I no sooner sat down than a nurse carrying a tray of food approached me. "Would you like this extra lunch?" She smiled.
"No, thank you." I put up my hand to stop her from setting it down on my lap. The waiting room smelled like a school cafeteria on a bad food day. It made me anything but hungry.
"You need to eat a little something," she insisted. "You've been here for hours. How about some crackers and apple juice?"
"Okay." I gave in. Maybe she'd leave me alone if I accepted.
She was back in short order and handed me a snack-size package of crackers and a cup of apple juice.
"Thank you," I said as she turned to leave. I sipped some juice and set the crackers on the side table for later. I spent the next hour or two watching people: a nurse rushing out of a patient's room carrying a stainless steel pan stuffed with blood-soaked sheets; Freddie's parents, making their five-minute visits into his room every half hour; the thin lady who had been asleep on the sofa, now pacing back and forth along the wall of windows. Watching her, my tears rolled again. I didn't know if they were for her, or for me.
I flipped through a magazine until a commotion in the corridor caught my attention. I looked up in time to see two orderlies push a gurney with a patient on it into a room. My eyes locked on that doorway until a man in green scrubs came through it and headed my way. My anxiety flared. As he came closer, I realized it was not the neurosurgeon I anticipated. He walked past me to the woman by the windows. Together they hurried back down the hall and into that room.
I took the lady's place at the windows, my fears growing faster and darker than the lengthening afternoon shadows on the grass outside.
"Helen?" Mrs. Benson, from Admitting, had crept up behind me.I twirled around. "Yes?"
"I haven't been able to reach your insurance agent to verify your coverage. No one answers at the phone number you gave me."
"It should be good. I know he works out of his home, so maybe an evening call would work better?" I pictured our agent, a friendly guy that Mike had dealt with for years. He had stopped by the apartment the week before we left and made sure everything was in order, promising to mail the policy to California once we sent him our new address. We said our goodbyes that day and he left with a smile and a wave, our deposit check still in his hand.
"Okay." She slid a paper into the folder she was holding. "I'll mail a request to him before I leave today and try calling him again on Monday."
"Thanks." As I watched her return to the corridor, I recognized the neurosurgeon walking toward me. Anxiety hit me hard. I hadn't seen a single gurney roll through this hallway in the last half hour. Was he coming with good news or bad?
"Helen." He smiled wide and shook my hand with gusto. "Mike did surprisingly well throughout the seven hours of neurosurgery. He's in recovery now, and will show up here within the next hour or so. You'll be able to see him then, but only for five minutes at a time, every half hour. He's in a drug-induced sleep, so don't expect him to respond to you, for several hours at least. Maybe not until tomorrow."
"Thank you." I smiled back. I could feel little rivers of relief running down my cheeks as the neurosurgeon departed. I returned to my chair, chewed on a cracker and finished off the apple juice. When the next gurney rolled into the corridor and through a doorway, I was up in a flash and down the hall. A nurse stopped me outside the door.
"Give us a few minutes." She pressed a hand to my arm. "We need to get him settled in, take his vitals, that sort of thing."
I waited right where I stood, my heart pounding, my memory flashing back to the past—to the first time I witnessed one of Mike's insulin reactions.
We hadn't been married more than two or three months at the time. It was a chilly spring evening. We had just come home from work to our one-bedroom apartment, when Mike decided to make a quick trip to the gas station three blocks away to fix a loose exhaust pipe on his Austin Healey. The station owner, a friend of his, would let him use the hydraulic lift and other tools at no charge.
"I'll have dinner ready by seven," I called as he headed to the door.
"Okay, I'll be back soon."
I went into the kitchen and began cooking. Seven o'clock came but Mike didn't. I put our dinner in the oven to keep it warm. Seven-thirty came and went. I peered over the apartment balcony railing to look for his car. It wasn't there. Eight-o'clock came and went. Still no Mike. My frustration grew. It was starting to get dark, and I didn't know if I should be worried or angry. I didn't know what to do. We didn't have a telephone yet, or I would have called that gas station to find out what was happening. Around eight-thirty I heard the stomping of feet on our front veranda. The door sprang open and Mike burst in, grinning like a crazy man. He uttered some unintelligible words, then grabbed the two front tails of his flannel shirt and yanked them up and out with such force that the buttons popped off like bullets from an automatic weapon, flying in all directions.
I jumped backwards, frightened by his behavior. "What're you doing?"
"I duno . . . aaaaaaarrrrhh."
"Are you okay? Where's your car?"
He mumbled more nonsense and staggered into the bedroom, hurling himself full force onto the bed with a loud, "Yeeeeeeeeeeh!"
Crack! One of the wooden slats that held the box springs in place split under the force of it. I wanted to run, yet knew I had to do something. But what? I figured that diabetes must be theproblem, but I had never seen him like this before. I needed help.
I grabbed some loose change and ran outside, down the stairs, through the shadowed network of asphalt alleys in the apartment complex and across a four-lane thoroughfare to a phone booth. I flipped through the book until I found a number for the doctor Mike once mentioned had treated him for diabetes. "Please, God, let the doctor be home."
He was home. I explained who I was and the problem, and he told me to load some juice with sugar and get it into him; there should be a change in fifteen to twenty minutes. If not, call an ambulance.
I ran back home, poured a glass of grape juice, stirred three or four heaping teaspoons of sugar into it, and through pleading, cajoling and persistence, got him to swallow somemopping up spills along the way. I sat on the edge of the bed, checking my watch every few minutes. When it hit the fifteen-minute mark, he started to come around. His steel gray glassy eyes became more blue and focused again. He began scratching the top of his head. Five minutes more and he was speaking coherently. I got him to eat some dinner, then drove him back to the gas station to get his car around nine-thirty.
"Helen?" The nurse tapped me on the shoulder, breaking my concentration.
"Oh! Sorry. I was lost in thought. Can I go in now?"
"Yes. For five minutes. He's on the right hand side."
"Thank you." I eased around the doorway and into the room. Everything was white—the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the blankets, the pillows. Even the patients. Three beds stood on my right and three on my left, with white fabric dividers pulled between them. I studied the first patient on my right. It didn't look like Mike. I glanced at the second, then peeked around the curtain to the third, a young boy. I backed up for another look at number two.
"Mike?" I whispered and moved closer to his face. "Oh, Mike . . ." I put my hand over my mouth in shame that I nearly hadn't recognized him. I never knew a human head could swell so large. White gauze strips swathed his head like an Egyptian mummy's, covering the entire top half—crown to eyebrows. A trickle of blood oozed from under the gauze onto the bridge of his nose, along the inside corner of his right eye and half-way down his cheek. His eyes were closed. His mouth open. His cheeks sunken. Wires stretched from various places on his body to cold green metal machines that blinked with glowing jagged lines and numbers. Delicate flexible tubes connected him to an upside-down glass bottle of fluids hung on a chrome plated IV stand and to a large oxygen tank.
I closed my hand gently around his, and prayed in silence that God might keep him alive and mend his broken body.
"Helen?" The nurse called quietly.
"Are my five minutes up?"
"Almost. Some folks are here to see you."
Reluctantly, I left Mike's bedside and followed the nurse out of the room.