Jennifer Bridgman

Revelation

Courage is being scared to death...and saddling up anyway.
                                                                                                                                                                                    
– John Wayne    

Chapter 4: Revelation

The doctor rushed in. He introduced himself without looking up from the chart in his hands. I didn’t catch his name—just that he was a surgeon, and based on his expression, not one that would be bearing good news. He flipped the chart shut and stared intently at Chris, his words shooting out like rapid-fire: “Your L1 is fractured, and your T12 is smushed. There’s a hematoma pressing on your spinal cord, so we need to get in there and operate as soon as possible. We’re waiting on a second neurosurgeon. As soon as he arrives, we’ll get started.” Only then did he shift his laser focus onto me. “We’ll need you to sign paperwork. As soon as possible.”

Smushed. That was the word the doctor had chosen to describe a bone in the thoracic region of my husband’s spine. Within hours, Chris would undergo surgery to remove shattered bone fragments and a life-threatening blood clot lodged around his spinal cord. Surgeons would then use permanent titanium rods and screws to fuse his spine from T-11 (the eleventh of the twelve thoracic vertebrae) to L-3 (the third of the five lumbar vertebrae). The surgery would be lengthy and painstaking; there were no guarantees he would survive.

Within an hour of Chris’ hospital admission, every local immediate family member had arrived at Valley Medical Center. We didn’t know much about spinal cord injuries. We didn’t know much about the hospital we stood in, and we certainly didn’t know much about the two neurosurgeons about to operate on Chris’ spinal column. My brother’s wife, Noelle, a calm and resourceful litigation attorney, began placing calls. Chris’ father left a message for his best friend, a neurologist affiliated with Stanford Hospital. It didn’t take long to ascertain we were in good hands.

Valley Medical Center was designated a Level One Trauma Center—one of the busiest emergency centers in Santa Clara County and the preeminent hospital in the area for spinal cord trauma. Even more reassuring, we learned that our neurosurgeons were two of the most reputable in the nation.

As the medical team gathered and prepared for surgery in the operating room, the family gathered and prepared for surgery at Chris’ bedside. Powerful confessions of love and faith were whispered within the confines of the thin cloth curtain. Our eyes stung with emotion, but we stood united and strong, huddling close to encircle Chris.

Larry leaned down and planted a kiss on his son’s cheek. “I love you, man,” he said. These same words ended every conversation the two had—whether in person or on the phone. For years, they’d used a Harry Chapin song to express their affection for one another: “Cats in the cradle, dude,” Larry would call up and say.     

“Cats in the cradle, Pops,” Chris would respond. Four simple words that conveyed so much. I love you. You are important to me. Let’s make the time. They were more than father-son. Somewhere along the line, they had become best friends, too. They took trips together. They rode dirt bikes together. They hiked together. They bounced one-liners off each other. They hugged often, and at the core of their bond resided a deep, mutual respect. Long before I’d had children on my mind, their relationship made reflect on the kind of father Chris would someday make.

Once we’d signed the hospital paperwork, our circle grew tighter around Chris’ gurney. We reached down, holding and stroking whatever flesh and bone within reach…an ankle, an arm, an elbow. With our hands and our words and our eyes, we longed for Chris to hear our message loud and clear. We love you. We believe in you. We will see you soon.

I absorbed the details around me, as if my brain had become an airplane’s black box, recording these final moments before fate took over the controls. I watched Courtney as she leaned over her brother, noticing her hoodie sweatshirt, her hair pulled back and tucked under a baseball cap. I glanced at Kelly, her workout attire suggesting that she’d come straight from the gym. I looked down at my own feet—the chipped toenail polish, the flip-flops on this blustery February day. These were vivid, visual reminders that our lives had stopped on a dime to convene around Chris’ bedside. Hectic schedules we’d fought to maintain had been cleared in an instant. Nothing beyond the hospital walls mattered anymore.  

One of Kathy’s hands was interlaced with her son’s, while the other ceaselessly, pleadingly kneaded a leg he could no longer feel. “I love you, Little Buddy,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion. Chris’ voice broke when he responded, tears pooling in his eyes.

The clock hands continued their merciless march toward the operating room, and I longed for final moments alone with Chris. One by one, without my asking, the rest of the family left for the waiting room. Alone at last, I moved silently toward him, our eyes locked on one another. The realness of the situation sunk further into my bones. Now beyond my initial shock, my voice was prepared to share the words that had never stuttered within my heart. Chris was alive and nothing, not even paralysis, mattered beyond that. I had no idea what our future looked like, but we would face it together. I thanked him for loving me, for asking me to be his wife and for making me a mother. With hands clutched in union atop our baby bump, we reaffirmed our lifelong commitment to each other. We promised each other the best was yet to come.

***

Surgery lasted six hours. As word of the accident spread among the Los Altos community, a crowd assembled in the waiting room. The foundation of what would become “Team Chris” was born. In his thirty-two years on the planet, Chris had amassed a substantial fan base. Immediate family members were now joined by childhood friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, siblings, spouses and significant others. They came bearing food, magazines, rosary beads, hugs and companionship. My older brother, Jeff, had been one of the first to arrive. He stayed beside me for hours, his steady and subdued presence comforting me in a way that no spoken words could.

Waiting was brutal. Fragments of hushed conversations filtered through the stifling air. Concerned eyes flickered in my direction, then down at my baby bump. Seeking refuge from the crowd, I headed down a hospital corridor alone. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for. The sign on the door read “Meditation Room.” The dimly-lit room offered a Bible, pew and candles, but it was privacy and not sanctity that I sought. I took a seat on the couch, grateful the small room was empty. Raised Catholic, I had questioned religion as a young girl and resented Sundays spent in uncomfortable shoes reciting words that I didn’t understand. While I considered myself spiritual, my faith came more from love than church.

Like shards of broken glass, images from our wedding day came to mind. Not ten months had passed since Chris and I had stood before loved ones and declared our love for one another without condition. We’d composed our own marriage vows, never dreaming that our promises would be tested so soon:

From this moment on, I will live with you and laugh with you.

Stand by your side, and sleep in your arms.

Bring out the best in you, and always strive to meet on common ground.

I will care for you in sickness, enjoy you in health

And be thankful for you always.

Above all, I will remember that “Love Never Fails.”

I allowed myself to stretch out sideways along the sofa, my restless mind at odds with my depleted body. My belly spilled to the edge, and I began to hum to our unborn child. We were opting to keep the baby’s sex a surprise until birth, and our anticipation was growing in concert with my expanding waistline. Chris and I tended to agree on most things—deciding on baby names was no different. Our daughter would be named Sophie Rose, and our son would be named Luke, Cole or Kyle. The revelation came to me as I lay alone in the meditation room: if I happen to be carrying a boy, he should be named Christopher after his father. I recalled my grandmother’s sunny reaction to the name before Chris’ and my first date, and I knew the decision was right.

When Chris awoke from surgery hours later, I shared my revelation. His face and eyelids were swollen beyond recognition from hours face-down on the operating table, but there was no mistaking the joy in his beaming face. In that moment, and hundreds to follow, our unborn child would be our reminder to keep holding onto hope.

***

It was two a.m. on February 21 when my mother’s car pulled into our driveway to drop me off. Located in the heart of downtown Mountain View, Bryant Street was filled with spirited souls following last call at the nearby bars. Passerby laughed and shrieked their way to their cars. Young women dressed in short skirts and strappy sandals as if it was summertime linked arms and stumbled down the sidewalk; young men yelled obscenities and cavorted down the middle of the street. These strangers were oblivious to my situation, but their carefree behavior was in such sharp contrast to my grim reality that it felt like a slap in the face. Acutely aware of my sudden exhaustion, I reassured my mother that I wanted to be alone for the night.

It was pitch dark inside, the air lifeless and stale as if no one had been home in months. I turned on a few lights for comfort and sat on the edge of the bed, one hand still clutching the purse strap draped around my shoulder. “Okay, Jenn, what’s next?” I whispered. Slowly, methodically, I began going through the motions of my normal bedtime routine. I was relieved to be back on familiar ground—my brain could finally stop racing as it shifted into autopilot. I set my purse down and undressed silently, careful not to reawaken the panicked beast now lying dormant inside my chest. I needed to sleep, for the baby’s sake. I stretched one of Chris’ oversized T-shirts down past my baby bump and brushed my teeth. I found comfort in these mundane tasks; they’d become a compass, pointing me in the right direction in the absence of my usual bearings.

In the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water, I stopped and stared without blinking at the hostess gift bags lined up on the counter. The bright, cheerful colors and cascades of curled ribbon burned my eyes. My baby shower is today. I thought of the new dress hanging in my closet and how nervous I’d been about being the center of attention. How petty and foolish these things felt now. It had only been twelve hours since Chris’ accident, but I already found it hard to identify with the girl I’d been before.

Longing to be close to Chris, I took our honeymoon photo album off the shelf. I settled under the duvet and tentatively turned the crisp pages. I traced his smiling blue eyes with my fingertip and whispered his name. Not even a year had passed, and yet the pages evoked already-faded memories. There was the “quick” hike on St. John that lasted three hours instead of one because I’d refused to believe we were heading the wrong way. The caves and turquoise waters off Norman Island we’d explored with clasped hands and snorkel sets. The feral kitty who’d reigned over our usual outdoor café, chirping and sashaying between Chris’ ankles with her persuasive begging. The notorious St. Thomas mosquitoes that had showed us mercy until our final evening on the island. We’d sat poolside during dinner, tying every cloth napkin we could find around our necks and thighs, swatting each other for protection and wolfing down our food. On our race back to our hotel room, we’d laughed uncontrollably, the sound of unfiltered contentment piercing the humid air and bouncing off the resort’s walls. I closed the photo album and clutched it to my chest as I began to sob. My tidal wave of tears had finally reached the shore. I curled up on my side of the bed and wept until sleep rescued me.

When I awoke it was still dark out. The baby was awake, too, tapping inside my belly and reminding me that I was not alone. I discovered that my sadness had been replaced with a sense of calm. It hadn’t required mental coaxing from within to decide that I was fortunate; the realization came effortlessly, filling me with an unfamiliar strength. In less than an hour, I would be rejoined with the man who had become my world. I would be able to look him in the eyes and tell him all the ways he made my life worth living. I would be able to hear his voice, to kiss his lips, to feel the warmth of his cheek against mine. For these reasons, I was very, very lucky.

Still lying in bed, I thought about the day to come. I knew my first step into Chris’ hospital room would be monumental; he would search my face and look to me for cues on how we were going to face the future. This was my chance to show Chris that we could survive this, that I could be strong enough for us both. If he felt hopeless, I would have the faith. If he had doubts, I would have the reassurance. This was a defining moment, and I was ready for it. 

Filled with new resolve, I took a deep breath and rose from the darkness.






Click here for more excerpts from Jennifer's memoir, Love Never Fails.