Saturday, April 28, 2012

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

"Look, Mom! A aaambulince!" sings a voice in the back seat of our van. We are waiting at a traffic signal on our way to pick up my big kids after school, and our eyes are drawn to the flashing lights and the cluster of people standing nervously in the grass outside the building on the corner. One woman has her eyes closed and her arms tightly crossed. Even though the day is unseasonably hot, she rubs her hands up and down her upper arms, as though she is trying to keep warm. Someone puts a friendly arm around her shoulders.

The kids behind me are bouncing with excitement. There's nothing quite like the flashdance of emergency lights to raise a thrill in the heart of a small boy. We have toys, puzzles, board books, and cartoons depicting every kind of car, truck, or van with lights on top, and our boys associate these automobiles with fun and amusement. We entertain our kids with the machinery that attends tragedy, and so it is no surprise that these boys of mine find pleasure in the grim song of sirens.

Small necks crane and blue eyes widen as we accelerate through the intersection and alongside the church-turned-movie-house-turned-tattoo-parlor where the scene is unfolding. A stretcher is about to emerge from the double doorway.

I tell myself that I must drive slowly here because one must be responsible and cautious—on the alert—when emergency vehicles are present. But the truth is that I drive slowly because I, too, am fascinated, filled with my own wide-eyed curiosity. But unlike my boys, I understand what these flashing lights must mean, and my interest in them is more gruesome than childlike. If I were being honest, I would tell myself that I am driving slowly because I hope we will catch a glimpse of a broken limb or a little blood.

What we see, however, is something much more unsettling.

"What happened to that guy?" my six-year-old asks, pointing. A man's shirtless body is wheeled through the open door and down to the sidewalk. I absorb what details I can in the few seconds it takes for my minivan to pass the scene. The man is young. His skin is smooth and  pale. A swirl of tribal motifs are inked along his motionless arm as one EMT rhythmically presses the heels of his hands into the man's chest and another prepares the paddles of a defibrillator. A third pulls upward to bring the stretcher through the back doors of the waiting ambulance. One of the bystanders has both hands pressed together over her mouth. And then the scene is behind us.

The colored lights spin their dizzy pirouettes in my rear-view mirror until we round a bend in the road and resume our afternoon routine. "I don't know what happened to him, buddy," I say, letting out the breath I didn't know I had been holding. My reply is delayed, my mind still processing what I've just witnessed. But the shudder that heaves through my neck and shoulders reveals my dark surmise: that what I just saw was the unexpected end of a story.

I do not say this to my sons. I keep my suspicion to myself, and instead I say, "We should pray for him, shouldn't we?" I put this in the form of a question, partly because I want to be assured that there is still a reason to say a prayer—that I did not, truly, see a fresh corpse on my afternoon carpool run. The soft "yeah" from my four-year-old helps calm my rattled nerves. Yeah. We should pray for him, for this tattooed stranger who might, or might not, already be dead. So we do. We pray for the people in the ambulance to take good care of him. We pray that the doctors at the hospital would be able to help him get well. I breathe a little more freely. But I still wonder if the man I saw will ever breathe—freely or otherwise—again.

And with that, my kids are on to the next topic—baseball, or the heat, or their brother's field trip. I don't remember. At school, I collect children, herd them across the parking lot and down the grassy hill back to the van, and buckle them in. Then we retrace our route back home, which means that we must pass the tattoo parlor.

We are, again, waiting for the signal to turn green. But this time the flashing lights are gone, and instead a group of people—mostly young—are gathered on the lawn. Some hold each other, some simply look stunned, and one sits near the curb with her knees touching her chin, her face in her hands, and her shoulders shaking with sobs while friends gather around to provide comforting words that she does not seem to hear.

I no longer suspect. I know. 

My second grader sees the dismal crowd and wonders aloud what has happened. I tell him about the ambulance. But for a moment I consider what else I should say, how much I should reveal. We are rolling forward again, and then I say it, "I think the man on the stretcher died."

"Really?" he asks, swiveling his head around for a second to look again at the mourners. And then he asks the same question that is in my own mind, "How did he die?" Heart attack? I wonder. He looked too young for that. Asthma attack? Plausible. Overdose? Not a very charitable thought, but there it is. All I can say is that I have no idea, but I can't help speculating.

For the next few days I scan the obituaries and death notices in the newspaper, expecting to put a face and a name with that inked and lifeless right arm, but there is nothing. And so again I begin to think that I might be wrong. Maybe he is still alive. Maybe that public display of grief was simply a manifestation of concern and stress—even emotional relief—in the aftermath of a medical scare. Maybe that nameless man is, at this moment, sitting up in a hospital bed eating Jell-o and mashed potatoes off a plastic tray.

On Friday morning, I pick up the newspaper and flip absently through the first few pages, this time not looking for an obituary, or for anything else in particular, when I find it: a photo of a young man. His name was Timothy, and he did not survive. No cause of death is mentioned, and so I will probably never know what took his life. He was very young—born in 1985—and his baseball cap is turned backwards, the corners of his mouth curving up slightly, giving him an expression of cheerful defiance. But he could not defy death.

A memorial service will be held at the tattoo parlor. It seems an odd location, unfit for so solemn an occasion. I wonder why his loved ones would choose his place of death as the place for remembering his life. It seems stranger still that a place that provides people with permanent ink could be an appropriate place to reflect on the impermanence of this life.

But then I am struck by the irony—and perhaps it is a bitter irony—that this particular tattoo parlor had once been a church. It had once been a place where earth had met with heaven, where sinners had sung their alleluias. It had once been a place where the dying had gathered and embraced the gift of everlasting life.


windandbigwaves said...

What a wonderful writer you are. I love reading everything you write. We do need to take the time to treasure every moment:) Even those everyday car line pick ups.

Now we can enjoy our favorite season summer:) All the wonderful fruits and vegetables Michigan has to offer. ANd I am waiting for the call that the Grieser's are in Michigan!!!

Sersomet said...

Wow. Very sad, very moving post.

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