I didn’t want to see him that day, even after I heard that the elevator motor fell on his head while he was at work. Especially after I knew how bad it was. Because I knew I’d feel something for him. How could I not? I’d have to be heartless not to feel sympathetic. But I really didn’t want to feel anything. It was the first job he’d kept for longer than a month and a half and he’d shown up drunk. Again. Besides the extensive head trauma, he also broke his collarbone and right shoulder. And there I was, still so full of hate.
But when a wet cheeked and red eyed Dean came out of his brother’s hospital room and said “He asked to see you.” My stomach dropped and my face heated up with what I think was embarrassment. I don’t know why I was embarrassed, I just was. Like a spotlight was shining on me and everyone was watching. I pulled Ryan, Dean’s nephew, closer as he was drifting to sleep on my lap. His little fingers stroked the hair framing my face. He knew his father had been in an accident, but he didn’t know his father.
I wanted to say “Why in the Hell would he want to see me?”, but I could see the anguish in Dean’s eyes as he scooped Ryan off of my lap and cradled him in the crook of one arm. So I stood up and reluctantly entered Austen’s room. For everything he’d endured, he was surprisingly alert. I’d expect someone who’d had any part of an elevator crush their skull to be in a coma. But this was worse, I would imagine. Lying there, knowing your brain could be filling with blood or fluid, that you might be brain-dead in days, hours, seconds.
It reminded me of three years ago when Austen came by his parents’ house unexpectedly, strapped two-year-old Ryan in the back seat and disappeared with his current girlfriend riding shotgun. They surfaced three days later when Dean got a phone call about the car accident. Austen had been drunk and hit another vehicle. He and his girlfriend had walked away with a few bruises and cuts. We weren’t sure if Ryan was going to make it; he was so small, and he’d been thrown from the car. Austen had blamed his girlfriend. If she hadn’t liked kids, he’d have never come for Ryan. I believed that part of his mostly convoluted story.
When Ryan was six months old, his mother met a Marine and moved away. Austen showed no interest in the baby. He left Ryan with his parents and a lot of the responsibility fell on Dean and subsequently on me. But for being twenty, we really didn’t mind. Sure, it took away some of our freedom, at times it felt like a burden. But what we got in return was so much more than the time we invested in dirty diapers, Disney movies and Dr. Seuss books. Ryan loves us, more than we probably ever deserved to be loved.
And then Austen almost killed him.
Ryan healed, over time. But my hatred of Austen didn’t waver. It might not be my place to care so much for Ryan. I’m not his mother. But when Austen walked out, leaving the responsibility on anyone who’d take it, he made it my place.
“Hey,” Austen said when I didn’t sit in the chair that was pulled up to his bedside. His voice was strained, but I remember thinking it was a miracle he could speak at all.
“Dean said you wanted to see me.” I said, my indifferent facade wavering like I knew it would. It’s easy to loathe someone when they’re away. But when they’re lying helpless in a hospital bed, with tubes and red stained bandages, and looking so much like someone you love, it’s hard to keep other emotions from creeping in.
“I was just,” was what he hoarsely whispered, but then stopped. I thought maybe he was having a hard time remembering what he wanted to say. Then I realized he was trying not to cry.
That was when I sat down. I didn’t take his hand as I would if he were someone else. It would have been forced and he would have known. But he seemed to understand that I was willing to listen to whatever he wanted to say.
“Thank you,” he finally said. And I nodded slowly, because I knew what he meant.
“He’s a good kid,” was my only response. I pressed my fingers to my bottom lip to distract myself from the tears that threatened to spill from my eyes.
I should have said more, I think. I should have told him how sorry I was that he was hurt. And I truly am. I wouldn’t want anyone to be in pain. But that didn’t mean I forgave him for what he did to Ryan, for always putting alcohol and a good time before his son. I wasn’t ready to do that, yet.
But later that night, I did say a prayer for him. It wasn’t because I thought I had to. It wasn’t contrived. I meant it. I prayed that he’d get better, in more ways than one. And that maybe one day, I could let go of the hate.