Family Members Only
by Noel Goddard
Original Pub. Date: April 1994
Summary: Two women, who are madly in love, experience tragedy in today's prejudiced world.
The only thing I remember about the accident was screaming in the face of the oncoming headlights. After that there was only blackness. When I awoke, I found my entire life changed forever.
Juli and I were leaving Mile High Stadium after watching the Colorado Rockies trounce the forever-hopeless Chicago Cubs. It had been a great game, and we headed home to celebrate. As we reached our new Toyota, Juli, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, accepted my marriage proposal. What a night! Looking back on the evening, I can't imagine anything that could have made it any better. After all, we were finally getting married after five years of living together.
Ecstatic, we headed home from the game, laughing and singing with Melissa Etheridge on the radio. As usual, traffic was a nightmare leaving the stadium. Impatient by nature, Juli turned onto a side street to avoid the motionless line of cars on Colfax. It worked; the street was nearly deserted, and we sailed off towards home. As we turned onto Monroe, it happened. Everything was a blur. The drunk driver careened over onto our side of the street. Juli jerked the wheel hoping to avoid the other car. Time slowed to a crawl as we screamed and our car's brakes squealed. Then there was nothing.
Slowly the blackness started to lift. I heard a siren that seemed a million miles away. Gradually, the fog began to clear. There were voices to go with the siren. Finally, the siren became excruciatingly loud. I tried to open my eyes. They didn't seem to work. I tried again and this time was successful. As I opened my eyes and looked around, I realized that I was moving. Everything around me was being bounced around with the potholes in the road. All that bouncing was making me nauseous, so I closed my eyes to try to think. Where was I? Then it hit me; I was in the back of ambulance. I remembered the screams, and my thoughts raced, "Oh my God, where's Juli?" I tried to speak but something was in the way. My face was covered by an oxygen mask. I tried to remove it but my arm either couldn't or wouldn't move. I tried again unsuccessfully to lift my arm. Nothing. I opened my eyes again to see what the problem was. I tried to look for my arm; my head wouldn't move either. There was something holding it down. I tested all of my limbs. Nothing. The fog in my brain began to lift a little more. I could feel my limbs, but something was holding me down. Why was I restrained? Then, I flinched as I remembered those headlights. Where was Juli? Was she alive? Please God let her be in the ambulance with me.
Suddenly, the bouncing stopped. I shut my eyes to shield them from the harsh light that now flooded the ambulance. I felt the nausea rise again as I was titled backwards at a dizzying angle. Then, the jostling started again as the paramedics rolled me from the ambulance into the emergency room. Finally, the movement stopped. I tentatively opened my eyes. Again, there was something familiar about this place. I had worked in an emergency room for about six months after I finished nursing school. I learned quickly that trauma care was not my particular interest or talent. And besides that, the long hours on weekends and holidays took me away from Juli.
Juli. Where was she? Why wasn't she here with me? Someone finally noticed that I had regained consciousness. Then the questions began. What had happened? Was I in any pain? The questions went on for hours. I tried my best to answer their questions and be cooperative, but so much of the night was still a blur in my mind. I was poked, prodded, x-rayed, and stuck with needles more times than I could count. I was also left alone for what seemed to be forever as they waited for results from all the tests. Why was I alone? I was desperate for someone, anyone to talk to me, to tell me what was happening. Anytime I tried to ask my own questions, the staff smiled, assured my that they were doing everything that they could, and left me so fast I thought I could actually feel the breeze. Finally three hours later, the doctor pronounced that I was very lucky to have only cuts, bruises, and a mild concussion as visible markers of the accident. I slowly got dressed and signed all the papers swearing on my first-born child that I would never sue the hospital. Then, I hobbled out to the waiting room.
By that time, our best friend, John, had shown up at the hospital. He was assuring my doctor that he would watch me closely for the next few days and would drag me back in if anything went wrong. Finally, I thought I would get some answers about where Juli was and how she was doing. My voice still sounded like rough sandpaper, but I managed to get out the most important question, "John, thank God you're here. Where is Juli? Why won't they tell me anything?" John stared at the ground, "Juli was much more seriously injured and was taken to surgery. That's all they will tell me." The nausea returned with a vengeance. I left John standing there, still focused completely on the floor. I ran back to the desk in the Emergency Room and demanded to know something, anything about Juli's condition. Was she out of surgery? Was she stable? Could I see her? The nurse was polite as she did her best to deal with this hysterical person making demands. Juli had survived the surgery and was now in intensive care. The nausea eased slightly. The nurse looked up at me, "Are you a member of the patient's immediate family?" I answered honestly, "Not exactly, but we're very close. I'm the closest thing that she's got to family." I saw that rules-are-rules look come across the nurse's face as she said, "I'm sorry, but only immediate family members are allowed as visitors."
So instead of being with Juli and holding her hand, I found myself holding a mountain of impersonal forms that needed to be filled out about Juli. They had virtually no information since she was unconscious on arrival. All that they had was her chart from when she had her appendix out several years ago. As I started on the mound, I told John to go home to his family and promised that I would go nowhere other than the hospital cafeteria for the rest of the night. Each form that I filled out stirred up memories of Juli. Eventually, it became difficult to focus on the papers, probably due to my exhaustion and the tears I was trying to hold back. When I reached the question about next of kin, I realized that I had to call Juli's parents and brother. I broke out in a cold sweat remembering our last confrontation. It was many years ago when Juli and I had first started dating. A shiver passed through me. Her family had disowned her when we starting living together, and she had not spoken to them since then. Dread filled me as I contemplated telling those people that Juli was now teetering on the brink of death. Little did I know then that things were going to get worse before they got better.
As I sat in the hospital waiting room, I wondered for the umpteenth time how and when the lines of communication broke down between Juli and her family. Juli had always assured me that I was not to blame and that there had been problems long before I came into the picture. The words on the hospital forms were nothing but a blur. I stretched back in the rigid chair and closed my eyes. As I drifted in that state somewhere between awake and asleep, I thought back to the beginning.
Juli and I met during our junior year in college. I was a struggling nursing student, and she was a brazen, overconfident feminist artist. I actually met her at her first art show. Even then, her work was powerful to the point of being overwhelming but with an almost hidden softness and fragility. I remember being immediately intrigued by this art and desperately hoped that I would get the chance to meet the artist. Across the gallery, I spied my friend John, an Economics major with dreams of becoming the next great Wall Street wizard, talking to a truly ravishing redhead. I couldn't imagine what John would be doing at a feminist art show or who this beauty was. Curiosity got the better of me, and I went across to join this conversation. As soon as John introduced us, it was like a scene from a old black and white romantic film. It was love at first sight for both of us. At least that's what we claimed later with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. That's also how John came to be our very best friend; he was responsible for introducing us.
We dated through the remainder of our junior year and then throughout our senior year. As the months passed, our love grew deeper and stronger. Like any couple, we had our quarrels, but they never seemed to last for long. We became nearly inseparable, and our friends began to accept that inviting one of us somewhere was the equivalent of inviting both of us. As graduation approached, we began to discuss our life after college. My advisor had told me that the job market for nurses in Denver was very good. Likewise, Juli had several offers from Denver galleries to exhibit her art. After some fairly serious discussion, we decided to move to Denver after graduation and find an apartment together.
I was startled from my dream world by a sudden wailing from across the room. I opened my weary eyes to a squint. Judging from the wailing woman and the somber looking doctor, I guessed that her loved one had taken a turn for the worse. I closed my eyes again; the fatigue was overwhelming.
As I dozed again, I thought back to our college graduation. The campus had been filled with activities, and families from across the country arrived to watch their children march across the stage. My father was scheduled to arrive two days before the big ceremony. I was positively terrified as Juli and I stood at the airport gate waiting for him to get off the plane. As I recall, the floor of the airport seemed to be spinning and tilting underneath my feet. I had told him about Juli a few months before, but this was their first actual meeting. The moment of truth arrived. A crowd of people poured from the jetway. After an eternity, I spied my father. He gave me a much-needed hug, and we went to claim his baggage. As we stood at the baggage carousel, Juli reached across me and introduced herself. I think I turned a deep maroon color as I realized that I was so nervous that I had forgotten the introductions. Finally, my father's baggage arrived, and we headed off for the hotel and to dinner. Over the course of the evening, Juli and my father quickly bonded. In the course of their conversation, I learned among other things that my mother had been an artist in college. I was flabbergasted to hear my father talk at such length about her. While I was growing up, my father had always avoided talking about my mother. So, I had gone through life knowing only that she died during my birth. Over the next few days, I learned that apparently Juli was like my mother in many ways, and thus, our relationship delighted my father. Before he left to return to Seattle, he assured me that Juli had earned his full approval.
That approval from my father turned out to be the highlight of the graduation weekend. Things did not go nearly so well with Juli's parents. Juli's family was scheduled to arrive the night before graduation and leave the following evening after the ceremony. When I asked if they could stay longer, Juli's response was, "Trust me. It's better that they're only staying for one day." That night as we stood at the airport gate waiting for their plane to arrive from Dallas, Juli hesitantly told me that she had not told her parents about us yet. We had vowed several months before to tell our parents at the same time. She had told me that all had gone well when she called them. It turned out that all had gone well because she had told them nothing.
We stood at the gate in silence, waiting. The crowd poured out the jetway. All around us were the happy sounds of our classmates' reunions with their families. Her parents and older brother were the last passengers off the plane. The air temperature of the airport actually seemed drop about ten degrees as Juli caught her parents attention. Juli introduced me as a very close friend, and silenced my objections with one glance. Hastily, we went to collect luggage and check her family in at the hotel. I was still puzzled and uncomfortable, but Juli answered each of my quizzical looks with stony silence. At the hotel, Juli's mother collapsed onto the bed, and her father ordered a scotch from room service. Juli's brother and I were carrying on some meaningless conversation about the weather in recent years with the various floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. I glanced at Juli once more; she seemed to be waiting for something. Her father's scotch arrived, and he drained the glass in one gulp. That seemed to be the cue. Juli stared her father in the eye and blurted out, "Dad, Emily is more than just a friend. She's my lover. We've been together for over a year, and we going to move in together in Denver after graduation." I have never in my life felt so small as I did at that particular moment. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. Juli's mother and brother stared at Juli as if she were a stranger and at me as if I were a Martian. Finally, after about a minute, Juli's father broke the silence with a bellow that will echo in my brain forever, "No daughter of mine is a fucking lesbo! Get out of this hotel! Don't come back until you come to your senses!"
Juli and I left the hotel almost instantly; her family left town on the next available flight without visiting her senior art show or coming to graduation. To the best of my knowledge, these were the last words spoken between Juli and her family.
I became aware of an excruciating pain in my back. These hospital chairs were definitely not made for sleeping. Slowly, I pried open my eyelids and stretched from head to toe. I stared at the pile of unfinished hospital paperwork in front of me. I picked up the pen and began work. About an hour later, I finished. I returned the mound to the person in admissions who asked if I would notify Juli's family since I was obviously a close friend. Another wave of nausea swept over me. I wondered if some food would help. I decided that it would probably only make it worse. So, I found a pay phone and stood there. Finally I picked it up and dialed the number for Dallas information. I managed to remember Juli's father's first name and that they lived in a suburb called Richardson. The operator thankfully only came up with one number for a Jacob McDougall in Richardson. I sucked up what little resolve I had left and dialed the number. The phone rang on the other end of the line. As I stood there, I realized that I had to ask these people to come see Juli just so that I could then pump them for information about her condition. I wished fervently that Juli would regain consciousness and ask to see me so that I could hang up this phone before her father answered. My wish did not come true; instead my nightmare became a reality.
Finally after what seemed to me an eternity, a groggy voice grumbled a "Hello?" on the other end of the line. My tongue seemed to grow about three sizes. Stumbling, I said, "This is Emily, Juli's friend. There's been an accident." The voice on the other end seemed to wake up a little bit. It said, "Juli made her own bed; now she has to lie in it. She can't expect us to come running to her rescue just because she's in trouble. How dare you of all people wake us up at this hour?!" That was it. In thirty seconds, her father had sapped all that was left of my self-composure. I flew into a rage and began to scream, "Juli didn't just fall and skin her knee; she has been in a car accident! She's unconscious and in the ICU. Much as I hate to admit it, I need you. They won't let me see her. She could die in there all alone if you don't get off you ass and come to Denver!" I slammed the receiver down in my frustration and stalked to the hospital cafeteria for a much-needed cup of java.
While in the cafeteria, I drank cup after cup of stale hospital coffee. A tape played over and over in my head. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why now? The questions were never ending and completely unanswerable. Somewhere in the early morning hours, it occurred to me that I should call in sick to work. I called the hospital and left a message with the night nurse that there had been a family crisis and that I would need a substitute indefinitely. The night nurse, a fairly good friend, expressed her sympathy and told me not to worry about work. She would see that everything was taken care of so that I could focus on my family. After getting of the phone, I thought that I should also cancel any appointments that Juli had, but I had no idea what they were. She was never one to keep a calendar; she kept everything in her head, which at the moment was completely inaccessible to me. Maybe someone at the gallery would know what to do. In any case, that was a problem for tomorrow morning.
I went up to the ICU station to see if there was any more new information on Juli's condition. The night nurse coldly told me that her condition was unchanged. I pleaded again to be allowed to see her. To which the night nurse responded, "The patient's father called approximately one hour ago. He and his wife are on their way to see the patient. He left specific instructions that under no circumstances are you to be allowed to see the patient. He seems to feel that you are responsible for his daughter's condition." She immediately turned on heel and stalked away. I was too stunned to even reply. I don't know how long I stood at the nurse's station. The next thing that I became aware of was standing at the phone with ringing on the other end. Who had I called? I couldn't remember. Another groggy, but more friendly, voice answered this time, "Hello?" Ah, I had managed to call John, "It's Emily." I paused as the tears began to well up. "What time is it?" he asked. I became aware of the fact that I had a lump the size of a tomato in my throat, and I was unable to speak. "Emily, are you there? God, it's six o'clock in the morning. Are you still at the hospital? Emily?" I managed to croak out, "Yes." "That's it. I'm coming to get you. You stay put, okay? I'll be there in ten minutes, Stay put."
I put down the phone receiver slowly, went outside, and collapsed onto the nearest bench. I slowly began to count the number of stars left in the early morning sky. I found that every time someone went by, I would lose count. I was on my fifth attempt when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up into John's compassionate face and burst into tears. A veritable waterfall came from my eyes, as I sobbed from sadness, anger, exhaustion, and fear. John held me, knowing that there was nothing he could to do to make any of it go away. When there were no more tears left to cry, John bundled me up in his jacket and took me to his home. His wife, Kathleen, carefully undressed me and placed me into bed. I didn't want to sleep; I only wanted to go back to the hospital and be with Juli, but exhaustion won out. I was asleep nearly before my head hit the pillow.
Somewhere there was a very obnoxious ringing noise. As it continued, I gradually came back to the world of the living. From outside the dimly lit bedroom, I heard a soft voice speaking into the telephone. I gazed around the bedroom in confusion. This wasn't my bedroom. Where the hell was I? I started to speak, "Juli, what's going...." I remembered. I remembered the whole nightmare of the night before. Slowly, I rolled over to look at the clock on the night stand. It said seven o'clock. Given the orange twilight that was coming through the window, I realized that must be seven in the evening. With a great deal of effort, I dragged myself from the bed and got dressed. The pain from all my so-called minor injuries was almost unbearable. I staggered into the living room to find John there with a concerned look on his face.
He glanced at me and then began concentrating of the fern on the windowsill. John always stared at the nearest inanimate object when he had bad news to deliver. "Her parents arrived at 9:00 this morning. I stopped by on the way home from work. I managed to get them to tell me how Juli was doing." He stopped. My head was pounding; I was not in the mood to play games, "John, how is she? Look at me John. What are you not telling me?" He looked up, and I swear for a moment he looked about twice his age. "Emily, sit down." I sat. John squirmed some more and sighed," There's no easy way to tell you something like this. I would give just about anything to get out of telling you this." He paused again. I could almost see him trying to screw up his nerve. Finally, he spit it out, "Juli appears to be brain dead. There's been no brain activity of any kind since they brought her into the ER. They had hoped that the surgery to relieve the intracranial pressure would bring her around, but it hasn't." I couldn't move, I couldn't speak. There was nothing except a two-ton rock in the pit of my stomach. With a pained look, he continued more slowly, "Her folks have decided to withdraw life support tomorrow morning if there is no change in her condition by then." I fainted.
As the blackness cleared, I saw John's face hovering over me. I sat up slowly and asked the only question left, "Will they let me see her?" He looked away as he said, "I asked, and I believe her father's exact words were 'when hell freezes over'." "I want to go to the hospital anyway. At least then I can be close to her." John smiled slightly and said, "Of course. I'll take you as soon as you get a shower, some clean clothes, and some food. Nothing is going to happen before the morning." I nodded weakly and let him guide me through those various tasks.
Later that night, I sat at the hospital alone in one of the family waiting areas. Juli's parents and brother had stalked past about an hour earlier on their way to the hotel without even acknowledging my presence. I looked up from my prayers at one point to see the night nurse come on duty. It was a former classmate of mine from nursing school. I walked over to say hello. She looked up, "Emily, what a surprise! You look like death warmed over. What are you doing here?" I knew that I had to answer, but at the same time, I was too exhausted to tell the whole story. I said simply, "Do you remember my girlfriend Juli?" When she had nodded, I continued, "We had an accident last night, and she's here in the ICU. She's dying, and no one will let me see her because I'm not considered immediate family. So, I thought I'd just come to be near her." I finished and stared at my toes, fighting back tears once again. I heard an exasperated gasp. "That tears it. I've had it with the stupid rules around this place that serve no one's benefit - not the patient's and not the patient's real family." I looked up, stunned by this outburst. My friend cast a furtive glance around and said, "Follow me. I'm going to let you see Juli. If anyone asks, you're her sister." I followed meekly down the hall, the fear becoming almost unbearable as we reached the door to Juli's room. My friend said, "I can only let you have fifteen minutes or so," and then she was gone.
I looked in the door; Juli was lost in the bed surrounded by wires, tubes, and machines.. Her gorgeous red hair was gone and her head was covered with dressings from the surgery. Her left arm and both legs were in splints wrapped with ace bandages. I slowly moved into the room, sat down in the nearest chair and took her right hand. I think I must have spent most of the time just holding her hand and stroking her swollen face. At last I found my voice. "Juli, I don't know what to say. I wish to God there was something, anything that I could do for you. I've been trying to see you, but they wouldn't let me." I paused trying to come up with the right words. "That's not what's important though. I guess I just want to tell you that I love you." I reached up and softly planted a kiss on her lips.
I wasn't there the next morning when they discontinued life support. Immediate family only. Her family did concede to let me handle the funeral arrangements. Odd how I wasn't good enough for their daughter in life, but I was good enough in death. They didn't even stay for the service.
Today, it has been one year since Juli died. I went out this morning and laid some daffodils, her favorite, on her grave. I'm not sure why I'm writing this down, but Juli, wherever you are, always know that I loved you then and I will love you always.