Chapter Thirteen: things fall apart
I know a cold as cold as it gets
I know a darkness that's darker than cold
a wind that blows as cold as it gets
blew out the light in my soul
"Cold as it Gets," Patty Griffin
The stroke didn't last very long, speaking objectively. Actually, it was about fifteen minutes long, give or take- minutes that felt like they stretched on into hours, minutes that felt like seconds or less when they rushed to look up symptoms and treatment, when Donatello was trying to get Splinter to relax while their father lay helpless and prone on the floor. Fifteen minutes until his condition seemed to get better and they felt desperately for a heartbeat, relaxing only when they managed to sense one was there.
Enough time for them to get a taste of how it would feel to have their father die in front of them, something that had always been likely but never had been so very close. They had to fight not to crowd him when it was clear the worst of it was over. Hard to be mindful of his need to breathe when they had their own need for reassurance. Leonardo and Raphael settled for watching on the sidelines as Donatello, grim-faced and tight-lipped, measured their father's pulse and looked at his pupil dilation with a small penlight. Finally, he stood up and moved towards his brothers.
"Well?" Raphael asked from his spot in the sidelines. "Did you figure it out yet?"
The question itself was phrased in a way that ground Donatello's teeth, but with concern and tension written all over the tone. Not sarcasm, or impatient accusation. He kept that in mind and fought down the urge to snap at him. It wasn't Raphael's fault he was impatient about this, it wasn't his fault that his fear and worry were overriding his ability to think, or even that he was a clumsy communicator. It was just, none of that made this any easier and it was horrible enough that he had to do this without his brother's expectations sitting heavy on his shoulders.
"I'm not a doctor," he said, keeping his tone precise, "But I think this was definitely a stroke." His voice wobbled on the edge of tension. Donatello could manage precision right now, but calm was too far away from what he felt to maintain.
Raphael snorted. "Well, yeah. We figured that, Donny." Not as casual as it sounded, not when his voice was trembling. "But how bad is it? Is he gonna- is he…?"
I don't know. The words wouldn't even leave Donatello's mouth. He swallowed sharply. Splinter was breathing long, even, shaking breaths. "A stroke is a cerebrovascular accident," he said, numbly. He sounded numb, at least to his ears. He sounded a hundred miles away. Or years. "It's- it's caused by blood flow in the brain being blocked, or by internal hemorrhaging. I don't- I can't find out which one it is, Raph. I don't have the equipment. And even if I did…"
"So what the hell does that mean? We're gonna have to just watch him die?" Raphael's hands were balled into fists, like he was itching for a fight. Maybe he was, since punching his anger out was usually the way he chose to go about managing his emotions. He let out a string of curses and swiveled around.
"What do you want me to do, Raph?" Donatello hissed, his own anger rising, fueled by his helplessness. "Do you have any idea how to treat a stroke? Why should I know any better? I'd need tools, machines…"
"We can go get 'em," Raphael snapped, his eyes flashing in a kind on insane determination that Donatello recognized from their more desperate battles.
"And then what?" he asked, each word coming out clipped and precise. "Kidnap people who know how to work them? I'd need a better understanding of neuroscience than what I know now! Not to mention how different Splinter's reactions are from a human having a stroke. I have no clue what I'm doing. I'm not a doctor. It's possible any attempt I make to save him could end up killing him."
He drew in a breath, feeling shaky. "So, yes," he added, glaring at him. "Yes, we might have to just- watch him, Raph! He might die tonight, and I can't do anything! Is that what you wanted to hear?"
Raphael shoved him, hard. "Don't you fucking say that!" he yelled, but sounded more desperate than furious. "What the hell is wrong with you, Donny? Don't you want-"
"Raphael," Splinter managed to say, before Donatello could unleash his own rage at what Raphael was about to accuse him of. He cringed at the reminder that Splinter had been listening to his own death prediction and looked at the floor, suddenly aware of his own shaking hands. Despite the slurring of his father's speech, the stern reprimand in his tone managed to carry through. They all fell silent, watching him struggle for clarity.
"My sons. The two of you…should not fight." He tried to sit up, and Leonardo grabbed his shoulder to help him into an upright position, leaning him against the couch and watching the both of them with a warning expression. As if they needed any warning not to upset their father further.
"I will not have this family- fall apart," Splinter said, slowly. "I will not have my," he paused, struggling, "I will not have my…condition…used as an excuse for your anger towards each other."
"Donny's right, Raph," Leonardo said, quietly. "There's nothing we can do now but wait." His words were calm enough, but the ultra-controlled quality of his voice and the way his entire posture screamed tension showed that he was feeling anything but patient right now. His hands, resting on the arm of their couch, tightened their grip. "Don. Is there… anything we need to do now?"
His own voice, when he spoke, sounded washed bare of emotion. "Not much. Get him a dose of aspirin. It helps prevent blood clots forming in the brain." He probably didn't need to add the second part, given the expressions on his brother's faces, but he wasn't feeling up to entirely filtering his speech tonight. "Aside from that, make him comfortable." There was so little they could do to help. It made him feel like screaming, but of course he had to stay silent.
Leonardo went to the kitchen to retrieve the medication, and Donatello watched Splinter in the meantime. He wouldn't be able to discern anything outwardly, of course, but he inspected him anyway, taking note of his quiet, slow breathing and his half-closed eyes. For a moment he wondered how any of them would sleep tonight, when it seemed so possible that if they closed their eyes, they'd wake the next moment to their father passing away.
"Really, this was just- this was just a transient ischemic attack," he said slowly, to no one in particular, "Recuperation is much more likely, although it might set up potential for strokes in the future. This one should be- it shouldn't be something fatal."
Splinter nodded, acknowledging the words, and Leonardo gave him the pills with a cup of water that shook, slightly, in his brother's usually steady hand. His older brother looked just that- older, burdened down with something weightier than simply time. He wondered if that's what they all looked like now. If they all looked that weary.
"You should rest, Master Splinter," he said. "Sleep is an important part of recovery." In fact, sleep disorders were common among stroke patients, so the more sleep he had, the better. And quite aside from its healing and restorative benefits, it would give them the opportunity to talk, something they weren't about to do with their father able to hear every word.
Getting him to his room that night seemed like a lost cause, so they helped him up onto the couch instead. Splinter lay there peacefully enough, but his eyelids flickered restlessly, showing the tension he must be feeling. Watching him slip into sleep was suddenly too much like watching another death, so Donatello turned sharply away, leaving his two brothers to watch over their father.
The kitchen seemed like a nice, likely place to have a small emotional breakdown. As he stood there, he had the distant feeling that he should make something to drink, like tea. Leonardo would, if he was sitting alone in the kitchen trapped on all sides by the possible mortality of their father. But that had never been his go-to comfort beverage, and besides, he didn't need any caffeine.
He especially didn't need anything so heavily imbued with childhood memories of Splinter standing by the teapot, watching as it brewed. He didn't need the taste of sadness and illness in his mouth, forcing him even closer to an emotional display.
There wasn't any sense in pacing, and besides, he'd never been the type, so he just pulled out a chair and sat. He clenched his hands together tightly and felt his whole body tense, his muscles drew taut to the point the felt they would break, his stomach turned, and something hard and choking worked its way up his throat and stayed there.
Trying to breathe just made it worse, the unrelenting tension in his body wouldn't let go, or allow itself to be shed through tears. He wasn't crying. He couldn't, even though he felt he would get some relief from it, all the emotion he felt was locked in so tight.
Tentatively, someone said his name. "Donny?"
Raphael's voice. He couldn't bring himself to turn around, but his shoulders stiffened at the intrusion into his momentary peace and quiet.
The lot of them had learned to move soundlessly long ago, so he didn't exactly hear Raphael moving up behind him. A prickle started at the back of his neck and moved down his spine in a shiver, an instinctive reaction to the thought of someone, anyone moving behind him. He supposed his brothers had the same sense of danger too, something trained in them, not through Master Splinter's lessons, but through first-hand experience with all the violence their lives had thrown at them.
Slight movement at the corner of his eye told him his brother was at his right shoulder, close enough to be at arm's reach, but not close enough to be considered 'close'. "Donny, I'm sorry." Raphael sounded as strained as he was right now, but also very regretful. "I- I know you're just sayin' the truth. I shouldn't have even thought you weren't doin' everything you could, I especially shouldn't have almost…said it like that."
"Don't worry about it," he said, quietly. He didn't say 'no problem', or 'that's okay', because it wasn't true at all, and they mostly stayed honest with each other. It wasn't at all okay that Raphael thought even for a minute, or half a second, that he didn't care enough to save their father, or that he didn't want him alive enough to put his full effort into it.
Raphael must have read that into his tone or his words, because he drew a little nearer to him. Still didn't try to touch him, which might just have meant he was afraid that Donatello would pull away. At the moment, he wasn't sure if he would or not.
"Christ, Donny. I don't- I don't mean to say the crap I do." Raphael said, miserably. "I just get so… mad." Now he sounded tired. "I get so damn angry all the time, and I shouldn't- I shouldn't take it out on you. This is just…"
He trailed off and Donatello glanced at him. Raphael was leaning forward, both hands over his face like he was crying, but his breathing was regular and his voice wasn't teary. His brother sighed like something inside was tearing at him. "..Shit. It's too much. You know? An' I used to think it was bad before. I used to think I was angry all the time then. I can't get a break from it now, Donny. I can't even rest from it. I figure if I could stop bein' so goddamn angry I can just get through it somehow, but…"
A harsh intake of breath told him that Raphael was just on the edge of tears, if not there already. Donatello had never been as wildly emotional as his brother. He figured none of them shared the sheer capacity for emotion that Raphael had; sometimes an enviable trait, but now it must be a heavy burden.
As for himself he felt cold, hollowed out, as though someone had literally pulled everything he felt from him and left him empty and thin. It was a coping mechanism, he rationalized, a distant part of him cataloguing his response, and sooner or later he was going to come hurtling face to face with his sense of loss and just-
He didn't know what he'd do.
"Alright," he said, turning to face him, "I know you don't mean it. I'm just…tired." He meant that. At a time like this, he began to appreciate how Leonardo must feel as the appointed leader, with everything weighing on his decisions. Donatello wasn't raised for that, he wasn't comfortable with it, and he was the only one out of the four of them- the three of them, he realized with a jarring shock of pain, that had the medical knowledge to help. Not the expertise or capability, without which he was severely limited. For a moment he entertained the horrible, mad thought of kidnapping someone to help his father. It wouldn't work, and they'd never be able to reconcile themselves to it anyway, but he planned it out in his mind in any case.
"Splinter's sleeping." Leonardo stood in the open area in front of the kitchen. He looked as lost as the two of them. None of them were as stable as they could be lately, especially not when the ground kept getting pulled out from under their feet like this.
"That's a good sign," he said, feeling like an idiot. He didn't even know if it really was, since he had only the most rudimentary knowledge of strokes. Presumably sleep was important for healing, so maybe it actually was. "How did he seem before he fell asleep? Was he coherent?"
Leonardo shrugged. "Coherent enough. He didn't seem confused or anything, like you get with concussions. His speech is still slurred," he added, quietly.
"That's normal," he said, almost tonelessly. Donatello felt like he wanted to stand up and throw the table against the wall or scream, just do something to break the surreal calm of this scene, of them serenely discussing their father's stroke as if it was a minor illness. He inhaled slowly, willing the feeling to go away. "We'll have to watch him closely for the next week," he continued. If he even wakes up, his mind added, an unnecessarily cynical note.
He felt a pang of hunger and it seemed so out of place that he wondered what it was for a moment. The clock on the wall told him it was nearing dinner time. A small part of him wondered at his body's ability to still be hungry despite all of the wreckage his life kept throwing at him.
Apparently, Leonardo had followed his gaze to the clock because the next comment out of his mouth was: "I suppose we should have something to eat. No point in starving ourselves out of worry."
They both looked at him in mute disbelief at that statement because who could even eat right now? And also because that comment sounded eerily parental. Maternal, even, Donatello thought. At any other time, it would have prompted some kind of joke at his brother's expense. Now, it was more of a reminder that their actual parental figure was incapacitated.
Leonardo frowned at their blank stares. "What?"
"Really?" Raphael asked, sounding sarcastically incredulous. "You really want us to eat something right now, at a time like this." He glanced over at Donatello, indicating with his expression that their brother was clearly mad and wasting his time on a lost cause.
"I guess you could just pointlessly go hungry," Leonardo muttered, turning away to examine the cabinets for food items. "Because that would be really helpful right now. It's not like you're going to help anyone by not eating, Raph. And don't even try to tell me you're not hungry." He pulled out a container of rice and set it on the counter top. "I'll cook."
At that proclamation, Donatello quickly stood up. "You know what, no, that's fine. I'll do it." It was partially a joking comment, his brother's bland cooking was often the subject of teasing. Also, the situation wasn't so dire that they had to resort to Leonardo's cooking. Not that they were likely to taste anything right now anyway, but at least he knew how to use seasoning that wasn't just salt and pepper.
"Not this again," Leonardo said, narrowing his eyes. "You know I can cook."
That sounded so un-amused that he quickly tried to switch tones. "Well, yes," he hedged, glancing at Raphael, who was rolling his eyes, "I mean, I know you're certainly capable of performing that task, I just…think…"
"I thought you wanted us to eat tonight," Raphael said in a sullen undertone. Unlike Donatello, he didn't sound like he was joking about it.
They both turned to look at Raphael; Donatello with an expression of mute helplessness and Leonardo with an expression that was on the very low end of murderous rage. Or mild irritation. Either their many jabs at his culinary skill over the years had finally made an impact or he really wasn't in the mood to take them at this point in time. Donatello held his breath for a moment as Leonardo glared at the both of them.
"Fine," he snarled, "I'm not in the mood for this. Go ahead and do it yourselves."
"Leo," he said, trying to be conciliatory, but his brother just waved his hand dismissively and left the kitchen. He must have been on the high point of stressed out for his reaction to be that extreme, Leonardo was typically level-headed, or forced himself into it enough to seem as though he was. Everyone was getting scraped thin at this point.
Accusingly, Donatello turned his gaze back to Raphael and gestured sharply at their brother's retreating shell- a very clearly communicated look what you did.
Raphael shifted guiltily, a frown pulling sharply at his features. Aside from the slight fidget, he looked unrepentant. "You got something to say, just say it."
"He was just trying to help, Raph," Donatello muttered. "You didn't have to be an ass about it. Are you just trying to piss everyone off tonight?"
"What, really?" Raphael rolled his eyes, incredulous, "Look, all I did was insult his cooking. If that's bad enough for him to go storming out of the kitchen, he's the one who needs an attitude adjustment, not me. And who's he to go around ordering us to have dinner like he's everyone's mom, anyway? Ticks me off." He folded his arms., the defensive body language projecting loud and clear that no one was getting anything reasonable out of him tonight, either.
He tried, anyway. "You're annoyed at him because he came in here with a sensible request?" Donatello looked at the rice, trying to decide if he wanted to make something with rice in it or if he should just put it all back and make something canned for everyone. Then Leonardo would probably say something snide about cooking skills and he would lose some of the tenuous grasp he was maintaining on his own temper.
"Course not," Raphael snorted. "I mean- I get why he wants us to eat something. I ain't dumb. I even get why we should be hungry. I'm just not. Can't see how he is either. And I hate how he puts on this…this 'I'm an adult' attitude. So goddamn condescending."
Great. That was his 'no signs of intelligent life, captain' tone of voice, the kind he used when Raphael was too wrapped up in his own troubles at the moment to watch his temper. Rummaging through the pantry, he briefly wondered if he should continue or just allow Raphael to think about it and have it sink in on its own. Explaining was faster, so he went forward. That, and Leonardo deserved a break, too.
"You know it's not really about us eating tonight. He just probably wants to focus on…something else for a while." Donatello went for a chopping knife, finally deciding on stir fry. That was easy enough to make without having to worry about much preparation. It also was involved enough to let him take his own mind off the troubles of the moment just the slightest bit- like Leonardo had probably wanted before being aggravated out of the kitchen.
"He has a lot on his mind right now," he continued.
"Like we don't," Raphael muttered, but without any bite to it. It seemed as though his conscience was catching up with him on this issue.
"We all do," he agreed, quietly. "But think about what Leo is. Think about what he's been raised to be. If anything-" he faltered, not wanting to put the possibility of another family member's death into words. Their father was their stability, their foundation, and the prospect of his possible collapse was too much to deal with right now. "If anything…happened to Splinter, think about what he'll need to do. I wouldn't want that kind of responsibility. And you wouldn't either."
Despite the occasional friction between his two brothers, he knew Raphael didn't actually want to lead the family. He was more interested in autonomy than the responsibilities that came with leadership, even though he might sometimes want to lead. After Leonardo's brush with a breakdown at fifteen, Donatello had put more thought into how much psychological weight was resting on his brother's metaphorical shoulders, and came away a bit overwhelmed by the thought of having that much pressure on it himself. Michelangelo had put it very insightfully himself: the reason the rest of them could relax and goof off occasionally was because so much of the responsibility was placed in their older brother's hands.
"Nothing's gonna happen," Raphael growled, but the uncertainty in his tone gave him away. "He's fine now, right? He's resting, he was talking. Splinter's not gonna…" he trailed off, swallowed hard.
Donatello struggled with his own surge of fear, which this conversation was not helping to quell. Unlike Raphael, he had a wealth of medical knowledge, and he knew what might be happening right now. He thought, sickened, of what might happen if it had been hemorrhaging to cause the attack. After the aspirin he'd prescribed, the bleeding would only worsen, possibly cause their father to just slip away in his sleep. Or an embolism, worse than he'd thought, causing a larger, more catastrophic stroke.
Looking back on this moment, he'd think: they were just kids, and their family was falling apart around them, dying one by one. He was tying himself to the present just by sitting in the kitchen, stirring vegetables around in a pan. He'd been building stability by seconds.
At the time, he didn't feel seventeen. None of them did.
What he wanted to say was something reassuring and most likely false, something that would help his brother relax so at least one of them wouldn't be strung tight and stressed out to the point of almost breaking. What actually came out of his mouth was not at all comforting.
"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. He was speaking, but the pressure in his chest and the tightening of his throat made him feel like he'd been crying, like pained sounds had spilled from his mouth instead of words. "I don't know," he repeated, fixing his gaze on the floor. "I think…we shouldn't think about it right now. Not when we can't do anything to fix it, whether we wanted to or not. Raph, if you're going to be hostile, if that's what you need to do…"
"Donny," Raphael said, softly, remorseful.
He rode right over that statement, fingers clenching into fists- not angry, but resolute. "If that's how you need to cope, then go on and do it. But please, hit your punching bag, hit the couch, do what Casey does and start breaking the furniture, but don't be mad at me, or at Leo-"
"Alright, Donny," Raphael said, riding over his statement, and Donatello startled when he realized that his voice had begun to raise and his hands were shaking a bit from a quick adrenaline rush. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I just- can't handle this like the two of you, I guess. You're right, I shouldn't be takin' it out on you."
His brother sounded tired now, like so much emotion was wearying for him. Maybe it was. The three of them hadn't had much sleep in the past few days.
"Just…talk to Leo, okay?" he asked, taking up the knife again and mentally going over what vegetables they likely had in the fridge. "We've been through too much to take it out on each other." He turned to open the fridge and when he turned back from hauling out the contents of the crisper: carrots, onions, small stalk of cauliflower, broccoli, Raphael had already trailed silently out of the kitchen. He hoped he'd gone to see how Leonardo was doing, but the way things were going lately he could just as easily have wandered off to beat up a wall and break his knuckles for good.
Everything on the main level of their home was open for view, so he could peer out of their kitchen and see the couch at an angle, a fragmented glance of his father's head and robe lying across it. He couldn't see movement, but he wasn't close enough to catch the minute motions of sleep. One of the television screens flickered light blue, and he caught a glimpse of one of his brothers in profile, watching Splinter sleep. Probably Leonardo.
Lost in his thoughts, he measured the rice. Remembered to use less this time, just like they'd all had to every night since the failed rescue. One less mouth to feed. Would he have to measure more cups out, soon? Would he have to sit at another, even more maddeningly silent dinner, faced with empty seats? His hand shook, holding the measuring cup over the pot on the stove, sending loose grains tumbling into the water before he remembered he hadn't set it to boil yet.
Cursing, he set the cup down on the counter with a loud click and turned away, his hands still trembling as the stress finally started to catch up to him. He just managed to settle himself into one of the wooden chairs around the table when the bulk of it hit him, ran into him with the unmerciful force of a tidal wave. His throat tightened, almost choking him with the suddenness, prickling with the need to cry.
Donatello's thoughts raced- they did usually, he thought swiftly on many tracks, but now they just repeated ugly echoes in a swift, repetitive sequence. They flashed images at him: his father's hands curled up, almost clawlike, writhing on the floor, florescent light staining every inch of a steel-fitted torture chamber, a gurney, his father's saddened eyes. He couldn't shove the thoughts away or bury the images into some deep recess of his subconscious, they came as mercilessly as blows from an enemy's fist.
"Pull yourself together," he whispered- almost a gasp. The prickle in his throat found its way into his voice, making it sound ragged, worn through. At least both of his brothers were out of the kitchen, he thought. Donatello couldn't help but think it was selfish of him to break down right now, now when Splinter had just gone through his own attack and they were all so shaky. The last thing they needed was any of them having a panic attack.
Logic was easy enough to think about, but applying it was the real problem. Stay calm. How could anyone stay calm now? He drew in a sharp breath, trying to steady himself, curling his fingers tightly against the counter.
What if he dies what if he dies what if he dies his thoughts sent scurrying across his mind like terrified mice, panicked, helpless. Seeing Michelangelo in pieces was bad enough, but how horrible to wake up to his father lying stiffly on the couch, rigor mortis setting in, his hands curled and eyes empty? His stomach turned and he shook his head in a swift, desperate gesture. Oh, god. He wasn't a medical doctor, he just had the most technical knowledge, but that was enough in his brothers' eyes to make him almost the de facto nurse. He couldn't fix this, he couldn't stop internal bleeding, couldn't heal brain damage if it occurred. Couldn't slow down the deterioration, if it occurred. They'll blame me what if they think I failed.
He was repeating himself now, in his thoughts, but he didn't care. Donatello hadn't realized it, but his breath had begun to come in shorter bursts, nearly hyperventilation. It was a wonder the counter didn't give under the pressure of his fingertips. They were all strong enough to damage the furniture and had certainly done so before. Not that they would get in trouble for it now. Now that-
His vision blurred.
This was just hitting him too hard, too quickly. He used to be pretty good at compartmentalization, now all the neat little spaces were just falling apart. The constriction in his throat had started almost burning, like there was a hot coal down there searing tender skin. Donatello swallowed convulsively and tried again to focus on this stupid, simple cooking task. Boil the water, turn the stove on, put the rice in. A routine.
The water was boiling when Leonardo entered the kitchen, annoyance stamped across his face and impatience in his tone. "Don, have you finished cooking dinner yet? Your obviously superior kitchen skills are-" he cut himself off mid-sentence, just staring at him. Which was just fine, since Donatello didn't feel like hearing the undoubtedly scathing remark at the end of that statement.
He had no idea what his expression was like right now, but it must have been pretty horrible for Leonardo to be looking at him like that. Still, if he looked half as bad as he felt, it was certainly warranted.
His sense of calm finally broke when the first cup of rice had gone spilling in a hopeless arc across the floor, grains crunching slightly under his bare feet. That was it, one small calamity and it ruined the careful balance he'd managed to keep going. The hopelessness of the whole scenario had finally gone crashing down on his shoulders: the quickly crumbling stability of their life, the death he hadn't even accepted yet, and the potential for more just lying there on the couch.
For a while, his thoughts were nonsense, fragments and shards of past and potential future. His hands shook, useless at trying to brush the rice into a manageable pile, nothing in their life was manageable. While his mind sent desperate flashes of mikey, splinter at him, his unsteady hands searched for a broom he couldn't find. It didn't help, his own traitorous brain flung grief at him in handfuls until he sat at a chair, overcome with it. Moments like this were the worst, and they almost always happened alone. He could have driven it off if Raphael had been in there, distracting him with his loudness and immediacy, or Leonardo with the sense of solidity he could give. But not alone.
Really, it was better he was being found out.
The whole damn place felt off-kilter, like the floor was at an angle and the walls had caved in. "I spilled the rice," he told Leonardo, and his voice sounded horrible, dry and choked-off. It wasn't about the rice at all and he knew it.
Something more painful and personal than sympathy was in his brother's eyes. "Oh, Donnie…" he sighed, coming closer, hesitantly laying a hand on his upper arm. Leonardo was not often physically affectionate, the most reserved of his brothers, and right now it was patently clear that he only had half a clue of what he was doing. He didn't even pat him on the arm, just lay his hand there as though he was trying to keep him steady, and Donatello focused on the warmth there for a moment before finally letting the tears loose.