Mary Schmich was right back in 1997.
A commencement speech written for the Chicago Tribune, and soon to be adapted and presented (and relentlessly parodied!) as “The Sunscreen Song”; a five minute long, spoken word song that hit #1 in the UK as well as a number of other countries declared the simple things in life are the most precious. These things I can now confirm that are affecting me, now in the mid-thirties, more so than when I first heard them way back in 1999.
Primarily it’s the knees, I do indeed miss them.
The worst soothsaying factoid comes at the beginning. Worrying. Or, more accurately the fact that the “real” worries in your life come exactly the time you least expect them, from a direction you will never be able to predict or prepare for. It’s no good tensing your stomach muscles, life will just adapt and kick you in the teeth. It’s very good at that, its record is perfect and as Rocky so eloquently declared a few years ago in his flawed swan song of a movie, no one hits harder.
I’ve never been hit like that. Never personally anyway. Which probably is some sort of damning indictment at how linear and boring my life is at the moment. I’ve never been to prison, had to sneak across borders, got it on with strangers in dingy club toilets or woken up on strange beds/floors/couches not knowing who or where I am. I think too much, which in turn makes me the straight, upstanding thorough member of the gang, the one who plans ahead, brings an arsenal, rescues everybody and makes tea at 3am for us all. The getaway driver; we can’t afford to be vacant, we’re detail obsessive, which given my real job as an operating room nurse is often more of a boon than I realise.
I was only a teenager when I got my first midnight phone call. 5am. 5am phone calls are never good. When my mom came to wake me I already knew in my heart what she was going to say. My grandfather had passed, zayde was dead. 13 years old these days is nothing, you’re expected to vote, have at least one sexual experience (if the media are to be believed) and have multiple social media profiles with accompanying friend pages and everything else. We didn’t have the internet then (can I say “Back in the Day”?) and my parents promptly left a few minutes later to drive to the hospital where my grandfather was being cared for to begin the paperwork fiasco we all must endure whenever a family member dies.
I remember being very quiet that day, sitting alone in the family home, not really able to process what had happened. A few days later at his house I asked for my first cigarette, my mom obliging as we sat in his now vacant house, on the back bench, watching the perpetual ant infestation do its thing.
It didn’t seem real; the world felt like it had lost a layer of depth, the tone of everything seeming slightly more washed out than usual; faded, weary, numb and disinteresting in continuing. But things did continue. Because life has a funny way of forcing the issue. There was the funeral, my mom and I going to the funeral home to see my grandfather for the last time, the arrangements to be made for the auction of the furniture, the selling of the house, the end. I went back to school a few days later.
I got my second midnight phone call the Sunday before last.
I never have the cell phone in my bedroom, and I didn’t register the landline wailing having been sleep for almost an hour when it went off.
But something got me up. My lack of social life means very few people call me late on a Sunday night, the following day always a heavy one so I’d gone to bed quickly following the football that night.
Check the mobile. 3 missed calls.
My stomach feels numb, bottomless. The caller ID on the landline is the same number.
I call back and get my father. My mom just left in the ambulance. They’re coming to the hospital where I work; symptoms are intense vomiting, blood, fever. I tell him I’ll meet him in the ER.
What do you wear in this situation? What’s the dress code, can someone tell me????
Pushing the panic away I grab whatever’s to hand. Which turned out to be jeans, boots, a Steelers PJ top that I wear as a tunic but occasionally is worn as name suggests and a puffa jacket, also Steelers. I look like I should be attending the game at Heinz Field, heaven knows what the Bristol NHS would make of it but right now that side of my brain isn’t working.
My hands were shaking with adrenaline, half from being woken, the hear accelerating from its comfortable nadir to a steady 100 bpm, half from the reason behind it. I didn’t think the worst, purposefully stopping my nursing head running its own worse-case scenario and diagnostic over what the problem might be.
Living so close I beat my father to the ER. I even beat the ambulance. There’s nothing more confusing to get the desk of an A&E dept and tell them that a patient they’re supposed to have is coming, but not there yet and can I see her please. You’re asking to see someone that isn’t in the building at the time you ask. It sounds like Ealing farce, but I’d bet it happens more often in A&E’s than anyone’d admit.
Eventually my dad arrives with a holdall of things. My mom’s in resus. The time is now midnight but the A&E is far from quiet. People come in sporadically. Some wearing sport kit, ankles and wrists ballooned and swathed in icepacks. Others with no visual injury, obviously doing the same as we are: waiting for loved ones who caught their own private ambulances to the resus room.
I stand like an androgynous cowboy, not a scrap of makeup, bleary eyed and worried. When we do get ushered in to see mom she’s better, cannulated, conscious, cold and happy that the IV paracetamol is finally hitting the pain where it needs to. Now we wait to see the doctor.
I stay with them both for an hour before leaving to get coffee for the both of us.
It’s a weird place at night, this hospital. Many of the lights run off motion sensors, so you’ll be walking in the darkness for a few seconds before the circuits connect and everything is cast in this eerie penumbra of soft light and shadow, the latter being still as a tomb. The hospital itself was modled off the airport gate system, but airports are rarely quiet. Now it’s just me and hazy neon zone signs. A different letter and colour for each, combined with the flora and fauna I feel like Katy Perry wandering around in the Roar video. No one was on the main atrium floor that late. The only people moving around were the cleaners, the night staff and the relatives trying to find drinkable coffee.
The first time I get some from the public coffee machine, but it’s bilge.
The second time I go up to the staff canteen, locked behind carded doors they acquiesce for anyone who has the proper security. Which I do. The exact same brand of coffee but actually hot it fills a hole while we wait.
While I’m foraging for this illicit caffeine I stop by the sanctuary. The non-denomination specific place of worship, prayer and quiet reflection all new British hospitals have these days. It’s unlocked and vacant, still even for a chapel. Look about the place, through the prayer books but can’t find a siddur [Jewish prayer book] at all, which is a shame because I used to see them fairly frequently in both hospital sites which formed the parent sites for this one.
Going back to the resus I sit and watch the clock slowly turn as the hours slop by. 1am to 2am, to 3am. No windows, nothing to show us the sky or the rain bucketing down. Finally the doctor comes and examines my mom, while my dad sits in the corner reading a motorbike magazine. He’s just as worried as I am but this is his way of coping, I don’t judge him for that.
The doctor does many examinations, primarily around my mom’s abdomen which is distended and painful. An ECG came back normal and the lack of severe pain discounts my own rudimentary concern that the diagnoses could be an aneurysm.
My own major concern was a bowel injury, possibly an ileus. I don’t tell my mom any of this, but the images of her with a midline having her guts operating on refuses to leave my mind. Especially when I imagine some of the lower GI surgeons we have working for the trust, and the fact that I wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the operating theatre, all of this pecks at my resolve but I say nothing. Fortunately the doc prods my mom’s belly and it gurgles. Good gastric motility, not an ileus.
Finally, after another hour and a half, a trip to the x-ray suite and a pee sample the doc confirms that it is probably severe gastric enteritis. An infection, possibly due to bad food or poor hand hygiene (though both of these I doubt because my mom washes her hands thoroughly any chance she gets) has got into the gut and made it unhappy. We were free to leave as soon as we were able to.
We left that day, and to be fair what we saw from this new super-hospital, with all its well-documented problems was an effective, efficient building with dedicated staff operating to the best of their ability.
My mom would be fine, as I write this she’s still tired but getting back to full speed, and I think I handled the situation to the best of my ability. I hope I did. I hope I will when these circumstances come again, because they will, it’s a mathematical certainty. And the day will come when the outcome will not be positive. That’s not pessimism merely realism talking, I am a nurse after all.
It’s funny, the entertainment world is currently experiencing a run on apocalypse dramas (zombies in particular), but those instances when “the real troubles in your life, those apt to be ones that haven’t crossed your worried mind” hit, they’re the ones that punch the hardest. The phone calls at 5am.
Someone once said that none of us know our strength until we’re tested. It’s something all of us know, parents especially, but children as well; to take those shots and keep standing. Apathy feels nothing but love feels every little thing, it’s its greatest strength and its greatest weakness, its power and its kryptonite. I’m glad in a sense I experienced that evening, and I’m happier still the end result was positive. At the very least I know the routine, the feelings I need to suppress, and the route I need to take.
It was a good trial run, as well as a reminder to wear sunscreen.