Thursday, March 19, 2009

Atlanta 911

Almost exactly seven years ago, early April 2002. It was three months after my small civil marriage ceremony, performed in Connecticut by a justice of the peace; it was three months before the church wedding and reception planned for family and friends in southwest France. Married, yet somehow not, in a state of transition, I embarked with my father on a "heritage trip" by car, driving down into the Deep South. Georgia, Alabama: the roots of my father's childhood, the seat of a civil rights revolution in its infancy. I had really never explored this part of the country, not in any important way, and in no way with a feeling of connection. My grandparents, Southern to the core, had moved to a Florida retirement town before I was born, and visiting them never really seemed "Dixie" to me. This was a bonding trip, a time to pause and honor ancestry before the life of the future (my separate, legal family life) came to assert itself, forcefully, everywhere. We had planned it to perfection. After two days of driving to reach Atlanta, our first significant stopping place, plans went awry. We had gone out and had a lovely dinner with a woman who was a long-ago friend and mentor to my father, back when he was still just a scrawny high school kid. In our hotel later, we told each other good night and locked our rooms, one across the hall from the other. A persistent knocking on the door in the middle of the night woke me up; I opened it and saw immediately that something was horribly wrong. My father was leaning against the door frame in his pajamas, doubled over, pale and short of breath from pain. The thick fog of sleep was instantly replaced with confused panic: what was wrong? I helped my dad back to his room, sat with him on the side of his bed, and tried quickly to pinpoint what hurt him. He'd had a kidney stone decades before, but he said this seemed different. I called the hotel's front desk, and they called 911. Have you ever had to call an ambulance while out of town? I hope not. There's a layer of added fear: Where will you go? If there is more than one hospital, which is the best? How long will you have to stay, prolonging your hotel reservations and general sense of disorientation? At least at home, you would have your outer bearings if not your inner calm. An EMS team showed up, took charge of my father while I grabbed whatever essentials I could think of (wallets with insurance cards, room keys, cell phone...). We went out into the chilly night air, got in the ambulance. A lot of things get blurred together with a general sense of desperation, but this I remember well: I sat up front next to the driver; my father was moaning, strapped on the stretcher in back with the number two EMS guy. The driver and the second guy were having a debate about what hospital to go to—I guess we were equidistant from a couple emergency rooms. This wouldn't have been so bad if they had made a quicker decision, turned on the siren, and picked up the pace. However, even as they were clearly heading in one direction, they seemed to be in no hurry. Typical Southern; they were driving with a drawl. In fact, they were stopping for red lights. Red lights? An ambulance with an ER patient inside? Excuse me for the assumption, but I thought the whole point of an emergency vehicle equipped with a siren was to be able to run through those lights. I finally said something, asked them did they really have to stop, as another light was changing from amber to red. There wasn't even any other traffic at that time of night, so the stopping and waiting seemed all the more idiotic, if not outright dangerous: could these guys tell for certain that my father was not in a life-threatening state (and if they somehow knew this, why didn't they reassure me)? I will say this: the driver obliged, put on the siren, and sped up. Also, he chose the right hospital as it turned out. My father ended up under the fabulous care of the Head of Urology in the best ER in the city. He was in fact suffering from a whopper of a kidney stone—what everyone admits is the closest a man will ever come to knowing the pain of childbirth—a hard calcium deposit that was blasted into micro-particles by some non-invasive, high-frequency sound-wave machine. But it was a very long night, to say the least, and I can't say I was at all comfortable emotionally with the unexpected turning of tables that happens when a child becomes caretaker for a parent. I was seized with fear as I was forced to take the pen, to take the responsibility that went with it, and sign the admittance papers, the consent for care and all the rest. There on the cusp of so many things: my own marriage, motherhood that would come with the birth of my son almost exactly a year later (did I somehow sense how soon that would happen? was I somehow in training for the role of guardian?) . . . It was too much to also confront a parent made feeble in his own body, twisted by physical pain, when I was powerless to do anything other than admonish an EMS driver, ask a triage nurse for the umpteenth time how long it would be before they could administer pain medication. It was  a situation I knew I'd only have more of, in some indeterminate time frame (that was hopefully many years off). In a few months, I'd walk arm in arm with my father, symbolically down the narrow aisle of a church in a foreign land; I was a willing bride, but that night in Atlanta, I felt I was not yet ready to be "given away." Eventually, although we discussed canceling the rest of our trip and just going back home, we continued our journey into the Deep South, salvaging a good portion of our trip. It was not the trip we had hoped for, but it did fulfill some of its purpose. We became closer, certainly, through shared drama. But also there were pecan trees and crepe myrtle, grits and hush puppies. Today my father's fine, still healthy, still planning trips, and I am glad. Maybe we'll have another chance to see Atlanta, and not just the interior of an ambulance, an emergency room, a hospital cafeteria. Maybe we'll go when the fruit trees are in bloom, sit outside in the sun somewhere, smile, and let fresh sticky peach juice run down our chins.

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