Drowning in Sorrow
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Drowning in Sorrow
As the youngest child in a family of eight, I was elated to finally have someone else be the "baby" of the family. Kimberly Jean was her name, and she came into my life and was a ray of sunshine to my days. I remember vividly the day our father took us to the hospital and we watched with glee from the parking lot as my mother held Kimberly up in the window for all the world to see. From the moment she came home she was "my" baby, not just my baby sister. I was with her constantly, helping my stepmother feed and change her or just keep her occupied as my mother cared for the rest of the family.
As she grew, we had a grand time reading, and singing her favorite song, Don McLean's "American Pie." I never tired of being with her and I don't remember ever having the sibling jealousy that you hear all about. Kimberly was a beautiful little girl. She had blonde wavy hair and huge blue eyes glistening with mischief. Even when she was sitting still, which was very rarely, you could see her mind still racing behind those adventuresome eyes.
In the summer of 1972, when I was twelve years old, that mischief went out of her eyes forever. When I think back to that hot, cloudless day in Putnamville, Vermont, I can still feel a similar heaviness in my heart and in my gut. It was early in the evening and the family had just finished eating dinner. To my recollection, only part of the family was home with me that Saturday: my mother, father, stepbrother and Kimmy. Upon leaving the table, Craig announced that he was going to push the lawnmower up the hill and mow "Old Lady Fitch's" lawn. My father, as was his nightly ritual, moved to his overstuffed, Naugahyde chair in the corner of the kitchen, newspaper in hand. My mother took Kimmy, then six years old, to put her in the bath that she had drawn near the end of dinnertime. You know how mothers are; ten things can get accomplished at the same time. I was left to clean up the supper dishes, which was my regular evening chore.
My stepmother came to rescue me from the perils of clean-up duty in just a few moments. She had gotten Kimmy into the tub and came to help me clean the kitchen. It seemed as though only a few seconds had gone by, when my mother called out to Kimmy. As part of a game that they would play, mom would call, "Kiiimberlyy" and Kim would call back, "Whaaatyyy?" Only this time, Kimmy didn't answer. The blood-curdling sound that I heard when my mother stepped into the bath is one I will never forget. My father was on his feet and clearing the table of its remaining contents with the length of his arm right onto the floor before I could even comprehend what was happening. Turning around, I saw my mother running with Kimberly in her arms toward my father. The shade of blue that covered at least half of my sister's body was the same grotesque shade as a fresh, ugly bruise.
As my father grabbed Kim by the ankles and then laid her on the table, I stood frozen. There was tightness in my chest and I don't know how long I held my breath. My mother was giving her mouth to mouth and praying in between every puff of breath and every compression saying, "OH DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN! OH DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN!" over and over again. My father barked, "CALL AN AMBULANCE!" and it finally clicked that he was talking to me. "I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO!" I screamed but proceeded to follow his instruction, repeating what he was screaming into the phone. At precisely the same moment that I hung up the phone, my sister took a gasp of air. My mother fell to her knees hugging the table leg and mumbling incoherently what I assumed to be a prayer.
The next thing I realized was that I was running. I ran and ran until my breath would no longer sustain me. I stopped to try and catch my breath and I realized that I couldn't run away; I might be able to do something back there to help. I ran all the way home again and just as I was rounding the bend, the ambulance was coming down the road. As I ran to the ambulance, arms waving, my brother was coming down the hill, pushing the lawn mower. When he saw the ambulance pulling in front of our house, he took off on a dead run. I met him halfway and screamed, "KIMBERLY"S DEAD!!!"
My mother climbed into the ambulance with Kimmy and the rest of us jumped in the old Pontiac. My father was racing down the road as fast as he could. He had the flashers on and horn blaring the entire fifteen miles to the hospital. We waited what seemed like hours in the waiting room until our father approached us, his face ashen and tear streaked. He told us that Kimmy was alive and stable, but in a coma. He drove us home in silence and returned to the vigil.
Almost every day for the next six weeks, I was at the hospital with my mother, sitting and waiting for something to happen, for anything to happen. For the first three weeks she just lay there, staring. The doctors said talking to her continually might help to bring her out of her coma. I would read her our favorite book and still remember it verbatim. "The Pony Who Couldn't Say Neigh" was the name of it. "On a farm in a barnyard, just over the way...." I read that book so many times I no longer had to look at the pages. Still, there was no response from her. We talked, we sang, we laughed and cried. Still nothing. Until one day.
The hospital called my mother and told her that something had happened. Kimberly had begun to respond. What we saw when we arrived was frightening. Her bed had been padded with big, white hospital blankets, and she had loose, gauze restraints on her arms and legs. She was thrashing and flailing so as to hurt herself, and the terrifying scream that was coming from her was like what you might hear in a horror movie. The doctors couldn't explain the transition, only to say that this was another stage of her coma. To me, it seemed as though she was trying to get out of the water. Needless to say, it was the longest, most painful summer vacation of my life.
Today, Kimberly is a thirty-three-year-old woman with the brain capacity of a three-year-old. It will never change. My stepmother brought her home twenty-seven years ago from the hospital, with tube feedings and a diagnosis of a vegetative state for her entire life. I immediately began taking care of her again. At twelve years old, I was giving tube feedings, changing her bed, and bathing her. Still, I never tired of being with her.
With a plethora of therapies in the first ten years, Kimberly learned to walk and feed herself. She can get herself to the bathroom with little assistance, and make appropriate sounds and gestures to express her needs. The sorrow that I felt at the time of her accident is no greater than the sorrow I feel today. The heaviness in my heart comes from a different place than it did then. When I thought she was going to leave us, back so many years ago, I was so full of pain and sorrow that I might have to suffer the loss of such a wonderful person in my life.
Today, I feel sorrow of a different kind. I am saddened that she never had the opportunity to live a full and productive life. I often wonder what she would have become, what she would have accomplished in her lifetime, and what she has missed in her life due to this accident. This event in my life made me question the existence of a higher being, and for what, if any, purpose she was spared. Perhaps to remind all of us that accidents can happen in a split second. Something so dear to us can be taken from us in the blink of an eye. I know that this event made me more appreciative of my own children today. I was shown how quickly I could be without them. As a preteen girl, I had been quick to point, stare, and laugh at people with handicaps. I learned at this tender age how to have compassion, respect, and understanding for the physically and mentally challenged. It only takes a moment for tragedy to befall someone you love.
I don't get the opportunity to see Kim much these days as we live on different sides of the country. Whenever I do see her, though, she still has a glimmer of that same innocent, mischievous look in those huge baby blues. I expect any moment to have her smile at me and start singing "Bye, bye Miss American Pie...."