Seventeen Years Ago, Plus or Minus a Day

door-349807_1280February 17, 1998. A Tuesday night. Or did it happen just after midnight, making it February 18? I don’t know. The medical records document every IV started, every vial of blood collected, every consent signed.

But they don’t document when I lost my daughter.

The process began Tuesday night. I know this because at 10 o’clock my daughter’s eyes fluttered open—an encouraging sign from her ICU bed as she awaited transfer to a trauma center for the euphemistic explanation of “a higher level of care.” But when my husband whispered, “Erin, you okay?” into her ear, she shook her head, and closed her eyes.

Is that when I lost her?

What went wrong? I asked the doctor on February 17. Nothing went wrong, he said. She’s too unstable. I didn’t do the lumbar puncture. One of her pupils has blown.

My daughter was careening towards brain death but nothing went wrong? Semantics, I suppose. Because when a 14-year-old girl walks into a hospital with a hacking cough and a nagging headache then leaves ventilated on a gurney in the back of an ambulance on the way to a trauma center, something most decidedly went wrong.

Maybe I lost her sometime during her medically-induced three-month-long coma. Eventually she opened her eyes, but in my mind that doesn’t count. By June she tracked objects, and by September she smiled. But those don’t count either.

Nothing counts, because nothing brings us back to February 16, 1998.

Hollywood, I’ve decided, is to blame, because I believed with all my heart—thanks to their wrapping-problems-up-in-an-hour world—that this could be fixed. That even when the situation crawled from days to months, one glorious morning Erin would sit up, rub her eyes, and ask what happened. We would be thrilled, but not surprised.

Along the way, though, something went wrong, and Erin didn’t follow the script.

In word math, “hospital” plus “loss” equals “death.” In Erin’s case there was not a physical death but a death of plans: plans of signed yearbooks and karaoke, of babysitting money and boyfriends. And that’s where her plans stop—or, rather, that’s where I stop them. Which means her plans never included driver’s ed or prom, children or a mortgage. They simply could not.

Here’s another word math equation: “trauma center” plus “medical experts” equals “cured.” In reality that equation needs one of those little equal-sign-with-the-line-through-it symbols, because there aren’t always cures. Or answers, or prognoses.

Most days I face forward, and see the people Erin helps: the students being taught by a teacher she inspired not to quit after his daughter was murdered by a former pupil—that teacher later nominated for Disney Teacher of the Year. Or the disabled people in Third World countries finally seated in wheelchairs of their own, no longer dragging themselves across dirt roads or relying on family members to carry them piggyback, thanks to Erin’s fundraising efforts for Free Wheelchair Mission.

Other days—days decreasing with the passage of time—I think back to that night seventeen years ago today when the doctor said that nothing went wrong. And I think how mistaken he was.

Because something indeed went very, very wrong.

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