Someone told me it’s all happening at the ER.
A day ago at this time, I was still holed up in the charming waiting room of Kaiser’s Oakland Emergency Room. I was waiting for Emily, as I had been for more than 2 hours prior. I had read through her copy of The Economist (magazine), haphazardly, almost cover-to-cover. I hate magazines.
Note to self: next time leaving for the ER at less than breakneck speed, bring the book you’re reading.
About a month ago, I was in Albuquerque at my Dad’s (first) cataract surgery. This was not an ER and had thus been planned, but the waiting room was similar. They’re all similar. The oppressive decks of fluorescent lights, washing everything in sight to pale apathy. The drone of the TV, always tuned to the most insipid show imaginable. (Seriously. “The View” during the cataract surgery. “Dr. Phil” at the ER. At night. I didn’t even know they aired Dr. Phil at night.) At some point, someone must’ve decided that the silence mixed with buzzing of fluorescents was too brain-rattling for a waiting room, so they posted up a TV in every corner. For distraction, I suppose. But there’s something so wrong about the normalcy of a terrible TV show that just makes my focus on whatever’s going on that much worse.
But in Albuquerque, I had brought my book. And I was at least able to wander inward, become engrossed as though on a train ride, and not constantly think about what was going on and what could be going wrong. Waiting rooms could not be more aptly named. But the whole game of surviving them is to make it less about waiting and more about being. A good book is extremely good at this purpose.
Instead, I had a magazine. Magazines are the compromise where everyone loses. They are too long to be sound bites of news (especially The Economist), but too short to be narrative. They are too old to be news and too young to be history. Advertising is overwhelming and garish. The pages rip easily. I can’t stand magazines and, perhaps more than any other container of written words, I don’t understand how they are successful.
So the waiting room was a lot about waiting.
I had a pretty good sense that Emily was going to be all right, though by hour three this feeling was starting to hit some snags. I had not carried her into the ER unconscious and bleeding from the head. She had not been shot. She was not missing anything. She had walked, more or less of her own recognizance, in through the front door. We would have gone to urgent care, but urgent care closes at 7:00 and she wasn’t convinced she had to go till about 7:35. Isn’t that always the way.
What she did have was a spinning head. She kept saying that her brain felt like it was moving. She was dizzy and disoriented, sometimes dropping scarily out of touch in the middle of conversation. She kept saying her brain instead of her head. And it had happened much of the day, but gotten much worse rapidly that night. It was time to go.
When one is sitting in an ER waiting room, with little to no idea what is wrong with one’s spouse, having surrendered said spouse to the care of those who deal with everything and anything, there is a sense of heightened awareness. In taking in the idle surroundings, normally a source of mild musing and perhaps casual scrutiny, one suddenly realizes the magnitude these memories may carry on later. For someone who naturally and unconsciously examines their life as much as I do, everything is constantly being analyzed, considered, and reflected. I recalled the things I would recall if something went terribly wrong… little omens, small annoyances, distractions that led me back to worst-case scenario thoughts, and the dissonant light-board that constantly scrolled, stacked, or built up the anachronistically cheery message: WELCOME TO THE KAISER EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT.
And on page 57, more about Darfur.
And then, after 11:00, the shootings in Oakland on the late local news. It was enough to make one consider whether anyone showing up on the screen was on their way to the physical location. At least this waiting room was wisely constructed to the side of the main entrance, ensuring that we would never know.
We. There were growing fewer and fewer of us. It seemed that many people had just missed the 7:00 cut-off when we entered a nearly packed room. By 11:10, it was just about myself, a homeless man who kept starting awake, and a very calmly reserved young man who either had everything or nothing wrong with him.
The triage nurses were chatting, crossing their invisible barrier where they independently intently stared at those seeking help and instead discussing weekends and relationships and weather. Just a job. Everyone has one, and every job has regular people in it. I will remember this, I knew (if something goes wrong). I will forever be bitter at the nurses who were just living life when.
And then my jacket pocket started shaking. It wasn’t an earthquake, or even the end of the world. It was Emily’s phone, which she’d insisted on leaving me, so that she could give them a number to call. Everyone has a cell phone nowadays. Emily has two. I have zero.
It was Emily. She was okay, even sounding relieved. She was on her way out.
She has vertigo. It is almost certainly not a prelude to a stroke. But, the doctors said, it was one or the other. And given those choices, it was good we came in. After all, she has never had vertigo or any symptoms thereof in her life. It is rare for this to start out of nowhere. Rare, but most fortunate when compared to.
Emily wants Drew Tirrell and Dan Stafford and even Pete Lee to know that she has a newly profound sympathy for them and their plight. Vertigo sounds like a bit of a trumped-up malady to most. It is an easy joke. Far too easy to ape and to question. Em described it as “just about the worst feeling in the world” early this morning.
No way of knowing if it’s permanent or temporary. Most likely the latter, but everything starts sometime. For now, she’s not driving and is taking work slowly. Getting up and lying down remain impossibly discombobulating. The medicine does little to nothing noticeable.
But it’s all good, relatively speaking. I can forgive the nurses their banter. I can let go of the grains of red sand building to the word WELCOME. I can watch “Dr. Phil” again (though, why?) or even the late local news.
Because nights like this, like last night, they’re run-throughs. I have often distilled the fairness we are given in this lifetime down to this: We all (almost all) will either die prematurely or watch our loved ones die before us. Or some combination of a bit of both. This is the curious curse of existence on Earth, our blessed gift of tragic learning.
There are a few, several standard deviations out, who may watch everyone they love be slaughtered and then be killed at age 7. And some who pass at 89, just before everyone they ever cared for.
But almost all of us have the same lot.
So it’s a run-through. It may not be Emily, ever. But if not, it will probably be me for her. It may not be for years. It may be tomorrow.
So there’s something to be said for the experience. And for thanking God it’s not tonight.