Excerpt from One SImple Text.... (Shaw & Brown): Back to the Woods



photo: https://calstar.org/contact-us/

            A nurse named Ally carried a big, white binder into Elizabeth’s room. It contained, according to Ally, all the information I would need to help me understand what to expect in the coming days and weeks. As Ally guided me through the binder, the truth that Elizabeth was not yet out of the woods—not even close—began to sink in. My heart pounded in my throat, and tears gathered at the corners of my eyes.

“Just take it hour by hour,” Ally told me, just as the TRU nurse had. 

I learned about the two critical periods in the early recovery for a person with a brain injury. The initial critical period when injuries may be so bad that they cause death, even with the best care, occurs the first day or two after the injury. Those who survive this period face another critical period a few days later, lasting for approximately two more weeks during which time the brain may swell and complications occur at any time. Elizabeth had now entered into this second period. 

I sat in the ICU, trying to find some part of my daughter’s body that I could hold onto that didn’t have a bandage on it or tube running into it. Our bleak reality and the uncertainty of my daughter’s future expanded and filled my vision. Even if she lived, her education and her dreams felt gone. Would she ever be able to leave home and become an adult?

I felt enormous guilt for all the arguments we’d ever had. How I wished she could hear me say how much I loved her and how sorry I was for all the hostility!  How had we even gotten here, a mother and daughter, fighting and hurting?

 

As an infant, Elizabeth had a big pudgy face with big, dark-brown eyes. Her hair stayed white-blonde until she was four years old, then turned golden. She loved the outdoors so much that you could call her a tomboy. From her adventures outside, many a frog, cricket, and gnarly spider entered our home with her help. With great excitement, she would show me what she’d found and ask if she could keep it. She filled jars with lightning bugs each summer night and placed them by her bedside to watch them glow. In the morning, after Elizabeth had punched holes in the jar’s top so the bugs could breath, the bedroom would be filled with the rogue insects, trying to find their way back outside.

            Because of their age difference, Elizabeth and Logan never really played together, but they shared a definite connection that held over the years. We had our ups and downs—raising a teenager and toddler at the same time was hard. To help out Frank, a self-employed contractor, I worked at a local bank.

We lived in Centreville then, a suburban town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in my dream home. Frank and I had wanted a house we could flip, but when we laid eyes on a neglected 19th-century house in 1996, we both saw its potential. The house was originally two buildings that had been pieced together; in the attic, you could see where the two roof tops met. We made an offer within days.

We moved in after 18 months of restoration when Elizabeth was three-and-a-half. It felt immediately like home. Elizabeth’s large bedroom held lots of sunlight and stuffed animals; dusty pink walls framed windows with white curtains that touched the floor. Elizabeth’s furniture consisted mostly of hand-me-downs from her brother along with her great-grandmother’s white wicker rocking chair.

One night, while I lay on Elizabeth’s bed, reading a book to her, she pointed upward and blurted, “Look, Mommy, there is someone watching us from the ceiling.” I laughed and patted her hair, and then continued to read, but she pointed again and said, “Oh, they moved to Mama’s chair.” 

I stopped reading, tried to stay calm, and asked her what she meant.

“A lady watches me at night, and she is here again.” 

I grabbed Elizabeth, ran out of her room, and sought out Frank.

“She watches too much Scooby Doo,” he said and laughed.

As the days passed, I started to think that maybe he was right—I had made a big deal out of nothing. Then, a couple of weeks later, in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep, the sound of footsteps woke me—three creaking sounds like someone was walking up the stairs. I lay in bed thinking I might be dreaming, but then I heard the sound again.

I woke Frank. He listened and agreed that he heard creaking sounds, too. He jumped out of bed and grabbed the baseball bat we kept by our bedside for protection. As he opened the door, he listened for the sound again. This time, we heard nothing. He started down the stairs, turning on every light switch as he stepped. Within five minutes, the house was lit up like a Christmas tree. I stood at the top of the stairs until I finally heard him say, “There is no one here.” 

From that moment on, we believed our house haunted. In the coming months, Elizabeth mentioned this lady many times. Even Logan’s room emanated a lot of strange sounds heard only at night. Thankfully, he slept through the night, and the noises never affected him in any way.

Eventually, I decided I would talk to these “ghosts.” I know it sounds ridiculous, but I felt I needed to do it in order to stay in the house.   So, I went into Elizabeth’s bedroom with a box of matches, thinking I would talk to the lady ghost of the house, you know, woman to woman.

I stood in the middle of her room, took out a match, and said in a firm voice, “Whoever you are, leave us alone, and don’t hurt my kids. If you do, I will burn this house down. I promise you I will burn it down to the ground.”

“We can share the house; there is plenty of room,” I added. “Just leave us alone.” From that day on, the house went silent. 

Life seemed to be moving along just fine until we decided to move to a small, abandoned church building—a “fixer upper” Frank called it—on Tilghman Island, three square miles of land on the Chesapeake Bay. Before moving to Centreville, we had lived in a house close to the water, and ever since Frank had missed the convenience of walking down the road to get to his boat to go fishing and crabbing. The abandoned church building also had water access right down the road; that is why we purchased it. It was to be our weekend getaway until the kids moved out, and then it would become our retirement home.

Frank had started to restore the house, and I knew with his exceptional talents as a carpenter, the old church would become a lovely home for us. That happened sooner than planned, however. Logan enrolled in a community college in Annapolis and moved in with his mother who lived near this college. At that point, Frank pleaded for us to move, too. He really missed the water. Eager for him to be happy, I ultimately relented though moving so far away from our community concerned me. We put the Centreville house on the market.   

            Elizabeth and I went from the convenience of living in a town with shops, grocery stores, and the local library just a few blocks away to needing to drive 25 minutes for a gallon of milk. Frank spent most of his time working on the church, and on his days off, he just wanted to go fishing or rest. So, Elizabeth and I had only each other for company. We did everything together: shopping, riding bikes, and going to the beach at the end of our road for picnics.

Once Elizabeth started her new elementary school, a small school for the children on the island, she quickly became friends with the other students. She had no more than 20 classmates in her second-grade class. She seemed to be happy and adjusted just fine. Unfortunately, Frank and I had a less happy experience.

Once we moved to Tilghman Island, the cracks in our marriage began to show. Restoring the church took a lot more time and money than we had anticipated. I still worked for the same bank, though at a new branch, but I didn’t make much. Tight money put an extra strain on our marriage. Frank seemed happy, but I missed the big, beautiful home we’d left behind in Centreville and grew resentful that I had given it up to live in the middle of nowhere. A magnificent place of water and sunsets in the summer, in the winter Tilghman Island gets cold, especially when the wind kicks up. When the tourists leave, the island feels deserted.

As the months passed, Frank and I fought every day. We began to realize that we’d had issues before the move to Tilghman Island but had simply been ignoring them. Considering it only a matter of time before one of us left the marriage, I made the decision to go.

Our separation devastated Elizabeth, then nine. Logan, already a grown man, worried more about his little sister, Elizabeth, who hoped we’d reunite. The separation, ugly at first, turned into a mutual decision by the time we divorced. Frank and I shared custody of Elizabeth, and she spent every other weekend with her dad, as well as a night or two during the week. She seemed to be handling the situation with resilience—until her teenage years. 

            Once Elizabeth turned 13, the closeness we had shared dissipated. I had remarried, and my second husband (Jim) and I lived in Easton with Elizabeth. The arguments and battles between Elizabeth and me subsumed our lives. At first, only typical teenage daughter complaints dominated: she felt I wanted to control her and raged that I wouldn’t let her hang out with older kids or wear makeup. However, time revealed what fueled her anger: fury for leaving her father. She would scream at me that she hated me and would never forgive me for what I did to her father. She would also say how much she hated her new stepfather and how he would never replace her father. I do not regret getting a divorce, but I will always have misgivings about breaking up the family.

In the years that followed, my relationship with Elizabeth remained strained. We loved each other, but the bond I longed to have with her simply did not materialize. We learned to walk away from each other when our arguments got too heated, swallow hurtful words before expressing them, and cover over our feelings. She made little effort to get to know Jim. At best, she tolerated him. Jim tried his best to get Elizabeth to warm up to him through generosity with money and displayed great patience with her despite her icy attitude.

While Elizabeth’s personality could be ugly at times, she had grown up to be stunningly beautiful, popular in high school, and the object of many boys’ attention. She went to parties and high school sports games with her friends, got great grades, and was well known throughout her school as one of the “cool” kids. 

            In 10th grade, Elizabeth expressed interest in becoming a model. We signed her up at a modeling school in Wilmington, Delaware and every other Saturday for a year and a half, she and I made the two-hour drive so she could attend classes. The modeling school excited Elizabeth, and the drives gave us time to talk about her future and lay a better foundation. She would graduate from modeling school, finish high school, and then pursue her dream of becoming a model while taking community college courses.

 

Some of those dreams did come true. She finished modeling school. She experienced the normal teenage life: high school (an honor student), boyfriends, driver’s license. Lying ahead: enrollment in community college and a modeling career.

 

By Tuesday, three days after the accident, Elizabeth’s condition had improved, if only slightly. The doctors told us that she was doing surprisingly well for a person who had suffered such severe injuries, but she remained in critical condition and on strong medications that prevented her from moving. Not moving also helped control her breathing (she was still on a ventilator), blood pressure, and other vital signs. She could, however, follow some commands. The nurses would ask her in a firm loud voice to move a finger, her toes, or squeeze a hand. If she could follow through on a command, this meant that the brain still functioned. That Elizabeth had followed a few commands gave hope.

I sat next to Elizabeth and told her how much I loved her and how proud I was of her for being so strong and brave. I sat in silence for a moment and heard the sounds of the machines keeping my daughter alive. Colored lines moved diagonally across screens. I heard the sound of a helicopter just outside our room then and went to the window. A medevac helicopter headed toward the hospital roof. As I lost sight of it, I put my hands together and prayed for the patient it carried—and the patient’s family.



For more information about Betty Shaw, Dave Brown, and the Liz marks Story, click HERE.

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