We occasionally think of death, perhaps glimpse our own mortality or that of a loved one. A near-miss accident, an illness that might have tipped the wrong way, even a broken bone and the temporary immobilization of a limb may suffice to provide the opportunity to consider the reality of a life impaired, even ended.
But life intrudes, takes over, and once again, we’re caught up in our daily routines. The fortunate among us have routines that are productive, useful, satisfying, even intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. Yet it may all be taken away in an instant, and for all of our technological and medical capability, for all of our caring and willingness to sacrifice for the good of others, we discover how frail, how helpless we can be and how all of our abilities and good intentions may amount to nothing.
Thursday, October 20, 2011, 1820: After a full and busy day at school, a day of the joys of working with kids, I was on my way to a weekly rehearsal with just enough time to grab a fast food sandwich. As I sat down to eat, I glanced out the window and noticed a pickup slowly pull to a stop. The driver and passenger were taking an unusually long time to get out, so I continued to watch, mildly interested. An older man, perhaps in his late 60s, got out of the truck and slowly, with small, hesitant steps, made his way to the passenger door, which he opened for his wife. At first, I thought it the chivalrous gesture of a man of an earlier generation, a small bit of manners and kindness seldom seen anymore. I quickly realized it was more.
The woman was the same age, her expression blank. She moved even more slowly and tentatively than he, as though every step required the summoning of fast-fading energy. He opened and held the restaurant door for her, and after only a few halting steps through the door, she seemed to stumble, and immediately went face down—hard, on the tile floor. The man slowly knelt and tried to rouse her, but she remained face down and wasn’t moving.
I reached her at the same moment as a woman in scrubs that identified herself as a nurse. We quickly brushed the man aside and rolled her over. She was unconscious and her lips were already turning blue. The nurse—I never did get her name—immediately assessed her breathing as I sought—and did not find—a pulse in her wrist.
“I’ve got no respiration,” she said, businesslike. “Does anyone here know CPR?”
“No pulse here; I’ve got it,” I said, handed my cell phone to a lady standing nearby, told her to call 911, and quickly positioned my hands on the woman’s chest.
The nurse gave several forceful breaths and I began compressions—30, fast.
Her husband told us she had a pacemaker installed only a short time ago. I could feel it, and the cracking of her ribs as I forcefully compressed her chest.
Three more breaths, 30 compressions; three breaths, 30 compressions. I felt no fatigue, carefully shifting my position and weight to maximize endurance. For ten minutes we worked, never ceasing, the nurse asking for updates on the responding rescue units while I worked. For about 60 seconds, she sputtered, began to breath on her own. But her lips were blue, her face wasn’t much better, and her eyes were dull, unseeing. The nurse and I thanked each other. I tried to find a wrist pulse, had one—very faint—for a few seconds, and it was gone. Suddenly, she wasn’t breathing.
Breaths, 30 compressions; over and over. There was nothing else in the world, nothing else to command our attention, except for a few moments when he leaned over and told her he loved her. Most of the bystanders didn’t catch it—they couldn’t catch it because they had no experience—but he was saying goodbye. He probably didn’t know the statistics as I did, as the nurse did. He probably didn’t know that CPR isn’t successful much of the time. I’ve done it many times over the years, and never, never did anyone survive. Perhaps I bought them a few more minutes of existence, probably not life. But he told her he loved her—what else could he do–and I fought back tears as I began another round of compressions. We paused, assessed: nothing. Breaths and compressions.
It took nearly 15 minutes for the fire unit to arrive, and I let the female paramedic take over for me. I turned to her husband—he had been standing behind me—and told him I was sorry. He thanked me. There was nothing else to say. His face was slack, his eyes empty. There was no emotion, no possibility of emotion, for the outcome was unknown—yet he knew. We both knew. I nodded and stepped away. What, really, can a stranger do?
Standing back, watching the equipment being set up, attached, preparations made, was almost surreal. Bystanders shook my hand, thanked me. One man told me that I was an inspiration. I nodded, managed a half smile. I watched for a few more minutes, then quietly slipped out and drove to rehearsal. For two hours, I sang beautiful music—church music–but it was tinged with sadness, a sadness that has not abated even as I write this more than 24 hours later.
I don’t know without doubt that she died. I haven’t heard the “official” pronouncement. But she died. I have the experience, hard won over nearly two decades of police work, to know. She died, not “passed,” not “crossed over,” she died, and all that she was to those that loved her now lives only in their hearts and memories.
After rehearsal, I shared this story with my wife of 33 years. My best friend, the one person I trust without reservation, and I told her how much I love her, and how precious I consider each moment of our time to be. And I reaffirmed my private, internal commitment to be a better man, for her and for myself.
Life holds no guarantee of tomorrow. We are, at once, incredibly resilient and terribly fragile. I’ve seen people walk away from catastrophic, apparently deadly accidents with barely a scratch, and I’ve seen people take a slight blow that killed them minutes or hours later. But through all of that, all those years of tragedy, nothing has become so clear to me as the fact that we are not in control. We never were and never will be.
As I turned to walk out of the restaurant that night, I paused for a moment. I didn’t look back, for I had nothing to give that would have helped anyone, that would have made the slightest difference, particularly to the husband who was taking no comfort from the grim-faced firemen carefully avoiding making eye contact. I paused to do the only thing I could do, the only thing that would make a difference, perhaps the single most important thing I could do for her: I asked God to take her home.
I believe He did—for her sake—for our sake.
What else do we have?
What more do we need?