Updated: Oct 28
Part One in the Death of Picante Saga
While our pit lab Ruby Sue whined from the den on the other side of the French doors, I watched what looked like the starting line-up of a college basketball team carry my wife out the front door on a stretcher. Writhing half-naked beneath a blanket, she scream-pleaded for painkillers loud enough for all the dining scene to hear one block up on bustling Milwaukie Avenue. The six men loaded Kara into an ambulance taking up both lanes of Seventeenth Street for the viewing pleasure of a fat ten-year-old boy moseying past and giggling at the banshee street theatre. I wanted to jump into a time portal with him. Someday these men will come for you, too, I thought-told him,
A few minutes later, a paramedic stepped out of the truck and assured me that my wife was stable. Thanking the woman through my tears, I went back in the house and rounded up items Kara might want for her hospital stay, like her iPad, thermos, and maxi-pads. Then I fell to my knees on the carpet where she'd lain wailing and screamed myself.
I had been holding on to that scream for four years. Perhaps if I hadn't, I would have remembered the rake of it behind my face and made sure I kept the promise I had made with myself the day Kara learned she had stage 4 colorectal cancer. But no, I'd held that scream inside and fucked our lives up all over again, as if Kara couldn't really die, for all the times she'd bounced back from hemorrhages and brain-boiling fevers. And now she was on the way to the emergency room for the third time in six weeks, her legs torched in a hellfire of lactic acid build-up, thanks to me.
I filled two shopping bags with her items and headed for the hospital. Along the way, I drove past a car accident on McLoughlin Boulevard. Three-lane traffic stood backed up for at least a mile going the opposite direction. Some of the injured parties sat slumped on the Jersey barrier, perspiring in the thick June heat as they spoke with first responders.
When I got to the Emergency Room, a grizzled, bony guy about my age rushed ahead of me and begged the receptionists for help. They directed him to a wheelchair where he squirmed and shrieked in agony from what he said was kidney surgery. Breathing slowly through my KN95 mask, I waited for one of the receptionists to call me forward. Meanwhile a young woman started sobbing behind me. With professional mourner's panache, she gave me a duet with the guy in the wheelchair to my right. "Uhh...uhhh...uhhh...." to a chorus of "Oh fuck it hurts oh god oh god why..."
The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," ER-style.
Oh god why. Why had I let Kara struggle through so much pain and weakness? Why had I ignored the signs that she was once again falling in over her head? Over four years ago, lying in bed next to her, I had promised myself I would never again let her get as she sick as she had gotten in the year leading up to her cancer diagnosis. But I had done so, and in a matter of weeks or even days, depending on how you measured her difficulties. Her labs had said she was doing okay only the week before.
"Gimme Shelter" played on. The medical receptionist struggled to locate the charge nurse. It turned out three ambulances, including Kara's, had hit the ER all at once. Finally the woman said, "Screw it, I'm letting this guy in," right in front of me, then beamed at me and told me to go to the automatic doors down the hall. For what would be the last time, although I didn't know it then, I stepped into the medical area in search of my wife, who was about to spend eleven days in Kafka's Care Unit, in a building, to quote the Rolling Stones, "just a shot away."
A while later, after an initial examination, the ER doctor marched in and pronounced the cause of close-to-death:
Next: I'll take "Pain and Humiliation" for one hundred, Alex.
--Charles Austin Muir