Sunday, April 24, 2011

I was at a dinner the other night where people were telling horror stories about emergency rooms and paramedics.  A girl who'd had food poisoning talked about being ignored for six hours as she lay on a cot throwing up into a bucket, not given an IV or any fluids, because they thought she was just a kid strung out on drugs.  She'd ended up at a hospital in a bad neighborhood, apparently, and - according to another girl at the dinner - most of the people in the emergency room would have been kids strung out on drugs.  Still, I pointed out, they would have been kids strung out on drugs who needed help, and everyone nodded but they weren't really listening.  They kept talking about how incompetent and mean paramedics are, how emergency rooms don't help anyone.  And maybe they're right, for the most part.  But I had to leave the room for a minute, because it reminded me of my only experience with paramedics and emergency rooms.  

I would have been twenty-four.  It was springtime, probably just this time of year.  I was asleep and my phone kept ringing and I kept getting up and ignoring the call.  It was four in the morning and the call was from my close friend and former boyfriend, who was having trouble in his relationship with another woman.  But he kept calling back, and finally I answered it.  I think you'd better come over, he said.  So I got my car keys and, still in my pajamas, drove to his apartment less than a mile away.  When I got there, I could tell right away that he was drunk, but we talked for fifteen or twenty minutes - about the girl, how she'd left him for good, how he'd tried to stop her by force and scared himself with his own violence - before he told me about the pills he'd taken.  I told him we had to go to the hospital but he refused.  I pleaded, and argued, and bargained, but he kept saying no.  He went into his bedroom and I called 911 from my cell phone.  I couldn't give his address, though - he lived in a big apartment complex and, while I knew the name of the complex and his apartment number and exactly how to get there, they couldn't dispatch an ambulance without the exact street address.  I'd have to call back from the landline, I was told.  

My friend had taken his phone with him into his bedroom, and I was afraid of him, but I was more afraid of what would happen if I didn't do anything.  So I stormed the bedroom and wrestled the phone out of his hands.  I think he must have been fading then, or afraid of hurting me, because he was trying to fight me off and I wouldn't have been able to get it away from him if he'd been more coherent.  I ran back to the living room with the phone, dialing, and talked to the same dispatcher - this was a small town, a small emergency service area - and with the landline she could pinpoint my location, and then my friend came out of his room and was fighting for the phone back.

The paramedics came.  I don't remember how long it took.  My friend had gone back into his room and I was afraid to go back there.  There were men, it seemed like a lot of them, in heavy boots.  They went into his room and brought him out.  They all seemed much too big for the apartment.  I was sitting on the couch then, not really awake, and there were policemen who told me they needed a statement.  They needed to know who I was, why the drinking had started, who the other woman was.  His life - my life - our lives - seemed tawdry when I was telling it to an officer of the law at four-thirty in the morning.  I didn't have proof of anything.  I just knew what my friend had told me, which was that there had been a lot of alcohol and a lot of different kinds of pills.  I was afraid it wasn't really anything meriting an ambulance, that I'd wasted their time.

I hadn't wasted their time.  Outside - this must have been only a few minutes later - they were loading my friend's stretcher into an ambulance.  They asked him which hospital he wanted to go to and of course he didn't know.  I wouldn't have known either, and I wasn't nearly unconscious with an almost-lethal cocktail of drugs.  One of the paramedics took me aside and told me that he wasn't allowed to give advice, but if it was his friend lying on the stretcher, he'd want them to go to a particular clinic.  So I told my friend to request that clinic, and he did, and that's where the ambulance went.

I followed the ambulance.  I sat in the waiting room.  It was clean and quiet.  It wasn't like an emergency room on television, because this wasn't New York or Los Angeles.  It was the middle of nowhere in Illinois, and my friend was the only person there who was close to dying that night.  I used the restroom, which was a single room like you'd find in a midpriced restaurant, except with specimen jars.  At five-thirty I called my mother.  Is everything okay?  she asked me. The last time I'd called her in the middle of the night, my best friend from college had died in a car crash very late on her fifty-fourth birthday.  Of course everything's not okay.  

A lot of time passed.  I saw my friend; he seemed really cheerful.  They'd pumped his stomach and he was going to be fine.  I called his other close friend, who came to the hospital.  They decided to transfer my friend to another hospital fifty miles away, where his veteren's benefits would pay for a longer stay.  He'd be in a psych ward.  He seemed happy about this.

What I remember about that night is mostly two moments - in the apartment, talking to the policeman who had seen so many lives as wrong-headed as mine, and outside, with the paramedic, who put himself in our shoes and told me what to say to help.  I don't know what the other hospitals in town were like, but I know that the one we went to was nearby, and clean, and saved my friend's life, and maybe if he'd ended up somewhere else the night would have spiralled into even deeper horrors.

My friend lived another six years.  He got over the girl, eventually.  He met someone else and they were together for a long time, and frequently they were happy.  That relationship ended, as relationships do.  He moved to another city and took another job.  He had other friends, other joys and sadnesses.  Last summer I went to Paris for a month, and he was going to be there too during that month, and look me up.  I worried - with what now seems like an inane self-centeredness - that his intermittent desire to rekindle our long-ended relationship had returned. 

I remembered the last time we were in a French-speaking city together - Montreal, six months after our breakup, for a conference.  He'd sent pastries to my hotel room.  It was the kind of romantic gesture women, stereotypically, dream about, and he knew I was no exception.  If the right man had done that for me, if a random man had done that for me, I would have been swept off my feet.  But he wasn't the right man, he was worse than a random man, and the gesture meant nothing good to me.  I hated myself for not being able to love him, for being the sort of person who hurt someone so thoughtful.  The pastries were obviously expensive and well-made, but in my mouth they tasted like sawdust, and I couldn't bear to eat them.

I needn't have worried about a repeat of this, because he never made it to Paris.  He died at the end of June.  I was in Reykjavik, and I learned it from Facebook.  It never gets dark, at that time of year, and nothing about the trip seemed real.  He died of an overdose, it appeared, and nobody was specifying how, or how intentional.  It was in the early hours of his thirty-seventh birthday.

So his life is over.  Has been over, for nine months.  He was a person with problems long before I met him.  But he was also a person with so much sweetness.  When he and I were together, he did everything he could to keep me from feeling pain.  He watched stupid television shows on Lifetime with me and made chocolate-chip pancakes.  He came to my best friend's wedding halfway across the country even though he knew I was about to break up with him.  One time, in the heat of summer, when I was in a bad mood, he put on all his old army gear, including a giant heavy backpack, and hopped across his living room like a rabbit in order to make me laugh.  I don't think he really loved me - I don't think he really saw me - and I know I didn't love him, but he was good to me, always, even when I wasn't very good to him.  He deserved better than he got, better than he set himself up for.  I think most of us do.

1 comment:

  1. Oh hon. What an awful thing to be close to, and what a burden to put on you. Poor man, to suffer so. Sounds like he was brave, sometimes. I hope he rests easy now.