Driving down that twisty road, you can’t see around the next corner but there’s a heaving mass of rush-hour traffic in all four lanes. Stopped at a light, there’s a flash in the rearview mirror and it’s an ambulance. You’re in the left lane and there are cars piled up to the right so you can’t pull over. What do you do? You stop, and even when the light turns green, you don’t move. Cars speed around you, honking angrily; here comes the ambulance and you are full of rage. Someone’s dying in that metal box on wheels, yet people have to get to the Dunkin’ Donuts for their coffee. The ambulance has to maneuver around the caffeine addicts who stare sullenly back.
Your father wasn’t in an ambulance, though. He was in a car, going to emergency for what he thought was an unbearable attack of heartburn. He’s not a person to seek medical attention, so you know this had to be excruciating. But there is no one there. It is 12:31 a.m.; the doors are locked, the people are gone. Where are all the doctors, nurses, orderlies to sweep him up and save him? It must be past closing time for emergencies; no accidents after midnight allowed. Pounding on doors, screaming in the parking lot for help. Finally a maintenance man wanders out, shift over, and runs to open a door. But it’s too late. With a heart attack, every second counts, and your father’s seconds have all been counted.
They use all their shiny instruments and they look like they hurt; pounding and twisting and stabbing. Then they quietly wash his face, gently, with a clean cloth and a little bit of soap. You hold his hand, watching him sleep. That’s what you want to believe. You sit there for hours, talking to him. You tell him he looks silly in that hospital gown with the flowers on it and that you’ll take a picture to embarrass him. You talk about his granddaughter’s twelfth birthday in a few weeks, and the fireman’s carnival with a Ferris wheel coming to town. You ask him to please wake up. Then you realise he must be really tired, since it is 4:09 a.m. now. And you tell him to go ahead and sleep. You’ll wait, you say, so he doesn’t have to wake up alone.
At some point you shift to talk about things that have already happened. Remember when we drank too much and got the truck stuck in a ditch and had to leave it for the night? Remember when my youngest brother, a baby then, dumped my graduation cap in the fountain after the ceremony? Remember going dancing with my friends at college? The litters of beagle puppies. Climbing all the way to the top of the cherry tree. Saving the baby rabbit. Dad’s going to laugh so hard when he wakes up.
But there’s no more laughter. At 8:28 a.m. two nurses come and tell you to leave and you say no. They come back at 8:41 a.m., having doubled their ranks to include two male nurses as well. Where were you at 12:31 a.m., you wonder. They pick up your purse and use it to lure you out of the chair. They pull the curtain around your Dad, but not before you watch them gather the sheet up and let it drift down over his face.
Then you stand outside, but they keep pushing you away so you won’t be their problem. You drive to your brother’s house and sit on the porch because you can’t think and you can’t feel and you can’t imagine and you can’t talk and you can’t breathe and please don’t let anyone call an ambulance because you know you can’t ever go back to that hospital. Dad’s not there. Back in the reaches of your psyche where you hide all the shame and anger and disappointment, you know it’s true.
Please stop for the ambulance.
Jennifer Jenkins has written for Hippocampus Magazine, Curio Magazine, and earned an honorable mention for Glimmertrain’s Very Short Fiction Award. Her plays have been produced in New York and regionally, and she has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Wilkes University.