two deaths, more to come

(Originally posted in two parts, September and November 2004, merged and slightly edited March 2006.)

When you go to a concert, people who work for the venue sell you the t-shirts, but on some tours you have separate people who sell posters (sometimes just after the show) or glowlights (for teen and kid tours, often walking the crowd with a bucket), among other things. It’s a type of selling that building people really don’t want to deal with, so you have people who travel to do it. I’m one of those people.

Every year I swear I won’t go tour again; every tour, I swear this is my last one. I tell myself I have to live completely off my photography. I tell myself I’m too old for this. And while I may be too old for this, I do not yet live completely off my photography, and every year, I go out and work some shows. This year was looking sort of dry; tour after tour was having bad sales, didn’t need people, wasn’t worth being away from home. One tour for grownups was supposed to be good and then wasn’t, but a few weeks in the boss had a personal emergency and he had to go home; it would mean a few weeks off the road. Could I go out, take over for him, finish the tour?

It wouldn’t be much money but running shows for the poster company was better than just being a vendor, and there were brownie points to be earned. Plus, while it wasn’t much money, it was money, which I really needed. Additionally, I was promised two nights vending on a profitable teen tour at the end. Good enough. It was at the start of that gig I wrote the strange land entry.

That tour was super smooth; easy shows, easy work, nice crew; the not great money came from slow sales, which made checking merch in, selling, checking merch up, and packing things up a piece of cake. My coworker and I hit a lot of Waffle Houses and told stories and took it easy. He’s older than I am, from Europe, and when not on tour lives in the Philippines. He has good stories.

Our last show was in Nashville. I lived there, with my father, when I was sixteen. I recovered from being mangled by a car there, with my father, when I was twenty-five. Six months later, I went there to see my father in an intensive care unit. We had a few minutes in the morning, as he wrote notes instead of talked, because of a tube in his throat. We had a half hour or so in the evening, with the tube out and him doing a bit better. Six hours later, he was gone.

I have mixed feelings about Nashville.

I guess to be fair, it’s not the town. It’s unresolved issues – some in the real world, some in my head, some in my heart – about what happened there. But even if it’s not Love Canal’s fault it’s toxic, you don’t really want to be there.

**

We had a long drive to the teen tour; the tour we were on hadn’t sold many tickets in Nashville, and we knew sales would be extra slow and the money extra low. My coworker agreed working the show didn’t seem worth it, and so we settled up with the tour, turned in our merch, and blew out of Nashville less than two hours after we got there, and we managed to spend nearly all that time in an underground loading dock. I didn’t really get to see anything of Nashville, and Nashville didn’t get to really see anything of me. It seemed right.

Through a series of unlikely events I am too baffled to explain here (and while they’re a pretty amusing story, are a bit off the point) I ended up running that teen tour for a few weeks for the poster company. I wanted to go home and see my little girl but this gig was worth some serious money, and pans and pans of brownie points. The tour took us back to Nashville just a week or so later.

This time I was in a different mental state and the whole thing seemed doable. That mental state was total and utter exhaustion. The serious money came from serious work; the tour was much bigger than anything I’d run shows for before. There were six of us on the road, and we were breaking company records for grosses. In Chicago the crowd mobbed one of our poster tables so badly they pushed it nearly back against the wall. In Indianapolis parents were forming lines out on the concourse to buy glowlights from people with buckets, and when my sellers ran out of lights and ran back to get more, they’d return to find the line not only still there, but longer. For a bucket. That wasn’t even there for a few minutes. The tour was moving fast and we had to spend a long part of every day prepping the huge quantity of stuff we were selling, and then we spent all night working harder than we’d ever worked at a show. The road was a blur of dotted yellow lines. Venues were a blur of seats and kids. Cities barely registered at all.

The few moments to stop and breathe were after shows, in Waffle Houses and Steak N Shakes and an all-night Arby’s in a truck stop. But a Waffle House is a Waffle House and while I remember nearly every visit distinctly (remind me later to tell you about the cook whose name badge said his name was “Hoss” and that his job title was “Morale Officer”) I couldn’t begin to tell you what state any of them were in. Even the venue we were playing, while owned by people my dad worked for, didn’t exist when I lived there, and thus was unable to bring any baggage to the gig: it was a venue like all the others. Seats and kids. Since all my time in Nashville would be an exhausted fever dream of work in a new, ghost-free building, I figured I’d be okay. Count, sell, sell, sell, leave – I could handle this trip to Nashville.

Things were going pretty swimmingly; the building had one set of entrance doors that was 90% of the traffic, and so those of us selling on buckets could pretty much just stand there after the doors opened and before the show started and sell tons of stuff. My two top bucket sellers ran out of stuff and went to reload, and I moved to a central spot in front of the doors and held up my sample glowlights and yelled once what I had: “Glowlights! Photos! Badges!”

That’s all the pirana needed; in moments I was mobbed. A DJ on stage had just mentioned the glowlights and every kid instantly demanded their parents get them one and mostly, it works. (Yes, I sometimes feel a little bad selling crap like this, but hey, they took the kid to the show in the first place.) When this rush hits, you almost never get to even look up; money is thrust at you, and every moment is spent asking how many, cracking glowlights, handing over change. If someone is holding a five sometimes you don’t even say a word, you just trade the money in their hand for a glowlight and keep going. I never really put a timer on it but I bet that sometimes you’re doing as many as a dozen sales every minute.

This was one of those minutes. All I saw was glowlights, cash, hands, cash, glowlights, hands. It’s a bit of a rush, a natural drug, working so fast. The blur comes on; it’s just like the night before in Indianapolis, or the night before that in Missouri, or any other night.

Except.

Until.

Like a typewriter I go left to right across the hands in front of me, trading money for lights as fast as possible. I turned back to my left to start a new line, saw a twenty — “How-many?”-”Three” — my question and his reply almost all one word, things are going so fast, and as I crack three glowlights, I see above the rim of my bucket an embroidered logo on his shirt. It’s a shirt for St. Thomas Hospital.

Oh. Shit.

My train hit a cardiac bypass pump and derailed. I was back in Los Angeles, getting a phone call on a warm spring afternoon from one of my dad’s co-writers, a person who had never called me before. I was back at LAX, trying to catch the last afternoon flight to Nashville and failing, because of sunspots screwing up satellite communication and the airline was unable to charge my credit card. I was begging the gate agents to pick up the phone and verify things by phone, but they almost couldn’t be bothered to do anything. My father is dying, can’t you help me. Shrug. My father is dying, can’t you help me. Sorry. My father is dying, can’t you pick up the phone. There are lots of people trying to call, we don’t have time. There is no pilot here yet, the plane is late, the gate is open. We don’t have time. Everyone else has boarded, we’re waiting, why don’t you have time. Sorry. My father is dying, please can’t you help me go see him.

No, was the answer. I stared at the plane for nearly an hour after when it was supposed to leave. Eventually a pilot arrived, the plane left. I’d gotten to the airport in record time, able to catch the last flight even if it had left early, but sunspots and a staff that didn’t have any power, any caring, or any enthusiasm for their job was unable to get me on the plane.

(Once when traveling with L. and our young baby and a car seat and a stroller and a camera bag and a computer bag and a diaper bag, I lost a paper ticket with fourteen minutes to go before departure. Two employees helped me search, all the way back to and on the other side of security, and managed to get another ticket arranged and all the lap baby paperwork done and get us on the plane. I know that people can work for a corporation, and understand customers and people and that their business, their livelihood, comes from helping people get to where they need to go. Thank you, Southwest Airlines. I know that people can becomes cogs in a corporate machine, a machine that is about profit, a machine that demands pay cuts from pilots and mechanics while secretly promising executives larger golden parachutes if the company goes bankrupt, a machine that thinks its core business is about managing its aircraft leases. Fuck you, American Airlines.)

I got the midnight flight out by paying cash, and spent a few hours at dawn in an empty Dallas airport waiting for a connecting flights. I realized that years ago my dad came through this same airport on his way to see his father, who was in a hospital and dying. Dad was too late; his father died while he was on the way. Everything in the airport was closed and I could not get any food or a newspaper or any sort of distraction and all I could think was history is going to repeat itself, history is repeating itself. A solar storm confused a chunk of wires in orbit and delayed me getting to Nashville by ten hours and in those ten hours my dad will die. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.

But.

Except.

He was not dead. He was in the ICU. A machine was breathing for him. A machine was acting as his heart. He was clearly not feeling all that hot. But there he was. My brother’s flight had come in at about the same time and we had come together to the hospital, and dad rolled his eyes when he saw us. He twisted the pen he was holding so it was over a notepad, and he drew a question mark.

“Dad, they said it was really bad.”

He wrote SO?

He was clearly not feeling all that hot, but he was still dad.

**

Looking back I can tell that the doctor’s hopeful words really didn’t match his thoughts. Yes, it’s true, everyone was amazed dad had made it through the night; they were more amazed he’d made it through two nights. This heart attack had been Sunday night, I was called Monday afternoon, and now it was Tuesday evening. It was also true everyone was amazed he was off the ventilator and talking to us, and that there’s clearly been no brain damage during all this, as he was his usual sardonic self. He was giving work to his co-writer to do, but said it wasn’t a strain to discuss as he wouldn’t be the one doing it. He made a flirty joke to the nurse. He asked me to get an extension form for his taxes, which were due the next day. The doctor said this was all remarkable, and if dad would stabilize a bit more, they could put him on the heart list. There was a bit of hope. Dad still thought we wasted a lot of money flying on no notice, but he said quietly that since we were there anyway, he would enjoy the time and was glad we were there. He squeezed my hand when he said it. The fear he was hiding so well, the fear buried deep in his eyes I could only see because I was his son, I could feel when he took my hand in his.

I should have known the doctor’s optimism also had fear, because they let us stay in the ICU more than twice as long as a visit is usually allowed. Maybe, if you are a heart doctor, after a while, you don’t have much optimism, just a script.

**

My brother and I took dad’s keys and went to his house. We got dad’s car, and left mom at a motel with the rental car. (She and dad hadn’t really spoken in years, and she didn’t go into the ICU with us, not that she didn’t want to, but because she was sure he wouldn’t want her to; she was there to support her children. I don’t think he knew she was in Nashville. I’m sure I thanked her at the time, but thinking about it again now, I want to call and thank her again, but it’s 3.36am right now.) At that time my brother and I weren’t on the best of terms, and we hadn’t been talking much for a while. We rarely visited Dad at the same time; we liked to do different things, we lived on opposite sides of the country, and I guess we both liked to have Dad as much to ourselves as possible. It felt odd to be there together, and it felt odd to be in his house without him there. We watched some cable; my brother let me sit in Dad’s chair. Six months before Dad had gone to Toronto and gotten me from a hospital there; while on a tour I’d been hit by a car and I couldn’t drive stick with my leg in a cast. I was much more of a mess than that, really; my leg was in fourteen or so pieces and it was being held together with a rod and screws inside. The bone had actually come out of my leg, which is a really odd thing to feel. I had loose teeth, my own bite marks in my tongue, staples in my head, a twisted ankle, cracked ribs. I’d rolled all the way over the car, taking out its windshield and its passenger side mirror both; I was conscious through the entire thing but I’m still not totally sure how I did that. I spent two weeks in Dad’s chair watching cable, getting hooked on NYPD Blue reruns as dad made me ham sandwiches and brought glasses of orange juice. He got two weeks to be someone’s parent again, and I got two weeks to be someone’s child again. Looking back, even though that car could have easily killed or paralyzed me, I wouldn’t trade those two weeks for anything.

Neither my brother or I could deal with going into dad’s room, so we both slept in the guest room; I slept on the floor and my brother slept on the same futon we’d both been sleeping on for years. We talked, like we hadn’t in a long time. Sometimes light things, about Star Wars or one of our other few shared interests; sometimes about visits to dad. But never the what if; never planning anything. He’s just not very sentimental and is sometimes overly practical; I’m superstitious and had no interest in jinxing the future by even thinking about it.

Didn’t matter.

After we finally fell asleep – 1.30am maybe – the phone rang. We were so groggy we missed it the first time. The second try we answered. The hospital said dad’s heart had taken off over the machine, beating very fast, and they were having trouble getting it to slow down. No, we shouldn’t go over there yet, no point. They’d call again. For forty-five minutes we tried to sleep and not talk and we failed on both points. When the phone rang again I screamed at it to stop ringing, as though that would change things. Okay, they said, now maybe you should come over here.

We dressed fast, and I remember as I was putting on my shoes hoping dad wouldn’t be mad we drove his car. The parkway was deserted as we headed to the hospital, and I was uncomfortable in the seat. My car was small and zippy and utilitarian and this one was…. dad’s.

As we entered the ICU we could see the light was off in the far corner room. Even as the doctor was walking towards me I remember thinking: where did they move him?

The doctor may have been doing this so long he lacks optimism, but he had an excellent script: dad’s heart had been going very fast, and they could not get it to slow down; after a while there was guaranteed brain damage from the prolonged low blood pressure the fast heart created, and then it was over, and you come from a family with a history of heart disease and you need to make sure you are getting enough of these vitamins and antioxidants. I’ve put a comma in there but I don’t think the doctor even paused for breath between the thoughts. He’s gone you need to take care of yourself. Smart, I thought even in that moment, and I still think now. It’s the same coin, there should be no break between them.

I was twenty five; my brother was twenty two; our father was fifty four. It was too soon. It was, I think, not even four in the morning; it was too early. Let everyone else sleep a few more hours; nothing was going to change now.

**

There’s more to the story, but that’s already longer than I meant to be right now. Certainly, it didn’t all come back to me in the detail and time you have reading it. I lived all this, and a rush of memories crashing into the logo on that shirt took no time; the circuits in our head can be faster than any computer. Everything was so quick and so jumbled that thinking back now I remember looking up at the man in the shirt and thinking it’s the doctor, I am selling the doctor three glowlights, and he is wondering if I’ve been getting my antioxidants. I cannot tell now if I really thought it was the doctor then, or if that came to me later. But I also cannot tell you one hundred percent that it wasn’t him.

I got through the next few transactions and then I had a lull for a moment. My internal map was forcibly shifting from the generic – seats, kids, glowlights – to the specific. Dad and I used to eat up the street at this place and over there was a record store we went to all the time, and we lived over on that street. And down the street right in front of me, bear right, go a few miles, and there on the right is the hospital. I felt blindsided, I felt cheated. I wanted to sit on the floor, I wanted to cry, I wanted to see him again, I wanted to rewind. But I didn’t, I shouldn’t, I can’t, I wouldn’t. Blur it out. It’s just another venue. It’s just another show. You need this money. You could be in any city. I cracked a few glowlights, put them between my fingers as a display, held up my hand, and yelled. “Glowlights! Photos! Badges!”? Yelled, but without enthusiasm.

I was not in any city. I was in Nashville, and I wanted to be in Boise. I wanted to get home. I wanted to hold my baby, watch her learn to walk, give myself a chance to be her dad, give her a chance to be my kid. As good as the money was, I’d been out weeks past my due date, and I decided I wouldn’t let them get away with any more extensions. I’d agreed to four more shows and that was that.

**

Four more shows, and that was that. Problems and delays meant I caught my flight out of Orlando with just minutes to spare. I’d not slept after the show the night before and I fell asleep so quickly I don’t remember taking off. I either changed planes or just waited for a bit in Houston, and I also don’t remember takeoff. In Las Vegas I was going to have delays because the President had just flown in and there were groundstops in effect, so I called home to let L. know what was up. She told me that in the paper that morning was a big story about two nights before, right about last call, R. had been standing on the sidewalk in front of his bar, talking to a customer. A white SUV missed the curve in Main Street right in front of the bar, gone up on the sidewalk, hit R. from behind and killed him. Then the SUV left. I don’t know many people in Boise and I rarely get to see or talk to any of them, but R. was one of them, and a few months ago I’d stopped in his bar very briefly to say hi. He showed me a picture of his daughter on his cellphone; she was only two months old and I’d not seen him since she’d been born. I am thirty two; R. was thirty. My daughter is sixteen months; R’s daughter is now four months. None of the deaths in my life have ever been of anyone younger than I am, and now here’s someone younger than me with a daughter younger than my daughter. And I was feeling so happy and balanced before this.

(To pile on the mess, the man who did this was also a parent of a young child, who was out of the country with his mother, visiting grandparents. The man realized what he did, probably the next day when it was on the news, and killed himself.)

R. was buried up north on his tribal lands, in a tribal ceremony, but the week after there was a memorial ceremony in the gym at his old high school here in town. He’d played football for them and had been very popular, and a bar manager is always popular. Bring together people from all his walks of life, and there were nearly four hundred people at the ceremony; the bleachers were completely full. If I died tomorrow I’d probably not get ten people at my service, and that was humbling. I need to make a bit more of an impact with my life.

I got there right at start time, hadn’t expected that large of a crowd, and ended up (with many latecomers) standing along the wall near the door. At one point his daughter started crying, and a family member took her from her mother, put her on his shoulder, and headed towards the door to go outside to soothe the baby. Walking did the trick before they even left, so he stopped just short of the door and rocked a bit with the baby. The speaker cried through stories of football and R. teaching him how to sneak off campus without being caught and how happy he’d been to be a new father, and ten feet from me his baby was on someone’s shoulder, a bit sad and a bit mad but at being tired or hungry or something other than what was going on in the room. She had no idea what was going on, or why, and would have no idea who her father was except maybe a dim feeling she can’t put a face or a voice or a touch to. I resisted the urge to leave in the middle and go home and immediately pick up my baby. The man with the shoulder turned a bit in his swaying, and the baby looked right at me, for over a minute. I tried not to, but I started crying, both from the baby looking at me and, finally, from the shirt I’d seen in Nashville the week before.

**

A few days after the memorial service for R., my baby fell.

Nobody saw it happen. I was dealing with a tight deadline with a potentially huge new client and was at the film lab. Some coworkers from a tour road crew were on my couch drinking coffee; others were still asleep outside in an RV parked close enough to the rose bushes that if you weren’t paying attention as you got out of the vehicle the thorns would wake you up in a hurry, but even from out there they could hear the cries after it happened.

L. was leaning over the tub drawing the baby a bath and thus was facing away from the baby standing right behind her when she heard the awful thunk. She turned and the baby had fallen hard on the back of her head, and was. not. happy.

The baby had calmed down a bit by the time I was back from the lab, but was still crying some, a bit oddly, and was very clingy. We called the doctor and asked some questions and answered some questions and they said it would be okay to put the baby down for a nap but to keep an eye on her. My coworkers left to work a show and I went back to work on my pictures.

Since the baby had learned to pull herself up, in the morning or after a nap she’d be standing expectantly at the end of her crib, staring at the door, bouncing in excitement when you opened it to come in and pick her up. This time when L. went in to get her, she was just lying there. Looking at us but just lying there. L. called me in and we tried to see if the baby would walk, something she’d been doing, very proudly if unsteadily, constantly for a month or so.

She cried and fell down.

We moved to the hallway, L. at one end and me with the baby at the other. L. called to her – come to mommy, baby – but the baby tried and failed, crying and staggering to the left into the wall.

Oh. Shit.

It was a cry of frustration, of not understanding, of despair, and it tore at my heart, letting the panic flood everywhere.

We called the doctor again, who at first said to bring her right in, but after hearing about the staggering, said to go directly to the emergency room – the baby was probably going to need a CT scan and so we’d end up there anyway.

Oh. No.

We rushed off as quickly as we could, trying not to panic. We knew intellectually she would probably be okay – she fell only from her own little height, on to a linoleum floor and not something pointy and not something concrete. Something probably just hurt in her leg and she was just too little to tell us. But when you see your fifteen month old stagger while trying to walk and careen into a wall, the rational thought drowns before it can really surface.

We’ve been to that emergency room twice before in the last eighteen months. (Also once after these events, and it was because around the iris my right eye was completely red with blood, which even the old ER doctor thought looked really cool. But that’s a story for later.)

The first time was when L. went into labor. We weren’t sure at first it was labor. Was that a contraction? You’re asking me? How would I know? We looked in the Expecting book and did the geeky thing and hopped on the internet, trying different search phrases in Google trying to figure out if this was real. I can’t believe I just admitted to that. We decided available evidence was inconclusive … until she went to the bathroom and her water broke while she was there. It was a weeknight, near one in the morning, and the streets downtown were deserted. I turned on the radio to pretend this was just another drive downtown and waited impatiently at a red light that pointlessly let another light be green for like ten blocks of zero cars. (I have a theory about how traffic lights are timed by either monkeys or superdolphins. Remind me to elaborate.) I debated treating the light like a stop sign and going ahead, partially so I could live a cliche if I got stopped. Officer, we’re having a baby! Officer, she’s in labor! Could we get an escort?

I bet in this smallish town, that could work.

But I waited for green, dropped L. at the emergency room door and went to park the car. Everything went about as smoothly as possible and more quickly than imaginable; so quickly the doctor nearly didn’t make it in to deliver, so quickly there was no time for an epidural. Boom! Here’s your kid. Four hours and twenty minutes from first contraction to birth. (Yes, a first kid. The doctor recommended we just leave for the delivery room as soon as we know she’s pregnant with kid two, since they tend to be even faster.) It wasn’t a “real” emergency room visit; it was a pit stop on the way to L&D, a trip we knew was coming. It was just the door you go in.

Trip two was for L. about two months later. She’d been having pain in her back that came and went, starting as an irritant but pushing towards debilitating. The baby was still fairly nocturnal and we were making a fairly routine midnight visit to Walmart. We were driving home when she nearly shouted with pain. I had to pull over and she vomited out of the car. We continued on and she said as soon as we got home she wanted to call Ask-A-Nurse. We pulled into the driveway and she said she wanted to sit in the car while I call Ask-A-Nurse. I opened the door, set groceries down on the rug, and picked up the phone book. She shouted from the car – forget calling, let’s go. I left the groceries.

We didn’t think she was about to die – I asked which ER she wanted and the one were the baby was born was further but was her choice – but the pain must have been out of control for her to want to go at all. After all, this is a woman who two months before had a eight and a half pound baby without an epidural. On the drive she made me promise to take care of the baby if anything happened to her. If you have an inherent touch of paranoia you say things like that, even though you know you don’t have to, as though somehow it helps to ward off trouble.

I think I got stopped at the same traffic light again. Damn monkeys.

They (the ER doctors, not the monkeys) were pretty sure almost immediately it was her gall bladder, and it didn’t take much longer to confirm it, explain that it had to come out and start to sort out what to do about it. Yet another story to get into later: the fun that is being only partially insured and how very, very broken the system is.

She spent a night at the hospital after her surgery, and I had to take care of a breast-fed two month old that was completely not happy about the concept of formula. The thought of if something went wrong and L. was gone – we’ve both got that touch of paranoia – was one of the scariest things I’ve ever felt. I had no idea how or even if I could take care of an infant on my own. I try not to get in over my head, and here I was way over my head and I got there just by living. Great.

Back to this third trip to the ER, with the staggering baby.

Just like our previous visit, the doctors were quickly very calming. It’s hard with a patient who can’t talk yet to know exactly what’s wrong, but one nice thing about little kids is that if something hurts they just won’t use it, unlike us idiot adults who will play through the pain and reinjure ourselves, deciding the game or the meeting or the job is more important. Okay, perhaps if, say, you’re the Red Sox, and you can win the World Series for the first time in one billion years, I can understand playing with your muscles stapled or something to your ankle, but usually, we’re just sorta dumb about that and stay hurt. But not little kids. The doc didn’t think he saw any signs of neurological problems, that it’s probably a sprain, and to fall from her own height not onto something concretey or pointy shouldn’t cause anything worse, and we started to feel a bit better. He said he’d do x-rays and a CT scan to be sure, of course, and maybe he just said stuff to calm us down, but hey, it worked. ER doctors rock. They should time the traffic lights, too, so everyone could benefit from their superdolphin-like powers without having to be hurt.

We started to feel a bit guilty about freaking out so much, even about being in the ER at all, but not too guilty: better safe than sorry, of course, and this is not one of those overloaded urban ER’s where there really are probably forty people waiting behind us who are urgent. I went home very briefly to try to work on the pictures – this client could really have been that important to us financially, and sometimes you have to be practical – and then forty minutes later I went back to the hospital – practical often loses. Hit that light again. I hate the traffic monkeys.

When I got back into the ER room they’d already done the x-ray. As you might expect of superdolphins, the x-rays were really high-tech; they wheel in a machine and take the pictures right there in your ER room, and then you can see them on a computer monitor outside. The x-ray checking computer was actually right outside our room – we were sort of at the end of a row, tucked a little bit back in a quiet spot – and as I walked up I could see the inside of my kid’s hip and leg up on the screen. Nothing looked broken, so in all probability if her little head was okay too it was just a sprain.

They gave the baby a sedative to try to get her to sleep so they could do a CT scan and we waited nearly an hour for her to get tired. The lights were off and light filtered into the room from the baby’s x-ray, still on the monitor outside, and from the operations desk a bit down the hall. We talked quietly about things I can’t remember.

Soon a doctor and a middle-aged woman came up to the baby x-ray and the doctor changed the picture to someone’s head CT scan. Evidently her mother had had a massive stroke, and as the doctor digitally scrolled through slices of the mother’s head a massive dark cloud was visible on the right side of her brain. It was huge. We felt even guiltier about how worried we’d been, even though we know better safe than sorry.

More and more family members came to view pictures of the mushroom cloud of a blood clot, and the alcove in front of us filled up with people. At one point someone looked at us and closed the sliding glass door of our room, either for their privacy or because we were trying to have a sleeping baby, I don’t know, but we could still hear through the glass. The doctor said he had seen patients who had recovered from something like this without surgery and regained everything. He’s seen it twice, in twenty-five years. They could do brain surgery, and she’d live, but she’d not ever regain her speech or much in the way of motor skills. They could not do surgery, and sooner or sooner pneumonia would set in, and she’d probably be dead within two weeks. Probably two or three hours earlier the daughter – and the rest of the family – had been deciding what to have for lunch, and now they were being asked to decide something else.

The baby got drowsy and we were taken to radiology for the CT scan. We put on lead and they strapped our baby onto a little cradle that slides in and out of the CT machine, and we tried not to cry as we looked at our wounded infant about to go into this huge machine. The scanners on the machine started to spin and the sedative immediately lost any effect it had and the baby, fascinated by the spinning thing, kept grabbing at the glass and going “ooooo!”. Eventually another nurse came out and put on lead and climbed up on the sliding thing with a bubble blower to try to distract the baby and get her to lie still for a minute. Soon the CT room was full of bubbles and an “ooooooo!”-ing baby and parents laughing nervously through tears.

They sort of got enough scans to assembling a moderately complete view and decided everything looked okay, but we’d guessed as much when she started acting like her normal little explorer self in radiology. We felt super-guilty for being more safe than sorry. We’re both paranoid and silly. We waited in our little ER room for the doctor to view the CT scans and clear us. The extended family of the stroke victim went in and out of the little ER room next to ours. They talked in the hall in little groups, perhaps talking themselves into doing whatever they know is the right thing to do but didn’t come with enough courage to do, perhaps just talking about the weather or last weekend’s football. It sounded like the family matriarch wouldn’t want the surgery, and maybe there weren’t any decisions to really make.

Once I was in Chicago on a beautiful summer day and walking from my hotel to the lake, stopped at a light under the El tracks, and stuck on the track support was a phrase from a magnetic poetry set. It said simply LET IT GO. I saw it for just a moment before the light changed, but that moment is what I remember best about that trip, and not just because I have a picture of it. Some things in life are easy even if they’re scary: the kid is hurt, you call the doctor, you go to the ER, you do tests. There is some comfort in the procedure, a bit of calm in the ritual. But it doesn’t always go smoothly. Friends are hit by cars on the street and killed, leaving young children. Fathers have heart attacks in their bathtub and die. The superdolphins cannot stop a car from being a weapon. The doctors and machines cannot fix a heart that is giving up. You get flashes in your head, flashes of your daughter, grown, fighting an airline to come to see you before you die. You have an image of your children having to say pull the plug. As you move from child to father you realize your turn isn’t as far off as you thought. One of my favorite quotes (I cannot find the attribution right now, but I think it was Seneca) is:

“Death twitched my ear. ‘Live,’ he said, ‘for I am coming.’”

And I try, I try, I try. But I don’t know how to just live. I don’t know how to just let anything go. I try to just be here now, but I can always see that light filtering from down the hall. I can still feel my father’s fear in my hand. I’ve gotten in way over my head, just by living. I know that door is the door you have to go through, and I hate it.

 


This was published on 18 Nov 2004.
A permalink to this post: two deaths, more to come.

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