Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Sister's Story

The critical care nurse did not mince her words with me: "Your sister is never going to wake up," she said. "You will never have another conversation with her."

I took a sharp inhale and nodded. On the cusp of turning 30, my beautiful, free-spirited and adventurous kid sister, Jorelle -- the woman who had traveled alone to Alaska, Peru and Australia, the woman who left New York after 9/11 "because every bone in my body was telling me to go" - was lying in a coma in the next room.

It was Valentine's Day, 2005, and she had left her boyfriend's house to drive on the winding roads that would lead to her dance class. The weather was bad, her car was old, and black ice sent her spinning into oncoming traffic. Except for stitches in her head and the constant hum of medical equipment, she looked normal when I first saw her in the hospital. Her small, powerful dancer's frame lay tucked beneath white blankets.

I leaned over the rail of her hospital bed, my breasts swollen with milk from nursing my newborn baby, and taped a small photo of her two-month old niece to the top of her bed. I held her hand. I told her to come back to us. Other days, I told her it was OK to leave. I was terrified she would remain forever in a vegetative state. I was terrified she would die. Family and friends came and went in a steady stream. My best friends talked with me on the phone daily. Girlfriends, cousins and sister-in-laws came to help with the baby.

One day we went to my sister's small apartment in a nearby town. I sat in her bedroom, collecting her journals (so no visitors could read them), fingering her clothes and the wonderful lampwork jewelery she had made from hand after learning how to create intricate glass beads. I was sure we would be coming back here to empty the apartment, that she would never escape the coma she lay in.

I looked down at my infant, asleep on the bed. I looked up at the wall, where my sister had hung inspirational quotes, black and white photographs, and then a small, ceramic plaque caught my eye. It said "Expect Miracles."

I stared at it for a long time, and in my mind I said "OK, Jorelle. OK."

Some six weeks later, my sister began to slowly emerge from the coma and fight to get her life back. That nurse had been wrong.

Her journey is a difficult one since she sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury. Usually you hear about TBI in the news these days because so many veterans are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with these life-changing injuries.

My sister struggles to walk and practices speech therapy nearly every day. Her stubborn resistance to using a wheelchair makes me want to tear my hair out sometimes, but I also admire her tremendously. What dancer wants to be told to sit in a chair?

How far my sister has come is astounding. How far she will go, no one knows. Since emerging from her coma, she has endured endless therapies and bottomless sadness.

But she has also done some incredible things, and been helped by some incredible people, including my mother. My sister has:

knitted me a scarf for Christmas

gone swimming in pools and the ocean

walked, on treadmills, sidewalks, wooden pathways, holding on to her walker with fierce determination

she has learned to sleep alone in her apartment at night

she has adopted a cat named Houdini

she has learned to get up in the morning and make coffee

she has faced her fears and gone for cognitive therapy

she has read all of the Twilight series books and together, we have seen almost all of the movies

she has written poems and journal entries, and kept up with her friends on email and now, Facebook

she has gone on a date

she has traveled to California and Canada and Maine and Texas with family members

she has played cards with her niece

she saw Ani Defranco live in concert with me

she has flirted

she has complained about the snow and gotten tan in the summer

she has choreographed and performed original dance pieces; she is working on a new performance now

she has smiled the biggest smile - the one I thought I would never see again - while performing her dance piece

she has done grocery shopping

she has agreed to work with certain caretakers and fired others

she goes to movie night with a group of her friends

she has cried and screamed, and she has laughed and laughed

she has marked, each year, the anniversary of her accident, now six years behind us

she has gone to the theater

she has cleaned her cat's pan

she has helped prepare family dinners

she has written us all cards and shopped or made gifts for everyone in the family

she has learned to navigate, alone, out of her house in a wheelchair, and down a long ramp that leads from the back of her apartment, out into the world

she hasn't given up...

And she has given me that small plaque - "Expect Miracles." It hangs today in the entry way of my home, so that I can see it every time I leave and every time I come home.

Since it's March -- Women's History Month -- it seems appropriate to honor and celebrate my sister, who inspires me. Even better, this month is her birthday. Did I tell you how much she likes chocolate cake?

(Image above: My mother and sister walking on a pier in Hoboken, NJ. Photo Credit: Theta Pavis.)

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