E was excited to get hired as a cashier for the neighborhood grocery store less than half a mile from our house. A few days later M got hired at the same store to work in the produce section. They finished their GED class assessment. Surprisingly, it appeared that only simple review work seemed to be necessary and they already had M and E taking practice GED tests. M had gotten his driver’s permit at some point before meeting us so, we started taking him driving. It seemed that things were really starting to come together for them and we were over the moon excited.
We started talking about next steps and new goals since their first ones were so close to being completed. We talked about signing them up for Financial Peace University classes so they could learn about managing their money. E stopped slouching and walked taller. She started to forget to try to blend into the wall, to become invisible. She expressed her opinion more often and took great pride in her appearance. After only a month on the job, E was promoted to managing cashier and she began working later shifts, supervising the evening cashiers.
Unfortunately, M hated his job. He simply hated it. He started asking to leave early, claiming he had a headache. He’d go in late and take double breaks. He would come home and complain about his co-workers, his boss, his duties and so on. However, M loved our neighborhood. When B came home from school, M would be waiting and ready with his football. Half an hour later, the younger neighborhood kids would get off the school bus and M would toss the football to one of them. Before you knew it, M and B were helping these kids perfect their throws. Football turned into basketball turned into skateboarding and they were outside every day until supper time.
One afternoon when B was working (he had an engineering internship at a medical device research and development company), M grabbed a skateboard and was showing the neighborhood kids how to do a kick flip. Unfortunately, M did not also borrow one of B’s helmets. Being new to the trick and being overly aggressive with the skateboard to impress the younger kids, M missed the trick and fell, hitting his head on the asphalt.
He knew using a helmet was a strict rule in our house and he knew he had broken it. He didn’t want to get into trouble, so he simply taped his glasses back together and pretended everything was fine. However, that evening during dinner, I noticed that he seemed to be slightly listing to one side. His speech was ‘off’ and there was something wrong with his facial expression and body language. I am embarrassed to say that my first thought was not a head injury. I asked him if he been drinking or doing drugs while I had been at work. Although things had been going relatively well with only a few blips, a stereotype about homeless kids apparently still lived in a hidden place in my head.
M was insulted. So was E. I apologized and described the symptoms I was seeing. I asked M if he was ill. He asserted nothing was wrong and was adamant that everything was fine. After a while B supported me, “M, you can say there is nothing wrong but clearly there is. You aren’t making any sense.”
E took a good look at him and declared, “There is something really freaky about your eyes!”
Having been a competitive skateboarder before he blew his knees out, B knew what the problem was and he wasn’t going to give him the opportunity to deny it. “M, how did you hit your head today?”
Duh! Of course! I, too, had seen enough mishaps at the skate park to know what a head injury looked like.
“No! I’m fine, a’ight. If e’rbuddy’s gonna pick on me, I’m jus’ gonna lay down.” M asserted.
B looked at him closer and pointed out a bruise at the hairline above his left eye. “And wait, are your glasses taped together?”
“That’s it,” I declared. “Get in the car right now. We are going to Urgent Care.”
Of course, both M and E protested. After some discussion, I discovered they were afraid of going in because they had unpaid medical bills.
“I don’t care about that. We will figure something out if need be. You just need to be treated. Head injuries are not something to mess around with. Get in the car.”
When we arrived at Urgent Care, I dropped the kids off at the door so M wouldn’t have to walk very far.
Before closing the door, M poked his head back in the car, “Yea’ll, thanks fer bringin’ me in, I guess. I dunno how long’ll be. Is five miles at least. So, em not sure when’ll be back.”
“What are you talking about? Get in there and get yourself signed in. I’m just parking the car, you goose. Why would you think I wouldn’t stay?”
He didn’t answer, he just went in.
Waiting in the lobby, I told E what he had said, slightly amused by the ridiculous thoughts his injured brain was producing.
“Oh, that isn’t concussion brain,” she countered. “Nobody ever stays with him at the doctor’s office. Even when he hurt his knee playing football, his mom was high so the guy she was with at the time dropped us off at the clinic. After a whole bunch of tests, they told M that he had a torn meniscus and they gave him this knee brace thing to wear. They told him to take ibuprofen, to ice it a lot and to stay off it. He called his mom to come pick us up but she wouldn’t answer her phone. He tried calling the guy who dropped us off but he didn’t want to come get us. He called a bunch of friends but none of them could come. I tried my dad but he said my mom was sleeping and he didn’t want to leave her alone. So, we just walked back. We had to rest a lot because of his knee and it took us until almost 2:30.”
“Oh E.” I just had no words. Their stories and ideas of the everyday and normal continued to surprise and shock me.
“Yeah…. that’s what the medical bills are from. M was 17 but his mom wasn’t there so he had to sign his own papers. But he didn’t have insurance and they did a lot of tests and things that were pretty expensive. Because he signed, it’s all under his name.”
After a minute, a nurse came out into the lobby and approached us. “Um… which one of you is T-Sizzle? He said he doesn’t want to be alone and would like it if, uh, T-Sizzle came back.”
Unsure of the proper protocol when a man-child who is like your son but is not your son requests your presence in a medical emergency, all three of us (K was back in college at this point) scooped up our stuff and went to sit with him.
He was diagnosed with a Grade 2 concussion and given firm directions to avoid video games, work, television, reading and sports – especially football and skateboarding – for at least a week. The doctor also told him that he may experience headaches, problems concentrating, moodiness, and periodic dizziness for a few months. She said that if he experienced these things, it was his brain telling him it was tired and that he would have to listen and rest. She directed us to not leave him alone for 24 hours and explained periodic vomiting would be normal but excessive vomiting would merit a phone call to the 24 hour nurse line. Seizures, loss of consciousness or worsening symptoms would require an immediate trip to the ER. She handed him a note excusing him from work for the next 7 – 10 days and sent us out the door.
He called in to work the next day explaining what had happened. Unfortunately, with his history of avoiding work and fibbing to get out of it, they did not believe him. They told him they needed the doctor’s note immediately or he would lose his job. So, he got in the car and I drove him to work where he turned in the note.
The next day, he got a phone call from his direct superior demanding he come to work. “If you were good enough to bring us the note in person yesterday, you are good enough to come to work today.” Unfortunately, I was not home to help mitigate the situation. Worried about losing his job, he grabbed B’s bicycle and rode it to work. As part of the produce department, he was required to lift heavy boxes of fruit and vegetables and stock shelves and all the bending and lifting made him dizzy. When they gave him directions, he had trouble processing them. He also had a hard time remembering more than one thing at a time.
Unfortunately, the fuzzy thinking, spaciness and memory issues were a serious problem for M, as was working underneath bright flourescent lights. When he complained about his headaches, they dismissed his complaints. They were annoyed by the pad of paper he had started to carry so he could write down multiple directions. One day a co-worker called M an idiot and he blew up. He shouted back, returned a few choice words and turned away, slamming fruit into the display. The co-worker complained about M’s temper to the supervisor who promptly collected his apron and sent him home with directions to not return.
When I came home from work that day, M was sitting in a dark room. Just sitting, completely despondent. I went in to talk to him and found him furious with himself. He was no good. He was a failure. He was an idiot. He couldn’t even manage to stock stupid grocery store shelves. He was going to be unemployable and homeless for the rest of his life.
“I don’t think that about you,” I countered. “And, you aren’t homeless anymore. You live here.”
But, his list of deficits was a mile long and nothing we said could make him believe anything different.