Life Expectancy Page 31


When the police operator answered before the third ring, she was a woman I knew, Denise Deerborn. We had dated twice. We liked each other well enough not to waste each other's time on a third date.


I spoke urgently, voice raw and trembling: "Denise, this is Jimmy Tock, my wife's been shot, Lorrie, she's been shot bad, we need an ambulance, please, now, please


Aware that our address had appeared on the computer in front of Denise the moment that the connection had been made, I wasted no more time with her, dropped the receiver, letting it dangle on its cord and bang against the cabinetry.


I knelt at Lorrie's side, in her spreading blood. Beauty this perfect and this pale usually could be found only in sculpture, on marble monuments.


She appeared to have been shot in the abdomen.


Her eyes were closed. No movement under the lids.


Pressing fingertips to her throat, I felt and felt, and feared the worst, then found a pulse-rapid and weak, but a pulse.


A sob exploded from me, and another, until I realized that even though unconscious, she might hear me and be frightened by my grief. For her sake, I controlled myself, and although my chest heaved with sobs unexpressed, I let out only the ragged sound of my panicked breathing.


Although she seemed to be unconscious, her respiration was rapid, shallow. I touched her face, her arm. Her skin felt cold and clammy.


Shock.


My shock was emotional, to the mind and heart, but she suffered physiological shock from the violence of the trauma and the loss of blood. If her wounds didn't kill her, shock might.


She was lying flat on her back, an ideal position for treatment.


After folding a dish towel, I eased it under her head merely to cushion her. Only her feet should be raised.


I pulled cookbooks from nearby shelves, made a pallet of them, and carefully elevated her feet about ten inches.


Combined with plummeting blood pressure, heat loss could prove deadly in her condition. I needed blankets but dared not leave her side long enough to sprint upstairs and get them.


If she died, I would not let her die alone.


The adjacent laundry served also as a mud room. I plucked winter coats from wall pegs.


Again in the kitchen, I blanketed her with coats. My coat and hers. Annie's, Lucy's, Andy's coats.


Lying beside her, heedless of the blood, I pressed my body against hers for what warmth I might provide.


As a siren rose in the distance, I felt her throat. Her pulse wasn't any stronger than before, but I assured myself that it wasn't any weaker, either-and knew that I lied.


I spoke into the delicate shell of her ear, hoping that she would hold fast to my voice, that my words would tether her to this world. I said things I can't remember, assurances and encouragements; but soon I had been reduced to three words, the greatest truth I knew, repeated with urgency and passion: "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you...."


My father urged the worried neighbors to move back, off the front-porch steps, off the walkway, onto the lawn among the Christmas figures.


Immediately behind Dad came two paramedics, wheeling Lorrie out of the house on a gurney. She lay unconscious beneath a wool blanket, receiving plasma through an IV drip.


I moved at her side, holding high the bottle of plasma. The paramedics preferred the assistance of a police officer, but I trusted only myself with the task.


They had to lift the gurney down the steps. The wheels met the walkway with a clatter, rolled squeakily toward the street.


My mother was upstairs in the girls' room with all three kids, comforting them and making sure they didn't look out a window.


Half a dozen police vehicles angled along the street, engines idling, their arrays of emergency beacons painting the snow-crusted trees and the surrounding houses red, blue, red, blue. The ambulance waited curbside, behind the Mercury Mountaineer in which Konrad Beezo had arrived.


Kevin Tolliver, the paramedic who would treat Lorrie en route to the hospital, took the bottle of plasma from me and climbed into the back of the ambulance as his partner, Carlos Nunez, shoved the gurney into the vehicle.


When I started to climb inside, Carlos stopped me. "No room, Jimmy. Kevin's going to be busy. You don't want to make things harder for him."


"But I've got to-"


"I know," Carlos interrupted. "But when we get to the hospital, she'll go straight to surgery. You can't follow her there, either."


Reluctantly, I stepped back.


Closing the doors between her and me, closing the doors on what might be my last sight of her alive, he said, "Your dad will drive you, Jimmy. You'll be right behind us."


As Carlos hurried forward and got in the driver's seat, Dad appeared at my side and led me out of the street, onto the sideValk.


We passed the manger where angels, wise men, and humble beasts watched over the holy family.


A small spotlight had burned out, leaving one of the angels in shadow. In the otherwise lighted tableau, this dark form with half-furled wings looked ominous, waiting.


In the driveway of my parents' house, crystallized exhaust vapor plumed from the tailpipe of Dad's Chevy Blazer.


Grandma Rowena had moved the SUV out of the garage and readied it for our use. She stood there, dressed for a ham dinner, coatless.


Although she was eighty-five, she could just about break your ribs with a hug.


Pumping the siren, Carlos swung the ambulance away from the curb. A policeman waved him through the nearby intersection.


As the siren rapidly receded, Grandma pressed something into my right hand, kissed me, and urged me into the Blazer.


The policeman at the intersection waved us through, and as we drove toward the hospital, I regarded my clenched right hand. The fingers were crusted with my blood and the blood of my beloved wife.


When I opened my hand, I discovered that Grandma, who for a while had been upstairs with Mom and the kids, had retrieved from Lorrie's jewelry box the cameo pendant that I had given her when we were dating.


The pendant was one of only three things to survive the fire that destroyed our first home. As delicate as it was, it should have been lost. The gold chain and the gold-plated mounting should have melted. The carved white soapstone cameo of a woman in profile should have cracked, blackened.


The only damage, however, was a slight discoloration of a few locks of the woman's soapstone hair. Her features were as finely engraved as ever they had been.


Some things aren't as fragile as they appear.


I closed my bloodstained hand around the pendant, clutching it so tightly that, by the time we reached the hospital, my palm ached as if a nail had been driven through it.


Lorrie was already in surgery.


A nurse insisted on taking me to the ER. The bullet Beezo had fired at me in the living room had ripped the cartilage of my right ear. She cleaned the ear and flushed the clotted blood out of the eustachian tube. I refused to submit to anything more than a local anesthetic while a young doctor stitched me up as best he could.


For the rest of my life, that ear would give me the look of a battered boxer who had spent too many years in the ring.


As we were not permitted to stand watch in the hallway outside the operating room where they had taken Lorrie, and as she would be transferred to intensive care when the surgeon had finished, Dad and I waited in the I.C.U lounge.


The lounge was cheerless. That suited me fine. I didn't want to be coddled by bright colors, soft chairs, and inspiring art.


I wanted to hurt.


Crazily, I worried that if a numbness of mind or heart or body overcame me, if I admitted any kind or degree of exhaustion, Lorrie would die. I felt that only by the sharpness of my wretched anguish could I keep God's attention and be sure that He heard my petitions.


Yet I must not cry, because to cry would be to acknowledge that I expected the worst. By such an acknowledgment, I would be inviting Death to take what he wanted.


For a while that night, I had more superstitious rules than those obsessive-compulsives whose daily lives are governed by elaborate domestic rituals and codes of conduct devised with the intention of magically warding off bad fortune.


For a while Dad and I shared the I.C.U lounge with other haunted people. Then we were alone.


Lorrie had been admitted at 8:12. At half past nine, Dr. Wayne Cornell, the surgeon tending to her, sent a nurse to speak with us.


First, she told us that Dr. Cornell-qualified for general surgery with a specialty in gastrointestinal work-was an excellent surgeon. She said the team with him was "awesome."


I didn't need this soft-spoken sales pitch. To stay sane, I had already convinced myself that Dr. Cornell was a genius with hands as sensitive as those of the greatest concert pianist, a nonpareil.


According to the nurse, although Lorrie remained in critical condition, the surgery was going well. But it would be a long night. Dr. Cornell's best estimate was that he would not be finished until sometime between midnight and one o'clock.


She had taken two bullets. They had done much damage.


Just then I didn't want more details. Couldn't bear them.


The nurse left.


With just me and Dad in it, the small I.C.U lounge seemed as big as an airplane hangar.


"She'll be fine," he told me. "Good as new."


I couldn't remain seated. Had to move, burn off nervous energy.


This was Sunday, December 22, not one of the five dates on the back of the circus pass. At midnight, the third day on Grandpa Josef's list would begin.


What could happen after midnight that would be worse than what had happened this evening?


I pretended not to know the answer. I pressed from my mind the dangerous question itself.


Although I had gotten up to pace, I found myself at one of the two windows. I didn't know how long I'd been standing there.


I tried to focus on the view beyond the glass, but there didn't seem to be one. Just blackness. A bottomless void.


I was holding tightly to the window frame. Vertigo had overcome me. I felt I would fall through the window, into a dark whirlpool.


Behind me, Dad said, "Jimmy?"


When I didn't answer, he put a hand on my shoulder.


"Son," he said.


I turned to him. Then I did what I had not done since I was a little child: I wept in my father's arms.


Near midnight, my mother arrived with a large tin of homemade cookies: lemon snaps, madeleines, Scotch shortbread, and Chinese sesame bars.


Weena followed close behind her in a yellow snowsuit. She carried two big thermoses of our favorite Colombian blend.


The hospital provided snacks and coffee from vending machines. Even in a crisis, however, we were not a family that ate from vending machines.


Annie, Lucy, and Andy had been moved to my parents' house. They were in the care and under the protection of a phalanx of trusted neighbors.


Mom had also brought a change of clothes for me. My shoes, pants, and shirt were stiff with dried blood.


"Honey, clean up in the men's room down the hall," she said. "You'll feel better."


Leaving the lounge long enough to wash up and change seemed to be breaking the vigil, an abandonment of Lorrie. I didn't want to go.


Before leaving home, Mom had found her favorite snapshot of Lorrie and had inserted it into a small frame. She sat now with it in on her lap, studying it as if it were a talisman that would ensure her daughter-in-law's full recovery.


My father sat beside my mother, took her hand, held it fast. He murmured something to her. She nodded. She stroked the photo with one finger, as if smoothing Lorrie's hair.


Gently, Weena took the cameo pendant from my hand, clasped it in both of hers, warming it between her palms, and whispered, "Go, Jimmy. Make yourself presentable for Lorrie."


I decided that the vigil would not-could not-be broken with these three remaining in attendance.


In the men's room, I hesitated to wash my hands, for fear that I would be washing Lorrie away with her blood.


We don't fear our own deaths as much as the deaths of those we love. On the cusp of such a loss, we go a little crazy with denial.


When I returned to the I.C.U lounge, the four of us drank coffee and ate cookies with such solemnity that we might have been taking Communion.


At 12:30, the surgical nurse returned to inform us that Dr. Cornell would need more time than originally projected. He now expected to speak with us at about 1:30.


Lorrie had already been in surgery over four hours. The cookies and coffee soured in my stomach. Still wearing his greens and cap, the surgeon arrived with our internist, Mello Melodeon, at 1:33. Dr. Cornell was in his forties, looked younger, yet had a comforting air of experience and authority.


"Considering how terrible her injuries were," Dr. Cornell said, "everything went as well as I could have hoped."


He had removed her damaged spleen, which she could live without. More troubling, he removed a badly ravaged kidney; but, God willing, she would be able to enjoy a full life with the one that remained.


Damage to the gastroepiploic and mesenteric veins required much careful work. He had employed grafts using lengths of another vein taken from her leg.


Punctured in two places, the small intestine had been repaired. And a two-inch torn section of the descending colon had been excised.


"She'll be on the critical list for at least twenty-four hours," Cornell told us.


With the intestinal damage, she faced some possibility of peritonitis, in which case he would have to operate on her again. She would be put on blood thinners to minimize the risk of stroke from clots forming where vein walls had been stitched.


"Lorrie's not out of the woods yet," he cautioned, "but I'm a lot more confident about her now than when I first opened her up. I suspect she's a fighter, isn't she?"


"She's tough," Mello Melodeon said.


And I said, "Tougher than me."


After they brought her to the I.C.U and settled her, I was allowed to visit in her cubicle for five minutes.


She remained sedated. Even with her features relaxed in sleep, I could see how much she had suffered.


I touched her hand. Her skin felt warm but perhaps because my hands were icy.


Her face was pale but nevertheless radiant, like the face of a saint in a painting from a century in which most people believed in saints, artists more than anyone.


She was on an IV, hooked up to a heart monitor, with an oxygen feed in her nostrils. I looked away from her face only to watch the steady spiking of the light that traced her heartbeat across a graph.


Mom and Grandma spent a couple minutes with Lorrie, then went home to reassure the kids.


I told Dad to go home, too, but he remained. "There's still some cookies need eating in that tin."


In those pre-dawn hours, we would have been at work if we'd not been at the hospital, so I didn't grow sleepy. I lived for the brief visits that the I.C.U staff allowed.

Prev Next