And then the phone rang.
Beck is my daughter—thirty years old, bright, beautiful, and the joy of my life. Trey is my grandchild. My only grandchild. Need I say more? We own a home together, just the three of us, in a small bedroom community in central Texas. Beck is married, well separated I guess is the better word. Her husband's name is JR and he flits in and out of our lives, always promising that this time he will get his act together, will stay off the booze, support his family, and eventually get his wife and son back. Each promise lasts about six months, followed by several months of exile when he once again falls off the wagon. This situation has continued for years, and we have the routine down pat. When JR is sober, we are a family—backyard barbecues, Sunday dinners after church, that type of thing. Then the drinking starts again and we don't talk to him for a few months. We were in the "one big happy family" phase the day the phone rang.
Beck had told me that morning she didn't feel well. I was dressed for work and was exiting my bedroom to get my last cup of coffee when she met me in the hall, still in her nightclothes. "I feel like crap," she told me. Resisting the urge to tell her she also looked like crap, I left her alone. Beck is not a morning person when she feels well, much less when she looked and felt like crap. She was in her bedroom when I departed for work. "Love you!" I said through the closed door, thinking I would phone her later that morning on her ten o'clock break.
When I made the call, it wasn't Beck that answered, but rather a coworker, who informed me that she had called in sick. Beck seldom misses work, so the fact that she stayed home that day worried me a little. The words "swine flu" flitted through my mind, but I had a lot to do that Wednesday morning and I was able to push them aside, thinking I would check on her in the afternoon, giving her a little time to sleep.
By noon, however, I could no longer ignore my growing sense of unease. My baby was sick, thousands of years of mommy instinct kicked in and I knew I had to do something. I wrestled with the problem of whether to phone my sleeping child and wake her up simply to ask her how she was feeling. If I were home I could tiptoe into her bedroom, assure myself she was still breathing, then tiptoe out again. But I wasn't home, was I? The solution, I decided, was to call JR, who was off that day and could do the tiptoeing for me. It was almost two o'clock before I reached him, but yes, he agreed, this was the best plan.
Okay, now we're at the phone call part. It was JR on the other end. The panic in his voice was unusual for my laid back son-in-law. "I had trouble waking her," he said, "and she can't get out of bed. She's burning up and says every part of her body hurts. I'll carry her to the car and meet you at the emergency room." He hung up without saying goodbye, leaving me with the echoes of his words ricocheting in my brain. Trouble waking her, burning up, carry her to the car. And the worst words of all: swine flu.
Like the Monk character on TV, some things for me are both a blessing and a curse. My vivid imagination stands me in good stead when I sit down to write. No writer's block for me; I've got dozens of ideas to draw from. But in situations like this, when my beloved child is gravely ill, the curse part kicks in. The ten minute drive to the ER seemed like hours. I recalled every newscast I had heard about swine flu—the thousands of deaths, the healthy children that had been snatched from their parents almost overnight, the words "epidemic proportions." My imagination flew down treacherous paths: Beck's hospitalization, white-smocked doctors gravely shaking their heads, a priest removing holy water from a dark-colored suede bag. The images were as real as if they weren't my products of my imagination but rather events that had already happened.
I had worked myself into a total panic by the time I reached the ER parking lot, convinced that my child was on the brink of death. There were no empty parking slots, a fact that further increased my anxiety. Half the town, I decided, had the swine flu, some of which will die from it. Please God, I was praying, don't let one of them be Beck.
I circled the lot for several moments until a space became available, then grabbed keys and purse and ran to the ER waiting room. To my surprise, it was nearly empty. Beck and JR were seated near the door, their backs to the entrance. An elderly woman, grimacing with pain, sat several rows down from them, one foot propped up on a chair she had pulled up in front of her to use as a stool. On the other side of the room, a young man, twenty or so, sat by himself, cradling his head in his hands. As I crossed the room, he removed one hand to fondle his left ear. He was crying. An earache, I thought with a stab of empathy.
Beck barely glanced up when I stood in front of her. She was still in that morning's pajamas, white as a sheet, her hair sticking out in several directions. Her unkempt appearance alarmed me further, that and the fact that she was not seated in the chair, but rather curled tightly within it, encased a heavy blanket. "My back hurts so bad," she told me. This was not good news.
Beck suffers from chronic back pain. Herniated discs or some such, depending on which doctor you ask. For this reason, she treats her back with the utmost care, ever mindful that the slightest mishap could result in days of excruciating pain, dulled only somewhat by whatever painkiller they deemed to give her at the time. Beck spends her life either in pain or waiting for the next cycle of pain. As if she weren't miserable enough, it seemed that the coughing associated with this flu was aggravating her back.
I situated myself between her and JR and we began The Wait. The Wait, for those of you have never had to sit in an Emergency Room with a non-emergency condition, goes something like this:
For the first half hour you are in what is termed the Delusional phase. The waiting room, you tell yourself, is not very crowded, ergo The Wait will be short, fifteen minutes perhaps. It goes back to the law of supply and demand. There are three patients, surely there must be more than three doctors, therefore each patient will be seen soon. Fifteen minutes goes by, nothing happens, and after the second fifteen minutes you segue into the next stage, Hope.
The Hope stage lasts roughly an hour. It is during this time that you are sure that any minute now your name will be called. Often the Hope stage is shortened by the arrival of additional patients, which is what happened this particular Wednesday. Incredibly, within the span of less than an hour, the waiting room was filled almost to capacity, leaving me to wonder where on earth they had all parked. The foot-propped-up-in-the-chair lady was still waiting, as was the crying earache guy. The latter had been joined by an older woman who greatly resembled him, his mother I surmised. The rest of the patients were little more than a blur to me, concentrating as I was on Beck's pain, pain that could be alleviated, if only a little, if they would just let her lie down.
Once the Hope stage has passed, you cycle into the I've Got To Do Something stage. The "something" you decide to do is go up to the desk, which is what I did about two hours into The Wait. I stood patiently in line for over ten minutes and then approached the counter, which was manned by a regal-looking Hispanic woman who had chosen that morning to paint her eyelids bright purple. Knowing that this part of The Wait must be done with extreme tact or you will alienate the one person you need the most, I gently explained to the queen that my daughter was not only suffering flu symptoms, but the fact that she was being forced to sit in a hard, uncomfortable chair for hours was causing her great pain. The lady answered in medical gobbledygook; her words made no sense whatsoever. I sighed and repeated my little speech and this time I understood a little of her response. "We'll get to you when we get to you" was the gist of it.
The foot lady impeded my progress as I returned to our seats. It seemed that she had had just about enough and was going home to suffer in comfort. She was half-way to the door, hobbling inch by painful inch, when I approached her. "Ma'am, can I help you? Carry your purse perhaps?" I said. Her answer was a quick shake of the head, tears falling from scrunched up eyes. I returned to my seat to begin the next stage of The Wait: Despair.
In one way, Despair is the easiest stage of all, for you have given up all hope. It is all clear to you now: The Wait is endless, infinite. The Wait has a beginning but no end. We were a good forty-five minutes into the Despair stage and I was toying with the idea of returning to plead with the queen when Beck's name was called. The Wait was over, but we weren't fooled. We'd been through this dozens of times and we knew yet another Wait lay ahead.
JR held Beck's arm as we slowly followed an indifferent nurse through a bank of double doors, then down a long hall. Several turns and five minutes later, we arrived at our destination—incredibly, another group of chairs. It seems that all the beds were occupied and the hospital staff in their infinite wisdom had decided to simply move Beck from one chair to another, the only difference being that we were on the other side of the double doors. Encouraged by the fact that at least there were doctors on this side, we settled ourselves in. Beck resumed her fetal position in the middle chair, while JR and I arranged ourselves on either side of her.
Beck's suffering had increased considerably at this point. The Tylenol the triage nurse had given her was wearing off, along with the small amount of relief it had given her. She was once again shaking with fever and sobbing from the pain in her back. Several nurses stopped by, each with their own little duty to perform. One informed us that the doctor (what doctor?) had ordered X-rays and blood work. Another took her temperature and another with quiet efficiency strapped an elastic band around Beck's arm, stuck her with a needle and departed with a vial of blood. Yet another handed her a plastic cup and pointed to the bathroom. I explained to each new arrival that Beck needed to lie down, or at least be re-dosed with Tylenol, but they paid me no attention.
After this flurry of activity, time resumed its former crawl. JR and I occupied ourselves by staring blankly into space while Beck alternated between moaning softly and making the effort to find a comfortable position in her chair. At one point, a perky little thing approached us and handed Beck a plastic bag containing a cup of liquid. "I'm going to give you the rest of your urine," she explained brightly, "in case you need it later." "Oookay," Beck replied, and placed the bag on the floor, where it remains unto this day. Although baffling, this little episode did provide a modicum of comic relief. Didn't they realize that Beck, like the potato chip people, could simply make more?
Not too long after the urine incident our luck turned. A doctor appeared, apparently the same one who had ordered the X-rays and blood work, for she seemed to know all about them. The X-rays had revealed nothing startling, she explained, so that was good news. But the blood work showed that Beck did, indeed, have swine flu. Alarming as this fact was, it came almost as a relief, signaling as it did the termination of The Wait. Bed rest and plenty of liquids were prescribed, paperwork was handed over, and we were told we were free to go.
Beck, JR, and I slowly made our way to the double doors, through the still bursting-at-the-seams waiting room, and out into the soft autumn night. It was 10:15, almost seven hours after I had received the phone call. Trey, I was sure, was still awake, waiting to hear what the doctors had said about his mother. As I walked to my car, I fished my cell phone from my purse.
"Grandma," Trey told me. "I don't feel good."
Deborah Reed lives in a small bedroom community in Central Texas with her daughter, grandson, and two dogs. She is a retired science teacher who now works in Code Enforcement.
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