Tiny signs of improvement gave us courage. One day Ned miraculously took a breath without the ventilator. It was a lifesaving device, and we had been so grateful for it, but when the day came that Ned could breathe on his own, we were happy to get rid of it. Ditto for the medieval halo. Once that was removed, Ned could be hoisted over to sit in a chair to look out the window. His world was expanding now. He even went outside to get his first breath of fresh air in weeks.
These steps forward, along with antidepressants, seemed to pick up his spirits. He'd give a little smile to the nurses and mouth "Thank you" when they came in to help him. One day, he made a "kiss" with his lips when I was leaving. Later, for the first time in many months, Ned would speak. It would be sudden and surprising and I would rejoice like I had when he uttered his first syllables some 20 years before. Though he didn't sound like himself, the effort was pure Ned. It was the best "Hi, Mom" I'd ever heard.
Three months after the accident, we medevaced Ned to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Until now, the hospitals had been about saving his life; Shepherd was about getting on with it. He gave his all in physical and occupational therapies. Ned was introduced to a wide range of possibilities including assistive technology to access a computer, and a sip-and-puff device to drive his wheelchair. Meanwhile, I was learning to use a Hoyer lift to transfer him from his bed to his shower chair or wheelchair and to manage his feeding tube. It was hard for both of us. We tried to reimagine our lives. Ned was determined, and despite grueling days, nerve pain that no drug was able to beat down, and pockets of despair, we all kept pushing forward.
It's funny how you get used to things, how after a while even the arduous routine of a hospital can seem reassuring. I had never thought of it in those terms, of course, until the day our Shepherd case manager told me we needed to firm up a discharge plan.
Discharge plan? Ned couldn't walk, he could barely communicate, and his beautiful young body was racked with pain. How could we possibly take him home? I was the sole breadwinner, so I had to get back to work. We were running on empty as it was. There was no way I could take care of Ned myself. He needed to be fed, shaved, showered, transferred to his wheelchair, taken to therapy—wait, did I need a wheelchair van? Ramps to get in the house? Skilled people to help with his medical needs?
Check. Check. Check.
Suddenly, and not for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the foreverness of the injury. "Okay," I told the administrator, without a glimmer of a plan. "We'll bring him home."
Home is where the heart is. It's also where the teenagers live, the married daughter comes to visit, and the college son comes home with his dirty laundry. And let's not forget the dogs. I've tried to maintain an attitude of There's always room for one more, but—one what?
When we were at Shepherd, the hospital staff had introduced us to an organization that trained assistive dogs for wheelchair-bound people. They brought a magnificent trained Lab. Ned wasn't interested.
"We...have...dogs," he said flatly. His speech was slow and monotone.
"I know, but..." I had another idea. I knew it might sound ridiculous. Still, it was worth a try. "Didn't we once see something about trained monkeys? I'm serious. I saw it on 60 Minutes or something."
Ned rolled his eyes and rasped, "Mom, try to get...a couple of...those flying monkeys...from The Wizard of Oz. Maybe a cowardly lion, too."
"You're hilarious. See you later."
Back at the hotel that night, I checked my e-mail. Scrolling through my in-box of encouraging notes, I came to a message from Maddie and Anna's school.
I read the message again. "Dear Parents, You are invited to Friday's assembly where Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled will be visiting."
I'm a pragmatist. But I couldn't help thinking this might be a sign.
A little more than a year later—after an understandably long and intricate application process—Megan Talbert, the executive director of Helping Hands, was standing in our living room, introducing us to a 21-year-old capuchin monkey named Kasey.
"Bonding is the key to everything," she said, as Kasey leaped gracefully to Ned's shoulder.
"She's beautiful," he said softly.
"I never thought I'd use the word elegant to describe a monkey," I said. We greedily soaked up every detail that we could about Kasey.
"She weighs about five pounds—the perfect size for her job. She was a star at the Monkey College, graduating with flying colors. Capuchins can live 35 to 40 years in captivity, so she is in the prime of her life."
Just then Kasey jumped up on the bar and dove into a dish of cashews, then she launched herself over to the coffee table, where she paged through a copy of People magazine. Finding nothing of interest in the exploits of Lindsay Lohan, she returned to Ned's shoulder, leaving us breathless. Suddenly, the air in the room seemed lighter, full of oxygen and joy. It was simply not possible to look at that funny little face without experiencing a feeling of pure happiness.
Still, there was much work to be done. That first day, Megan and an occupational therapist, Jill, showed us how to set up Kasey's cage and position it in Ned's room (a process that would continue to confound us for weeks). They also showed us how to prepare her chow (in Tupperware, shaken, not stirred) as well as her other seven meals each day, and, most important, how to talk to Kasey and ask her to do the things Ned needed her to do.
I was intrigued by Megan's uncanny understanding of Kasey's complex vocabulary; the monkey was really noisy. Every squawk, whistle, warble, and trill, every peep-peep and skee-kit was nuanced.
And she definitely had her preferences. "She has several polar fleece blankies she likes to snuggle with," said Megan. "She also has her favorite toys"—a black pleather coin purse that Kasey zipped open and shut; a plastic bath book, Mimi's Toes (about a monkey in a bathtub); and a little roller coaster unit with chubby beads (a miniature version of that toy in every pediatrician's office).
We Hear You!