We leave at 9 p.m.
After a day spent inside, warm and still fighting off colds, but happy to be decorating for Christmas, we are in the frigid car driving to the hospital in Hamilton. On the way, I ask Mom what her nephew Ryan—my cousin—was like as a kid. Mom joined the Air Force when Ryan was 4, so she only remembers him as a sweet baby, long before the alcohol and the drugs, the car crash with his nephew Blake, the jail time. The family referred to him as a wild child. It sounds nicer than saying he was a person who destroyed his body slowly, then all at once. His sweetness remained though. In the winter, when the snow got bad, he would shovel Uncle Ronny and Aunt Jean’s driveway.
We arrive at Fort Hamilton Hospital, and are greeted by Blake and Sandy, Ryan's mom. While Sandy goes outside to smoke, Blake leads us to the ICU. Later, when Mom and I leave the hospital, trailed by Sandy in need of another smoke break, I whisper to Mom, “Should she be smoking that close to a hospital?” “No,” Mom says, “but no one is going to tell her that tonight.”
In the ICU, we hug Ryan's sister Tina and say an awkward hello to Ryan’s tearful girlfriend and her mother who are sitting by themselves on the other side of the waiting room. I never do catch their names. Sandy comes back, and we attempt to make stilted small talk. All I can focus on is the crying coming from Ryan’s girlfriend, and Sandy, who keeps getting up to pace before asking Tina the same question she asked her a minute ago. Quietly, as if saying it above a whisper will make this terrible situation even worse, Tina tells us the facts.
Ryan had been at Tina’s house earlier in the day, helping her move. She said he seemed fine. Except when he spent 20 minutes in the bathroom. Or when he kept nodding off in the car. Or when Tina dropped Ryan at his house and noticed a guy waiting outside for him. He was fine until he wasn’t. Later, my mom and I would try to figure out why Tina hadn’t pressed Ryan harder, why she hadn’t called him later to check up on him. But you see what you want to see, I suppose, especially with the ones you love the most.
Ryan’s friend found him. They were on the phone together, and suddenly Ryan stopped responding. The friend called back several times, but Ryan never picked up. The friend lives down the street, but he had kids at home, so he waited until his wife returned home before going to check on Ryan. By the time his friend found him, 40 minutes had passed since Ryan had taken a breath.
40 minutes. Why didn’t his friend call 911 sooner? Why didn’t he gather up his kids and walk to Ryan’s house? Why didn’t he lock every door and window, tell his kids not to let anyone in while he was gone and rush to Ryan’s side? I think about this a lot. I imagine Ryan’s friend does too.
The paramedics couldn’t revive Ryan at his house. They took him to the ER where they were able to revive him, but then he coded for 20 minutes.
And now here we are in the ICU, waiting and trying to ignore the woman we’ve never met sobbing for a man Mom and I haven’t seen in years.
Mom, Tina and I go into Ryan’s room. They usually only allow two at a time, but much like Sandy’s cigarettes, the usual rules matter little tonight. “If you’ve ever wondered what your Uncle Dave looked like, Ryan looks just like him,” Mom says of her long departed older brother and Ryan's father. “He’s just like Dad,” Tina says. Caring. Funny. Reckless. My mom recounts the time she visited Dave, her brother, at the hospital. (They didn’t know it was cancer yet.) “I hadn’t seen Dave in years,” Mom says. (We have many family stories that begin this way.) “I got there as he was waking up. I said, ‘Dave, it’s Patty.” My Uncle Dave looked at my mom and in a half-asleep fog dead-panned, “Patty? I thought I had died.” We all laugh, thankful for a moment like this.
In Ryan’s room, he lays on a hospital bed, his body covered in tubes. They seem to be everywhere. There are at least two in his mouth. As the machine breathes for him, one of the tubes coming out of his mouth fogs up reddish brown. I keep watching, this methodical color-changing. There is another contraption that is slowly filling with liquid, the same reddish brown color. It’s bloody fluid being pumped from his belly, the nurse tells us. She uses the term “belly,” which strikes me as needlessly juvenile given the current situation. “Could the blood be from all the CPR?” Tina asks. “It could be,” the nurse replies.
While the three of us stand around Ryan’s bed, more facts come out between moments of comfortable silence. The girlfriend knew Ryan was using heroin. It’s not his first overdose. “I always thought this would happen. I just didn’t know when, you know?” Tina says. I try to imagine what this must feel like, to know how someone’s life will end and to know there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Tina squeezes Ryan’s foot. “My baby brother,” she whispers.
As we leave Ryan’s room, Tina asks the nurse, “What should we do?” There is so much caught up in that question. The nurse gently replies, “You may want to stay the night.”
Mom and I walk to our car. “Shit that was awful,” I say. “Yeah,” Mom says. “It was.”
On the way home, we stop at Steak ‘n Shake. I ask Mom how her burger tastes. “Like I’m gonna have heartburn all night,” she replies. I laugh, loud and longer than is necessary. It feels good.
Ryan died Dec. 9, 2018. He was 46.