you can see the roads that we all traveled just to get here
a million miniscule decisions in the line
why they brought us to this moment isn't clear
but that's all right
we've got all night
many roads // andrew peterson
“We’re calling EMS. We’re calling EMS!”
“I’m on my way!”
“Your brother just texted. They’re taking your father to the hospital.”
Wednesday morning, beautifully sunny and lazy, the dog-day middle of the week: I had set out my little glass bowl and my teaspoon and my bag of pink French clay to make a mask for myself, knowing that if I set it up the night before I might not be hindered by the notion that I was too tired to set the articles out in the morning. My husband would coddle me and kiss me good-bye, leaving for the office, leaving me to roll back over with my baby so that the two of us could doze through the morning.
Wednesday morning shattered like a gunshot.
I got out of bed, forcing my heart not to race like a rabbit which has lost its warren. Would he make tea for me, please? I could get ready in under an hour with the pedal pushed all the way to the floor. Nothing fancy, only something presentable: I stood in front of the mirror sick and praying, going through the familiar motions of tight-lining and blending neutral eyeshadows. The sunlight was beautiful, perfect for make-up work. I stared at myself as my hands brought out the best in my features. My stomach was sick: my reflection tensed: I did not have time to be sick—no time for that! I yanked the brush through my short waves. Above my stomach, my heart felt stoned: terror had hit it like a peregrine in mid-dive.
The power cut off just as we were getting ready to leave. Dear God, I begged lamely, dragging my broken wings after me as I stepped out the door: don’t let it be one of those days.
We got in the car and it leapt away with us, snarling unpleasantly as its fourteen years complained at the treatment while the turbo-charged horses flung their shoulders into the collars. I sat numbly in my seat, clutching my mug of tea, praying and being sick, being sick and wishing I could pray with better alacrity. We swung into town, following the phone’s instructions through the underbelly of the old milling district as we attempted the shortest way to the brick-worked Catholic hospital. Somehow we did not get too lost. Somehow we made it without spilling tea or the damp fragments of a breakfast neither of us wanted. The long blue Audi yanked into the parking lot, snaked among the resident cars until it found a stall, and fell into place, its parking brake screaming as my husband nearly tore it up from the console.
The emergency entrance was low-browed, brick, and uninviting. As we strode up the steep driveway toward the awning I could see my brother waiting for us, stolid, grim, his sunglasses looped round the back of his collared shirt: the call must have whipped him off a job site God and my brother alone knew how far away from this place. God and my brother alone knew how he had flogged his horses to get here. The police had not stopped him.
Without a word he turned and led us through the emergency room lobby. “Two more family,” he told the receptionist, and she unlocked the massive door for us, letting us through into the labyrinth. With his usual broad-shouldered determination my brother led us down the narrow passages and finally we turned, the hallway opening out into a long, straight shot with the image of my sister in tousled hair and navy-stripes leaping familiarly out of the background of beige walls and blood-curdling medical equipment.
No tears. I noticed that first. The almond colour of her skin was not warped with scarlet. No tears.
We were not let in, my husband and I. We stood with my sister in the hallway, trying not to be underfoot, while all that we could see of the little waiting chamber was a curtain, my mother’s little heeled sandals, and the badger-clawed feet of a hospital bed. I could hear their voices. I stood feeling pale as a ghost while my husband held me, and I listened to the tell-tale Godfather hoarseness of my father’s voice. I wanted to see him. My heart beat once, writhed with the agony of it, and lay still. I wanted to see him.
They took us out of the hallway. I do not know how long we waited, seated, standing, leaning grimly against the walls while the nurses surged back and forth and my mother’s little heeled sandals moved about beneath the edge of the curtain. Finally a nurse came breezing by—everything of unimportance cleared like chickens from her path—and stopped, whipping round on us.
“Are you all together?” she asked. “Only two at a time in the hallway, please. The rest will have to wait in the ER lobby.”
Only two at a time. Of course that meant my husband and I would go: my brother, who was the competent one, and looked like Uncle Exeter’s mace, would stay to help rule; and my sister, who despite her pale face and clear eyes could not bear to be taken from a stone’s toss of my father, would stay too. As one unit my husband and I wove our way back to the lobby and waited, trying to buoy hopes that were insulted and spat upon by the drivel of the television playing overhead.
We waited. I opened up The Tulip, glad for its large print and brightly panelled illustrations, and tried to read a few lines. I knew enough about emergency rooms to know with some certainty—it was the only certainty I had—that we would be waiting all day. My sister came eventually to join us, and our spirits lifted a little from sheer human nature. Time crawled. No news came like a spirit sent back to moisten the lips of the damned. It was like hell, that eternal monotony.
The voice of the receptionist called across the lobby to us. “Would you and your sister like to go back to see your dad?” Lord love her! My heart bolted from cover: how I had forgot the singsong drawl of the South in which I lived. It seemed to nest in this place. Yes. Yes, of course. We knew our way: she opened the door for us.
I was able to see him. He was resting, flat on his back covered in something printed: I will never clearly remember what it was. His baby brown eyes, which I shared, were closed; his olive skin was ashen pale. A very indistinct voice, like the shapeless form of my subconscious, warned me that I knew this image: it was the image of a corpse.
I turned at once and stood my turn for my mother’s arms. She had greeted my sister, who was already buckling under the strain. Pain was stabbing at the backs of my eyes and my throat felt unsteady, but somehow I spoke: small things, unimportant things that I would never clearly remember afterward. I would not let him be woken. Even though the formlessness of my subconscious sketched an apparition on the wall of my mind: What if he never wakes and he will never say good-bye?—I could not bear to have his tenuous rest snapped.
“The nurse says he is holding steady. They will be able to do the CT scan soon.”
Holding steady. I understood those words. I did not know what a CT scan was, only that it would show the medical practitioners the magic pictures of their art and—God willing—help them divine the problem. Then we could find a cure. For now, he was holding steady. I took those words like a torch and carried them back with me to the lobby and my husband.
The waiting went on. We read, he and I, and stole bleak glances at the television screen which was an idol I despised in those hours. Finally—my brother came around the corner, his arm on my sister’s shoulder as he led her.
My heart stopped.
She had her hands over her face, desperately trying to crush back the tears. My brother’s face was grim and heavy, as it had been through the morning hours.
“His appendix ruptured,” he said, with mingled tenderness and the bluntness of a hammer. “He is septic.”
My hand came up over my mouth before I knew I had moved. Those, too, were words I knew. I hoped that God knew the airless spasming of a soul to be a desperate cry for help. I was so terrified that I was conscious of no pain: I wondered, much later, if I experienced a shock.
There was my sister to take care of. She sat down and crumpled forward, sobbing and trying not to sob. I plunged my hand mechanically into the pocket of my bag and handed her my handkerchief: she took it without question, not caring at this point whether I had ever used it before. Somehow, mostly, with only a few smarting tears, I held myself together. Thinking back on imaginations of times like this one, spiralling into uncertainty and terror, I thought my body would be torn to shreds by grief and anxiety. Now I only sat numbly, one hand on my sister’s shoulder, the other hand clasped within my husband’s grip, and my limp, dazed mind stretched feebly after heaven.
Presently a woman approached us tentatively from the direction of the receptionist’s desk. I recognized her: small, black, one of the staff of the place, with that odd gentleness about her that so infrequently ran in white veins. She looked sombre. My heart could not take much more of this.
This is it. It’s over.
“Excuse me,” she said softly. “Forgive me for intruding—but I couldn’t help but notice you were so upset. Is there anything I can get you? Some water, perhaps?”
Dear God in heaven! Not that! I sat stunned, my mouth forming the smile which some form of good breeding and social gentleness flogged out of me by sheer habit. I felt my throat tear and betray me. Not that! Not kindness. If only you would be rude and discourteous, I could hate you and the anger would steady me. I cannot stand kindness just now. Courage cannot defend against it.
We thanked her, God knows how, with broken voices and tears that we were desperately trying to stave off.
Time does not cure wounds, but somehow it enables us to live with them. The sobbing stopped; the navy-striped figure uncurled. She had her little pocket scriptures jammed into her elegant tote, and she removed it wordlessly. It sprang out at me like a light in a dark place, a solid object in a hades of ghosts.
“May we share?” I asked. My voice was raw, barring back tears.
She said something, a question of some kind: I will never afterward remember clearly what it was. All I know is that we sat side by side in the sunlit lobby, soaking in the glow of Davidic psalms. Terror, uncertainty, grief, anxiety, the physical manifestations of inner turmoil, were nowhere near to diminishing. I could not know what the future held. But something gilt in the words overlaid the world and I lifted my head, swallowing, feeling something more solid than desperation barring across my soul to brace it against the impact. Who knew what peace really was? Whatever this was, I would take it.
News came in unbroken starts, kicking at traces which were not ready to be laid on. They would be rushing him to surgery. Young and inexperienced, I thought this meant it would happen soon. Soon! Over and over in my head I saw a girl in a science fiction show—pure fantasy, all acted, all safe—lying against a metal bulwark with a gunshot wound in her stomach and the doctor demanding if the captain knew the effects of stomach wounds.
“I surely do,” the captain replied, a wicked edge in his calm tone.
Over and over I heard that voice while time dragged on and nothing happened.
At last my brother came for us, rounding us up with the news that they would finally be taking my father into what they called “pre-op,” and that we were to move further into the sanctum of the hospital. We moved, an exodus of silent, desperate mendicants: myself, my husband, my sister, my sister-in-law, now my father-in-law as well. We spoke to the angel at the entrance of a new waiting area and she told us to find seats and that news—when there was news—would be brought.
God save us all from suffering alone. Somehow the increase in our numbers had bolstered my spirits. The others—they were hard to read. My brother went on, stalwart and grim as usual, with occasion flashes of humour when our spirits sparked and lit. My sister went on, studiously reading the Scriptures or jotting down tiny script on the back of a church bulletin: now and then I saw her face fall, the overwhelming uncertainty cloud her features, and I wondered if the nightmare had struck at her again. There was nothing I could do. I sat in my horrible numbness and prayed.
At last—God remembers the hour—my mother emerged from the hallway. Our bruised souls soared at her like doves from a dovecot. At that moment, she was the most beautiful thing in the world to me. I had agonized for her, alone wherever she was in the hospital, standing by my father as his life was falling into eternity. I wanted to be there and did not know where she was. At last she had come back to us, and at one glance I knew she was tired but steady, and she had left my father in capable, human hands.
I wanted to take her weariness from her. I wanted to soothe her troubles. I wanted—of all small, prosaic things—a portable stick of mascara and a hair brush just so that she could have the comfort of putting herself together. There was nothing lacking in her appearance to me, but I wanted to give her these little things. And I did not have them to give.
She sat down and told us he would be going into surgery soon. Soon! That word again: a part of me still believed its pretty lie. The preliminary examinations, which was the best I understood “pre-op” to be, was blunt and honest: the appendix had ruptured and the infection would have spread. They would do all they could, but…
I could not understand the words she used, only that there might be subsequent surgeries, that there was risk of set-back. I understood that my father was going under the knife to have a terrible infection scrubbed out and that it would be hard to do, even in this day of modern medicine.
Sitting back into the lobby armchair, I knew I would loathe anyone who ever said in my hearing that they wished that had lived a hundred, two hundred years ago. They were fools.
The first hour crawled by and a member of the staff—rank and serial number wholly unknown to me, though I pray God will bless her—came punctually to tell us that my father had not yet gone into surgery. The medical jugging act was still being performed, but soon—soon!—they would have him fitted into his slot and the anaesthetist’s mask fitted over his face.
We ate a form of lunch. I had to say that Macdonalds had stepped up their game since I had last wedged their burgers over my jaw. My gut took the food and did not object. I saw that my mother had orange juice, and ate even though she had no appetite. I could not blame her, but four months of pregnancy had made me impatient of the excuse: the body needed food, and the body was going to get it.
With a punctuality I had never known in a corporation before, the staff member returned every hour to inform us of progress: my father was in surgery, a surgery which lasted over three hours, and we writhed through those hours wishing we could sleep or stretch or gain relief. But we waited, mournful dogs with our jaws on outstretched limbs, waiting for our master to come home.
At last the ordeal of swallowing razors was over. An Italian-looking gentleman in scrubs came up behind my mother and touched her on the shoulder, breaking off an anecdote I will never remember at all, and she whipped round with recognition on her face. I sat across from them, while the whole of our gathering leaned in on every side to hear his words. Odd, how one does not always remember the words, only the shape of them. His looked like relief. He was kind and serious, but I would remember that the surgery had gone well. I would remember that he described the nearly fatal event as a kind of hand-grenade exploding, with a lot of pus and infection and a number of abscesses, and outposts of further damage somewhere in the inscrutable tangle of the human gut. The tissue in which the stitches had been made was badly corrupted, and he was concerned that the stitches would not hold, but out of the horrific nightmare picture he thought he had got the worst of it away, and while the professional in him warned us that there was risk of further infection, he was, on the whole, quite pleased.
It was good. I wanted that captain in the science fiction show to reach up and take down the receiver, announcing through the ship in his warm, velveteen tone that we were finally out of the woods, but that voice did not come. Still, the crew around me relaxed a little, ragged and worn, but relieved. If I remembered to pray, I did not remember the moment afterward. I hoped God knew.
We began to disperse at last. My niece and my nephew would have to be collected. All during the day contractors and foremen had assured my brother they would put their backs into the day’s work and to tell us all, too, that they were praying for our father. Did God hear the prayers of the wicked on behalf of the just? I thought perhaps he might. I did not know, but perhaps he might. But now those jobs needed my brother to inspect them and shut them up for the night, and the long charcoal beast of my brother’s truck would go roaring through the dusk at speeds which did not abide contemplating. My father-in-law would go home, bearing gladder tidings with him. My sister would hitch a ride with my sister-in-law, aimed for her house, two bags of clothes, and the household cats which would need their insulin shots administered.
The waiting settled in again, my mother and my husband and myself bunked in a new waiting room while my father recovered from surgery. Arrangements for the following day—days—jerked their creases out beneath our ironing. The end of this day was in sight, and I thought that was a relief to us all.
A telephone rattled from the wall of the labyrinth waiting area. We started, but ignored it: our cell phones were within arm’s reach, and had been all day. The next thing we knew, we were once more startled out of our flogged daze by the sound of my maiden name being called. My mother took the phone from the nurse: with some confused idea of supporting her, and an even vaguer notion of being part of the news, I drifted after her. Her answers to the still small voice on the other end were short and worried me, until at the last moment her tone went up with relief and appreciation, and I knew all was well.
They would be moving him up to his room now.
Even after all these hours, I failed to realize what ‘now’ meant. My mother and my husband and I went directly abovestairs, riding the elevator which shook my battered equilibrium almost more than I could handle. I still had another two hallways to walk down, and room numbers to read. We found my father’s room and swung round the doorway. To my disappointment, the bed was made up and empty.
“They said we would most likely get here before him,” my mother assured me.
It sounded as though he would be just behind us.
It was over an hour before he arrived.
My sister and sister-in-law had returned before he made his appearance. Over-night bags were bestowed on the window-seat, and once more we fell to waiting. It almost felt cruel, by this point, to be so close and still to have to wait. I sat on the hard window seat, cold in my skirt, my toes jammed into the ends of my heeled shoes, tired and aching and wishing I could lie down and cry like a child.
Soon, I kept telling myself, looking at the clock which had once been my friend and had forever betrayed me. Soon. It will be soon. Any minute now.
The moments which clustered around the beginning of the end may come back to me in the distant future, when the early days of my life are made clear by distance. I do not remember them now. “There he is!” someone said—my sister-in-law, perhaps. The voice was steady: it could not have been my sister. I remember that my body was on the inner side of the little hospital room, and somehow I was one of the first through the doorway, out into the bright yellow lights and the long hollow hallway, and there he was, wheeled by a cheerful black nurse—would no one teach me how they are so cheerful?—strolling him down the hallway toward us on his gurney. He was sitting up, his eyes were open—dazed eyes, but lovely—and he was humming a weak, dramatic theme as he was wheeled into the doorway. After all this time of listening to his agonized wheezing from behind a curtain, and then losing him to the silence of the hospital and the care of total strangers, to hear his thin but lucid humour was a relief I could never quantify.
Almost at once we lost contact with him again. We crowded round him as his gurney was coaxed alongside the hospital bed, gripping his hands, kissing his forehead, gritting our horse-teeth against tears we had promised ourselves we would not cry. But then the prosaic mechanics of the hospital kicked into gear, kindly but inexorable, and we were thrust from the room for the sake of space while he was lifted from the gurney onto his bed.
We formed our cluster just outside his door, parting only when nurses came wheeling the metal icons of their religion up and down the hall to mystical purposes known only to themselves. We talked—about waking up from anaesthetic, about dreams, about babies and their care and the fears that attended their care-takers: small things which seemed important and warmed our hands as we held the topics close.
We did not hear the sound barrier break when the long charcoal truck brought my brother back. My sister said, “There he is!”—a singsong chant I was coming to know well—and that stolid figure was once more striding toward us, rejoining the group. I wrapped my arms around my husband and my toes cried pitifully in my heels while we told my brother that we had witnessed our father’s coming, that we would be let in to see him again soon.
At last the impossibly cheerful nurses which swooped around my father began to disperse, and the many life-giving, blood-chilling tubes which must be set up and checked and turned on were all in place, and the small mob of which I was a part was let in through the door. Somehow we all got ourselves round the bed, shaken and relieved…and it was strange to me that we had to tell the patient what had happened. On the other side of his sleep, he remembered agony; on this side he had to be informed of the doctor’s assessment. That nasty gap in which he had been in the doctor’s and God’s hands, and might have been taken from our own, would thankfully never surface in his memory.
“It was the strangest thing,” said the Godfather voice. His hand moved to his forehead in a mimicry of an old habitual gesture. It cut at me to see the listlessness of the motion: was he still in pain? “It was not twenty minutes before we were going to go to the doctor’s appointment when the pain became unbearable. We were all ready to go. I thought—I really thought—I might actually die.”
He almost died—and he was still in the balance. We were all thinking it, tasting terror and knowing this was no hyperbolic joke: the pale, ashen patriarch lying between us had knelt sweating on the brink of death and we had almost not pulled him back in time. I bit my lip: Whatever happens, Father in heaven—
“When I was waiting for them to run the scan,” he said presently, “I prayed Paul’s prayer.” His eyes passed softly round the group of us. “That I thought it would be better that I should remain.”
We lingered, knowing that we should go and let him rest—already the meagre strength, which he rallied with a force of will which amazed me, was visibly diminishing. But we wanted to be with him as long as we could. Eventually my brother and my sister-in-law departed, and my father said—I do not remember when—that he thought my brother was very shaken. He would not show it, but the young lion had been shaken.
It was time for us to take my sister away with us and to let my mother and father rest. My sister gripped my father’s hand and leaned in, looking suddenly tiny and fragile next to the heavy hospital bed, and kissed his brow as best she could. He held her hand tightly and she stayed close, frozen with the horror of a small animal.
“I gave you a scare, didn’t I,” he said quietly.
Her lips made a movement, crushing up on themselves as she tried to swallow back the tears that were sprinting from her eyes.
Behind me, I heard my husband slip tissues from the dispenser on the wall.
My father whispered, “I’m sorry.”
I took the tissues—I was also in need of them, as the rawness of my throat and the picture of my sister breaking down again in the solitude of the room overwhelmed me. I gave one to her, offering it and making sure it focused amidst the tear-blindness which had come over her. I clutched my tissue hard and approached my father’s side among the desert of tubes and machines.
He took my hand and I kissed his brow. “We’ll go now and let you rest,” I said practically, although the voice which was speaking did not sound like my own. “We love you.”
“I—love you, too.” The big hand shook mine reassuringly…
Looking down at him, so thin and pale and still in danger, I, too, felt the scent of terror welling up in my nostrils and I shoved practicality aside. “You have to get better. You have to—you have to see my baby.”
My voice broke completely.
The strength snapped back into his eyes. “Oh, I will. I intend to see them all. I will do everything the doctor says. I will be the model patient.”
Tears curled and burned over my cheekbones, but I smiled weakly. Practicality was coming back and for the sake of his own indomitable will power I would pull myself together. “I will go now and break down some more in the car,” I said, equal parts candid and pathetic. “We will see you.”
None of us spoke aloud on the ride home. I think we were all speaking to God. What we said, and what we meant by what we said, only the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost know.
july the second, the year of our lord two thousand fourteen