It is odd for the house phone to be ringing at 1:10AM, especially in August. The house phone rarely rings. Mom is sleeping in my room because Dad is sick. I had just crawled into bed. The phone rings again. Groggily, Mom picks up the phone. The caller is a stranger from California - something is wrong with Aunt Joan.
Aunt Joan (AJ) is Mom’s only sister, living three thousand miles away, but still playing a prominent role in my childhood. She has no children of her own; we are her only family.
AJ is glamorous. She had been the first female Vice President of the William Morris talent agency in Los Angeles. Attending awards shows on the arm of one or another of her famous clients, she epitomized the success that everyone seeks in Hollywood, but few rarely achieve. Everyone sought her legendary advice, including me. I remember the advice she gave me on the first day of high school; I was very nervous because I was coming from a middle school that had eighteen students per grade to a high school with over 3000 students.
“Sara, I’m going to tell you what I tell the stars. You are fabulous! You have your own strength and power. Take a deep breath and walk in as if you owned the place. Get involved and make a difference. But most importantly , hold your head up high and take a deep breath. It’s all you, baby.”
Now it was two years later, I had taken her advice, and I was a success. I was in student government, involved in my community, and playing sports. I was looking forward to the start of my junior year, and an upcoming visit from AJ.
But that early morning phone call made it clear that AJ’s only travel plans were a helicopter flight to the hospital; she had been struck by a car while crossing Pacific Coast Highway, tossed 25 feet in the air, landing violently on the pavement, and doubling her injuries. My parents flew out immediately; I started my junior year.
Six weeks later, I was allowed to join them. When I finally saw AJ in the ICU, she was wrapped in a full body cast, with tubes and wires
sticking out everywhere. She had just awoken from a coma that she had been in since the accident, but she was barely awake. It was painful to watch vibrant Aunt Joan lying still, struggling for every breath of air.
I spent my visit in the hospital, sitting next to her bed. I would talk to her even though she wouldn’t respond; her eyes would just stare blankly at mine. AJ had multiple broken bones, spinal injuries, nerve damage, a collapsed lung, and possible severe brain injury - the doctors were not hopeful that she would live, much less recover. Throughout my visit, doctors and nurses continued work on different parts of her body. On my last day in LA, the speech therapist came in for one last visit. She placed an amplification device on AJ’s trachea in an attempt to get her to speak. AJ was awake, and following the therapist’s movement with her eyes. I asked the therapist if I could
try and get her to speak.
“Hello. Do you know who I am?” I asked with teats rolling down my face. Barely audible, AJ spoke her first words since the accident: “Yes, you’re Sara.”
Stunned by her responsiveness, the therapist tried to ask her some questions, but AJ fell silent again. She just kept looking at me, as I
continued to look at her. Our eyes locked together.
“I’m leaving, but please tell me my name again before I go.”
In a voice that didn’t sound at all like the energetic, outspoken, vivacious AJ that I knew, she weakly said: “Sara, I love you.”
On the six-hour flight home, AJ’s words resonated in my mind. It took so much effort for her just to speak; each word was so difficult. Over those few days that I had sat by her bedside, I had watched her struggle with every task - holding her head up, or moving a finger. The smallest movement became the ultimate goal. I realized that even from an ICU room, barely able to talk or move, Aunt Joan was still my role model. She was going to live. Thirty thousand feet above the ground, I suddenly had a new insight into the meaning of success: It is not measured by fame or fortune, but by the obstacles we overcome, and breaths we learn to take.
My junior year was spent going back and forth to Los Angeles, while striving to meet the pressures of a chaotic year, a rigorous academic schedule, and extra curricular activities. I was a long way from being the nervous freshman entering an overwhelming school; I was a seventeen year old who understood that it is possible to meet challenges by following AJ’s wordless example: strive to overcome obstacles, believe in yourself, hold your head up high, make each breath count, and never forget to say “I love you” to those who matter most.
P.S. As I write this essay one year later, AJ has moved out of the hospital, back to her house. Using a walker instead of a limo, she is resuming the life that everyone (but us) thought was over.