On August 4, 2004, Jason Crigler was onstage in a New York City nightclub when a blood vessel burst in his brain. The thirty-four-year-old guitarist, a fixture in the downtown music scene who had played with Marshall Crenshaw, Linda Thompson, and John Cale, narrowly survived the bleed. A string of complications that followed—meningitis, seizures, coma—left him immobile and unresponsive, with his doctors saying nothing more could be done. Meanwhile, Jason’s medical insurance quickly hit its lifetime cap, meaning that his policy would no longer pay for his care. Despite such overwhelming circumstances, Jason’s parents, sister, and pregnant wife were sure that he was still there, trapped inside his incapacitated body but able to fight his way back. They mounted an intense course of rehabilitation for him even as they fought a healthcare system that was geared toward defeat.
In intimate and unflinching prose, Mojie Crigler chronicles her brother’s harrowing decline and miraculous recovery. Get Me Through Tomorrow is much more than the story of a medical victory amid a broken healthcare system, however. It is about a sister’s metamorphosis from fearful naïf to assertive caregiver. It is about families bridging heartache and divorce to find hope. It is about the deep and enduring relationship between siblings—and the love that transforms them.
About the Author
Mojie Crigler’s fiction and nonfiction works have appeared in numerous publications, including Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review, and Brooklyn Rail. She received the 2010 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize.
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Get Me Through Tomorrow
A Sister's Memoir of Brain Injury and Revival
By Mojie Crigler
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Mojie Crigler
All rights reserved.
The ringing phone cut through my sleep like a slap.
"Marjorie." I heard my mother's steady, serious voice. "I'm at the hospital with Monica. I think you should get down here. Jason has hydrocephalus."
A dim automatic picture of my brother came to mind: thick and strong. I saw his broad shoulders and sandy brown hair, and I felt his height, six foot one, a part of him known in my neck from looking up at his face. Jason, harmed? The idea lay beyond my reach.
"What's hydrocephalus?" I asked.
"Water on the brain. There's been a bleed in Jason's brain."
Bleed in his brain. A waterfall in his head, dark fluid pouring over a precipice, going where? Questions lined up on the edge of my mind—Why? Will he die? How will he get better?—and hovered there like shadows. My ability to think was diminishing to the speck of one phrase: bleed in his brain.
I dialed the number of a car service to take me from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Hollow inside, I was moving like a robot as I dressed. Fear had taken over my body. Now find your wallet and cell phone, said the robot's command center, and I mindlessly complied. Keys. Sweater for Monica, as requested. The ER is cold.
Earlier I had fallen asleep while watching a documentary about the terrorist group the Weather Underground. The film was research for a play I'd written that I wanted to revise for an upcoming production at Carnegie Mellon University. When I'd woken up to let my dog, Lila, out in the garden behind my studio apartment, I'd picked up a message from Monica, who had called while I was asleep. She and Jason were at St. Vincent's Hospital. It looked like Jason had a bad ear infection.
"I don't think it's anything to worry about," she'd said.
I had listened to her message in a groggy haze. For weeks I'd been working long hours in the script department at NBA Entertainment, preparing for the Athens Olympics, which the NBA was producing the basketball competition. In addition to writing announcements and introductions, the script department created documents that synchronized the production and broadcast teams. My colleagues included two documentary filmmakers and another playwright. In between TV production jobs—award shows, holiday specials, political conventions—we worked on our own projects. A few of my plays had been workshopped at theaters in New York and San Francisco. The Ensemble Studio Theatre, with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, had awarded me commissions to develop the play that was going to be produced at Carnegie Mellon.
Later I would think that if I'd picked up the phone when Monica called, everything would have been different. Later still, I would realize that it made no difference. The truth was, I wanted to believe Jason had an ear infection. I could not believe he was in trouble. Innocent or in denial, I had gone back to sleep.
Outside, the car was waiting. At 4:00 a.m. Prospect Avenue was deserted: rows of low brick tenement houses and, on the other side of the street, a commercial linen supply service, now locked up and quiet. I directed the driver to St. Vincent's but after a block asked him to turn around. I had forgotten the sweater for Monica.
Back in the car, I hugged the sweater, a heavy black hoodie with white letters, BROO, on one side of the zipper and KLYN on the other, a Christmas present from Jason and Monica in 2001.
It was August 5, 2004.
As the car sped through the empty streets, I prayed. Bleed in his brain. I knew nothing about the brain or how it could be hurt, and my ignorance felt as terrifying as going to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I looked out the window, wondering if this moment was going to be the line in my life marking before and after. As we crossed the Gowanus Canal, I thought, Wait and see.
Impatient, I told the driver to let me out on Thirteenth and Seventh Avenue. I thought the ER was between Twelfth and Thirteenth, but it was a block farther south. I ran. The streets were dead. No cars. No people. I seemed to be the only thing moving.
When I entered the ER, Monica and Muma (my mother's family nickname) walked toward me, crying, and draped their arms around me.
"Is he dead?" I asked.
"No," they said. Not dead. But close.
A nurse asked if I wanted to see Jason. Most likely—though I wouldn't realize until later—he was offering me a last chance to see my brother alive. I was led to a bay in triage. Wearing jeans and a red zippered sweatshirt, Jason looked like he was sleeping. His chest rose and fell with heavy deep breaths. He seemed so much his normal self that I didn't feel moved to speak any more than I would have upon seeing him take an afternoon nap. I had asked Muma and Monica point blank if he was dead, but I didn't think he was going to die.
On my way out I stared at his white tube sock, wanting to draw my finger up the center of his foot. EMT training, which I'd completed a year earlier, had taught me that this was a test—but for what? The EMTtextbook's section on head injuries floated before me, its pages maddeningly blank. I left without touching his foot, but back in the waiting room I told Monica, Muma, and Rop (our name for my father) that I had done it and that Jason had responded correctly. I don't know why I told this outright lie, except that I wanted desperately to have proof of what I could only hope was true.
The attending neurosurgeon—I'll call him Dr. Glass for his large wire-rim glasses—approached us, flanked by two residents. As we rose to greet them, I thought, It is proper to stand when receiving terrible news. Introductions were made, all in relation to Jason. Wife. Mother. Father. Sister.
"His neurological prognosis is not good," said Dr. Glass.
"What does that mean?" we asked. "How can you tell?" We were like a Greek chorus, speaking as one, or one of us speaking all of our thoughts.
Dr. Glass said that Jason's response to a neurological test was poor.
"What was the test?" we asked.
The doctor had pinched Jason's chest, and Jason had moved his arm—showing that he felt the pain—but he had stretched his arm away from the pain instead of reaching toward it, as someone with healthy neurological functioning would do. I could picture this gesture. I had seen it in people with limited mental ability. A basic answer to stimulus. Not sophisticated. But Jason was sophisticated. He was intelligent. He had so much in his brain.
We asked the hard question. "What are his chances?"
"He might not survive," Dr. Glass said, adding, "I am cautiously optimistic."
I could feel all the parts of Jason that hung in the balance: his wry sense of humor, his compassion, his street smarts, his pride and determination, his love for Monica, his thrill at becoming a father. I remembered sharing a taxi with him soon after Monica's first of two miscarriages, which had happened while Jason was in Los Angeles on tour with Erin McKeown. The night we shared the taxi was his first gig and his first night back in the city, and though I had spoken to him and Monica over the phone, it was the first I had seen him since the miscarriage. I had watched him, however, on a KCRW webcam when Erin and her band played a set on Nic Harcourt's show, Morning Becomes Eclectic. The camera swung back and forth, giving me a grainy image of Jason, and I ached to think how sad he must feel, yet he had shown up. The other people in the cab got out at their apartments, and then Jason and I were alone. "I'm so sorry about the baby," I said, and his voice choked with sorrow as he replied, "Thanks, Moe."
When Dr. Glass and his residents left, I collapsed, bawling, moaning, as sobs jerked out of me. Rop was crying too. Muma was murmuring, "No, no, no, no." Softly, into her phone, Monica said, "Daddy?"
I pictured Jason moving his arm in response to the pinch, only capable of that single simple answer. I feel. Was that all there was left of him? Loss pulled on every piece of me. Would this be the extent of his communication? Would he live but on the far side of an impenetrable wall, beyond our attempts to decipher his sounds and movements?
I feel may be the most information a creature can convey or it may be the catalyst for a symphony.
One other family had been with us in the ER through the night. Their three faces reflected a gratitude that they had their problem and not ours. I had been aware of their gaze as first we sat in terrified anticipation and then we crumbled in shock and grief. I knew the other family was watching the seismic change taking place in our lives, and their witnessing this moment made me hyper-aware of us, of what kind of people we were. The woman in the other family caught my eye and said, "We pray for you."
Yes, pray, said a voice in my head. Because your tears are doing nothing to help Jason.
I went to the small bathroom off the waiting room, locked the door of a stall, and knelt on the grimy yellow-tiled floor. I put my hands together and bowed my head.
"God?" I said aloud.
As if in response, the toilet behind me flushed. Its automatic flusher had been triggered by my movement. Still, the timing was perfect. A tiny laugh arose inside me, like a single firecracker bursting in a vast and desperate darkness.CHAPTER 2
He was always there. In the bunk above me. Ahead of me on the shiny slides of Central Park playgrounds. Walking at night down West Seventy-Fifth Street, the soles of our pajamas scraping the sidewalk, our parents towering above as Keeper, our husky, pulled us toward rowdy Broadway, where music and grown-ups spilled out of taverns and Moondog, the homeless Viking, shouted from church steps and where once we saw a thief rip a string of pearls from the neck of a blonde in a black fur coat. Jason was there beside me running down the grassy hill, Superman towels for parachutes. Charging me fifty cents to go down the slide in the bedroom we shared, whose picture window looked out on our untended garden with its ivy-covered walls, white butterfly chairs, and, in the winter, Snow Mountain. When it rained, Jason would sit under an umbrella in the garden's open doorway, whereas I would cocoon, curled up on Muma's homemade Marimekko window seat cushions. More often than not, we shared a bedroom, with bookshelves dividing the space. In his half, X-Wing and TIE Fighters hung from the ceiling by fishing wire; my half was the Moe Office, publisher of the Moe Office Press, each issue made by folding newsprint into my boxy gray Royal and typing around empty boxes in which later I'd draw pictures or glue photographs. Though I couldn't see him I could always hear him: the squeak of the swivel chair, the rustle of a page turning, the slide of fingers re-creasing the comic book's fold.
In a photograph taken when we were five and three, Jason is in a red cape, red briefs over blue tights, red and yellow S emblem sewn onto the front of his blue shirt, chin thrust out, shoulders squared, gaze to the distance. My costume is less elaborate, a purple cape over my gingham jumper, enough to play the game. Jason is Superman. I am his knock-kneed, dewy-eyed audience; his first fan.
When I was born, Jason couldn't pronounce Marjorie. The closest he could get was Mojie, and that odd, funky name stuck because it suited me, a girl with a gap between her two front teeth and long braids running down either side of her head. Many people have known me as Marjorie, an elegant if old-fashioned name given to me in memory of my great-grandmother. But inside I have always felt more like a Mojie, and in the divine, truth-telling way that two-year-olds have, Jason was the first person to recognize that.
When he was twelve, Jason started playing the drums. At sixteen he discovered the guitar. He practiced for hours. I understood Jason's discipline and determination because I knew him as his sister, and siblings hold nothing back. In each other's presence they rage, wail, pout, obsess, triumph. They learn each other passively, over time: rhythm of gait, depth of sighs, body's sounds and smells and even taste. Siblings witness. They come to know what makes the other seethe, what makes the other laugh. This is how I knew Jason. Absorbed in his interests—first acting, then drawing, then everything else falling away for music—Jason affably put up with the rest of life but wasted no time returning to what he loved most. Growing up, I saw how he cared—the loyalty, the sweet concern, the ferocious underlying drive—which is to say, I saw how he lived: true to his heart, hardworking, led by love.
In the ER the intensity of my response surprised me. I had never before felt this surge and pull of grief, which, with the same helplessness, disorientation, and lack of air, felt like being caught off guard by a big ocean wave. But there was more to it than that. As adults, Jason and I hadn't been all that close. We kept each other informed, saw each other occasionally, rested assured that the other was there, somewhere. We did not turn to each other for advice or problem solving or outpourings of the heart. Both of us had friends, colleagues, lovers who knew us on a more daily basis. Even as I sobbed I was perplexed. I loved him, yes. I feared for him, yes. And something more. At the time I could not begin to understand. I could only be carried. There was no choice but to give myself over to the feelings roiling inside me. And this in itself was telling. My deepest connection to Jason lay beyond thought or reason. It belonged to a part of me that even I couldn't claim to know.CHAPTER 3
Dr. Glass wanted to drill a hole in Jason's skull. The bleed had caused a blockage between two ventricles, the sacs in the brain that produce the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) that lubricates the brain and spinal column. Because of the blockage, the ventricles weren't draining properly. They were filling with CSF and squashing Jason's brain inside his skull's fixed confines. Dr. Glass wanted to create a ventriculostomy—an opening in the ventricle—whereby a thin tube would drain excess fluid from the third ventricle into a container outside Jason's head.
"Will drilling hurt his brain?" we asked. "Will it damage his ability to play music?" Dr. Glass promised that he would avoid the part of the brain that stores musical knowledge.
When the operation was repeated a week later, I would ask the resident to avoid the same area, and he would give me a small smile and say, "We're careful with all of the brain." He would tell me there was no way to protect specific skills or knowledge, making me realize that in the ER Dr. Glass had only told us what we'd wanted to hear.
Since Jason would go from the operating room to the Neuro-ICU, we moved from the ER to the hospital's main waiting room. The sun had come up. People were starting to arrive for work, coming through the revolving door with coffee and newspapers, swiping their security cards, hustling to catch the elevator before its doors closed. Night had conformed to our emergency, the quiet streets and near-empty ER feeding my perception that our situation was the sole thing happening in the world. Now normal life was resuming but without us. It appeared strange, separate, as if taking place on the other side of a window.
I called Caroline Laskow at the NBA. I'd known Caro since our undergraduate days at Stanford University, and Jason had composed the score for her first documentary. Through tears I explained why I wasn't coming in. My voice wobbled, but as I laid out what we knew and didn't know, I began to feel steadier. Caro said she'd relay the message to the producers, already in Athens, whom I had been planning to join in two days.
"Do you think you'll be able to go?" she asked.
The odds at that moment felt fifty-fifty. Maybe, just like that, Jason would be fine.
Outside, the bright sunshine, the cloudless blue sky, Seventh Avenue's morning bustle, the very date and time, belonged to a new world where every single thing was marked with Jason. His absence.
Excerpted from Get Me Through Tomorrow by Mojie Crigler. Copyright © 2015 Mojie Crigler. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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