From looking up her symptoms on WebMD it seems she may have stopped breathing very briefly, and her body was trying to make up for it. Suffice it to say that hearing her grunting and snorting while her eyes rolled back and her unconscious body jerked and her head hung back at an unnatural angle – and then having it all stop so suddenly and so completely that I wondered for a moment if she had died – was unnerving enough.
I think humans are not well equipped to deal with the unexpected presence of death, an idea the memory of this beautiful post supports. As it happens, she didn’t die – but that doesn’t change the fact that I had to look on, I had to watch that horrible thing, and if she had died I couldn’t have done a thing to stop it or slow it or change it.
For that matter, I think humans don’t do well with helplessness. I think of how when Charlie was injured, Rose calmly made bandages and sent Archie away amazed with her strength – but fell apart later when hours passed with no news and nothing to do. I am haunted by Colonel Brandon saying, “Miss Dashwood, give me an occupation or I shall run mad.” Of course these are fictional examples. Fiction often contains at least as much truth as nonfiction – that is why I like it.
She is fine now, or so I hear, and so I must do some justice to the paramedic. Nevertheless he will probably always be referred to by me as a wart, imperious, impatient, supercilious, and insensitive.
He said, “We see this all the time. We do this all day.” And most of the time, as perhaps this was, it is a false alarm. I understand that. I picture the ER doctors doing their rounds and checking the chart. “68 years old, high blood pressure, diabetic, dehydrated, accompanied by her husband.” Check the boxes. All day, in every room, check the boxes. Reassure a lot of people all too inclined to take the most dramatic view of their own or their loved ones’ condition. Perhaps smile in the break room over one or two of the most exaggerated fears.
Oh, I get it. I see all too easily how the matters of life and death become routine. I see how sympathy mixes with ridicule or impatience so that you can interrupt the person who has just witnessed the scariest thing she’s ever seen; so that you can try to comfort by glossing over and belittling concern.
And that is not right. Easy as it is for me to say, people who see these dramas regularly should make an effort not to confuse natural and normal with routine. To become too calm about it is to become dismissive of the experience and disrespectful of life.
On the other hand, is it so much worse than what the rest of us do, which is ignore it? How often do we think about the value of life unless we see it threatened? We regret that we fought the last time we ever spoke, and sometimes because of it we make the effort to express love when we say goodbye. But without the special circumstance to remind us…
A religious person would say that moments of helplessness – or perhaps more accurately, moments of realizing our helplessness – are good for us. But I don’t know if you have to be religious to agree with that. It is in such moments of realization that we see the order and beauty of the world. And it is only by embracing such moments that we accept – to broaden the scope considerably – that maybe trying to change the weather or overusing pesticides and antibiotics or changing ecosystems or genetically modifying our food isn’t such a brilliant idea after all: we can’t outsmart Mother Nature and we are helpless against her whims.
Will being reminded today that life is fragile make me remember to respect the idiot at the post office (or even, a wart of a paramedic) tomorrow? No, probably not. It is a pretty big leap for the mind to make in daily life. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right approach.