REFLECTING ON: Adulthood versus childhood....
So, I gotta little story that I must tell. Last week, when I was volunteering at the ER, I met this guy that made me think of my whole Cal experience and thought that I would share. So. First a little background. Every Thursday, I volunteer from 9pm-midnight. In addition to the normal “go-fer” jobs and scrubbing gurneys, it’s my job to relay information between patients and families as well as calm the folks down in the waiting rooms that have been, well, waiting. If you’re a patient, it’s not fun to come to the ER—an unexpected event goes down and then: boom! There you are, stuck in the ER—totally at the whim of the institution and its elements. I get it. It sucks. Some of the waiting room folks get a little cross with me. I try to imagine switching places with them and be as sympathetic as I can. It’s not always so easy. “…No mam, I don’t know what it’s like to not pee for a whole day. It must be pretty painful [woman is also talking on her cell phone while talking to me, she finishes drinking a Diet Coke]. We’re working to get you in as soon as possible. In fact, provided we have no more ambulances come in, you’ll be next. It’s just that we had those three ambulances come in back-to-back with strokes and heart attacks so we had to bump you down. [woman becomes incredulous] Why isn’t it a first-come, first served basis? Well, we have to treat the most severe illnesses first so that those people have a better chance at recovery and, well, don’t pass on. [woman now getting gruff and demanding] Can you at least have some water? Uhm…well. I can check with your nurse, but given your condition it’s probably best that you not drink any more liquids. Drinking liquids will put more pressure on your bladder and increase your pain. I’m not a clinician, but those are just my thoughts. [woman becomes just mean] Okay, I won’t share my thoughts. [husband stands up and demands that I get her water without talking to the nurse] Sir, I understand that this is a really lousy situation that your wife is in but I have to at least check with the nurse about the water. No. No sir, I’m not discriminating against you—I would do the same thing for any patient here.”
All the while I’m trying to be cool, I am wearing khaki pants, white shoes, a white polo shirt, and a RIDICULOUS blue smock that is akin to something you would wear when you were in pre-school and about to get down with some water colors and/or finger paints. It makes me look goofy and a little less like a man. It’s okay though: I’m not there to be a man—I’m there to help out and learn.
So last Thursday, after attending to my normal waiting room duties, I come back into the ER and I notice this guy in the corner. Now normally this particular bed is reserved for the drunks that come in so that they can sober up (read sober up as “pass out and get an IV full of electrolytes and vitamins”). But I notice this guy is anything but passed out. In fact, while lying down on the gurney, he’s jubilantly shouting gibberish rhymes at the top of his lungs while arching his back, belly-up, as if in the throws of a tantric, rhyme-induced orgasm. Hey, at least he’s happy. But he’s also very loud and that doesn’t help the guy next door recovering from a stroke. I walk up to him and he’s singing…
“Ringa ding ding/I can find out if your life is in a sling…”
He’s so tickled by his verse that he shrieks like a two-year old meeting Big-Bird for the first time. It’s at this point that I notice his eyes are like freaking saucers. I mean there is barely any iris to be seen—all pupil. It’s like he’s in the midst of a full, pupil eclipse with the smallest ring of blue surrounding this vacuous black circle. I’m pretty sure he’s on a hallucinogen, though the nurse seemed to think he’s on meth. He has a healthy complexion and I didn’t notice any of the scabs or ashen skin tone that I see with folks on meth. This guy is “on one” in a way that I've seen before. My guess is LSD or mushrooms.
“Ringa ding ding/The man with the ring [he’s looking at my wedding band] thinks he’s the king, while I lay back and bask/The light the light, something I won’t fight, and that my friend is also your task.”
I smile and really look at his face. He looks like an angelic cabbage patch kid. His face is rosy and his blond hair is tussled in every direction. He’s only wearing one Teva and his shorts, I notice, are unzipped. This one-sandaled cherub has got a zeal painted across his face that, though I believe is chemically induced, I am slightly jealous of because he is obviously feeling something good that I am worlds away from. I’m pretty sure that he thinks he has the answer. I’m jealous of that too. I snap away from my thoughts and concentrate on the task at hand. Time to establish rapport. “Hey man, you’re having a good night, huh?”
He squeals with glee. Apparently he has now regressed to around six months old and starts playing peek-a-boo with me. He hides his face under the hospital blanket that is now hiding his unzipped shorts, and then re-emerges with another rhyme. “The cat and the mouse are off to play house/where will you be when…”
The nurse signals me to come over. I excuse myself, but he hardly notices that I have left because I can still hear him reciting more rhymes. The nurse asks that I establish a rapport with him so that we can get his name and insurance information. Our rhyming, saucer-eyed boy is a John Doe at this point. Though establishing rapport was what I was already doing, I acquiesce to the chain-of-command and tell the nurse he’s got a good idea. It’s better than acting like a know-it-all. More squeals in the background. The nurse also charges me with the task of calming him down. I agree, and as I walk back to him, I begin formulating a strategy. Okay, fine. I have no strategy. I really feel that this is one of those things that I am gonna have to feel out. I also wonder if this is a part of a volunteer’s normal duties. No matter. This beats scrubbing blood and feces off gurneys and making runs to the pharmacy. I’m back. He’s in mid rhyme and incorporates my presence into his ramblings. “…and was told with a kiss. Dismiss! Dismiss! The ringed man told Mathias, though I…”
“…sat in a bed and spoke gibberish.” I interrupt and finish his rhyme. He is overjoyed at finding a playmate. Gleaning his name from the rhyme, I realize that the saucer-eyed boy is named Mathias. More squeals—this time louder than before.
“Mathias, I need you to tone it down a notch. Your voice is loud and bothering some of the other patients. We got some pretty sick people here tonight and they’re not having as much fun as you.” He seems to think about what I’ve said but says nothing. I’m surprised. I guess that was the point though—he’s now quiet.
Mathias closes his eyes and smiles. I note to myself that whatever he’s tripping on, he must be having a good trip, because he hardly seems to care that the toe on his non-sandaled foot is bleeding, though not severely. Not only that, one of the veins in his right hand is connected to an IV bag of 0.9% sodium chloride. I've never done hallucinogens, but that’s the sort of stuff that I would perseverate on if I were on tripping. I’m sure I would go into a post-apocalyptic scenario where I wholeheartedly believed that the machines I was attached to were taking over my body. I do that when I’m sober.
I’m also impressed that he’s so upbeat while in the hospital. So much of how I feel is determined by where I am in physical space. I remember once being in the most disgusting bathroom I’d ever been in my entire life: shit smeared on the walls, flies hovering above me, flickering, buzzing fluorescent lights overhead, and an account of a sexual escapade scrawled on the bathroom stall beside me. After taking a quick piss, I almost ran out of there, but then paused and wondered if I was ever locked in a place like this, could I be mentally strong enough in to ever find happiness again. I’m kind of crazy, I think to myself, who thinks like that?
Damn reality…I feel that I have been dealing with it for a while.
While Mathias silently trips, I continue to trip on my own thoughts for a while. First to the front of my mind where there are lists of things to do. I check off bills that I’ve paid and think about how to find scholarships in order to pay for the nursing program I got just into. I wonder if my wife, Masako, is watching TV or studying. I then begin to worry that I haven’t been nice enough to her lately. Being married is a big deal and makes me nervous sometimes. I start thinking about our life together and the concept of “forever”. Our life is finite, but they say that we will be together forever in the ceremony. Wait. No they don’t. They say ‘Til death do us part. Why did I interject the forever part in there? Forever seems a lot more overwhelming than ‘Til death do us part. I take comfort in that thought. Typical me—always making things more overwhelming than they need to be. At least death is guaranteed. My thoughts become tangential and race around in a blue blur for a while. Then I look back to Mathias.
Mathias’ enormous eyes have opened and stare directly at me. Normally I avoid people’s direct stares, but he is so obviously content with life that I allow our eyes to meet for a full minute. Our inhalation and exhalation begins to match. We say nothing. Oh my God, I kind of feel like he’s scraping the back of my brain with his intensity. Then, as if suddenly completely lucid, he says, “I’m glad you’re here.”
I tell him that I’m glad to be there too. Taking note of this sudden fling with lucidity and forever being practically fused the task at hand, I want to ask him what he took, what his name is, and what his health insurance ID is. Bad idea. He’s only begun to come down. I ask Mathias what he’s thinking. Mathias smiles quietly but then suddenly looks overwhelmed. It’s the first time I’ve seen him without the smile of a zealot. Not wanting him to go on a bad trip, I tell him that he doesn’t need to tell me, but that if he wants to talk about what he’s thinking, I’m right there.
“I’m so juiced to be dying,” he says.
My gut reaction is to be sarcastic and condescending. Although normally I would have praise for a thought like this, I have already unconsciously characterized Mathias as a green undergraduate who has yet to truly live independently. How can he possibly be “juiced” to be dying when he’s hardly experienced life? Thoughts like this pass in a flash and then I remember my task. “Why’s that?” I ask, trying not to let condescension creep into my vocal cords.
“We’re living this monument—this huge thing and we get to experience it! Life, man. It’s really fucking spectacular. I feel it right now in every pore of my body.”
Although I continue to feel glib, condescending and dismissive, I want to believe what he’s saying because it’s true. Life is spectacular. Experiencing it is amazing. Why can’t I remember that? At the same time, this little boy named Mathias has barely begun to pay dues or feel the thumb of responsibility.
Suddenly, my mind abandons all pretense. I want to be on what he’s on. I want to feel unworn. I regain mental composure. I reach out my hand to shake his. His hand meets mine. It’s warm. I wonder where his hands have been. I like warm hands better than cold hands, though. “I’m Nat.”
“Mathias,” he replies.
“What’d you take tonight, Mathias?”
“SHROOMS!” he exclaims, and I watch his eyes just about pop out of his head. Just saying the word brings on a psychedelic roll of ecstasy. His eyes roll so far back into his head that I can only see white between his eyelids.
“Nice. So, this may be a silly question, but other than good, how are you feeling tonight? You know, is there anything else going on that you feel?” I’m intentionally not asking his last name and insurance information because I still can’t quite gauge how he will react. I really hope he doesn’t have a rhyming relapse and feel that the wrong question might send him back. Mathias ignores the latter part of my question.
“Really, really good. I FEEL SO FUCKING GOOOD! I feel lucky. Just laying here is soooo good. God damn it’s GOOD!” He begins to howl just like a coyote and bridge his back while thrusting his pelvis towards the heavens. The security guard looks to me for reassurance, I extend my open hand that signals him to hold up for a second.
“Mathias. I know you might have forgotten, but we have some really sick people here tonight. Some of them are on the verge of dying. I think they would like it very much if you could not yell.”
“They’re lucky.” I hear this and my interest in his cosmic voyage slams to a dead-stop. I thought I was condescending. How can he presume to know what they’re going though? He’s lying there, totally healthy, and aside from being in a temporary, self-induced, chemically altered state, he is completely healthy and will walk out of here in a few hours. There’s a woman here tonight who vomited up feces because of intestinal blockage. She also has pancreatic cancer and will most likely die within a couple of days. This kid will probably just get the munchies. I am angry with this boy and want to slap the taste out of his mouth. I hope I am keeping a calm exterior. He begins to speak again, “But I am like them, too. From my first breath I was dying, and so are they.”
I regain a small, tepid interest in his thoughts. At least he’s thinking about interconnectedness. That’s good. "He’s just naïve," I think to myself, "He’s not bad so much as he is green. You were like that once too. In most respects, you still are."
I calm down a bit. I can tell my ears have become red. They do that when I’m holding something in.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a selfish action.” Mathias says it in a way that makes me think it is an implied question. I bite. I probably shouldn’t debate with a tripped-out undergraduate in the Emergency Room that is only known by his first name, but I suddenly feel that it is really necessary to ground this guy.
“Well, I gotta disagree with you there Mathias. I think all actions are inherently selfish, except for maybe mothers protecting their children. You know, like the mama bear syndrome? Even then, she’s protecting her kin, not someone else’s necessarily.” As soon as I finish, Mathias is silent and I regret even having entertained what he was saying. Of course, he and I were just both thinking about death as being comforting, so I wonder if he picked up on that?
“What about Mother Theresa?” Mathias questions. I am glad he isn’t tripping so hard. He’s beginning to show signs of logic.
“I’m sure she gets her kicks from helping folks. I mean, I know she does amazingly hard work and it leaves her exhausted, but my gut tells me think that she must get something good out of it. If helping lepers made her feel like she was being rubbed out of existence by a thousand cheese graters, I have a feeling that she would stop. I’m no Mother Theresa, but I like helping people too. Helps me sleep at night—I feel like I’ve maybe left the world a better place than when I woke up. If it made me feel bad, I think I’d stop.” I wonder where the cheese grater metaphor came from. Mathias just harrumphs and wrinkles his forehead. I can tell he’s significantly calmer than twenty minutes earlier. I don’t know why, but I figure it’s time to ask him his name. “Look, Mathias, we gotta get you in our system and give you a name other than John Doe. Even better is if you could also tell me your medical insurance provider, medical ID number, and social security number.”
“Oh. My name is Mathias Youngblood. I don’t know my medical insurance information or my social.”
Wow. He doesn’t know his social security number. Mathias is a child, but at least he’s asking good questions and thinking about interconnectedness. At least I still am too.
“Okay Mathias. I’ll be frank with you. We can either have you figure out this information by calling one of your roommates or you can call your parents. Or, if you like, we can call your parents. Again, I can’t force this information from you, but it would make taking care of you a bit easier. What do you got?” I realize my tone has gone from rapport-building to no-nonsense and decide to tone it down a notch.
Mathias responds surprisingly quickly, as though he really wants to resolve the matter. I’m always surprised when people are cooperative. “Well, I just moved into a Co-op and don’t really think my roommate will be much use to us. Go ahead and call my parents.”
My friend used to live in a Co-op at Cal. That was a place where just about do anything could happen. Always seemed like an adventure was at hand. I remember standing on its roof with a whole bunch of folks, three stories up, and screaming at the sun to celebrate its setting. Wow. That was a long time ago. I’m starting to feel sad—like I’ve lost someone.
My thoughts return to Mr. Youngblood. He still wants to be taken care of. He willingly tells me his full name, address, and contact information for both his parents. I give this information to the nurse and he calls his folks, explaining where Mathias is and how he got there. I can hear Dad yelling over the receiver. I turn to Mathias and he has fallen completely asleep. Apparently the sedative they gave him finally kicked in. I look to the clock and see it’s well past midnight and time for me to go. The smock comes off and I say goodnight to the charge nurse and security guards. I gotta get home and get some sleep—I got work in the morning.