers into his and gave his hand a squeeze. David looked down at her hand, slightly perplexed. “Sal?”
“What?” she said innocently.
Her heart was pounding in her chest, but to her surprise, David offered her a small smile. “Nothing.”
She felt him squeeze her hand back. As she looked into his green eyes, she wondered what his intentions were and if he felt about her the same way she felt about him.
To be continued...