Standing at the End of the Road

March 6, 2011
By

This is a story I’ve not resisted in telling so much as having found myself unable to tell for a very long time now. It’s one of those junctures in life that struggles to be defined and, for the lack of explanation, defines itself as nothing more than tragedy.

We always want clarity…a reason…a sign from the universe that something so wantonly chaotic makes sense and that’s just not how the universe works. As ill-equipped humans, we struggle to understand that which we can’t.

I was 25 when Catie and I began living together. Her given name was Catherine, most friends called her Cat, but I had affectionately christened her Catie. Just to preface everything to follow I’d say that our relationship was, regardless of our love for each other, an incomplete, sometimes juvenile attempt at something just beyond dating. She was 22 and, considering that both of us had the maturity of a 15 year old, we were truly banging around without a sense of purpose.

That’s not to diminish the fact that I was in love with her, but to make clear that we were two people hardly ready for much more than a casual relationship. Still, there we were trying to make a go at cohabitation and limping along with it, not knowing how to relate with one another when we were busy, at the same time, hanging with friends and acting out our crazy youth.

In 1976 I had a jazz-fusion band and we were working a lot of the clubs in Portland, Oregon and struggling to gig as much as possible. In Northwest Portland there was a small pub called Bogart’s Joint that we played from time to time and one Saturday summer night we were there and Catie had brought along a few friends to hang with.

End of the RoadThe gig went as usual but somewhere along the line I lost sight of her and at the end of our set I asked one of her girlfriends where she’d gone. She told me that Catie and a guy I didn’t really know (but one of the band members did) had stepped out for a quick motorcycle ride and while this gave me a slight case of boyfriend angst I didn’t think about it much until we were well into our last set.

The night was winding down and she still hadn’t returned. We dutifully started tearing down our gear and loading out into our vans, and I hung with the club for as long as possible but the owner finally had to shut the doors and turn out the lights. I had this terrible feeling in my stomach that this was not a simple case of lost time but something gone bad. Apparently my band mates felt the same way since they all stood with me in front of the dark club wondering what had happened.

As we hashed out the possibilities and worried ourselves into an endless loop, an explanation suddenly appeared coming down the street, a wrecker with a mangled motorcycle and two helmets dangling from its winch.

I don’t remember anyone saying anything for awhile. There was hardly another vehicle on the road, just this apparition sent from hell, moving in slow motion, as a guide to what we knew must have happened. I just remember hoping somehow that the wrecker and our missing persons were disconnected events. We were riveted to the passing visitant until eventually somebody broke the spell and suggested that the hospital was only a few blocks away and maybe we should go there.

I knew this wasn’t going to be good and I couldn’t even talk as we walked into emergency so a gal from the band, who knew the driver, went to ask if there had been an accident and had they been taken there? After getting the answer she turned around with tears in her eyes and told me that their bike had been broadsided by a newspaper truck, tossing Catie around 100 feet, landing on her face, while her friend had been killed on impact. Catie was in critical condition with a broken jaw and severe brain trauma and no guarantee that she’d make it through the night, and if she did, what then?

The room was filling up with family and friends and I was just in shock, my throat knotted tight, anxious with the desire to run. People were consoling each other but I was overwhelmed and had to get clear of the waiting room and deal with things the only way I knew how. I found a small room off of the hospital chapel around the corner and just sat there for awhile and begged any deity who would listen to make this all better; just fix this one and I’ll do this and that and a hundred other desperate promises I knew I couldn’t keep.

After awhile she came out of surgery and was transfered to the intensive care unit where I would spend the night in the waiting room and several more beyond that as we waited to see what would become of her life. I just couldn’t leave that room and even when the doctor came out and told me that he didn’t expect that she would ever overcome the crushing trauma of her brain injuries and subsequent coma, I was blindly defiant, as many people are in those situations, and told him he was wrong. She would come out of this somehow and he would see her strength, but what did I know about any of this? I was talking out my ass because I was so scared of what he was saying and, most of all, that we were stuck in this holding pattern while death decided which way to go.

For her friend who had been killed in the crash, there was some quick finality and all that was left was to mourn and remember this person who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for Catie it was going to be, if she made it out of the woods at all, a drawn out slog.

I went home to our apartment, got the dog, grabbed some clothes, came back to the hospital and, basically, never left except when necessary. My van had been set up with a bed when I came out to the West Coast to begin with so I parked on the street across from the hospital and the dog and I spent most of our days and nights there. I wanted to be involved in whatever happened to her but, more accurately put, I couldn’t leave. It was like I had a responsibility to watch over everything so she got what she was supposed to get and had an advocate on the ready if needed.

She was in a coma for weeks so, initially, I was on sit and watch duty. On occasion her mother would join me but she couldn’t be there all the time because she was fighting an ongoing battle of her own with Multiple Sclerosis. Her father (long divorced from her mother), to my knowledge, never came to visit her a single time. I didn’t think about that much initially because that was pretty much the way it always was, but he would eventually show up down the road for other reasons.

As I had ignorantly predicted to the doctor, she did not die, she finally came slowly out of the coma, and she began to communicate again. To a degree, I was lucky-right. Although her emotional level had regressed to that of a young teenager, her intellect remained unusually sharp and while her equilibrium was barely functional and her total understanding of where she was and why was in doubt, she progressed farther than anyone might have expected back when initially assessed.

She had one mantra and that was to “get out and go home”. Even with her jaw wired shut, she begged me to take her out of there and, of course, I had to explain repeatedly that her condition prevented that but the truth didn’t stop her from trying. She was on the 5th floor of the hospital and right outside her room was the elevator door and a couple of times when I’d leave for lunch or something other she’d be intercepted by a nurse as she weaved back and forth toward the elevator in her backless dressing gown, looking like she’d downed a case of whiskey and forgotten where she’d left her clothes. The good thing was she was easy to spot and easy to catch, but it was troublesome for me (and I assumed for the nursing staff) that she was so dedicated to a breakout.

There were times when she’d be agitated to the degree that bed straps were necessary but, for the most part, they tried hard not to resort to those. For the sake of safety, her mother and I notified the nursing staff of the loose screen on the room’s sole window and, while we didn’t expect that to be an issue, we felt obliged to tie up any loopholes.

I think friends and family were considering the depth of what I was doing with some trepidation far before it ever dawned on me but, for all the myopic dedicated energy I was expending there, just what did I think I was doing? If she continued to progress but never moved beyond a certain road block, was I going to severely modify my future to accommodate all of this? I was barely handling myself properly so why did I think I could tackle something so gargantuan as caring for a brain injured patient? I was an ill-defined 25 year old with the will of a Pit Bull and not enough sense to know how hard I was tugging on my leash.

I sat in on all psychological evaluations and physical rehab sessions. The doctors and nurses got to know me as well as they knew the patient because of the amount of time I was spending with her. On occasion they would even consult privately with me, asking questions about things I might have seen or heard that would be helpful indicators as to the status of her condition. They would ask me what I thought of this and that but I was never sure whether I was helping or not. I was running on empty, didn’t want to be around the hospital anymore and my emotional fuel gage was down to about a quarter tank, but I never quit.

A couple of months into the hospital ordeal the band had another stint back at Bogart’s Joint and it was another Saturday night to boot. I think we were maybe two sets into the evening when I noticed a couple of policemen had come in the front door and were talking to one of the waitresses. Then they were gesturing in my direction and as soon as we took a break I went over to find out what was going on.

From the moment they walked in I was having that sick feeling again, like disarray was heading my way once more. They asked me, “Do you know where Catherine is?”

“What are you talking about?”, I asked, “She’s in the hospital.”

“No, she’s gone and the nursing staff can’t find her.”

I’m asking over again and again, so where is she? She can’t walk more than a few feet without tipping over. What are you saying?

Finally, they asked me to come to the hospital and, once again, I ditched an understanding group of band members and set out for some fresh new hell. My head was swimming and I was furious that somehow she’d managed to get out of the hospital we all knew she was trying to get out of.

I walked into the head nurse’s office and she told me they were doing a thorough search but, in the meantime, if there were any places that I knew of where she might have gone maybe I should conduct a search of my own just in case she managed to get a ride somewhere outside the hospital. The nurse indicated that she was wearing nothing more than that flimsy hospital gown and I tried to understand how someone wouldn’t have spotted her before she got very far in a get-up like that.

Laurelhurst Park

A small portion of Laurelhurst Park in the daytime

There were only two immediate thoughts and that was our apartment in southeast Portland and Laurelhurst Park a couple blocks away where we often walked the dog. Laurelhurst was a large city park with a huge pond in the middle surrounded by lots of trees and rolling terrain. The nurse had given me one of those big, long police flashlights so I could navigate my way around the park where there were no streetlights. I wandered through every inch of it, asking passersby if they’d seen her but after a couple of hours of retracing my steps I gave up. The entire time I just kept envisioning her right around the corner and I’d get her safely back to the hospital but I was just going in circles..

I went to our apartment and hunted around outside and on our porch…just anywhere she might have knowledge of but she was not to be found so I decided I had to go back to the hospital in the off chance that she had shown up or had been found elsewhere. When I walked in the front door the head nurse spotted me right away and asked me to come in her office. The way she asked me to sit down and the look on her face told me I was in for a world of wrong.

“We found her.”

“Where is she?”

“When we were searching the area, we found her on the grounds at the base of the building. Apparently, she had no idea she was on the 5th floor and went out the window.”

And with that, I snapped the last spring in my already fragile psyche and screamed at her, “You stupid fucking assholes. I told you that screen was messed up and you did nothing and now she’s fucking dead. You dumb fucking assholes” and I flung the flashlight she’d given me so hard into the wall that it nearly stuck like an arrow and I ran out of the room. I couldn’t be in there anymore. The nurse followed me trying to console me but there was nothing more to be said. I screamed at her to leave me alone.

It was over and I was broken…emotionally broken into a million little shards that I was holding together by sheer force of anger. Through all of this, it wasn’t a motorcycle accident that finally ended her life but a simple act of neglect. I don’t know how long I sat there in the front lobby, staring off to nowhere, but I couldn’t move because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I just sat there in a state of shock trying to comprehend what all just happened. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me or even approach me…just stay…the fuck…away.

From the time of her death to the time of her memorial service I remember very little. I was just going through the motions and stunned into a stoic silence. It had exhausted me in a way that leaves you drained, seemingly beyond repair, looking for guidance from any source available. It was not so much the duration of all that happened but the intensity over those 3 months that sucked the life out of me.

At the memorial I sobbed uncontrollably and then, when it was over and the last tear had come and gone, emotionally a part of me was closed for business. For the next several years I was incapable of crying over anything and I was worried about it and knew that I needed help but in typical me fashion I decided I could handle it on my own. But no one walks away from something like that and blithely flips the page onto the next thing.

There is accumulated wreckage to deal with and I was a walking mess. Many of the nurses that I had gotten to know during the time she was there went out of their way to contact me, bring me food, take me out for a beer and be sure I wasn’t alone. They were incredibly generous but I was my own disaster area and it was going to take a long time to put the psychological trauma of those events in a safe place…a very long time.

Catie was hopelessly trapped and her fierce energy had no patience for her circumstance and, as a result, I’ve often wondered over the years: what if she did know she was on the 5th floor and didn’t care what method she used to escape?Laurelhurst Park

3 Responses to Standing at the End of the Road

  1. Erin Merritt on March 7, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Thanks, Martin. You have such great insight into a part of your life that was beyond hard. I appreciate you sharing!

    • Freakmaster on March 8, 2011 at 9:11 pm

      I appreciate that, Erin. I have to admit that even though I knew that sooner or later I’d write this thing, unlike most of these stories, I did not find any innate pleasure in this exercise at all. Even when it was done I had trepidations about publishing it and let it lay finished for a couple of days. I also realized that there was so much to this story it could fill a book but I’m not quite ready for that particular undertaking. Anyway, thanks for reading…

  2. Erin Merritt on March 9, 2011 at 5:51 am

    As soon as I began reading your account, I truly thought that it would be a wonderful book. It’s an interesting, difficult, emotional, and cathartic story. I look forward to reading it, if you ever travel down that road.

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