The University of South Dakota was much more welcoming, although the town of Vermillion is nothing at all to brag about. It wouldn’t exist without the university. When we moved in, the town didn’t even have a McDonald’s or a Walmart. I used to joke it had to be illegal for a town in America to not have a McDonald’s. We rented a crappy little single wide trailer to live in. Bram was excited because he’d never lived in a mobile home before. I informed him he was a weirdo. The place had fleas. I had the realtor fog it three times before I took matters into my own hands and bought enough foggers to put one in every room. Fleas were gone. I then tried to scrub years of grease off the cabinets. I scrubbed until I scrubbed the stain off and they were still sticky.
We used part of our school money to buy futons for everyone’s bedroom and I bought $1/yd fabric and made curtains to cover the ugly blinds. The trailer’s back door would randomly pop open and there was no way to get enough light in the hallway. But we made the dining room into an office, with a computer desk, drawing desk, and sewing desk. Bram bought me a TV with closed Captioning capabilities.
I started losing my hearing when I was 25. When I was younger, I thought it would be worse to be blind than to be deaf. Now I am profoundly hard of hearing. I also wear trifocals, so I got a pretty good taste of both options. Being deaf sucks; it’s isolating. I can still read and navigate my house without my spectacles. I think if there was a zombie apocalypse I could probably drive without them. But I’m pretty much useless without my hearing aids. It’s hard for me to hear even with them in. People joke about not being able to hear without their glasses; for me it’s the absolute truth. I rely an awful lot on visual and contextual cues to figure out what is being said to me.
Bram knew I loved watching television and that I was having a hard time understanding it lately. The closed captions made everything better. Bram also started acting as my interpreter. He’d put his lips up against my better ear–my right one–and repeat things to me in a low voice. Never in a whisper; whispers might as well be silence to someone with hearing loss like mine. He also started waking me up from my nightmares. I don’t remember the first time he was exposed to one because it didn’t phase him. He just took it in stride that I’d wake up screaming the house down. BUT he learned what the nightmares sounded like when they started and would wake me up before they could get very far.
I set about trying to get insurance for Bram so his medication wouldn’t cost so much. It was impossible. He had a pre-existing condition; absolutely no one would insure him. One insurance agent laughed at me and wished me luck. The only hope was to get insured through a big employer, like Barnes and Noble (one Noble) or the university. But you had to be an employee of the university; students were SOL. Bram started taking half-doses of his medications. When I found out that’s what he was doing, Nick, Monica, and I started supervising him. There were signs up all over our house about when Bram should take his meds and how much, and one of us always watched. Bram said paying for his medication was going to break us. I told him losing him would kill us.
I put up a big master calendar over the desk that had school work due dates for everyone in the family. We also had a meal calendar so we could stop the nightly “what do you want for dinner? I don’t know. What do you want?” conversations. We had two high school students and two university students in our family and I felt the only way we were going to survive was through organization. We all made friends pretty quickly and settled in.
We went home to Minot for Christmas and stayed with Bram’s family. I didn’t visit Joyce, Jerome, or Tonia; they were no longer my family. I hadn’t contacted them the whole semester. I don’t think they even knew my phone number. Joyce got our address (probably from Karen) and sent a Christmas present: a wooden picture frame with “Family’’ etched into it with a picture of our family at Tonia’s wedding inside. I took out the picture and put it in my hope chest. I replaced it with a picture of MY family at our wedding: me, Bram, Nick, and Monica.
While we were at Bram’s family’s house, Karen got angry with Nick for making too much noise, which was crazy. This family had a boom box in every room and everyone of them would be playing a different thing at full volume all at the same time. This family saw no reason to talk if they could shout. Karen would get upset with me for taking refuge in my room. She told Bram I was unfriendly, stuck up. Bram told her, “Michelle wears hearing aids. We’re torturing her with all this noise.” So Karen shouting at Nick for being noisy was dubious: how could she hear his noise over everyone else’s?
I heard her shouting at my kid and went to see what was up. She started shouting at me. I stood there listening to her, wondering how many times in my life this scenario was going to play out, sad that Bram’s mother might be as crazy as mine, not daring to speak back to the shouting woman in her own house. Nick and Monica were standing by the door to my left. Bram came and stood beside me on my right. I told the kids to get their coats; we were leaving. Bram picked up his coat and handed me mine. We started for the door.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Karen throw her arms around Bram’s neck and I heard her say, “Stay here. Stay here with me.” I thought to myself, the next few moments could signal the end of my marriage. Bram took Karen’s arms from around his neck and let them drop. He followed me out the door. We stayed with friends that night.
Bram and Karen spoke the next day. I don’t know what was said but Bram and I went back to Karen’s. Nick and Monica stayed with friends until it was time to go back to Vermillion. The next Christmas we stayed with Kari and Travis.
Back home, Bram started throwing up after every meal. He didn’t want to; nothing would stay down. I thought he’d picked up a bug but then it just never went away. I tried to get him to go to the doctor; he said we couldn’t afford the medical bills. He was losing weight before my eyes. I’d married a chubby but agile man. Now he was underweight and too exhausted to move. Monica plopped down on his lap once and leapt back up immediately. She said it wasn’t right to feel Bram’s bones. I told him he was half the man I married. He wouldn’t go to the hospital. He started living on Slimfast, the only thing that would stay down.
Someone came to get me in the costume shop one day and told me Bram was laying in the hallway upstairs and he didn’t look good. I went to the scene shop and gathered up two of Bram’s friends, both tall, sturdy guys. I asked them to come with me. We went and found Bram laying in the hallway, joking with everyone standing around him. I asked if he was ok; he said he was tired. I told him he had a choice: he could either get up and come with me to the clinic, or I’d have the two friends carry him to the clinic. He got up and came with me.
At the clinic, they did a bunch of tests and took some Xrays. They sent us home and said they’d be in touch very soon with the results.
A few days later I went and got a haircut and came home angry. It was a terrible, hack job of a haircut and when I’d asked for it to be fixed, the hairdresser just made it worse. I was bitching about how no one could give me a decent haircut except Tonia, and she was no longer my sister, when the call came from the clinic. They’d found a mass in Bram’s abdomen and wanted him to go to Sioux Falls for more extensive tests. They wanted us to wait by the phone while they called around to find out who had an opening the next day–they wanted the tests done immediately.
Bram and I were sitting by the phone in stunned and frightened silence when someone knocked on our front door. It was a policeman. They were evacuating the trailer park because a meth lab had been discovered in the trailer directly across the street from us and they were afraid it was going to blow up. I asked if they’d contacted the public schools. Why would they need to do that? The schools were nowhere near us.
“Yeah, but in about five minutes, a school bus is going to stop right there-’’ I pointed at the road 2 lots away from the meth lab “- and drop off a bunch of kids, at least 10.” The officer blanched and got on his radio. I called the doctor’s office and explained we were being evacuated and gave them the number to the costume shop. The officer returned and said the schoolbus was being held at the end of the street, near the theatre building, so we went and met Nick and Monica and then sat in the costume shop waiting for an ‘all-clear’ or a call from the doctor.
I don’t think I needed to be hit so hard to put a bad haircut into perspective.
I couldn’t drive legally because I’d lost my license when I had the accident that shattered my ankle. Back then it had been was Christmas and I could either pay my car insurance or get the kids presents. I chose the presets and had the accident before school loans came through and I could reinstate my insurance. So Bram had to drive us to Sioux Falls for the tests. He passed out when they took his blood. I saw his eyes roll back and told the nurse, “He’s going down.” She didn’t even question me, just laid him down.
The mass was a cyst growing at the bottom of Bram’s esophagus, blocking entry to his stomach. That’s why everything kept coming up; it had nowhere else to go. That’s why he was losing weight so quickly; he was starving to death. That’s why the Slimfast stayed down; the liquid could trickle past the cyst. Surgery was scheduled, but the soonest they could get Bram in was 2 days. They sent us home to wait, but they were worried Bram could develop ketoacidosis and slip into a diabetic coma.
When your body can’t produce enough insulin, or can’t process the insulin it is producing, it begins to starve. To try to save itself, your body begins to break down fat for fuel, which causes a buildup of acids in the blood called ketones. Ketoacidosis can develop quickly, in a natter of hours. Since Bram was starving as well as not processing insulin, it could develop even faster, That would send him into a coma and/or cause brain swelling. It was my job to ensure this didn’t happen.
I was told that ketoacidosis produces a smell similar to acetone. The person’s breath will smell fruity. The perspiration would taste fruity. The person in ketoacidosis becomes confused and weak. I had to wake Bram once an hour and check to see if any of these signs were present. If they were, I had to call 911 and get Bram to a hospital as fast as I could. So for 2 days, I woke Bram up once every hour. I’d smell his neck to see if he smelled like fingernail polish remover. I’d lick his forehead to see if he tasted sweet. I’d ask him what day it was or who the president was or what was the name of the actor who played Han Solo.
Bram’s family came: Conrad and Karen, Aili and Derek, his little sister Kena. Karen berated me for letting Bram live off of Slimfast; he should have been drinking Ensure. She refused to believe me when I told her they were the same damned thing. Did she really think I was trying to starve Bram? I adored him. Kena turned off the closed captions on my TV–she said they were distracting. She refused to eat what I made for dinner. Then she insisted on listening to her own music in the car–Brittany Spears. Irritated, I told her Brittany was overrated and could only sing with the help of autotune. Kena told me I was just jealous because Brittany was cute and I was too old to be cute.
I didn’t see red. I saw myself attacking the spoiled brat who didn’t seem concerned that my husband, her brother, was dying. I saw myself climb over the people between us in the car and straddle her and place my thumbs on her windpipe and start squeezing. It was a vivid vision; I could feel her throat in my hands. Instead, I swung the car door open and stepped out. Luckily we’d just come to a stop. Bram was seriously pissed. I could’ve hurt myself. I told him Kena could go stay at a hotel; I wanted her out of my house. Conrad drove her 9 hours back up to Minot and dropped her off and drove 9 hours back to get to the hospital in time for Bram’s surgery. Kena got in her car and drove back down, arriving about an hour after Conrad did.
The surgeon said it was a dangerous operation, especially with Bram being so malnourished and diabetic and with shitty cholesterol…the surgeon refused to give any predictions about the outcome. Bram had told Nick and Monica whatever he needed to tell them at home. They weren’t here at the hospital. Why? Is that right? That seems like such a stupid decision.
Bram was prepped for surgery, placed on a gurney. We were told to come say whatever we wanted to say; it was time. I held back, to let Bram and his family have their time. But Karen wouldn’t leave. Aili, Derek, Conrad, Kena, all said what they wanted to say and went to sit down. Karen wouldn’t leave so I could speak to Bram alone. Finally, I had to squeeze past her. I leaned down and whispered, “Remember: I’m older. I get to die first. Promise.”
He said, “I promise. I love you, Baby.”
I said, “I love YOU, Baby.” I went and sat down.
They rolled Bram away and Karen came and sat down.
A nurse approached and said, “Mrs. Bramslastname?”
Karen said, “Yes.”
I said, “I’M Mrs. Bramslastname.” We’d been playing this stupid game all day.
The nurse handed me a pager. She said it would go off when Bram was out of surgery so we didn’t have to wait here. We could go down to the cafe, or outside, or whatever we needed to do. I thanked her and laid it on my lap. Karen reached for it. She said, “You’re deaf. You should let me hold it.” I looked her straight in the eye and placed the pager down the front of my shirt.
A little bit later, another nurse approached and said, “Mrs. Bramslastname?”
Karen said, “Yes.”
I said, “I’M Mrs. Bramslastname.” The nurse told me what Bram’s room number was going to be and said we could put our things in there.
Several millennia later, the pager finally buzzed. I went to the nurse’s desk to meet the surgeon. He said Bram came through fine. He told me he’d used the cyst to rebuild the connection between the stomach and esophagus. He said they’d had to remove Bram’s gallbladder. He said we could go to Bram’s room and see him now. I led the way. Karen pushed past me at the door so she could be the first in the room. I was right behind her. She rushed to his bed.
Bram reached out his hand. Past Karen. To me. I took his hand and he pulled me close. He said, “I kept my promise.“ I said, “You kept your promise.”
Bram’s family left for home that evening, after a few more exciting rounds of ‘Who’s Mrs. Bramslastname?’ I slept on a chair in his room. We had no car, no way to get home, so my advisor Linda had to come get us.
At home, I put Bram to bed and answered the phone when it rang. It was Tonia. I told her, “No. I can’t deal with this right now. I’m exhausted. We just got back from the hospital. I thought Bram was going to die. I got through it alone because I have no family.”
Tonia started crying. She said, “How do you think I feel? Abby is sick. She was projectile vomiting and we just got back from the ER and you weren’t here.”
I asked, “Is she ok?
“Is she in danger?”
“Then I have to go take care of my husband’s stitches and get some sleep. Goodbye, Tonia.” I hung up.
Bram recovered, started gaining weight back. He was still diabetic, still had shitty cholesterol. He took his meds without being watched.
Sean and Amy were getting married. Bram and I and the kids were going back home to Minot for Summer Theatre, but I had to leave early to make the wedding. I took a Greyhound up to Grand Forks and Sean picked me up there and drove me to Minot. I stayed at his place with him and Amy. I read every true crime book they had. I didn’t know Sean shared my love of true crime.
The wedding was beautiful. The reception was probably fun if your sister didn’t exclude you from everything. I was basically crowded out of the table where my family sat. Bonnie and her husband were there. Everyone at the table was drinking except me and Sean. Bonnie and Tonia shared in-jokes and finished each others’ sentences like Tonia and I used to do. I wanted to warn Bonnie if she made one wrong move, Tonia would cut her out of her life like she did me, but It was Sean’s wedding so I shut up. It wasn’t hard: Tonia had taken a lesson from Joyce and every time I opened my mouth, she talked over me. Joyce, just as drunk as everyone else at the table, joined in, making sure I never got a chance to speak.
I hugged Amy and told her I was glad she was my sister now. I hugged Sean and asked for the keys to his place. I left the reception, took off my heels, and walked home. I stayed at their apartment while they were on their honeymoon until Bram and the kids arrived and we got a place in the dorms. Davis and Desiree took turns driving me wherever I needed to be until my family joined me.
We returned to Vermillion for my second year of grad school. Farrah was joining me. Bram had decided to quit school and get a job so he would have insurance. I didn’t want him to. He didn’t want to. But it’s hard to find an argument against it in the face of over $75,000 in medical bills and no way to pay them. We had to declare bankruptcy. The American Healthcare system kills people and bankrupts families.