After accident, nephew rebuilds life word by word


When a 21-year-old traumatic brain injury patient speaks for the first time, no one wants him to stop.

It doesn’t matter if — since the car accident — his brother Alejandro graduated high school, his Tia Xazmin got married, Osama bin Laden was killed, the sequel to his favorite movie (“Thor”) was greenlit. All that can wait if, for the first time in 22 months, Giuliano is speaking.

Everyone, including me, wanted my nephew to say this, say that. Leave it to his dad to request that he stop talking and start listening.

“Go at your own pace, son,” my brother told him. “It’s gonna take time. That’s OK. Just think of it as a building process. Think of it as your Legos.”

His Legos.

Before his accident, Giuliano’s parents grew accustomed to discovering “Harry Potter” castles, made entirely of those plastic toys, towering over their dinner table. His two brothers looked forward to the “Star Wars” spaceships, that took hours of toiling, landing in their living room.

That they came courtesy of the 20-year-old college student of the house only made them more fascinating. Not until he sustained severe brain damage did the buckets of Legos bring yet one more reminder of what their son and big brother couldn’t do anymore.

As of three weeks ago, we turned our thoughts to what he’ll do next.

I visited my family in Utah recently and drove straight to Giuliano’s care center. He was tired by the time I arrived in the late afternoon. To my utter disappointment, too tired to talk. To pass the time, his grandma — my mom — kept him entertained with music videos on her iPad.

“Doesn’t Justin Timberlake look good, mi’jo?” she asked with a girlish nudge.

“Ama!” I said, sucking my teeth first.

Her hormones didn’t bother me. In fact they made me optimistic about my own future. But why would she want a man to remark on another man’s ...

That’s when I remembered: Giuliano was gay. He came out his senior year of high school. A rainbow bumper sticker adorned the car he nearly died in. It had been so long, though, since I saw that side of him.

I looked at my nephew and wondered just how much had come back to him.

Before I could ponder it too long, in walked a nursing assistant who didn’t need a “Suit and Tie” to compete with JT’s looks. His scrubs were serving him, and the rest of that care center, just fine.

Jose was young, dark, handsome and, at least for that afternoon, responsible for one last task regarding my nephew.

It was shower time, he explained before wheeling Giuliano away. My nephew was visibly upset before Jose’s arrival. His feeding tube had yet to be administered. Hunger pains had set in.

They returned about 15 minutes later. Boy, he must have really needed that shower, my mom observed. Giuliano wore nothing but a hospital gown and a wide grin. That’s interesting, I thought.

After transferring him from wheelchair to bed, Jose asked Giuliano a question I couldn’t quite make out. But the answer forced me to stop my conversation with my mom, holding my finger up to indicate as much, and start paying attention to how my nephew was responding to the eye candy in the room.

“No.”

That’s all he said, but it was deep and loud and clear. And it was more than he’d said for me all afternoon.

“Blanket or no blanket?” Jose asked.

“Bl-an-ket,” he replied.

“Are you trying to say something?” Jose asked him. He got closer to Giuliano, but couldn’t understand him. He got closer still. “Oh, Giuliano, you’re so silly!” he said, laughing.

My mom and I exchanged glances. Naturally, we had to know what he said.

“Meow,” Jose told us.

To remember the high school he graduated from, which he does, is to recall a fact. To express his sexuality is to be himself again, not to mention pose a fine rebuttal against the ol’ “it’s a choice” theory.

Since my visit, he’s moved to a new care center, where there are more young people like him. He will have an individualized treatment plan that includes a job shredding paper five days a week.

Doctors had told Giuliano’s parents any and all progress would happen within one year following his accident. Nearly two years later, we couldn’t be more pleased with the inaccuracy of their prediction.

Before bidding his old place farewell, his mom asked if he had a crush on Jose. He confirmed our suspicions. He’s also remembering inside jokes and has added “hell no” to his vocabulary.

The Legos are stacking up lovely. Giuliano laid down his most colorful block when he found his words. Now, seven weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, we can’t wait to see what he’s going to build.

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.