If no one believes you, then the only outlet for your experience is to write it as fiction
|When you opened the door that day and I first saw your jaundiced face I knew you were ill; it wasn't just the wrinkled, blotchy, old person look.
You rang me about something so ordinary; your vacuum cleaner needed attention, a part of some kind.
Would I pay a home visit just this once?
Oh yes, the benevolent Mr Vacuum Repairman, thinking myself some sort of knight, helping those in trouble with their appliance.
This sounds like some sort of comedy, and there is humorousness about the incident I suppose, but the joke eludes me, recalling what happened.
You showed me the recalcitrant "Hoover" and I recommended a new plastic bit - just boring details, but as I turned at the door to leave, and looked back, you stared wide eyed from your recliner. Your feet were encased in fluffy slippers, your cardigan clutched in a clawing hand. Your eyes were black, like the biblical window to the soul, in some sort of unfathomable, silent, appeal.
The look you gave me would trouble me for the next two weeks, as we travelled away to a convention and on returning home, I saw that the mail-man had delivered the vacuum cleaner part.
I fully expected this next visit to be very brief; exchange the part - you could self-fit to the vacuum - for the required payment.
Then I could escape with a clear conscience, having done my duty to someone's dear old widowed mother, imprisoned in her bed-sit "since last Easter" by her old age. I heard the obvious bitterness against those younger relatives who would "survive" her.
Well, that was your version. I am just the Vacuum man, isn't that right? I can distance myself quite well from any involvement in your baffling family affairs, thankfully!
However, this time, within seconds of you opening the door to your home, in a block of brick retirement units, something happened that would alter my perceptions of life, and death. I cannot remember if you brought your machine out to the lounge room for me to fit the part for you. But I do remember you were out of breath; I could see you struggling to move around, and you sat down - suddenly - in a different chair to last visit. I fleetingly thought it odd that you would sit down in the middle of a conversation about your vacuum cleaner, during all your bustling organization.
You asked me to "Please fetch that puffer for me," indicating an asthma inhaler across the kitchen serving-bench.
Grabbing it I turned to see your head tilted lightly against the armchair cushioning, and you pinned me with bloodshot eyes opened very wide, very dark and full of deep unspeakable terror. I will never forget your next words:
"I'm so scared!"
The appeal for help in your eyes was unmistakable. I'm sure my face lost all its blood at that moment.
You threw your head back, your wheezing struggle for breath reaching a horrible frenzy, and then came the rattle in your throat that shook my self-confidence to the core.
Your breathing ceased.
There was silence. I could now hear quite plainly the distant lawn mower outside, far off seagulls and town traffic. I felt very alone. There had been two of us in your lounge / dining area, now there was just me. You were gone. I had never beheld a body vacated by its owner before.
You might as well be dead already.
Sometimes people discuss what they would do in such a situation, with the relaxed comfort of it not being reality, but here I was confronted by the real deal. Here was a chance to be a hero. It's strange the thoughts that go through your mind. I knew I had two choices.
Either don't do anything and just ring for the ambulance after a few more minutes had passed, or; I had probably less time than it takes to boil an electric kettle to administer my very rusty and completely forgotten First Aid skills.
I was a youngish male in the home of an isolated old lady.
Not the ideal police profile with someone dead, and I'm the only witness, surely?
These were the thoughts racing through my mind, however illogical, in those few seconds.
Although I am a kind caring person generally, I am surely not the hero type, not at all.
But something seemed to automatically engage in my being, because I found myself springing into a coldly efficient action.
I was no longer just a vacuum cleaner fix-it man, but a human helping another human in their time of dire need.
First off, I dialled triple O, which in Australia is the emergency number unlike the American 911.
They calmly asked, “Police, Fire or Ambulance?” The rest is what you'd expect.
Then I asked a question; something basic I’d forgotten about first aid training.
Can I give mouth to mouth on the casualty while sitting in their lounge chair?
I had this reluctance in my mind to move the woman's body thinking I might injure her elderly bones, but the Operator had no such qualms. No, you'll have to place the casualty in the lateral position on the floor. After giving the address and being told the ambulance would be here ASAP I hung up the phone.
My arms were wrapped around the woman's ankles. With no other option I dragged her like a sack of potatoes, and even though I tried to be gentle, her largish body thumped to the carpeted floor. Her false teeth had come adrift slightly, and I remember being taught in First Aid to be careful of obstructions in the mouth, before beginning this process of restarting someone's breathing.
I removed the plate of teeth that were protruding, and placed them nearby.
This story is in no way meant to be some sort of manual to carry out this procedure, and any steps I took were scraped from a shocking memory and outdated training; it must have been at least five or six years since my wife and I had self consciously took turns to blow into the plastic mouth of a training dummy.
Nevertheless this story did happen to me. It really isn't fiction at all. I don't expect you to believe it, because I hardly can believe it myself. As the years go by the memory of it fades somewhat, and I begin to question sometimes.
Did this, or did that really happen that way?
But then the goose bumps on my arms pop, and the colour pallet of my memory returns - as vivid as a photo on one of the new iPhones.
Just get on with it then. Tell it already!
OK, well, I had presence of mind to tilt the lady's head back, form the pistol grip of my right hand, pinch her nose with my left finger and thumb and then...
There is something they don't tell you, in First Aid courses that I'm aware of, and it is this. In your mind this person is dead, or only seconds from it; just a few breaths or lack of them and it's all over, their life is finished.
So as I bent to place my mouth on this elderly woman's all I could think of was, she's dead and I'm about to kiss a dead person or as good as dead, especially if my resuscitation efforts fail!
There welled up on me then a feeling of human love. It seems so ridiculous to say it glibly, cheap and stupid, somehow weak. But it was what I felt at that time, and it doesn't matter to tell it to you now. I don't have to use pretense or try to impress you or convince you. This is just a story on writing dot com right?
I wanted to do anything, whatever it took, to save this woman from that fear she had expressed, such a terrible terror of death. The irony of it did not escape me. Here she was asking for spiritual help from me, an appliance technician. That's how it seemed to me anyway. Perhaps it was just that she was frightened of the pain of her medical ailment, whatever it was, and I could tell right from the first visit that this wasn't the first time this "seizure" or whatever it was, had occurred.
Giving a few quick puffs was the procedure I was taught, but watch out! You don't want to pump up their stomach with your breaths, rather than their lungs! If their initial emergency doesn't kill them, you certainly will if you make that mistake. It causes their stomach contents to expel out their mouth and fill their lungs with vomit. What is the solution to this? Tilt the head back more.
The exact order of what happened next is not clear to me now, but I believe it was about now that a strange and frightening feeling came over me.
I was making a concerted effort to save this woman's life. She was below me as I worked on her. I suddenly became conscious that I was yelling. I was saying things such as "I won't let it get you mate!" and "I'm here, don't be afraid!" and "I'll keep it away!" I think I swore at a perceived or perhaps imagined, enemy.
There was something above me. I was between this something and the elderly woman's inert body. And whatever the something was, I felt that my presence was the only thing keeping it back. While the skin on my back and neck crawled with repulsion and fear, I felt a towering force in myself of anger at this thing and an amazing feeling of protectiveness came over me. That's the only way I can think to explain how it was. I felt ready to defend this complete stranger, whatever the cost to myself, and I felt a complete confidence and strength in doing that impossible task. I'm not saying this to be some sort of warm and cosy superhero. It's how it really felt and it was an automatic reaction, not something I really thought about or premeditated.
I tentatively pushed with the first small breath into her mouth, and it felt wrong. There was this resistance. I tilted her head back. Tried again. The same. I knew then that it must be something blocking her airway and it wasn't debris or insufficient tilt. With no other choice, and time ticking steadily away, I took the risk and gave a strong push, blowing hard.
Whatever had been there suddenly let go, the obstruction moved and was gone.
What followed were unspeakable noises from the woman such as an animal would generate, shrieking and groans of terrible inhuman agony.
You were becoming conscious again! I lay a blanket over you, rearranging your dress that had ridden up and was quite undignified by this time. I took every care to place you gently in the recovery position, what I recalled was a textbook way of doing it.
I then found a glass in your kitchen and placed your false teeth carefully in some water.
Just then the phone rang, taking some years off my life with fright. I was amazed by the emergency operator crew, and their technology that allows them clearance to call the number you rang from, and she advised that the paramedic crew couldn't find the address. My reaction was an exclamation mark of instant action.
I hurdled the low hedge outside the front door and sprinted down the bitumen driveway past the other units. There they were and after some directions they finally found your home.
After being given some oxygen, and something flowing down from a plastic intravenous bag, you were able to stand and walk through your front door, clamber onto the gurney and be slid into the back of the ambulance. You were able to talk to me, knew who I was and offered money for the vacuum cleaner spare part, of all things. Payment was not a priority in my mind. I expected to see you again when you recovered in the hospital and returned home; tomorrow, a few days, next week. We'd discuss this experience together, laugh in relief, marvel at your crazy time, at my feeling of being your shining knight thwarting your personal Grim Reaper's attack. We'd have more time. Hospitals would do what I, a mere appliance technician, could not; fix your aging body.
But I never spoke to you again. It was the last time you would use your front door.
That afternoon I drove home a changed person. The shock began to hit me, and when I walked in the back door of our house, my wife was sitting there, I remember phoning from your unit to see if my wife could come around but of course I had our only automatic vehicle. The other one was manual gear change that she was unable to drive. As I walked in, I just stood and stared, my wife understanding without explanation, and asked for something strong to drink from our cupboard.
I would go to sleep that night only with the bedroom light left on. There was a residue of horror that I could not push out of my mind.
Like an ironic, brand new shock, yes, like a cliched slap in the face to me, your death revisited, more successfully it seemed, the next day. But the family was able to visit you, and spend some time that otherwise would not have been possible, so I suppose there is that dubious comfort.
But the awful thing, angel, grim reaper, death, whatever it was it finished by having the last victory. It had the last laugh.
I attended your funeral but was a complete stranger, sitting in a back pew of the funeral parlour and received a few odd looks from your family and other mourners there.
They didn't realise that I'd become very close to you, not an old lady, but another human in distress, whose body was now lying in front of us all, concealed by a wooden box.
Even after such a confrontation, and the tightrope walk of life and death in the balance, I had felt so certain I would see you again as the rescuing ambulance boosted you to the haven of medical experts.
Death is like that but so is life.
Death should always be unacceptable at any age but people accept it when someone is old or has cancer. It will always be unplanned and incomprehensible.