". . . I don't know if you remember the first time you took me to the creek with the whole gang, but even if you do, I never told you how special that made me feel. Any other brother would have made their little sister stay home alone all day, but you let me tag along for my first fishing trip. You showed me all of the forts you all had built, and even let me in on some of your secrets . . ."
Cozzarelli, by now a quivering wreck, had to hand it back over to Brown:
Alan Babin reacts to Al Sr.'s touch as neighbor and friend Andrea Lovelidge looks on.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall)
"But the thing I remember most was getting lost while we were back there. Or maybe not so much of getting lost as getting found. You cried. You cried because I was lost, even though it was just for a little while. When I found out what had happened to you, I cried too. I cried because you were lost, even though it was just for a little while. Alan, you are the most important person in my life. You have never asked me to do anything that I'm not capable of, nor I of you. So, I'm going to keep things simple and just ask you to come home. I need to see your face soon, so stay strong and feel the desire to live. I know you'll get through this and come out stronger because you're my big brother. I love you very much and hope you can feel that, even across the world. Love, your lil' Sis, Christy.
"P.S. I'm 16 now, so you better be ready for a lot of ride-alongs when you get home!"
Alan was the toughest case on the ship. The jagged ruin wreaked by the bullet was bad enough, but its indirect repercussions were even more lethal. Bacteria thrived in his bloodstream and riddled him with fevers. His blood count was abysmal, and his heart customarily thrashed against his rib cage at more than 140 beats per minute. Surgeons were operating on him almost daily, trying to piece his intestines back together. He was being fed from a tube, but the liquid food kept spilling from undiscovered holes in his intestines. Then they began feeding him intravenously, but this was stopped after a fungal infection in his blood was believed to have been caused by sugar from the IV. With virtually no nutrition going into him, his body began retaining fluid. He soon swelled to what Brown guessed was about three times his normal size. His fingers were so fat they couldn't bend, the skin stretched to near transparency. A bad chemical reaction to one of the antibiotics resulted in serious burns, blistering the skin on his arms and legs.
Brown didn't want to paint too vivid a picture for the Babins. They knew he was in critical condition, but they had no idea that few honestly expected him to survive.
After a couple of weeks on the ship, however, not only had Alan continued to hang on, but his consciousness was returning in waves. The swelling had eased, and the surgeons were able to inch the gaping wound a little closer to being fully shut. Alan's movement was severely limited, and he couldn't speak, but Brown could feel him squeezing her hand when she read him e-mails from the family. Capt. Stephen Morrow, a surgeon who operated on Alan 10 times on the Comfort, sent an e-mail to Rosie telling her Alan's survival was the most amazing thing he'd seen in his 18 years in medicine.
On April 22, Brown called Rosie. Plans had been made to move Alan to Landstuhl in Germany the next day, she said. Then he'd be transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington before moving back home to Texas. It was similar to the route home that thousands of wounded soldiers would eventually take.
"He can't speak right now," Brown later recalled telling Rosie, "but he can hear." Brown held a telephone next to Alan's ear as Rosie spoke, telling him about her day, Christy's life at school, his father's home improvements.
Alan's eyes were open, and they began to water. But he was heavily medicated, and Brown couldn't tell whether he was hearing his mother or not. His eyes started to close.
"You seem tired," Brown told him as she held the phone, "so I'm going to let your mother go." She watched his eyes snap open and blink rapidly. She let Rosie keep talking on the other end of the line and let Alan continue to listen.
"HI, MRS. BABIN."
The uniformed maintenance man, passing her in the hallway of the surgical intensive care unit at Walter Reed, knew Rosie's name, which was thoroughly unremarkable. Everyone knew it. She was a fourth-floor fixture, the authority on thwarting military bureaucracy, the comforter, the questioner, the old hand, the Dean of the Anguished War Mothers.
Of the more than 3,500 U.S. military casualties from Iraq treated at Walter Reed, none has spent more time there than Alan. In seven months, he underwent more than 70 surgeries that related to his still-gaping abdomen, his tracheotomy, the drainage shunt that ran from his brain down his neck and felt like a stiff vein to the touch. He fell under the spell of aggressive infections from a fugitive strain of bacteria that kept skipping from one bodily system to another. The burns on his arms and legs required a series of skin grafts. His compromised immune system opened the door to meningitis and a stroke.
The doctors in the surgical intensive care unit kept saying they hoped for reconstructive abdominal surgery and a full recovery -- walking, talking, eating. Then they'd add it was too early for definite answers.
Alan's room was in the corner of the SICU, a suite to himself. The window was precious less for its view (the sandwiched levels of a parking garage) than for its natural light, the antidote to the clinical fluorescence that cast interior rooms in a pallor. Amid the hum of oxygen pumps and the metronomic blips of pulse meters, Rosie tapped the keys of the laptop she set up in front of the window. She charted Alan's progress in diary form.
At the end of Alan's first day in Walter Reed, Rosie typed on her laptop: "They have allowed us to examine him from head to toe and, although I may feel differently later (I don't think I want to know how I 'feel' right now), seeing it all with my own eyes and asking questions has made this more manageable."
Her medical questions for the doctors and nurses started with the general ("Is he in pain?") and evolved to include the specialized ("Would an endoscopic third-ventriculostomy be an alternative to the shunt?"). She spent hours surfing medical sites on the Internet and cursing the sluggishness of her 28K modem. When the nurses left the room to check on other wounded soldiers, Rosie kept a hawk-eyed watch on her son. The monitors that tracked Alan's vital signs could sound a shrill warning, but she feared their limitations.
"It takes a monitor two minutes to sound an alarm," Rosie explained. "How much oxygen has he been deprived of when it's three minutes and the nurse finally gets into the room?" She had resigned from her job and moved to Washington, to a room at the Fisher House, a temporary residence on the hospital grounds funded by a charitable foundation. Eight families shared the eight bedrooms. A bin in the refrigerator had Rosie's name on it. Her room had two twin beds, and when Al Sr. came to visit she joked that they felt as if they were Ricky and Lucy Ricardo.
She had become something like a volunteer employee -- part nurse, part counselor -- pulling long hours on behalf of her son, seven days a week. She would get up in the morning, walk to the hospital, enter an "Employees Only" stairwell and climb to the fourth floor. She'd spend most of the day in the room, watching Alan intently, helping change his wound dressing, suctioning the phlegm from his tracheotomy hole, rubbing his arms and legs and bending his elbows and knees to try to keep atrophy at bay. Everyone knew where to find her, and sometimes they called on her for help.
A sergeant who'd moved into a room down the hall was fading. The shrapnel that had penetrated the skin around his eyes and lodged in his brain was getting the best of him. The wife of a visiting dignitary who'd met Rosie quietly asked her to speak with the sergeant's family: The relatives were bickering, arguing about who would get to see him and when. Rosie reminded them, she said, that this was all about the wounded soldier, and not them. They needed to put their problems aside, for his sake.
Days later, after hospital staffer members wheeled the sergeant's body away, Rosie stood in the doorway of the room and began to sob. It was summer, a couple months after she had first arrived, and Christy was in town for the weekend. They'd seen so many others come and go -- some wheeled out on gurneys, some walking on their own -- yet Alan always remained. Christy saw her crying and asked what was wrong.
Everyone is leaving the SICU except us, Rosie said.
Christy put her arm around her mother.
But Alan is still alive, Christy told her. And the doctors keep saying he'll make a full recovery. Some of the other soldiers don't have that. So, who's lucky and who's not?
It made Rosie feel better, but something was still bothering her. She hoped that the vacancy of Alan's gaze was caused by all the pain medication coursing through him, not a permanently damaged brain.
On a hot July afternoon, the air conditioner blew cool air into Alan's room. Rosie leaned over Alan's bed and wiped his brow, which was covered with sweat. Christy sat in a chair on the other side of the room, reading a magazine. Al Sr. rubbed antibacterial gel on his hands for the second time in an hour.
"Do you need more pain medication?" Rosie asked her son, who stared back silently. "You don't have to be stoic through this, Alan." Something told Rosie that Alan was hearing everything she was saying. The slightest glint in his eyes -- unseen by those who didn't spend as much time with him as she did -- spoke to her.
"I love you so much," she told him as she checked the dressing on his wound and winked at his gaze.
Christy and Al Sr. took turns reading motorcycle magazines and inspirational books aloud to Alan. They'd spend hours watching the TV that flickered above Alan's bed, trying to guess what Alan might want to watch if he could choose -- usually sitcoms, they decided, something with a light mood. Unlike Rosie's, their visits were limited to days, and they tried to make the most of them, drinking in every eye blink and tiny movement, telling him everything they could remember about what he was missing in Round Rock.
A couple of weeks later, on Alan's 23rd birthday, Rosie watched from the other side of the room as her husband and daughter cared for Alan. That night, she typed her account of the day on her laptop: "I, of course, was invisible, and it was the most wonderful feeling in the world. He knows and expects me to be there. There is no greater compliment for me right now than to know that he considers me 'an invisible extension' of himself that is simply there to voice what he cannot and to trust that I will make sure his needs are made known."
When Vice President Cheney visited the hospital around the same time, Rosie and a nurse put a pen in Alan's hand to see if he could sign a waiver to allow his picture to be taken with Cheney. Rosie helped hold his writing hand as a crabbed signature slowly appeared on the sheet.
The signature was accepted. But later, when Alan's approval was requested for another visitor, hospital staffer members consulted with doctors to determine whether Alan's signature could be submitted as proof of his consent. They didn't allow it. They said they weren't convinced that it was Alan who was in control of that hand.
ROUND ROCK IS LINKED TO AUSTIN BY 17 MILES OF INTERSTATE CHAINS -- Wal-Marts, Home Depots and Taco Cabanas. It's a yellow-ribbon sort of town, where earlier this year you could find a block-long stretch of front yards displaying "We Support Our Troops and Our President" signs. A majority of Round Rock voters in March's Democratic presidential primary were registered Republicans. For many of the past 30 years, it has held the title of fastest-growing city in Texas, ballooning from about 15,000 in 1980 to about 80,000 today.
The Babins were part of that population explosion, moving to Round Rock from Bakersfield, Calif., in 1992, when Al Sr. accepted a job as a lieutenant with the local police department.
"He was all business," said Bryan Leath, another officer in the department. "We were scared of him." Leath would learn that Al actually wasn't all business, that behind the no-nonsense exterior was an easygoing guy who'd eventually inspire his share of anecdotal fodder during off-duty boating trips and backyard barbecues.