Everyone’s got a dream… and we’re all waiting for the “right” time to live it. A few get lucky and the right time comes up and taps them on the shoulder. Most run out of time. As a twenty-something year old I was pretty much fed up with how people put off their dreams – waiting for some future event to signal that it was time. But as a forty-something year old father I’ve gotta admit… I’d become something of a waiter myself.
Dreams are crazy and waiting is just so… rational. Max out the 401k first. Pay off the house first. Just wait until the kids are in 7th grade, or 8th grade. And on… and on… and on. Everyone around you nodding their heads in agreement. All unwilling to admit that they’re drowning too. “Yeah, that’s the smart play,” they all say. But what’s so smart about trading the reality of today for the fantasy of tomorrow? There will always be another reason to wait. Another smart play to make. Because real plans for the future simply can’t be made by those who haven’t the ability to live now.
As for us… well, we thought we had it all. The big house, land, and lot’s of things. But that ownership thing is a bit of a greased melon and somewhere along the line our things pulled a jui-jitsu move on us and we ended up being owned by them. If life was about comfortable… we had it in spades. But if experiences and adventures are the pulse of life, we barely had a heart beat. My little voice was warning me… telling me that my life had a carbon monoxide leak. That the smart play was a trap. But I could barely hear it. I was asleep in the poppy fields outside Oz. My twenty-something year old self threw up his hands in disgust.
Contrary to what your financial planner will tell you… the real world isn’t tomorrow, it’s now. We have never, nor will we ever experience anything other than now. And on Nov 21, 2013… a night like any other… the real world completely obliterated our illusion of tomorrow. Dinner, homework, movie, bed by 10:00. A cycle we’ve repeated thousands of times without incidence. But on this night, or more accurately very early the next morning my sleep was interrupted by a sharp, extremely loud noise that seemed to me… in my comfortably bedded state to be the sound of a heavy object hitting the floor. I rolled over, turning my pillow to the cool side, in hopes of quickly returning to sleep… and then I noticed that Malia wasn’t next to me.
You have strange thoughts when you’re torn from your sleep and although I can’t remember mine at that moment, I’m sure that I’d come up with something that explained the noise. But when I saw that Malia wasn’t in bed… well, something just didn’t feel right. So I pulled my sleepy carcass from between the layers of my great white biscuit… and leaving our bedroom I ran into our boys leaving theirs.
“Did you hear that Dad?” “What was it?” Before I could attempt an answer our attention was hijacked by deep, rasping, guttural noises that were coming from the next room. Noises that I immediately took to be coming from a badger. Why a badger? I’ve no idea. I’ve never seen one in person and we didn’t even have them in our neck o the woods. But nevertheless as I turned the corner and entered the next room I was fully anticipating an encounter of the badger variety. TV had taught me not to take such a meeting lightly. That badgers can be rather fierce when cornered so I did what any other caring parent would do… I sent the kids in first. C’mon that’s a joke! I told them to wait in the hallway until one of us… hopefully me, came out.
The scene that greeted me shook me to my core. Malia was laying flat on her back. Her eyes stared upwards… fixed and lifeless, like a dolls. She was irregularly gasping for air… this was the source of the noises, and she was twitching. I froze. The kids had entered the room… and for a moment we just looked at each other. I wish that I could find the words to explain the intensity of the moment. The complete and total despair, isolation, and fear that surrounded us. But I doubt that even the great Earnest Hemingway himself could… so I won’t even try.
My next words I remember clearly… “Holy Fucking Shit!!!” Our daughter Kaila who had now joined us… corrected my language. “No bad words Dad!” “Really!?” I asked in amazement… “not even now?” “No Dad!” Man, talk about zero tolerance… I sure hope that she doesn’t become a judge. And I imagine that it may sound a little weird… but that exchange actually happened. And it brought me back into the moment.
But where to start? Slowly some training was kicking in. “Start with what you know.” But… what did I know? She must have fallen. I knelt down and felt the back of her head as I loudly called her name. No head injury. No response.
I checked her pulse at her neck. It was visibly and chaotically throbbing. Like her veins were dancing to some wild and discordant beat. Now what? I was impotent. The only action I could think of was to stay next to her and yell out her name… hoping that she would open her eyes and this would all end…or at least she could have the decency to tell me what to do. And as I knelt there, yelling her name… trying to figure out what in THE HELL to do, she… stopped breathing. Silence. It was the loudest, most awful silence that I’ve ever heard. “She’s breathing”, I thought. “You just can’t see it, she’s gotta be breathing.” THIS CAN”T BE HAPPENING! But it was, she wasn’t, and in just a few seconds, to completely round out the nightmare, Malia began to turn a very bright shade of blue. My past and future collapsed into a singularity of time and focus that I’ve never before experienced.
Elapsed time from discovery to this moment… less than five minutes.
The throbbing of her neck had ceased. No pulse. No breathing. I finally had something concrete to deal with… and… I cursed myself for wishing for something concrete to deal with. This wasn’t what I had in mind. Somewhere in the back of my mind a timer started an ominous countdown – two minutes. Two minutes to brain damage, to death, to… I had no idea, and I didn’t want to find out. I don’t know where I got that two minutes from but I was damn sure gonna make sure that we didn’t hit it.
And then… more training availed itself to me. I had recently been re-certified for CPR and as my mind slowly rebooted, the structure to handle the crisis came flooding upon me. 1. Get help. I sent Wyatt, our oldest at eleven to retrieve my phone and call 911. 2. Begin compressions. As I was administering CPR I gave the 911 operator the vitals. Sitrep, address, cross street. The operator stayed on the line and I continued compressions.
To my everlasting relief the blue tinge quickly left her skin. I called the boys into the bathroom and told them to go to the end of our driveway and meet the ambulance. We lived some miles outside of town and have a very long driveway. They didn’t want to be down there alone. I brought them in close and tried to look them directly in their eyes as I continued compressions. I breathlessly tried to explain to them the gravity of the moment. if I stopped what I was doing their Mom would die right now. So it couldn’t be me waiting down there. “We’re a team that’s got one shot of beating the odds.” “But everyone’s gotta perform.” “If I don’t keep this up… or if that ambulance misses us, if it’s delayed by just a few seconds, we’ll have missed our chance… and the window will close.” A look of seriousness crossed their faces. “Ok Dad, we’ve got this”, I heard them say as they left. Even though they were only eleven and nine years old at the time I would trust their efforts over those of many adults.
That left me with Kaila, who was all of five… and a HALF years old as she reminded us daily, quietly sitting behind me holding onto my leg. “Kaila, go into the big bedroom.” “No Daddy, I want to be here.” Conversation over. I had no more energy or time to talk about it. There she stayed as I focused on the rhythm of compressions.
When I was re-certified I learned that the rules had changed. The recommended compressions per minute had been increased to 100. So my world was now reduced to two numbers: two minutes and 100. Since she wasn’t blue it seemed that I had thus far delivered on my two minute promise. Now to just keep up the 100.
It was exhausting. The 911 operator was still on the line periodically encouraging me. Sweat dropped from my face onto Malia’s shirt. I looked at the elapsed time of my call to 911 – seven minutes…seven minutes thirty seconds, eight minutes…My knees were bloodied by the tile floor beneath them as I propelled myself up and down. My mouth was so dry that my lips were stuck to my teeth. At eleven minutes and twenty seconds I heard the engines coming up the drive way. At eleven minutes and thirty-five seconds Kaila tapped my shoulder. A paramedic stood over me.
I slumped to the floor totally spent behind them as they moved Malia into the foyer for more room. It was actually worse having nothing to do but watch. There was still no pulse. They got oxygen on her, cut off her shirt and applied an AED. Nothing. More compressions. AED. Nothing. More compressions…
Somewhere in the midst of all that had happened the complete fallacy and impotence of money became clear to me. All this time that I’d spent chasing it… collecting it… as if it in and of itself had worth. And here… in the key moment of my life, it was totally worthless. The only things that I had that had any real worth on that night were brave and capable children and the knowledge of CPR. The realization of so much wasted time exploded inside of me.
I took the kids outside into the cold. Anything was better than to stand there and watch. And truth be told… I didn’t want those to be their last memories of their Mom.
Twenty minutes after we called 911 they transported Malia to the hospital. Her heart would still not beat on it’s own. When the fire engines, paramedics, and sheriff had all gone we silently set about cleaning up. All of us robotically removing the macabre reminders of the night. Her cut tank top. Needle wrappers. An oxygen mask wrapper. An EKG strip with a flat line.
We got in the car and drove to the hospital. I knew she wasn’t going to make it. Twenty minutes without a pulse? Or worse, what if she made it and was brain damaged, or crippled, or….? I turned into the emergency room parking lot and my sense of dread peaked. I wanted to drive away so badly. I can’t describe how much I didn’t want to walk in and hear that she didn’t make it.
They were waiting for us. My head was buzzing. My skin hurt. The doctor pulled me to the side. “Is this how it goes?”I thought. “Is this how they do it?” “It’s not like the movies at all.” “This guys not even good looking!” Then he started talking at me. “When your wife got here she had no pulse.” I steadied myself. “We initiated hypothermic protocols… throbiblgongy… blah… blah.. shmongindingalob.” I couldn’t focus on what he was saying. “Golliwobby… her hearts beating on it’s own now…” “WHAT?!!” “Say that again please.” Him… “Ahem, Oh Yes, her heart started, but she’s still very, very sick and we have A LOT of questions for you.” And with that he introduced me to the intensivist. “Intensivist” – you gotta love the names they come up with. I mean do you have to kneel when you meet with an intensivist? Is it ok to look them in the eyes?
The “intensivist” turned out to be a VERY bright woman who asked what seemed to me to be good, direct questions and no… I didn’t have to kneel. Unfortunately, she did quickly disavow me of much of my optimism by telling me that the odds were long indeed against Malia’s survival. My ears started buzzing again. The floor tilted and I was standing on pudding. At some point you just give up trying to pretend that you’re keeping it together. She kept telling me things but I couldn’t retain any of it. She might as well have been shooting a firehouse into a thimble. I put my hand up in the universal symbol for help. She stopped talking and looked me in the eyes. “Take the kids home.” She said. “There’s nothing that any of you can do here.” “Take them to where they’re comfortable.” Finally, words I could understand, steps I could follow.
It was 4:45 in the am when I tucked the kids into our bed. I waited until they went to sleep, and knowing that sleep wouldn’t come for me I went out into the great room and waited for THAT call to come. I remember sitting in my chair, putting my feet up on the coffee table, putting my phone on the arm rest and staring at it. First I celebrated every minute that passed without a call. That was too emotionally tiring. I graduated to five minute increments, then ten. Feeling confident I went to make a cup of coffee.
The phone rang. Holy shit! Why did I let my focus waver? I ran over. Afraid to read the caller ID I answered the call without checking. A VERY RARE move for me! It was my brother. I had forgotten that I called him and Malia’s Mom after the ambulance left.
It went this way for the rest of the early morning. Calls from friends and family but not from the hospital. I wasn’t going to jinx it. The kids got up. Breakfast. Still no call. At 9:30 the hospital called. I confirmed my identity and held my breath. Malia was stable… ish! She was being transported to another hospital that specialized in all things cardiac.
The culprit: sudden cardiac arrest. The most common cause of death… in those over sixty, not in 40 year olds. Here’s the odds: Ninety-nine out of a hundred people who have a cardiac arrest die. Of the one in a hundred who make it…ninety-nine percent of them are permanently damaged. When I asked her cardiologist if they track the survivors he told me that there are basically none to track. Incredibly, outside of a temporary inability to form short term memories that we all had great fun with, she had zero neurological damage… well… no more than she already had. C’mon that’s another JOKE… ummm, mostly.
After only a week in the hospital we got her home, just in time for for Thanksgiving. And what a Thanksgiving it was. I doubt that I shall ever have one quite like it again…and that’s ok. When the guests were gone, the kids were in bed, and the dust from the night had completely settled, I looked at her standing there wearing the portable defibrillating vest – that she had to agree to wear to get out of the hospital. And for the first time since it happened… I allowed myself to take a deep full breath… and I completely and totally broke down.
There is no tomorrow. There is no “right time”. And as for the smart play… well it seems to me that it would be to make the best use of that knowledge..