"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
—Samuel Johnson, from James Boswell, LIFE OF JOHNSON
I believe in a world of chance, of good luck and bad luck.
But sometimes chance hits so hard, it takes our breath away. When it hits that hard, when chance hits that hard, it feels as if the sun and the stars are exploding, and all the laws of nature are spinning out of balance, and there is nothing solid or real anymore to hold on to.
On July 4, 1998, the sun and the stars spun out of balance in a backyard swimming pool in Barrington, Rhode Island. My son, Jeffrey, a likable teenage boy just starting to enjoy life and get a grip on it, dove into the pool, struck his head, and nearly drowned before being "rescued" by his parents into hopeless quadriplegic paralysis.
This is the story of how a family --— my family --— first cheated death and then flirted with death over the next ten days. Because the story is told primarily from my private thoughts and memories, it is nothing more than a glimpse of one father coping with the ruination of one son. The story is neither universal nor emblematic. It is not political and it may not be instructional. It is just a story. It describes the process I went through to resolve my own predicament: I had brought my son back to life, and then I had to find a way to kill him.
"The split-second damage of an accident is nightmarish and bewildering. One cannot stop to despair because the need to do something pulls us forward."
Saturday, July 4
It was early evening on July fourth. They call it Independence Day. It was still light and warm. Our family was at a small party. I was just finishing my second brownie.
One of the kids came up to the house and told us Jeffrey was in the pool, underwater, and not moving. It was only a joke, of course. Jeffrey was just goofing the other kids. He was underwater, holding his breath, having fun. Absolutely.
My wife, Toby, left the house to check. She rushed. Parents have to do that. As I got up from my chair to follow her, I made a face, a signal that some people might be suckered, but I knew better: this was a joke. Even knowing it was a joke, I hurried out the door. Parents have to do that.
At the pool's edge, Toby was a step ahead of me, blocking my view. I expected to see Jeff paddling in the water with a half-ashamed, half-elated smile. He wasn't. Toby shouted "Jeffrey!" once, and jumped into the water. As she cleared from my view, I saw Jeffrey and jumped in.
Jeff was near the bottom of the pool. He looked restful. He was facing up, his arms and legs spread slightly, comfortably positioned. His eyes were open.
Toby began raising him to the surface. I grabbed him and pulled harder. As he rose into my arms and I saw his face, I thought, This is really happening.
Jeffrey's lips were dark blue. His tongue was distended and dark blue. His eyes were wide open, the pupils huge, unmoving, staring into nothing, like the eyes of a fish on ice.
We heaved the upper part of him onto the concrete apron, and I jumped out of the pool. I grabbed one of his arms and pulled him clear of the water.
My son had become a heavy, limp, dragging thing. When last I had seen him, a few minutes before, he had been seventeen years old, nearing six feet tall, wonderfully fit, and handsome.
We rolled Jeff onto his back. I put my hands together on a spot below his chest and pushed several times, quick and hard. I bent over his face to start breathing for him. His mouth was open wide, but his dark blue tongue was in the way. It was so distended, so huge. It was like a cow's tongue. Even more than the eyes, the tongue affected me. I didn't know that about drowning; I didn't know about that color blue and the bloated tongue.
I put my right hand over Jeff's mouth, covering the slimy blue tongue and lips. I put my left hand on Jeff's forehead and his hair. Then I began breathing into his nose. The passageway was clear, and the breath went in without resistance. As I whooshed the air into his nose, I could just see his chest rise as his lungs filled. When I lifted my head, I could see his chest settle back. I did it again, and again. After a few repetitions I found a rhythm.
I remember someone screaming and people forming a circle around our little drama. Four couples were at the party, and among them were three people with medical degrees. I remember one of them telling me Jeff had a pulse. Another told me I ought to clear.
Clear. I was glad to be reminded. I had to clear the mouth and throat for Jeff to breathe. I fumbled with Jeff's mouth. His big blue tongue had retreated, but now Jeff's teeth were clenched together so tight that I could not move them.
I don't need to do this, I thought. I have a passageway already: his nose. I don't have to clear his mouth. Ignore his mouth. Get back to work.
Chunks of mucus came out of Jeff's nose. I wiped it away and began to breathe through the nose again. Once or twice, between breaths, Jeff seemed to hiccup slightly, and more mucus came out. Not much. One of the doctors helped clear away the mucus and cradled Jeff's head.
For a while, as I breathed for Jeff, his eyes remained wide, fixed, and lifeless. But slowly, magically, his eyes began to reawaken. The lids closed just a bit. The pupils got just a bit smaller. And then the eyes started to move.
Jeff's eyes began to circle, circle, searching for a place to land. As I saw Jeffrey coming back, reacting, doing anything but lie there in a lump, I stopped breathing into him for a time and pounded on his chest. "Come on, Jeff," I said, "come on."
The process continued: Breathe in, rise, and watch Jeff's eyes. Breathe in, rise, and watch Jeff's eyes. His pupils jerked from place to place. At any other time, at any other place, the look in Jeff's eyes would have sickened me. So lost they looked, so empty. But at least they were moving; that was a start.
The doctors reported that Jeff's pulse was strong. I kept breathing into him.
Eventually some police arrived. They said an ambulance was on its way. I kept breathing into Jeff. A few minutes later some emergency medical technicians appeared. They called instructions to one another: Get this, get that.
Our little crowd was now crowded. At any moment I expected someone to push me aside. I could see equipment being staged, arranged. I paused for a few seconds, looking for a professional replacement. When no one jumped in, I continued breathing into Jeff.
The air went in so easily. Easier than blowing up a balloon. Almost as easy as a whistle. I think —-- I am not sure now —-- but I think a small part of me wondered why Jeff had not yet coughed, gagged, retched fluid. They always do that in the movies and on TV. They always cough just before waking up.
When the EMTs were ready, they let me know. Someone crouched down next to me, I moved to the side, and my place was wordlessly taken. I got up, moved back a step or two, and stood next to Toby. Now my eyes, from the greater distance, could see more of Jeff. He was no longer blue. His eyes were only half open. He was alive.
When we had pulled him from the water, he seemed dead already. Now he was alive again. I thought, We did it. We brought him back to life.
I lifted my left hand and held it up to my eyes. It's a thing I do to check my composure. If my fingers are shaking, I know I am nervous. If I can will my fingers to become settled and calm, then I can become calm myself.
Standing there while the EMTs worked on my son, I looked at my fingers and was surprised. They were absolutely still. Granite fingers. I wasn't nervous. How could that be? I tried to show Toby. "Look at this," I said, holding out my hand. How curious.
This was the reason; it must have been: From the instant we saw Jeff, we had a job to do. Lift, push, drag, breathe, pound, breathe again and again and again. Do this first, then this, then this. I was too busy working on Jeff to despair of losing him. And now the job was done, and Jeff was alive.
Excerpted from RESCUING JEFFREY (c) Copyright 2000 by Richard Galli. Reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books. All rights reserved.