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You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," Joan Didion writes in a memoir of her husband's death from a heart attack. Everyone who has suffered sudden loss knows that freefall feeling.

My brother's life did not end this summer, but in one terrifying week of progressive strokes, his brain shut down much of his body. On a Friday, he began experiencing vision problems. The following Monday, he drove himself to the doctor, who sent him in an ambulance to a local hospital. On Tuesday he spoke sometimes clearly and sometimes in gibberish. Wednesday he could walk but lost control over his right hand and arm. By Thursday he could not stand and failed to follow simple commands. An MRI showed significant brain damage.

When I arrived the following day, my brother could barely open his eyes and had lost movement on his right side. Sometimes he squeezed my hand appropriately when I talked and he cried often, so I knew he had some understanding. After the brain had stabilized, a surgeon cut a window through his skull and in a six-hour procedure redirected an artery from the scalp to the inner brain.

I spent all that week in a hospital waiting room, hanging out with other families between visiting hours. In such a setting, strangers become intimate friends. A mother told stories of her bipolar daughter whose lung had been removed. We saw her in the manic phase, pacing the halls with a medicine-dispensing pack; in her depressive phase, nurses watched her for suicidal signs.

Alone, always with a book in hand, the boyfriend of a young woman who had overdosed on Vicodin kept vigil by her bed for three weeks. Nearby, an Indian man translated for his wife: after a brain injury, she had lost facility in English and reverted to her mother ...

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In the Magazine

September 2009

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