The first question I hear every time I walk into his room is ‘What are we going to do today?’. My answer is almost always the same, ‘we can read some, or do rhymes, but first I want you to tell me my name.’ He tries a couple of letters and eventually he guesses it right. We do a fist bump and then another. I tell him ‘you are amazing,’ and he smiles. You too, he says.
I first met Jessie last year on November 24th. I did not know what to expect. I had been following the story since it happened, back in June of 2016.
I got in touch with his mom Sue after I wrote about him. When I offered to read to him, she said yes, that’d be great company for those long winter days, so we got started. ‘He will brighten your day, you’ll see,’ she said before I met him.
When Sue introduced me, Jessie took my hand and kissed it. The old-fashioned way like my dad used to. I teared up. My dad spent the last eight years of his life bedridden. There is a lot of pain I carry around.
‘When’s your dad’s birthday? How old is he turning?’ Jessie likes asking about birthdays. He would have turned 82, I say. ‘He passed away? I am so sorry to hear, that is very sad.’ I stare at Jessie, transformed. It’s a moment of utter vulnerability that will stay with me. Mine.
Jessie loves peaches. And roses. Baby blue and lime green are his favourite colours. On the wall in front of him there is a family tree painting. Names of people who love him, most of whom he does not remember but we read them every time and a few memories trickle back. One day he will remember. And he will walk again. He is a fighter; Sue believes that with all her heart.
‘What choice do I have? He is my baby; I can’t let go.’ She answers the questions I dare not ask. How do you do it? How do you carry on and not break into a million pieces? Where do you find hope?
‘It’s been three and a half years but I cannot afford to think of it that way,’ she says. It’s one day at a time.
‘I could not touch him for the first two weeks. He was just so broken.’ No parent can imagine that. Day after day, she sang to him and then found the courage to gently touch him and hold his hand.
When he came out of the coma, Jessie could barely blink. The left side of his body was paralyzed due to the stroke he suffered during the attack, but his feeding tube was gone and he recognized his mom. That was enough to start with and build on.
A lot of memories and life from before the attack are still buried deep. He remembers his brother, his cat, his favourite food – chicken strips with honey mustard, and flying in an airplane, among other things.
He asks for words to make rhymes with, which he does effortlessly. Some are so silly we both burst out laughing. His laughter is strained because of the many surgeries he went through, including a tracheostomy. But he laughs, and I laugh, and we keep on going. It’s been more than a year of Sunday afternoons I spent at the care facility.
Anger, sadness and hope, they mix up and trample over each other to get a front seat in my mind whenever I visit. I celebrate every step forward with him, no matter how small, but it is impossible to forget the big picture. The ‘why’…the wrongness.
‘Am I your favourite Simpson?’ His blue eyes are luminous and kind.
I think of my boys, one a teenager and the other not far behind. What if?… It’s the edge of a precipice I do not know the depth of and do not dare go any closer to.
Jessie turned 22 last summer. He insists he’s a teenager though. In fact, the only thing that makes him upset is telling him that he is 22. Time stolen.
‘What’s your favourite shape?’ he asks out of the blue.
I never thought of it. I bring my hands together to form a circle.
What’s yours, I ask.
I will never forget that.
If you wish to help Jessie and his mom, please donate for their fundraiser here.