“Uneventful.” That is simply how I would describe my seemingly “normal” family. I was raised with three predictably rowdy younger brothers. We uprooted and moved a short two blocks away when I was six, and my parents still live in the same house. We all took the acceptable route after high school of going away to college. My family was, and still is, close and enjoys spending time together. We were fortunate that we had not encountered many of the wretched issues like illness, divorce, unemployment, or early death like others we had known. It wasn’t that I considered us lucky, just that we were simply “normal” in my mind.
My brothers are some of my best friends. We aren’t particularly close in age. I am three-and-a-half years older than the next, and nine years older than the youngest (the middle brother is six-and-a-half years younger than I). My relationship with each is different and has changed as we’ve aged. I fought more with the first brother, but he was the first that I was able to really start hanging out with once we were older. I spent a lot of time babysitting the youngest, and while I sometimes think he still sees me as a nagging mom, we are now friends.
Then there is Teddy. Game-changing good looks, countless friends, and just as many talents. Born looking for the party, he managed to find a good time if there was one to be had. He came to visit during my sophomore year of college. Most 12-year-olds would have stayed in the hotel with parents. Teddy joined the frat guys doing the slip ‘n’ slide on the lawn at midnight. Teddy was always looking for an opportunity, and more often that not, it landed right in his lap. As we got older, we hung out as much as possible between school, work, and other commitments. From Cardinals games to the Beer Olympics to singing at my wedding—and all of the other stories in between that aren’t appropriate for this forum—we had a good time. He had a shirt when he was younger that said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re just taking up space,” and that described his personality perfectly.
While Teddy was in college, my husband and I were living in Italy. Right after graduation and for the finale of his college career, he took an international business class that included studying abroad in Istanbul. His plan was to leave St. Louis, fly to Turkey for the class, head to Italy to visit us after the class ended, and then go to Los Angeles to spend some time with his girlfriend. Sounds like a perfect way to spend a summer, right? I was so excited to see him. It was near Memorial Day, and we planned on him flying into Venice and taking the train to a small lake community, where we would meet for the weekend. Then he would come back to our town for the rest of his visit.
You can imagine the shock and horror that went through my mind when the phone rang at midnight and another brother was hysterical on the other end. Teddy was in the ICU in Istanbul. He had been out with some friends for drinks before dinner when he collapsed. After calling the Turkish equivalent of 911, his friends watched, as he lay unconscious on the floor. Nine minutes later, paramedics arrived and worked vigorously to restart his heart. It took over 40 minutes before it regained a normal rhythm. You may know where I am going here… The paramedics kept him alive, but his brain was without oxygen for way too long. He was put in a medically induced coma while, in addition to fighting off pneumonia he acquired in the hospital, doctors tried to figure out what on earth had happened. At 25 years old, Teddy suffered a heart attack. He had severe damage to his lungs, kidneys, heart, and brain. No one could figure out what had happened. Doctors were able to rule out drugs and alcohol but don’t know if it was a congenital problem, a virus, poisoning, or something else.
We watched him, held his hand, and talked to him for several days before doctors decided to try to wake him up. Then we waited to see if he would respond. A consequence of oxygen debt is the loss of brain cells and various levels of functioning. He began to move, but there was still severe damage. I’ll save you from all of the details on how he got to where he is today. Teddy is non-ambulatory, blind, has partial use of only one arm, and has a very difficult time with speech. However, he loves to hold hands, listen to raunchy comedy, and will finish songs if you start singing. We think that his ability to think is still intact, but he is “locked in within” and can’t engage with people or express himself. This causes him to show symptoms of depression from time to time. As I write this, I realize that it is nearly impossible to accurately describe what is going on in his life, although I can tell you that I lost my brother on that night in Istanbul and life hasn’t been the same since.
Four years later, I still miss him. Before this happened, I didn’t realize how much I could miss someone who never left. Teddy lives in a nursing home about 30 minutes from my parents. Every time I visit, I wish so desperately that I could crawl next to him and watch a movie or a baseball game and really share it together. But I can’t. He has made a ton of progress since his accident, but it has slowed and it is likely that it will eventually cease unless a new technology emerges.
There is a silver lining to all of this. I hope I am now a better friend, colleague, and family member in the wake of tragedy. It is hard to know what to do and say when something like this happens. Here is what I have learned:
1. Don’t compare. If one thing is true, no tragedy is the same. I know it is brutally hard when a grandfather has a stroke, a grandmother dies, or a friend is very sick and in the hospital, but it isn’t the same. I know that people are trying to relate to the problem and want to convey their understanding, but it minimizes the current problem. Along the same lines, I frequently hear something like “at least you still have your brother.” This is true, and I appreciate that every day, but I should still be allowed to be sad.
2. Ask about them. Four years have passed, and my mom says some of her very good friends have never asked about Teddy. Of course it is a hard conversation to have, but ask. It shows that person you care.
3. Tell a good story. I love to hear funny stories about Teddy. Recently, I saw a mom of one of Teddy’s friends. She told an amazing story about Teddy and her son having a little too much to drink one night while dressed as Tigger and Winnie the Pooh. It made me laugh, smile, and remember Teddy in the way that I love to remember him. Those stories are greatly appreciated and can be a needed break from reality.
4. There is weird grieving that never ends. Again, Teddy did not die, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t continue to grieve. It is hard seeing him living in a quirky nursing home with a group of people who are decades older than him. I grieve the loss of my brother and our relationship but mostly what he could have been.
5. Love big. In a very short amount of time, I lost the brother I used to have, lost an aunt to cancer, and helped a dear friend bury her husband. I won’t say that I have any regrets regarding things I wish I had said or done with those people; however, I now try to frequently tell the important people in my life what they mean to me.
6. Learn CPR. This isn’t directly related, but it could have made a huge difference for Teddy. As I said before, he was unconscious for over nine minutes before the paramedics arrived and started to work on him. If anyone had done effective CPR on Teddy, things may have been different. I am not saying that he would have made a full recovery, but it would have substantially helped with the oxygen debt. Learn CPR for adults, children, and infants and encourage others to do the same. You never know when you will need it. There are many organizations that offer CPR training. Check The Red Cross and American Heart Association for classes near you.