Another Brush

It is eleven o’clock at night, and from the kitchen of our small 1950’s home, I can hear the rattle of Samuel turning over in his crib through the monitor. He breathes heavily, a sigh of exhaustion, and slowly moans himself back to La La land. It is quiet and dark and I head everything: the arthritic creaking of the laptop hard disk, the insistent computer fan, the hum of the vigilant refrigerator. I am working late, trying to catch up after a fretful day, full of interruptions.

A half hour ago the phone rang. It was expected, and I had both portables with me so as not to wake anyone else in the house. My oldest brother called to tell me that our youngest brother, not quite forty years old, came out of successful triple bypass surgery at eight o’clock. Right now, somewhere in Atlanta, a thousand plus miles from Vermont, he lies unconscious in a room, his cracked ribs drowned in painkillers, his young and ill-used heart replumbed with very expensive duct tape. If he has dreams tonight, they are likely to be unlike any he has ever had, and no one but his Creator will ever record them. When he wakes from them, he will feel like the losing side of an argument with a train.

Yesterday he had shortness of breath and indigestion. He saw his doctor and did a stress test that triggered chest pains. The doctor’s professional response was “That’s not good.” He was sent for blood tests the next day, today, which indicated heart damage, and an angiogram was scheduled this afternoon. I called him at this point and heard him say that he knew all the possibilities but he expected that it would be treated with medication. When our four-year-old daughter says things like this, we call it “magical thinking.” The angiogram found severe blockage in three arteries, and open heart surgery was scheduled for that night. This night.

I am experiencing profound deja vu. The above story happened about three years ago, the same in almost every detail, except that it was my father. He was in relatively good health at the time, but as a younger man had smoked for years. The midnight acid reflux didn’t go away, and he was tonguelashed by Mom to the hospital where they eventually performed triple bypass. The recovery was long and painful, but my average American Dad stuck with it. I was very proud of him for that.

My elder brother says that we are at the age where we all know someone who knows someone who died suddenly at a young age of a heart attack without warning. But we cannot say in truth that our brother had no warning. His health and fitness had been a topic of family discussion and nagging for years. I had always feared a heart attack in my brother’s future, but I never imagined it would hit him before forty. I doubt he did either.

The jokes are flying already. My younger brother stands accused of upstaging my daughter for medical emergency sympathy. He works for my oldest brother, so my other brother, the third one I haven’t mentioned yet, a middle child like me and a lawyer by trade, has offered to represent him in litigation against his employer for undue work-related stress. Our family deals with most serious issues with a healthy dose of humor, especially when the issue is death. One of my wife’s first experiences with my family illustrates this beautifully.

My parents had discovered that the grave plots they had purchased decades ago in Pennsylvania could be sold for a five-digit figure. We had a family meeting to discuss whether they should sell them and buy new plots in Atlanta where most of the family now lived, so that we could visit the graves. After all, my Dad quipped, it was the only investment they had ever made money on. My younger brother offered to take the cash and care for them in perpetuity in the backyard. Dawn stared at us all laughing with a combination of disbelief, amusement, and awe stamped on her features. She told me later that such a conversation would have NEVER occurred in her family.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

There are three papers that cover the Montpelier, Vermont area, and I sent the same letter to each of their editors.

The Bridge comes out twice a month and focuses solely on Montpelier news, events, and opinions. It is free and arrives neatly folded inside our mailbox, addressed to the Postal Patron. I look forward to its crisp reporting and artistic black and white photographs, the arts and culture coverage, and the insightful political and social commentary of the Letters to the Editor. The advertising is moderate and tasteful. Of the three papers, it is the highest Quality in terms of breeding, and so naturally did not print or respond to my letter.

The World comes out weekly and covers Washington County in general. It appears attached to our mailbox, rolled up in a clear pastic bag that can be re-used to clean up after your dog. I would wager that 80% of its ink is devoted to the commonest class of advertising such as rain gutters, snowmobiles, bikini waxing, etc. The remaining 20% to good old fashion local events, business news, awards given to high school seniors, a full page obituary spread, the local dog column, etc. etc. If The Bridge is the Town Crier, The World is the Back Alley Gossip, trumpeting our personal triumphs and tragedies, and indispensable for staying current. Unfortunately, they too could care less what I think and have neither printed nor responded to my letter.

Finally, The Times-Argus is what you think of when someone mentions “subscription newspaper”, complete with comics, crosswords, sports section, and recycled AP wire news PLUS an old-fashioned and completely meaningless moniker. In the past, they have printed my letters to the editor. I do not subscribe to this paper. I must rely on Ira Trombley, a state representative from Grand Isle in the Vermont legislature, to inform me whenever a letter of mine is printed.

Though Mr. Trombley and I have never met, he never fails to send me a postcard after each of my letters are printed. On one side of the postcard is a portrait of the representative sporting his handsome handlebar moustache (yes, I am envious) and on the other side is a hand-written note applauding my progressive stances and encouraging me to continue writing.

Often Mr. Trombley references some letter that I did not even know I had written. This is often the case when I write and sign an on-line petition and don’t see the checkbox captioned “send a copy to my local paper.”

I have a very good friend in the area who also never fails to find out about my letters. His name is Harry Kaminsky and his friends always tell him, “I loved your letter in the Times-Argus, but they misspelled your name again.” He always responds, “It’s actually my friend Harry KaTINsky, but I agree with everything he says.”

The Times-Argus received my latest letter, the same one rejected by the other papers, and the first I knowingly sent to them. They have agreed to print it, but only if I would cut it down to under 300 words. Editors!

Well, I graciously agreed. The published version is no longer online, but I have included the original unabridged version below.

To the Editor,

I am a soft-spoken, unknown citizen with a burning axe of righteousness to grind.On a quiet day, from our home near the corner of Main and Towne Hill Road in Montpelier, we can hear the faint bells of City Hall chiming the hours. We are close enough to walk to downtown in most weather, yet far enough to pause at the thought of the return climb. Our Saturn wagon is a rainy day vehicle that languishes in our flooded garage most of the week, mold breeding in the floor mats. We are Pedestrians, a rare breed once common in this part of the world, slowly recovering our numbers with the rising price of gasoline.As Pedestrians, we naturally adore the traffic lights at the corner of Main and State Street that stop traffic in every direction, so that all of us, however lowly or exalted, may cross in safety and fellowship. How wonderful to reclaim the road for the Citizens, if only for twenty seconds at a time. It is so quaint and nostalgic, so uniquely Montpelier, that my heart swells with pride for our little village.

Skateboard punks tip their backwards baseball visors as they serpentine around the elderly matrons, all passing without fear while commuters in vehicles sip coffee and ogle the more pleasant-looking among us. It is a unique social contract of which we should be proud, requiring the stoic New England patience for which we are all famous, and providing each of us an opportunity to practice our civic manners and responsibility. I wish I could say we were all up to the task, but unfortunately this is not the case.

I am not speaking of those daring trekkers who cross diagonally from LaBrioche to Katie’s Jewels outside the strictly ordained borders of the painted crosswalks. In my opinion, they are dashing visionaries, innovators of a better mousetrap. In the shopping districts of Tokyo and Kyoto, diagonal crosswalks are a privilege taken for granted. If our own visionary citizens choose to follow the trends of global traffic fashion, let us follow their brave example.

No, rather, it is those impatient Jaywalkers that raise my self-righteous ire. They seem oblivious to the unmistakable white Pedestrian signal with its jaunty Audubon birdcall for the visually impaired. I have patiently stood at the corner, fixing them with a milk-curdling look as they approached me, yet they seem unaffected by my brooding telepathy. If these kindergarten dropouts cannot wait their turn, if they so crave attention that they must stop law-abiding traffic, why can they not walk fifty yards in any of several directions to a mid-block crosswalk? Instead, these Miscreants risk not only their lives but the insurance premiums of our tax-paying drivers, while providing a poor example for our impressionable youth. Fie and shame on their naughty little beanies.

Thank you, gentle reader, for your kind attention.

Our Brush With Mortality

We nearly lost Rose last night.

At 5:45 PM, I put down the phone after a long business call with a client. The final ten minutes of the call were something of a trial as Samuel was screaming in the background, a cry of frustration as when he has been corraled for safety or had a dangerous object removed from his hands. Neither seemed likely; his voice was moving up and down the hall beyond my door, almost as if the baby monitor had sprouted legs. A diaper change? A bonked head? I didn’t know.

I left our bedroom where my office is set up and found Dawn in the bathroom with Samuel strapped to her back. which meant she had been cooking. Rose was standing on the stool in front of the sink, sniffling and crying. She saw me and held out her arms and burst into tears again, babbling something completely unintelligible. Dawn turned to me, and despite the alarm on her face, her voice was even and calm, the voice you use to convince someone it isn’t as bad as it seems.

She used this voice years ago when I tried to slice open a package of frozen hot dogs for my nephews and instead sliced opened my finger. She had held my hand under the faucet and when I asked if we should go to the hospital, she said, in the same tone of voice, that I had exposed the fatty tissue near the bone, so it would probably be a good idea.

I understood Samuel indignation – no one care’s to be treated as an ignored backpack, but his screams made it difficult to hear. Nevertheless I caught the drift of Dawn’s explanantion. She had been cooking in the kitchen, munching on cashews, with Samuel tied to her back in the kabuki carrier. Rose was helping, and Dawn, realizing she was now four years old, gave Rose two (count them, two) cashews to munch on. Rose ate them. Her lips began to swell. Her throat became scratchy. She couldn’t swallow. By the time I got there, Dawn had managed to get Rose to take her antihistamine (Zirtec), but she couldn’t get her to drink anything else.

Dawn and I are a team. We each have only half a brain in emergencies, but they are matching halves. It would have taken me fifteen minutes to think of giving the Zirtec to Rose. On the other hand, by this point Dawn was waffling on what to do next. To be fair, she had two children screaming in stereo, one inches from her skull. I lapsed into her “it-isn’t-as-bad-as-I-think” tone of voice, which helped keep us all calm and focused.

Me: “We have to take her to the emergency room.”

Dawn: “Do you think so?”

Me: “Absolutely.”

Dawn: “Well…OK then.”

Dawn was afraid she had been overreacting, so it was reassuring for her that I insisted on the hospital. We grabbed shoes for everyone, Rose’s snuggle bunny, and Samuel’s diaper bag, hoping it was still packed with enough supplies, and headed downstairs to the car.

Rose, still crying and upset, insisted I sit between her and Samuel, so I wedged my skinny bottom between their car seats, and contorted my arms until I managed to buckle my seat belt. As we drove, I sang and told jokes to calm the children. Rose not only calmed down but affected bored impatience with my juvenile Knock Knock jokes. Samuel thought I was a riot.

Because this is Vermont, and central Vermont at that, we reached the hospital in fifteen minutes, and walked 80 feet to the emergency room. Statistically, events occur in clumps, not evenly spaced out, so we arrived the second in line of three more-or-less simultaneous families. The attendant asked us all what our problems were.

Mom #1: “He has a sore throat.”

Dawn: “She’s having an allergic reaction to cashew nuts, her throat is itchy, her lips are swollen, and she can’t swallow.”

Mom #2: “He has a sore throat … and a cough.”

Rose was let in right away, while the others were asked to wait to register. They moved us to a “room,” a single concrete wall with floor to ceiling curtains that wrap around for the other three walls. Samuel was fidgety, itching to get down, walk around and start yanking shiny expensive medical equipment off the walls, while Rose wanted nothing but to sit in Papa’s lap on the gurney. She was a little frightened, still couldn’t swallow, but her curiosity was getting the best of her, and the questions started. Her voice sounded unnaturally husky. Why did they have curtains? For privacy, sweetheart. I don’t want privacy. Yes, but the people in the other rooms might. Well, I want them opened.

Hospital staff came and went, asking questions, writing notes, talking directly to Rose in friendly and gentle tones. The nurse kept calling her “sister” as in “Sister! I got a special sticker for you.” That got Rose’s attention. The sticker folded over her fingertip like a bandaid with a picture of three small balloons over the fingertip. Small metal leads came out of one side. The nurse plugged a wire into the leads and the sticker/bandaid began to glow red as numbers popped up on a display screen. There was no more crying after that. Rose thought that was THE COOLEST THING.

“Papa, my bandaid has a light! I want Snuggle to ask me about my sticker!”

I picked up Snuggle Bunny like a puppet.
(Squeaky puppet voice)”Rose! What’s that on your finger?”

(Unnaturally husky Rose voice) “Snuggle! That’s my new sticker. It glows red!”

I then pointed out to Rose the computer screen displaying her oxygen saturation (100, a very good number) and other vital stats. “Do you know what that number is Rose?”

“No, Papa.”

“It’s your pulse. It says your heart is beating 107 times a minute. Do you know what my pulse is, right now?”

“What is it, Papa?”

“About 107 times a minute.”

She also got a special bracelet with her name on it that she had them put on her ankle. Her voice was still rough, her lips swollen, and her throat scratchy when the doctor arrived, a thin woman about our age with glasses and long dark graying hair. She asked Rose permission to look in her throat. She needed to see her uvula and told us she might have to push the depressor up which would have a momentary gag reflex. Rose panicked a little at that, so they propped up the gurney and had me lie back on it and hold Rose in my lap. The doctor was very quick so that Rose didn’t have time to get worked up and then, oh joy of miracles, they brought her a neon red popsicle.

Rose leaned back and said in her cheerfulest outdoor voice, “Snuggle, I have a red popsicle! Do you want some?”

“Rose, let’s give Snuggle a pretend popsicle instead.”

“OK, Snuggle you get two blueberry popsicles. Here you go! Papa, have Snuggle ask me about my allergy.”

(Squeaky voice) “Rose, what happened to you?”

(Not so husky voice anymore) “Snuggle, I had an allergic reaction!”

“What were you allergic to?”

“Cashews!”

“God bless you. What were you allergic too?”

“(Giggle) Cashews!”

“Oh! God bless you! But what were you allergic too?”

She laughed, lay back against my chest, her right leg casually tossed over her left knee, bouncing up and down. She avidly licked her popsicle and said to Snuggle Bunny and the world in general, “Mmmmm! This is GREAT!”

I could hear the people in the “room” next store laughing hysterically. The hospital staff were fairly charmed as well.

We waited. There was nothing else to do. They needed to make sure her reaction subsided completely before we could be released. Otherwise she would needed adrenaline or other intervention. Her lips did begin to shrink and her voice got less scratchy, and she could swallow the popsicle.

I wish I could say that it was smooth from there. Dawn took a wiggly Samuel on a walking tour of the lobby and returned exhausted. I offered to switch with her and walked a few laps with Samuel returning just in time to watch Rose throw up all over the bed. I ran to get some help and returned to find three meals worth on the bed. Rose didn’t like throwing up (who does) but she felt better when we explained that her body was trying to get rid of the cashews. She was running out of steam and ready to go home.

It was almost 8:00 PM when we were released and, on the way home, we decided to order pizza. Why, Lord only knows, because even at the time I knew it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to digest. But it was late, we didn’t want to cook, and Rose really wanted it. I called information on the cell phone to get the number for our preferred pizza place, when suddenly Dawn slammed the brakes on the car. I look up to see a deer skittishly crossing the road in front of us. The car started to roll forward again but then braked just as violently for a second deer leaping out of the brush beside us, eyes reflecting the headlamp glare.

“Why did we stop? What’s happening?” A four-year-old cannot wait for information, cannot know when her parents need a little silence to scan for more moving obstacles. She kept repeating her questions and then I heard a buzzing noise coming from my hand. I was still holding the cell phone. A voice was saying “Hel-LO!” in an impatient tone of voice. My first thought was “Give me a break lady! We nearly hit a deer in our car, and that’s the fun part of my evening so far!” But I remained polite.

As soon as we got home, Rose threw up again, but we made it to the kitchen sink, staining it pink with the remains of the neon red popsicle. Rose felt better after that, but her interest in pizza waned pretty quickly. She went to bed soon after with only a glass of water. Afterwards, I left Dawn feeding Samuel and drove to pick up the pizza so she and I could eat.

When I returned I informed Dawn that there was at least one pizza cashier in this town who will now think twice before asking, “How’s your day going?”

Later Dawn went to check on Rose sleeping, and I had my first quiet moment to reflect on the evening. That’s when it suddenly dawned on me that we really might have lost Rose tonight. If Dawn hadn’t given her the Zirtec, we don’t know how bad the reaction could have gotten. Then, honest to God, Dawn came back and performed a truly scary feat of mind reading by repeating those very thoughts out loud almost word for word before slowly dissolving into tears.