MARTY GREEN sat with the other players on Wyoming’s Brackett College basketball team. The team bench was packed as they all waited for the game to begin. Marty imagined that all the other freshmen sitting near him felt the same butterflies in their stomachs that he did. Marty loved basketball—it was one of the honest and true passions in his life. That, and science. He was thrilled to have made the basketball team, even if he was destined to spend much of the season sitting on the bench. Marty knew he didn’t have the talent to make it to the pros or even to get into one of the Division I basketball programs, but he didn’t really care. He played because he loved the game and loved being on a team. He played because it was in his blood, and because there were those times when he and the ball seemed connected, when everything went exactly right. He lived for those times.
The starters were called to the court, and Marty watched as they ran out and got into position. Marty felt the excitement inside him ramp up. These were his teammates, and even though he wasn’t playing, energy coursed through him. His legs bounced slightly, and he could feel the blood rushing from head to toe. It was like the energy from the entire crowd had centered on him, and he loved it.
The ball was tipped, and play began with his teammates in control of the ball. They raced down the court, dribbling and passing the ball rapidly back and forth in a dance that Marty desperately wanted to be a part of, but he could only wait and hope. A shot was taken, and they scored. The other guys on the bench all turned to one another, smiling, sharing their teammates’ success as they watched, waited, and hoped that they’d eventually get their turn.
They were ahead at halftime. Granted, they were playing Cheyenne, a school slightly smaller than theirs, and one they fully expected to beat. The starters had been rotated out of the game early on, and the second string had still been able to score. The team filed back into the locker room to wait out the halftime while the crowd was entertained by the cheerleaders. After a pep talk, the team returned to the floor and waited for the game to resume. The coach pointed down the bench, and Marty hoped he’d be chosen, but of course he wasn’t. Play began for the second half with many of their best players resting. One of the starters, Kyle, sat next to Marty, with his friend Pat on the other side. Kyle was a senior and he watched the play with eagle eyes.
“He’ll never make the shot,” Kyle said, motioning toward the player from the other team as he was about to lift off. “His feet aren’t in the right position and he’s a little off balance.” Sure enough, the ball skimmed around the edge of the rim and then fell back into play, with Mike scooping it up and racing full-tilt down the court with the rest of the players behind him. Mike made the shot easily, and Brackett pulled further ahead. Play continued, and Kyle continued his quiet narrative, pointing things out to Marty that he might have missed. “You learn by doing and by seeing other guys’ mistakes,” Kyle said just before throwing the towel he’d had hanging around his neck onto the bench and hurrying back into the game.
Marty watched as the second half continued. They were way ahead now, and as more players came out, Marty heard what he’d hoped for: “Green, you’re in,” the coach said, and Marty hurried onto the court just as the other team called time. The other team’s players all huddled around their coach, and for a few seconds, Marty thought he could hear what their coach was saying. Everything seemed heightened—the sound of the crowd, the voices of the other players—and as he looked over at his coach, he swore he could hear him telling him to stay in the pocket from all the way across the court. Marty knew he had to be hearing things, that he was so keyed up and hypersensitive about playing in his first college game that it had to be his imagination.
The refs signaled the resumption of play, and Marty got his head in the game, paying close attention to the ball and everyone around him. The whistle blew and the ball was in play. Marty knew his assignment and guarded his player while looking for an opening. The ball was passed his way, but one of the other players on his team scooped it off its trajectory and rocketed down the court. Marty followed, his feet pounding on the polished floor, ready to assist if he could, but the shot was good and they scored. Then the other team had the ball, and Marty stayed close to his man when the ball came their way. Marty wasn’t able to get it, but he did manage to bounce it off the other player and out of bounds, forcing a turnover to their team. The ref handed him the ball, and he stepped out of bounds. This was the first time in an actual college game that he’d had possession of the ball. Marty passed it to Clark and jumped into the play, following the others down the court. Clark passed the ball, and then it was passed back to him. Marty watched as a shot was taken, but it missed and then one of his teammates rebounded the ball and put it back in the basket for a score. They were doing well, but he knew his time was limited. There were others guys who needed their chance to play, and if he wanted to stay in, Marty needed to make something happen.
The other team had possession, and he stepped away from his man, watching the ball as it was passed over. Realizing he’d created the opening, Marty instantly closed it and snatched the ball out of the air. He dribbled it and then began running down the court. He felt almost at one with the ball, blood pumping, legs pounding, arms working as he reached the far side of the court and got into position.
Suddenly, almost like a fuse had blown, Marty’s head throbbed and his balance seemed all out of whack. He tried to steady himself with his left arm, but it didn’t seem to want to work. He stopped moving and looked around for a player to pass the ball to, but everything in the room looked distorted. The ball was snatched out of his hand, and Marty could vaguely hear his name being called, but it was like listening through Jell-O and he couldn’t make out anything else. He knew which way the bench was and he took one step. He lifted his left leg and set it down, but he seemed to keep going. He realized he was falling and he could do nothing at all to stop it. He tried, but his muscles ignored the commands his brain sent out, and then he collapsed onto the court.
Marty heard activity all around him. He tried to get up but couldn’t. All he could see was the ceiling above him, the celebratory banners waving and then starting to move in weird patterns. He could hear voices around him, but they weren’t making any sense, their words jumbled and all mixed up. Marty couldn’t take the weird sights going on above him, so he closed his eyes, hoping it would help, but it didn’t. The entire world seemed to have gone haywire. He knew people were talking to him, asking him questions that he tried to answer, but even his thoughts seemed mixed up and confused. Finally, he gave up and gave himself over to the people around him. Whatever was going on, he would have to trust that they knew what was happening, because he didn’t.
The only thing that seemed to permeate the haze that surrounded him was the sensation of flying. He liked that—it felt good. Marty tried to put out his arms so he could fly faster, but he couldn’t seem to, so he gave up and let himself fly wherever he was going. Slowly, the world got darker, and Marty didn’t fight it. He needed to sleep, and he hoped that after he woke up the world would be right again.
“Stay with us, Marty,” someone said, and Marty opened his eyes for a few seconds, but everything was strange and still swimmy, so he closed them again and kept them that way. People said more things to him, but he wasn’t really interested. He didn’t understand most of what they were saying, anyway. All he wanted to do was sleep, and as he gave in to it, the world turned black as Marty embraced the silence.
MARTY’S dreams were jumbles of half-grasped images and sounds that made absolutely no sense. Sometimes he dreamed he was playing basketball at the school near his house with all of his friends. Some of them were older, like him, and some were seven and eight years old. He tried to make sense of the dreams, but he couldn’t. He tried to make the dreams stop, or at least make sense, but they refused.
“Marty, wake up for me,” he heard from outside, and he tried to move toward the sound because it was the only thing that made any sense to him, but he couldn’t. Every time he got close, there was something there, and when he tried to break through, it got stronger and stronger. The voice would sometimes call again, and Marty would get closer, but it wasn’t quite enough.
“Marty, it’s me. Wake up for me, honey.” He knew that voice—it was his mother. It was the first thing he’d ever recognized from his swirling dreams. He had to get to her. He tried again, and this time the mists parted, but he couldn’t quite reach it. “Open your eyes,” he heard, and Marty did.
The room was dim, and all he could see was a tiled ceiling, but then someone leaned over him and he saw what might have been a head, but he wasn’t sure. He heard voices talking, but they were all a bit jumbled and overlapping. He finally could make out words and phrases, though.
“Oh, honey,” he heard his mother say, and Marty tried to smile, at least he thought he was smiling. Part of his body felt detached and weird. “Call the doctor,” his mother said, and Marty closed his eyes again. He could still hear the voices and he was determined not to go away again, but his eyelids felt so heavy.
“You’re awake,” a strange, deep voice said, and Marty opened his eyes as a man leaned over the bed. “That’s very good. Can you follow the light?” Marty did his best and was able to follow the bright light with his eyes as it moved in front of him. “You’re doing very well. I’m Dr. Feelgood.” Marty liked that name. It sounded nice. “Can you feel this?” Marty felt a light touch on his right arm. “Move your hand if you can.” Marty concentrated and felt his right hand move. He did it again, just to prove to himself that he could. “Very good. Can you feel this?” Marty felt cold on his leg and then a hand lightly touched his calf. “Move your leg if you can.” Marty concentrated again and he felt his leg move slightly on the bedding. “Excellent.”
Marty tried to speak, but he couldn’t seem to. He tried something as simple as “yes,” but what came out was slurred and he didn’t understand himself.
“Can you feel my hand?” Marty felt a touch, and while he knew he felt something, it was hard for him to determine where the sensation was coming from. “Can you move your leg?” Marty tried moving his other leg, and for the life of him, he thought he was doing it, but he couldn’t feel anything happening. “How about here?”
“Sssss,” Marty said for yes.
“Go ahead and try to move your hand.” Marty tried, and he swore in his mind he was waving his arm all around, but he didn’t feel anything moving. That side of his body seemed sort of detached and lost, like it was there, but not there.
“Can you swallow for me?” For the first time, he saw the face of the man that went with the voice as he came into Marty’s field of vision. Marty concentrated again, and he made his throat work. His throat scraped, and he wondered why he was swallowing sand, but he did it. “That’s excellent. We’ll start you on some ice chips and move you to liquids when you’re ready.”
“Sssss,” Marty said, and the doctor smiled.
“Relax and take it easy. Your mother and father are here. I’ll be back to see you later this evening.” Marty felt the doctor lightly pat his arm and then move away. He heard soft voices, but was too tired to really care what anyone was saying.
“Honey, here’s some ice,” his mother said gently, entering his narrow field of vision. Something cold and soothing entered his mouth, and he closed his eyes as cold water dripped down his throat. Marty swallowed carefully, expecting the same pain he’d felt earlier. This time it wasn’t as bad, and after a few seconds, he swallowed again. Each time felt better, and once the ice was gone, his mother placed another cube in his mouth.
“Ssss gggg www mmmm?” Marty asked. He’d meant to say “what’s wrong with me.”
“It’s okay, honey, you’re going to be fine. Just rest and sleep if you need to. I’ll be right here, and I won’t leave you.” She sounded seconds from crying, and as she moved out of his line of sight, his dad leaned over the bed.
“You’re doing great, sport. Take it easy, and we’ll talk later, when things are better.” Marty had never seen his father looking so worried or with such deep rings around his eyes. He knew what they were saying was a lie. Things weren’t all right. He couldn’t communicate, and the world still seemed to be in a bit of a fog, his thoughts jumbled and sort of like parts of his brain had been scrambled. Marty gave up and slowly closed his eyes, letting sleep overtake him once again.
The next time he woke, the room was nearly dark. He looked around and slowly turned his head. At least he could move that. He saw his mother asleep on a banquette beneath the dark windows. This time, his thoughts seemed somewhat clearer and less jumbled. He didn’t try to talk, but he did try stringing sentences and thoughts together in his mind, which seemed much less like he was trying to think through cotton. “Mom,” he tried to say, but it came out more like a groan.
“Honey?” she asked, stirring and then getting up. “Are you thirsty?” She lifted a cup with a straw to his lips. He tried to suck, but it seemed that whatever got into his mouth dribbled down his front. His mother wiped him up gently. “Try to close your mouth,” she told him, and he had to concentrate, but he was finally able to drink without having water run down his chin. “That’s good,” she told him, and Marty felt like he was going to cry. What had happened to him to leave him so completely helpless?
She turned away and set the cup on a tray. He wanted to ask her so many things, but when he tried, he was only able to make grunts and moans that made him sound like an animal. Giving up, he closed his eyes again and silently wished for all this to be a nightmare and that the next time he woke up, everything would be back to normal.
“It’s going to be okay, honey. Just give it time,” his mother said, stroking his arm lightly as Marty tried not to cry and failed.
“YOU’RE doing a lot better,” Dr. Feelgood—who he now knew was really Dr. Fielding—told him as he made his daily visit a few days later. Marty stared up at him. He could move his head, so at least now he could communicate yes and no answers. He’d also found out a number of different things. That he was being fed through a tube and that he was peeing into a bag and wore a diaper that had to be changed on a regular, and extremely embarrassing, basis.
“Wha happ-da?” Marty asked. Certain sounds were difficult for him to make, but he could at least form some basic words. He’d worked on it every chance he could get.
“You had a stroke,” the doctor answered. “It’s very rare in someone your age. It was probably something that could have happened at any time in your life.”
“A soke?” Marty said, and the doctor nodded.
“Parts of your brain have been damaged, and that’s why certain things are hard for you. But you’re strong, and with time you should be able to recover a lot of what you lost. Your speech is already coming back, and in a few days, we’ll bring in a speech therapist to help you. Once you’re stronger, we’ll also start you on physical therapy.” Marty looked down at his left side. He’d already discovered that he could move his right hand and leg pretty well, but he could do very little with his left hand and leg. “The parts damaged mostly affect your left side. That’s why you’re having trouble talking. I think a lot of that will come back on its own, given the progress you’ve already made. But you need to give it time.”
Marty wanted to ask about school, his friends, the team, but he knew all that would have to wait. “Ow log?” The doctor looked at his mother, and Marty repeated himself. “Ow log!”
“You’ve been in the hospital for ten days,” his mother answered. “Christmas is in two days, and the whole family will be up here to celebrate it with you.”
Ten days. He’d been like this for ten days, and all he could do was make grunting sounds and pee into a bag. Ten whole freaking days he’d been lying on his back able to do nothing, eating out of a tube. More than anything, Marty wanted to get the hell out of this bed. He wanted to see and talk to his friends. Ten whole days.
“It’s okay, buddy. Your body and mind needed to process what had happened to it. You’re going to get better from now on, so just relax and don’t get upset.” The doctor made some notes on the chart. “We’re going to remove the feeding tube a little later today so you can have some food this evening.” Marty nodded, feeling a bit mollified. He knew none of this was their fault; it was just a shock that he’d been out of it for so long. The doctor left the room, and Marty turned his head toward his mother.
“Visi-ors?” Marty asked. Over the last ten days he’d certainly had people visit, yet the room he was in was sparse, without flowers or cards.
“There have been people who asked, but we didn’t want you disturbed,” she said evenly, and Marty scowled at her. He knew what that meant. His parents hadn’t allowed him any visitors because people might see him this way. Maybe they were right, but surely people had sent cards and stuff. There was nothing as far as he could see. “When you’re stronger, you can have visitors.”
If Marty had been strong enough, he would have argued with her, but he didn’t have the energy. He should have known she and his father would act this way. Yes, he knew they had their reasons, but still. Marty sighed softly. When he was growing up, Marty’s parents had regimented the lives of their children. Marty was the oldest and he’d been the first to go away to college. Those months had been glorious. He’d been able to do what he wanted and make friends with the people he wished, as opposed to the people his parents approved of. He should have known that as soon as he returned to his parents’ home, they would close the door on any parts of his life that they didn’t personally control. They’d always said it was for his own protection, which was why they lived on a massive plot of land behind fences and long private drives with guards and security guards who patrolled the perimeter of the property day and night. His father was a very important man, Marty knew that. He also knew his folks lived in fear of anything happening to their children, but what his parents had done in their zeal to protect them was cut them off from the outside world.
Marty’s mother was a soft-spoken, small woman with a backbone of steel. She could politely tell someone to go to hell and they’d think it was a compliment, but no one ever crossed her. Closing his eyes again, he let sleep take him.
THE entire family did indeed show up for a very subdued and short Christmas celebration in his room. They opened gifts and talked while Marty lay in the bed. He could eat soft foods, and with his good arm, he managed to feed himself most of his dinner. He continually tried to use his other hand, and while he was able to move it somewhat, he found he had very little control. His leg was the same way, but he was determined to improve. Even though the doctor said he wasn’t to overdo it, he found he was constantly trying to move his arm and leg. Thankfully, his speech had improved quickly, along with his control over his mouth, so his mother no longer needed to feed him.
Once the short party was over, Cassie and Josh, his little sister and brother, were taken home by his dad, but his mother remained in the room. “Go home,” Marty told her.
“I’m not going to leave you,” she said, but Marty could see the deep circles under her eyes. She was tired and she looked it.
“Go home,” he reiterated. “Merry Christmas.” The words were a bit slurred, and he wanted to tell her to go be with Cassie and Josh, that they needed her, but long thoughts were still difficult to get right. He turned on the television and began watching a movie. His comprehension and memory seemed to have come back really well. His biggest problem was his motor skills.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he told her, holding up the phone he’d begged her to get for him. Begging maybe wasn’t the right description, since speech was still difficult, but he’d kept asking until she’d given in. “Go sleep,” he told her, and she gathered her things and left the room after saying good-bye.
Harvey, one of the nurses, came in awhile later to check on him. “How are you doing?” he asked as he checked things over. “Is everything okay? You don’t need anything changed?” Harvey was really nice about the whole diaper thing, which made Marty feel better. He hated it when his mother insisted on cleaning him up, and he’d finally convinced the hospital staff that it was to be on his chart that they do it. There were some things you would rather have strangers do than your mother.
“No, I’m good,” he answered.
“Did your mother leave?” Harvey asked as he continued working, fluffing Marty’s pillows and checking his back for sores.
“Yes,” Marty answered. “Merry Christmas to me.”
Harvey began to laugh. “She is a little clingy, isn’t she?” Marty wanted to laugh as well, and he did as close an approximation as he could. “Since she’s gone, is there anyone you want to wish a Merry Christmas to? I could help you make the call.”
Marty got his best Christmas present that year from Harvey. He stayed for an hour and helped Marty call as many of his friends as he could, and when he got tired, Harvey made sure he was comfortable before leaving the room. “Thank you, Harvey,” Marty said as his benefactor got ready to leave.
“You’re welcome,” Harvey told him, and Marty swallowed hard. “I know you’re lonely and your mama’s like a mother tiger.” Harvey smiled and left the room. Marty turned his attention back to the television and watched it until he fell asleep.
Days turned to weeks. His nineteenth birthday came and went, and Marty spent much of that time in a hospital bed. He knew his parents were still not letting him have many visitors, which really chafed at him. He talked to his friends on the phone, but was hesitant to invite them to the hospital to visit because of the reception they seemed to be getting from his protective family. Until he’d gone away to college, he hadn’t really realized just how insular his entire family had become. Growing up, he’d known his family was different, but he hadn’t realized just how different until he’d been out of the house for a while.
“You’re getting stronger, and your muscular movement and control are improving,” Dr. Fielding told him during his regular morning visit. “I think you should start spending your days in your chair if you can.”
Marty glared at the shiny new motorized wheelchair his family had gotten for him. It sat in the corner of the room, and he hated the thing. “Okay, but have them bring me a regular chair. I want to try to move myself.” Marty was determined to use his left arm and leg again. His right side had improved to the point where he was almost back to normal, and thankfully, the left side of his face had slowly returned to where he could control it. He could speak clearly again and take care of himself to a certain degree. “How much longer do you think I’ll be in here?” Marty asked as he shifted on the bed.
“Hopefully not much longer,” Dr. Fielding said with a smile. “You should be able to get around on your own fairly well soon, and once you can do that, there’s no reason for you to stay here any longer. I understand your parents are looking at having a room in their home converted to make things easier for you.” The doctor made that sound like it was the greatest thing in the world, but all Marty could do was sigh. “You look like that’s a bad thing,” the doctor added as he finished with the chart and set it on the tray.
Marty eyed the doctor a bit suspiciously. “Before I say anything, I want to ask if you’re my doctor or my parents’ doctor.”
“I’m your doctor,” he answered, sitting in the chair next to Marty’s bed.
“So anything I tell you is confidential?” Marty asked, and Dr. Fielding looked uncomfortable. “Thanks,” Marty said, turning away. That expression told him all he needed to know.
“I’m your doctor, and I will not tell your parents anything you don’t want them told,” the doctor said with a bit of fire that Marty was glad to see. It took a strong person to be able to stand up to his dad, whether he was in the room or not.
“I don’t want to go home to my parents’ house. Not that it isn’t nice and all, but I want to get better, and my parents will shelter and coddle me to the point where I’ll go crazy. I’d almost rather go to a nursing home. You don’t know any that have horses and a basketball court, do you?” Marty laughed slightly, but the doctor didn’t break a smile. “Look, my family tends to be protective, too protective. I had to practically beg them to let me live in the dorm with the other guys.”
“Yes,” the doctor agreed. Almost everyone had heard the story of what had happened to Marty’s baby brother. “Can you blame them?”
“Probably not,” Marty agreed reluctantly. “But can you imagine what it’s been like for the past five years? They live in constant fear of the same thing happening to another of their children, and I know my getting sick has played into my mother’s fears. She stayed here with me for weeks, and it took a crowbar to get her to leave me alone for a while. For some reason, I think she blames the school and my friends for what happened to me. She knows it wasn’t their fault, but she blames them and probably herself too. She told me once that she keeps thinking that if she had been there, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” Marty paused, and the doctor nodded slowly.
“That’s part of being a parent,” the doctor said before adding, “For the record, there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent what happened to you. In fact, you were very lucky to have survived and to be doing as well as you are.”
That wasn’t news to Marty; he’d been told that before. “I know they love me and want the best for me, but I need to be away from them.” Marty knew telling the doctor this probably wouldn’t do much good. “I want to be independent. I have money of my own from a trust, so I can pay for my care if I need to.”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” the doctor told him as he stood up. “If you get to the point where you can get yourself around in your chair, then I’ll see what I can do.” There was a curious look in the doctor’s eye, and Marty wanted to ask what it was, but he heard his mother’s footsteps coming down the hall and he knew if she got wind of his plans, she’d find a way to derail them fast. “Now, I’ll send someone in to help you into your chair. I don’t want you tiring yourself out,” Dr. Fielding said with a wink before he left the room, greeting Marty’s mother as he passed.
“How are you feeling?” his mother asked, setting her purse on the chair next to his bed. “Did I hear they’re going to move you to your chair?” She looked at the chair in the corner and began moving it toward the bed.
“Not that one, Mom,” Marty told her, and she stopped. “They’re bringing a regular chair.”
“But you’re not ready for one of those yet,” she said and proceeded to bring the motorized chair closer to the bed.
The orderly came in with the chair and his mother began to take over. “He’s going to use this one,” she said forcefully.
“No, I’m not. I’m using the regular chair.” Marty sat up and began scooting himself to the edge of the bed. He knew his mother was about to argue, but the orderly came over and gently lifted him out of the bed before carefully setting him in the chair. “Thank you,” he told the large man, and he smiled. “Could I get one of the pillows?” Marty asked after settling into the chair for a few seconds, and the orderly brought him one from the bed. Marty carefully leaned forward as the orderly placed it behind his back. “That’s better.”
It felt good to sit up again, and Marty leaned back in the chair, feeling a little more normal. The orderly made sure his feet and legs were properly supported. “Would you like me to take you for a walk?”
“Please,” Marty answered. He reached out and took his mother’s hand. “I need to try, Mom.” Marty saw her nod as the orderly wheeled him out of the room. His mother followed, and once they reached a wide, quiet area of hallway, the orderly stepped back and stood near his mother.
Marty sat in the middle of the hallway and easily placed his right hand on the right wheel. His left hand took a lot more concentration. He thought of the exercises he’d done in PT and squeezed his fingers around the wheel. Slowly he pushed forward. His right hand moved the wheel, but his left hand slid off, making him spin slightly. “Fuck,” Marty swore quietly before trying again. A few times, he managed to move himself forward slightly, but mostly he just went in slow circles. Marty heard his mother gasp softly every time he failed, and his own frustration began to rise. Maybe he’d never got out of here and would be at the mercy of his family for the rest of his life. That thought alone was enough to make him try agai