The doctor said if they couldn’t find a solution, Andrew would die within the year. That’s what Andrew said, and so that’s what I believed.
We were 17 when this started. The blackouts. The first time it happened we were in his bedroom – a little boy’s bedroom with panda wallpaper. He started whining and thrashing around. He clawed at his ribcage like he had some kind of animal in him trying to escape. It went on for a few minutes until he was limp.
I pulled his face up from the side of the bed and put it on my lap. He wouldn’t wake up. My knees started shaking. My tears mixed with my makeup, my face streaked in black.
Then nothing was wrong. He moved. He woke up.
We grew up together in our quiet town. He was the skinny boy in middle school who took pictures and wrote poems. He was the one with the mom in the wheelchair. We saw her at the chorus concert.
He was twelve when she started to die from ALS. He was thirteen when he had to help feed her. He was fourteen when he was too weak to help carry her. He was fifteen when he gave up. He was sixteen when she died. That’s the story he didn’t tell.
A few weeks into our relationship, we were sitting in the auditorium waiting for play practice to start. Andrew was suddenly running out the door, head in his hands. I followed him and found him curled up outside the doors.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “You can tell me. Trust me.”
He wept as he told me his little cousin Cooper had died from leukemia: “He wanted to be a barber. He was supposed to be a barber, and now he’s dead.”
He was upset for months. He went to court hours away to testify against Cooper’s doctors. He shaved his head. I wrote this down in my teenage girl diary. I made a note to myself that if he and I fell in love and started a life together, I’d name our baby Cooper.
“We can pretend,” I cried in the car. It was the middle of the night. He held me and said, “Ok. We can pretend for tonight that I’m not dying, not sick, and that I’m not going.
High school was over and we had been spun and spit through the summer. His blackouts were consistent and they didn’t get easier to watch. Doctors had figured out that they were his body’s reaction to his ribcage expanding violently. If it didn’t stop, it would expand past a containable point.
He had bouts of amnesia – friends he couldn’t remember anymore. He was taking experimental medicine from his doctors that was causing this. Sometimes we went through the yearbook to make sure he still knew those closest to him. Some people stopped talking to him.
We didn’t leave the car. He fell asleep in the backseat on my lap. The way he was curled up made me feel like he was just a little kid. Maybe mine. I spent all night thinking about him being happy, and if I could give that to him.
The next morning we brought him to the airport. His dad and little sister came wearing their LSU shirts and hats. He told me his doctor here was sending him to a Louisiana hospital for special medical treatment. That he was going to attend college at LSU for the sake of his dad. His dad was in denial.
“You can never talk to him about me being sick. He’ll spiral down.”
“I’m not that far away,” he said, “ I’ll always be with you.”
I got home and drove my old truck down the street next to the Air Force base runway where the trees are cleared and I can see. I laid in the empty bed, watching the sky. A dry sky. Wet eyes. No planes. Until one – way up high. There he is. I raised my arm and lined my fingers up with the plane. I pushed it along over the land. I carried it across the sky for as long as I could before it faded. There you go, move along.
I stayed until dark. The moonlight bounced off my mirrors. My phone lit up: “Are you watching the moon?”
I called him 267 times. My fingers made the path of his phone number all day – twitched under my desk in class. I called him every day for over two months, sometimes four times a day. He never picked up.
That September was filled with panic – chained to my phone, waiting for him to respond, hours later, to tell me he had blacked out again. While my roommates went out to party, I stayed home and cried, picturing reading a poem at his funeral. My mom would pick me up and stare straight ahead as I cried all the way home. She didn’t say anything because all that she said made it worse – that’s what I told her.
It was October 1st when he called me, a little past midnight. I could hear beeping and murmuring in the background. Finally he spoke up. He sounded weak, wispy. He said he loved me – over and over – and that it was time for him to go, and that he had a dream, he saw me in the future with a family, happy. And he gasped and a loud machine started beeping insanely until it was just a long flatline. I heard people moving in. Yelling. Crashing. The phone went dead.
I dropped the cell phone off the top bunk where I was sitting and fell after it. I called his dad to ask if he knew Andrew was in the hospital. He had no idea.
Andrew called me back a few hours later just as the sun was coming up. He laughed a little and asked why I called his dad, everything was fine. Everything is not fine. I heard you flatline. He said I needed to be strong, and to start to learn how to live in a world without him.
The next day I was in the hospital for fainting. My heart was monitored for two weeks.
Soon he stopped answering my calls. And everyone else’s. And I called him 267 times.
It was the start of Christmas break, that Freshmen year of college. I opened the door and there he was, standing in the doorway smiling at me. When I got closer there were tears in his eyes.
“Where were you. I called you. I waited up every night for you to call for two months now. Where were you? I called you!” I had never shrieked at someone before. I didn’t know my own voice so raw.
Shrieking turned into shaking turned into pounding his chest turned into I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, over and over, him holding me on that dusty couch, him crying, him saying I’ll never leave you again, I’ll never leave you again.
In the morning, he told me: He’d been in a coma for two months.
He was put into a medically induced coma by his doctor in Louisiana. He was reaching the end of his estimated year, and they decided it was the last option. They figured that him blacking out was his body’s only way of dealing with his ribcage expanding, so by inducing him into a permanent blackout, his body would wake when it was naturally done expanding. In the meantime they could have more time to figure out a treatment. This treatment was a shot into his spine, which he had to get every three months.
He wrote me a letter that the nurse was supposed to have sent to me. He didn’t call to tell me because he knew I wouldn’t be ok. He didn’t want anyone from home to know. It was easier this way, to die alone.
When he woke up he couldn’t remember anything. He finally recalled five people: Himself. His dad. His sister. On the plane ride home he remembered his mom, and her death. He said he felt the pain of that like new sitting there on that plane. And then he remembered me.
We spent the next weeks inseparable. I helped him every day and night, filled him in on as many details in his life as I could. He told me details about himself as they came back to him that I hadn’t known before. I felt so needed. Important. Bonded through pain. Hearts sewn together.
Within a month, he felt like he was put back together again.
Who would believe any of this? I knew that if everything was true, he wouldn’t be able to walk, his muscles would be very weak. He would be even skinnier. His dad would have known, and he would have told me. I am not a stupid person. I am not dumb. But for him, I was.
His aunts from New York came to visit this last summer. They were having a full family reunion upstate, his mother’s side. We drove the four hours to visit them, a beautiful drive through mountains.
Five years together now. It wasn’t an easy five years, and the distance made it hard, too. But him being alive, healthy – that made it easier. He planned for graduate school back home in Massachusetts. “So we can finally just be together,” he said.
Meeting his mother’s family, knowing where she grew up, stories of her being told to me. Somehow I felt at home. I chatted with his aunts like I had wished I could chat with my own. Then one kid, probably closer to being a teenager than a child, came through the gate with his father and put down his bag. He came over to give his grandmother a kiss.
“Kylie,” she said. “Have you met Andrew’s cousin, Cooper?”
We had met five years ago in a high school hallway. I had seen Cooper’s reflection in Andrew’s tears. In an imagined grave. In a silly teenager girl’s fantasy of a baby boy named Cooper who would make them happy. And honor Andrew’s dead little cousin. Yes.
It’s so dirty, the truth.
I knew there were lies. Dozens of them, sprinkled over me, constantly. There were clues everywhere – sometimes it felt like he left them there for me to find, to challenge me. The truth was that I was so chained to him by love that I could never leave.
I asked him why. He said, “Never refuse a good thing.”
It was by the end of the week after Cooper that I read a conversation he accidentally left open on his (second) Facebook – with his girlfriend from Louisiana, the friend he made me feel insane for ever questioning. And I knew then that I had to leave, not just because of her, but because, like a spark running down a fuel line, every lie that I had forced myself to bury was now catching fire, and I was burning.
I said at least I never got pregnant. He said, “Don’t worry you’re sterile.”
Word spread quickly. They found me on Facebook. The heartbroken girlfriend from LSU. The six others. Even old friends from our hometown who had their own weird stories. They messaged me to reach out and they ended with: I’m sorry. Had I known. He’s gross. We all hate him now. What a monster. Maybe they thought they were unburying me from his lies. Kind of felt more like a dumping ground to leave their dirty guilt.
I asked how will you live the rest of your life. He said, “I’ll exist.”
There was never a coma and never a terminal illness. My friends begged me to open my eyes. I never could. But now in the wake of this fallout, people came to me. His roommate: “He was perfectly fine.” And then there was the girl who got an identical flatlining phone call.
I asked how do you sleep through the night. He said, “I wish I had died in the coma.”
I went to see his dad a last time. I needed him to know that his son was sick, and I couldn’t help him. I tried so hard. He told me that he tried too. I begged, “Try harder, please, try harder.”
To end my last conversation with Andrew, I said:
I’m sorry that this happened to you.
You are a sociopath.
I don’t think you can be helped.
“Thank you for your condolences.”
“Yes, you are correct.”
“You were the best thing that ever happened to me.”
When I was little, and the summer was breathing its last breath, the grass high and unkept, I would lie on my back next to the airfield and look up at the sky. Straight up, until a jet slipped its way into my view. I’d keep my eyes still, in one spot, and as that plane floated across my sight, I’d count. Sometimes in ones, or in fives, or tens. When I’d get stuck, and the plane became more and more a blur, I’d stay as quiet as I could. So I could hear an ant whisper the answer to me. Sometimes, it worked. Then I’d run back home to show my mom how much I had practiced my numbers.
The jets never really left my view – they followed me around, landing and taking off right over the roof of our small, low income duplex. Sometimes the blasts of these planes would shake our walls, my dad’s coffee in the mug, my sister’s mirror as she put on her makeup. The noise would mute our conversations, momentarily frozen, with nothing to do but to wait.
This last summer, I was sitting with my mom in the living room, her iPad lighting up her face, me sitting, waiting for nothing. My mom and I didn’t talk much now. She used to ask me twenty questions when I walked in the door, but I’d become good at supplying one word answers. She asked less.
I heard a plane coming to life, the sound of air being sucked up and engines engaging, the rumbling, knowing within seconds that it’d be almost down the strip. Then, instead of a smooth takeoff, there was a pop. My mom and I looked up at each other from across the room like someone had stopped in the middle of a sentence. Then the house shaking explosion.
A plane had crashed at the airfield. It was a private jet carrying nine passengers, and none of them survived the crash.
I ran the the quarter mile down the street and pushed myself against the airfield fence. I could hear the sirens way off in the distance – climbing their way to help. Flames burned a hole in that forest at the end of the runway. It never even made it off the ground.
And I remember feeling this insistent need to rip through the chain-link fence. In that moment pushing away the insanity of what I believed – that if I got down there I could help all of them and put the fire out and fit it all back together. It could try again.
I turned around, the smoke filling the streets, choking the streetlights. Neighbors, most who rarely showed their faces, appeared through the smoke. Some were worried, the younger teenagers were getting rowdy, some screaming, parents yelling, questions, over and over. What’s going on? Are people hurt? Why is this happening? I found myself wishing they’d all go back home, back to bed, to let me be alone with this.
Then I recognized a voice – my mom’s. Suddenly a woman freed from her shy shell, she talked for everyone to hear. She shared her stories of growing up here to that man I’ve never seen. People asked her questions – Has this ever happened before? And she answered so calmly, like all her nights of living here prepared her for this. She asked those kids what they saw – We were just sitting here on the porch when we saw the fireball! She told a frantic woman whose husband was on the base that it would be ok.
I finally turned my back to the crash too and went to join the crowd. People didn’t want to see the burning plane or the flames shooting up to the sky.
They wanted to talk to her.
So did I.
And in that moment in the dark, I saw the coming tears, the sleepless nights, the weeks, the months, maybe even the years of grief for what had happened to me. People insist that I will be better off. But it’s the belief that this pain has a purpose that will make me better. That this hollowness isn’t a permanent affliction, only a fresh jar to fill. Though I wrestle with the fear of what happened, and feel now that it is fear that connects me to him. I know life will go on – but not without sacrifices. I left behind the part of me that believed the best in people, that naively thought love could fix him. I left behind, maybe, childhood. I hope that wherever that part of me is, it’s still shining in the sun, chasing planes, laughing at the wind.
In the meantime, I will hold my mother’s hand. The one I let go of so long ago, pushing her away to fall in love, and to create a life that wasn’t mine. I will feel her love muffled through my quaking tears on her shoulder and in her rhythm with which she cradles my grown up body. In the cups of tea she’ll put on my nightstand. In the slow recovery.
Kylie Foy is currently an undergraduate student in Massachusetts. You can find her online at @KyFoy on Twitter.
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero.
Wow what an exquisite piece. Loved it.