“I’ve got a headache,” my daughter said, except she was three so it was heag-ache. “I fixed.” She held up an empty aspirin bottle.
I was busy writing and said, “That’s good.” She was always playing at something, pretending one thing or another. It wasn’t until after another four paragraphs that the empty pill bottle popped into my head again.
“Did you give Nan an empty pill bottle to play with,” I shouted down the stairs to my wife.
“No,” she said. “Why?”
We pulled on our daughter’s winter clothes, bundled her onto a sleigh and hauled her to the nearby hospital. There was a doctor and nurse but they needed my wife’s help in holding or daughter down while they pumped her stomach. Up came aspirin, two colors of crayon and a button. She’d been sampling whatever was handy. While our daughter screamed and flailed, I hid outside the operating room completely unable to assist. On the way home, I couldn’t stop shaking.
“She’ll be fine,” wife said. “They got it all out. They’re just keeping her in overnight for observation.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Instead, I paced the floor, round and round, too agitated to sit down never mind lie down.
Over the years we ended up at emergency any number of times. With two kids that’s not surprising, especially when you’ve got a daughter who’s a jock. She slipped and dislocated a collar bone at school, broke an ankle at soccer, fell on her head during gymnastics–I’d sit petrified while my wife took charge, directing events, obtaining information.
When our daughter got pneumonia we drove her to a hospital in Kansas and they whipped her into a nightgown and began a regime of a needle of antibiotics every four hours, I drove back and forth to the hospital every day frantic with anxiety.
I was, I told myself, an absolute coward, unable to deal with crises. Ineffectual. Helpless.
Then one day, I was hiking with a friend. We’d stopped before crossing a small stream. Some branches had formed a barrier and, instead of pristine water, pollution was piled up against it.
“That’s coming from somewhere upstream. Let’s see if we can find it,” he said.
After two kilometres we came across an old sewage pipe. We’d have missed it because of the brambles but the water above it was clear and we backtracked. My friend knows people in the environmental movement. He told them about the pipe and they reported it. Awhile later he told me the owner hadn’t even known about the pipe. Someone else had put it in.
I’d just made another trip to emergency and the pipe and the hospital somehow came together. The idea that everything had to come from somewhere. It was a startling idea. “When I was ten,” I said to my friend, “I came home one day for lunch and my mother wasn’t there.”
“Your mother’s been taken to the hospital,” our next door neighbor said and I nearly collapsed.
It turned out that she was pregnant in her fallopian tube and had to have an emergency operation. A number of days went by before I rode my bicycle to the hospital. I was in tears at the door and chewing on my fist by the time I got to her room. To my relief she was sitting up in bed looking quite healthy.
Maybe that’s what brought it back strong enough to wake me up from a sound sleep. I sat staring into the darkness, listening to my father say when I was little, not once, or even twice, but over and over, “People go to hospital to die.” He must have been twenty-three or four then because I was around four or five. That’s what happened to his mother when he was twelve. They took her to a hospital in Winnipeg and she died. An old event, forgotten and obscured, like that sewage pipe covered in brambles and fern.