When the call went to the answering machine after the seventh ring, I suspected something was wrong. Esther leaves the house only for doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and church on Sunday mornings. And her 50-something year old son only leaves the house for the doctor. So, the lack of an answer to my regular Tuesday evening call to remind Esther we’d be shopping together in the morning was highly unusual. I called again a few minutes later just in case Esther hadn’t been able to get to the phone in time. No answer.
Just as my kids scrambled upstairs to brush their teeth, I called again. Esther picked up before the end of the first ring. She explained her son was in the hospital. “Do you think I did the right thing?” she asked. The child-like worry that she had misbehaved in some way sounded desperate over the phone line. This almost-90 year old woman had found her son unresponsive in bed. She hadn’t panicked, she said. She wanted to remain faithful to her son’s wishes. So, even as he pulled shallow, weak breaths into his lungs, she didn’t call 911. Even as his head, heavy in her hands, felt like dead weight, she knew he didn’t want to be in a hospital.
So she had waited, trying to wake him up. But after an hour, she finally called the doctor. “Call emergency,” the doctor had said. No, no he doesn’t want the hospital, she’d worried. Doesn’t a doctor make a house calls anymore? “Call emergency,” came the repeated advice. And so she did.
Seven people, some from an ambulance others from a fire truck, crowded into the dark room filled with dusty, cat-loved furniture and cigarette-tinged air. A shot from a big needle woke up Esther’s son. And it took four people to carry him down to the stretcher. The ambulance, lights still flashing welcomed her child as the grumpy neighbor grunted from his porch.
“Did I lock the door?” Esther wondered aloud as she was slowly helped into the passenger seat of the paramedic’s truck. One of the nice men jogged over to check, nodded. Yes, the door was locked, and her key was safe in her purse.
The emergency room was what she expected from last time. Bright, occasional rushing with long periods of waiting, chilly, loud — like many other emergency rooms. And now Esther’s son was admitted to the hospital, and she needed to know if she’d done the right thing.
“Yes, Esther,” I told her. “What else could you do? He’s safe now.”
And with that, an almost 90-year old woman had her first good night’s sleep in months; someone else was watching and listening for her 50-something year old son.
And with that, I trudged upstairs to get baby teeth brushed and bedtime stories read for two children I know will always be my babies, even fifty years from now.
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