Sister’s Keeper, vi (Thresholds)

Note: This is Part 6 of a series. Here’s Part 5 if you missed it, or maybe you want to go back to Part 1 to see what the heck this is about.

My palms are red and tender from grinding up pills. I’ve been using a jar gripper, but I still wince with every twist of the pill crusher. Just when I start to feel sorry for myself, Amanda makes a huge improvement. She takes a real shower and puts on actual clothes. Today, she has another follow-up with the surgeon, and she’s anticipating good things.

I drive her out to Chesterfield and bring a crossword puzzle in order to avoid HGTV in the waiting room. I can’t look away. When Amanda greets the receptionist, it’s clear she’s mastered the trick of speaking with her teeth tied together.

She’s in the exam room long enough for me to get engrossed in some low-stakes remodeling suspense. When she comes back out, her teeth are untied, and she’s free to eat mashed potatoes, pudding, or anything pureed. It’s her day of independence from protein shakes.

The next day at our parents’ July Fourth barbecue, Amanda indulges in a feast. She’s got a blender, and she’s not afraid to use it. She savors pureed potato salad and liquefied baked beans. No burgers or brats for her, but she seriously considers blending up a helping of potato chips and dip. Fortunately, she does not. But she’s feeling good, and we’re all amazed at her quick recovery. Let freedom ring.

Amanda happily lets Mom and me off from caregiving duties, except for driving.

On a hot July day, I pick her up for a trip to Walgreens and Schnucks. She’s been feeling good, but her body temperature is all out of whack.

As we step out of Schnucks, the heat blasts us like a furnace. She walks ahead of me, but I opt for the crosswalk like a nerd. From the sidewalk, I unlock the car and notice her collapse into the seat. Meanwhile I’m stuck waiting for a line of cars to pass. When I get to the car, I crank the AC, but she’s already pale and sweaty. By the time we pull into her driveway, it’s clear she needs some rest and a bottle of Gatorade. She insists she’ll be fine.

That night, I can’t fall asleep. Just when I’m getting really frustrated, a text appears: “Can you come over?” Pulling into her driveway, I see the dim lights of her living room through the storm door, and I brace myself for something bad.

Opening the door, I find her curled up on the mat just inside the threshold, sweating and shivering. The left side of her body—arm, shoulder, neck—is immobilized with pain, so much that she can’t get up. I panic and pray at the same time, then google “stroke symptoms” so I know the magic words to say to the 911 dispatcher. But when I scroll through the checklist, Amanda’s symptoms don’t match those of a stroke.

“Jesus, show me what to do,” becomes my mantra.

She doesn’t want to go to the ER again, but she also doesn’t want to die. She doesn’t want to deal with this pain-filled body anymore, the perennial problem of being alive. I try to think fast but spin my tires until finally falling back on my old stand-by: water. I insist that she drink some water, Gatorade, apple juice, Mountain Dew, whatever. She says she’s not dehydrated but placates me with a tiny sip from the straw.

I come up with a plan: she must drink the apple juice, and if she still feels terrible in thirty minutes, we go to the ER. At this point, she’d agree to anything just to believe that someone is in charge. The plan may be dumb, but there’s a degree of comfort in having one.

Thirty minutes later, she feels pretty bad but decides against the ER, knowing that tomorrow she’ll see the surgeon again. This time, instead of waiting with my HGTV, she wants me in the exam room to vouch for her symptoms, which I do. The nurse is sympathetic but completely unsurprised; muscle spasms are part of the recovery process. The remedy includes heavy-duty muscle relaxers, different pain meds, and—why not?—a dash of Benadryl.

After the appointment, Amanda goes back to bed for a long time. Night and day, light and dark, none of it matters. She bides her time in a medicated state, enduring the process, willing the days into weeks so her body can heal. Mom and I go back to alternating shifts at her house, déjà vu.

We were all amazed on July 4th at the speed of her recovery, eating pureed beans like a champ! We’d begun to think that steady progress was inevitable. This was a setback—or was it just a normal part of healing, one of many thresholds?

Either way, it would take time.