A week ago, my husband Don and I went to bed on an unremarkable Friday night. Six hours later, there was a startling 4 AM phone call telling us that my brother Richard had just undergone emergency abdominal surgery for a perforated bowel, part of which had been resected. The event was life-threatening and the peritonitis could still kill him.
I got on a plane a few hours later and flew from Cleveland to Phoenix, where Rich lives by himself, with his border collie puppy Mia for company.
At Chandler Community Hospital, Rich had so many tubes and wires coming out of him, he looked like a distributor cap. He was on four kinds of antibiotic in the hope that one of them might help. He was also morphine for significant pain, and he did not react well to it.
There were funny hallucinations at first.
“I am in Germany,” he announced.
“Really? How can you tell it’s Germany?” I asked.
He looked at me like: well, isn’t it obvious?
“Short pants,” he said.
That was the last funny thing for a long time. The hallucinations rapidly became so grotesque, violent and terrifying that his doctors asked if he was a combat veteran. Or if he, um, might be an alcoholic suffering from withdrawal. No, on both counts. Rich just watches a lot of violent movies, and he doesn’t drink.
He became increasingly paranoid and insisted that the nurses were trying to kill him. That night I went back to his house to take care of his dog and get some sleep. All night, he called repeatedly, demanding that I come and get him out of that hellhole — which was actually the nicest, prettiest, quietest hospital I’ve ever seen. He was getting wonderfully attentive care, but when I got back to the hospital the next morning, he started snarling abuse at me and the nurses, convinced that I had betrayed him, that we were all in league against him, and that we were trying to kill him.
I confess that at that point, I was too frightened of him to snap, “Keep that b.s. up, pal, and you might be right!” My brother had been replaced by a person I began to call Paranoid Delusional Abusive Scary Guy, who was rapidly getting better physically but who was still hallucinating vividly.
While all this was going on, what Rich wanted, more than anything in the world, was to go home. “Make all this stop. Get me out of here. Take me home. Everything will be fine again if I can just go home.”
That’s not a bad definition of home: a place were “all this” stops. A place you go where things will be fine again. It might not be where you live. It might be a place in your imagination. It’s where you yearn to be.
A week after all this began, Paranoid Delusional Abusive Scary Guy has crawled back into his cave. Funny Decent Sensible Nice Guy is coming home this morning at 10 AM. Rich has made an astonishing recovery — the infection cleared, the bowel functioning again, the incision healing well. He will need help from his retired buddies Dave and Dennis, who’ll visit and drive him places. Another friend is moving in with him to help with his puppy (who is sweet but nuts). A visiting nurse will come every day.
As I told Rich yesterday at the hospital, “I love you, kid, but I love Don more. I want to go home as much as you do!”
Tomorrow at 10 AM, I will board an eastbound plane, knowing that I am a fortunate woman. Where I live and where I yearn to be are the same place. Tomorrow night, if all goes well, I’ll be back in bed with my honey.
And for a few days, I’m going to turn off all the telephones!