Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Three Years

My brother, Topher, wrote a journal essay about my accident
and shared it with me before he passed away three years ago.
I've posted it on my blog before, 
and I am starting to think I'll post it every year 
from now on.  It means so much to me.
These were HIS thoughts, HIS details, and HIS feelings
on a part of my life that changed me so dramatically.
I love that he shares this story with me and, in turn,
I share a little of his story, too, because we both
have experienced hard things, but also because we share the same
blood and that connects us forever and ever.

I miss you, Topher!
I love you and have faith that we'll see each other again.
Actually, I don't just have faith about that,
I KNOW it.
* * * * * *
"When I was thirty-six, my sister Stephanie and her husband Christian were in a small engine plane crash on the border of Arizona and New Mexico. It's a well-documented story by this point, so I don't need to go into the details of it. And my own interaction with the story was minimal; not because I wasn't affected by it, but because the story wasn't really about me. I'm just a small piece of it. But it significantly impacted me and my family anyway, and it's worth sharing my memory of it.

I remember flying home from London in mid-August; I'd been there for a month on study abroad, and I was listening to Andrew Bird on my ipod. Somewhere over Iceland his song "Fiery Crash" came on, and I smirked a little at the irony of being in a jet plane while listening to these lyrics:

turnstiles on mezzanine
jet ways and Dramamine fiends
and x-ray machines
you were hurling through space
g-forces twisting your face
breeding superstition
a fatal premonition
you know you've got to envision
the fiery crash

I was only home a day or so when I got a phone call from my sister-in-law Katy, telling me that Stephanie and Christian had been in a plane crash but were going to be alright. Lisa wasn't home then, but when she got home I told her what had happened and assured her they were fine. They weren't, but we didn't know that. My parents flew to Phoenix, where Stephanie and Christian stayed at the Maricopa Burn Unit. The next day was a Sunday, and Mom and Dad called a family meeting over the phone. This was the first time I think we realized that the situation was more grave than we had thought.

In a few moments, gathered at my sister Courtney's house, the situation morphed from a few bumps and burns into life and death. It broadsided me, to be honest. And the gravity of the situation settled in deftly and hopelessly. I felt like I only had a few moments of contemplation before making the inevitable preparations for the loss of a sibling. Everyone deals in grief in their own way, and I wish I could say I was a crier. Or a hugger. Or an emotional sharer. But all of these things make me uncomfortable, so I dealt with this situation by being strong, moving on, and assuring everyone that things would be fine. I kind of believed that, actually.

There were discussions among us, privately, of course, that Stephanie's death was probably the best thing at this point. She had been severely burned over 80% of her body. If she survived she would be in chronic pain for the rest of her life, and she would never look the same. In some ways, it felt selfish to hope for her survival, since it felt like we wanted her to live for us. So that we'd feel ok. Or to spare us the loss of a sister. But we also wanted her to live for Christian, who was burned as well, though not as badly, and Stephanie's four little children.

We took turns visiting Stephanie in Arizona. I flew down and met up with my parents and my older brother Matt. My first introduction to Stephanie was a look Matt gave me as we walked down the hall to her hospital room. Clearly not meant for my mother to see, Matt focused his eyes on me in a way that told me to prepare for a shock. But it wasn't a shock, necessarily. I had already been told to expect a mummy, and that's what I saw. My brain didn't really connect this white bandaged, comatose, slab of a form to my sister. Only her eyes were visible, but they fluttered and squinted and I couldn't see much there. We talked to her and I joked with her, but I had no faith that she was really hearing me. I'm a realist in these situations, and I go through the motions to make the people around me comfortable, but I never sensed that Stephanie thought my jokes were all that funny, or that she even heard them. I had made her a CD of mellow tunes, which I played in her room and which the nurse would quickly turn on when she saw us coming, though I do feel that this was just a gesture on my part.

While we were in Arizona we stayed at Stephanie and Christian's house. I felt bad for their dog, Jimmy, who seemed confused and left behind. The kids had been shuttled to Utah, but Jimmy was at home chasing birds and waiting for someone to fill him in. I played with Jimmy a little. I worried about my Mom, who tried to valiantly push through everything but seemed to swing between hope and futility. She seemed cheered to have Matt and me around, though, and maybe that was the best thing we could do. Although we gave Stephanie and Christian priesthood blessings and made daily visits, I think we were most useful in helping our parents cope. We took day trips to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West and local graveyards to find buried ancestors. We ate Mexican food and watched a BYU football game.

One night I sat at Stephanie's kitchen table answering emails online. Everyone was asleep; Matt had gone home to Utah. Through the kitchen windows, I saw sporadic lightning bolts above Mesa and Scottsdale. Everything outside was calm and smelled like oranges. The kitchen was dark and hushed, and I faintly made out the sound of someone approaching my chair from behind. I turned around to see who it was, and had a brief sense of Stephanie. I heard a voice say "Hi, Tophy!" and then it was gone. I still don't know if I imagined it, but it was pretty distinct at the time. I don't have any reason to doubt that her spirit wanted to stop by her old kitchen, 
say hello to her brother, and then get back to work healing her body.

I knew, after this, somehow, that Stephanie would recover. And she did. There was a swarm of publicity. We were on the Today Show and Oprah, and I had an interview with the New York Times at one point. All of this as her body slowly healed and her spirit gradually returned. I always felt like an outsider to this story; I didn't do anything heroic or brave. I didn't heal her myself and I didn't spend hours at her bedside. But I was there off and on, as her life progressed and my life progressed, 
and she eventually came back and continues to mend.

There was one night, however, after she had transferred to the University of Utah burn unit when I slept alongside her in a foldout hospital chair. I had brought several DVD's to watch; classic movies and Christmas flicks, though she sort of drifted in and out of them. Around three in the morning, I could hear her moaning and recounting the crash, almost as if she were reliving it. The sounds she made scared me and I immediately grabbed her hand until she faded back into sleep. She won't remember that, and it doesn't matter if she does. I knew that I was there one night when she needed me. And this was God's way of letting me know that, in a peculiar way, this was my story too."
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