When It All Fell Apart
July 23, 2016
El Wilson ’18
Five days before the start of finals, I experienced the worst moment of my life. I was sitting on my bed, procrastinating as usual, when I received this text from my mom:
"There was a bike accident in Bloomfield last night. I have been worried all day that it could have been Ang. Turns out I am right. They are in critical but stable condition in the ICU. I will try to find out more and keep you posted. Send positive thoughts of healing! They are a really tough cookie and we need to have lots of hope."
The air turned to water. A horrid mixture of panic and grief filled my lungs. The only way I could breathe was if I sobbed. If you've ever heard someone with cerebral palsy and a speech impediment cry, you know it's a terrible noise. I sound like a howling cat dying from pneumonia. That day, I cried so loudly that my RA, who lived three doors down from me, came to investigate.
Ang (they/them/theirs) was an extremely close friend from high school. We met during 10th grade honors English. We spent the entire school year passing notes to each other like elementary school children. I finally found a friend who was equally as child-like and complex as I was. We became so close that the summer before 11th grade they went on a two-week vacation with my family. I had planned on being friends with them for the rest of our lives. Whether it's standing in my bridal party or buying copies of my first book for their entire future engineering firm or teaching my first child Hungarian, every time I picture my future, they're there.
Suddenly, that future was torn to pieces. I would potentially have to do life without them. I was very far from sending "positive thoughts of healing." All I could think was "But I love them."
For the first few hours, I tried to continue my life as usual. I even went to a meeting with Ma'ayan (the amazing human who runs this blog). It was an act I couldn't maintain. That night at dinner I leaned against my close friend Ben. Ben is the most emotionally stable person I know. Usually, his calm presence can prevent my implosion, but even his steadiness couldn't make me feel better. I was drowning and it was going to take a lot more than some doggy paddling to save my butt.
I reached out to Professor Morean, the bowl of awesomsauce who is one of my academic advisors, and asked her how to "college under such circumstances." She told me to contact my dean as soon as possible. Hence began the process of obtaining emergency incompletes.
My class dean directed me to meet with the dean of studies. Oberlin has very strict rules pertaining to finals. All finals due dates (including exams, papers, and projects) are set by the college and professors cannot give extensions. If a student has a problem, they must meet with the dean of studies to receive an emergency incomplete. An emergency incomplete is an extension for a final the college gives if it decides that the student's situation is indeed an emergency. Fortunately, Oberlin believes that one's best friend getting hit by a car qualifies as an emergency.
I met with the associate dean of studies, Ellen Sayles, and we talked through my options. It was a difficult conversation. In high school, I had learned to power through my homework no matter what was going on inside my head. I didn't even tell my teachers when one of my friends from camp went to bed and never woke up. I didn't go to my brother's best friend's funeral because I had AP Biology homework to do. Now, I had to admit to this authority figure that I couldn't be the perfect student. I couldn't make schoolwork my first priority. I wasn't okay.
Since neither my mother nor I could reach Ang's family, I had no other information about their condition other than that they were "in the ICU in critical but stable condition." Therefore, Dean Sayles and I agreed that we should postpone my final due dates to June 1st, the latest date possible.
I spent my remaining week at Oberlin being a complete and utter train wreck. When I could, I worked on my Research Methods 2 project, which had to be completed at Oberlin because it involved using a snobby statistical analysis software program known as SPSS. (No, I don't know what it stands for nor do I want to give it the respect of Googling it.) Luckily, I was taking the class pass/no pass because of the emotional trauma induced by Sam Price's death. The rest of the time is a blurred memory of reality TV, tears, and the tender love of friends.
I went home a day early and the longest month of my life began. I learned that Ang had been biking downtown when the crash happened. A driver in the oncoming lane was texting while driving and veered into Ang, smashing them against a parked car. Their chest was crushed. They were on life support until their punctured lung could be resolved. Despite wearing a helmet, they suffered a traumatic brain injury. Then, came the coma. No one knew if they were ever going to wakeup.
An everlasting coma was a far worse possibility than death. I couldn't grieve nor could I find it in me to be properly optimistic. The best I could do was to finish up my finals, cry, and picture the day I got to hug them again.
I'm an atheist. Before the crash, I believed that we are our bodies, nothing more, nothing less. But that month I learned that we are our relationships. For as the coma went on and on, part of me began to wither away.
Three weeks later, I was sitting on my back porch reading The BFG when I received a Facebook message from Ang's sister. Ang had begun the slow process of waking up. For the first time all summer, I noticed how nice the weather was.
There were still many uncertainties, though. What if the brain damage was severe? What if it changed their personality? My loyalty prevailed. As long as they were mentally capable of loving me, I would do my best to help take care of them for the rest of their life. It was a hypothetical situation that made me squirm, but I have watched many disabled adults struggle to find care as their parents age. I wasn't going to let that happen to them.
Two weeks later, I was at an American Sign Language program at Gallaudet University when I checked Ang's Facebook page for the 1000th time. I saw a post that said that ten days after fully waking up, Ang was going home and was going to be 100% okay. The brain injury was mild and temporary. I jumped and screamed and cried and laughed. My roommates thought I had lost my mind. I felt something inside me start to regrow. It was the best moment of my life.
My remaining time at Gallaudet was a blast. I signed, hung out with all of my dorm-mates, explored DC, and texted Ang. The day after I got home, I saw Ang for the first time since Christmas break. It felt so much like a dream that I kept staring at the floor fearing that if I looked at Ang too long, they would disappear. I have never enjoyed being hugged so much. All I could say was "I love you. I love you. Oh my god, I love you."
That afternoon, we had an awkward conversation. Ang remembers nothing of the crash nor most of their time in the hospital. I knew we were on totally different emotional playing fields, but I had to be honest. I told them how I had felt. How El Minus Ang wasn't really a person, but rather a lump. How I watched an entire season of Desperate Housewives in three days. How I had slept with the monkey they made for me a few years ago. How it is going to take awhile for me to move on from the trauma.
It was the right thing to do, just as it was right for me to alert the school, my professors, and my friends. It is okay not to be okay. It is okay to start to drown. It is okay to die a little inside, as long as you tell somebody. If you try to just push through it, no one is going to give you emergency incompletes. No one is going to let you lean into them during dinner. And your best friend won't hold you and tell you that, eventually, it will all be okay.
My mom says that Ang and I are two peas in a pod. If that is true, I'm the luckiest vegetable in the whole world.
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