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How To Lose Too Much At Once
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The emergency room is a sea of scrubs and unsynchronized beeps from medical monitors checking patients' vital signs from the four-bed unit where my mother and I found my grandmother curled on her side. I focus on the one attached to her, willing the neon green lines not to fall flat. My throat is dry from dehydration, and my eyes burn from crying most of the day. Involuntarily, I eavesdrop on the nurse next to us. She is attempting to soothe a wheezing child having an asthma attack, assuring the child's father that the medications will soon do their job.
It's close to midnight, and that doesn't feel kind. There is new-fallen snow—a hallmark of northern Ontario's winter weather—spring is still winter, even in mid-March. I long to be back on Vancouver Island, breathing saltwater air, but I would settle for anywhere but here.
The emergency doctor arrives, I know him, but he doesn't know me or pretends he doesn't, and I am relieved. Running into people you know at inopportune times is one of the many pitfalls of growing up in a small town. An excruciating memory is tainted by having it attached to someone you know from high school that works in the emergency room.
It's her heart, and just hours before, my father died.
The phone call that wakes my mother is from the care home where my grandmother lives. With all life force drained out of us, we get out of bed, me howling "fuccccck" loudly and "Are you kidding me." After a few more consecutive "fucks," haphazardly, I pull on my black sweatpants that pass for a regular pair of pants. The purple walls in my room were my choice when I was ten and are now gray. I want them to be purple because if they are purple, then I am ten. If I am ten—my dad is still alive.
The house is cold, dark and sullen, like it, too, is grieving. Earlier that day, we gathered in the dining area, which turned into a makeshift hospital room, but now, my father's hospital bed is dormant. It’s also where I sat with my dad's lifeless body in his outfit of choice, worn-out navy blue sweatpants that he had kept for twenty years or more and a grey t-shirt, also his choice, to be cremated in. Undoubtedly, he would have chosen the same outfit to be buried in. I walk by the kitchen, glance into the dining room and feel my heart shatter a little bit more. It's where we said our final goodbyes this afternoon—not a couple of days ago—not a week— just hours ago. I pull on my boots and jacket and grab the keys to my mother's car and head out the front door. As I drive, I flashback to when the coroners arrived to pick up my father and waste no time. They wheeled him out in a plush green body bag, or was it black? Maybe it was green on the inside and black on the outside, but all I know is that my father was inside, which did something to my body that I cannot explain.
"I can't watch Dad being taken out," my brother says to me with severe pain in his eyes, and I wordlessly nod, then shift my numb feet on the cherry-stained hardwood floor. I understand why my brother does not want his last memories of our father to be this. Days and hours ago, he was a breathing being, and now he was gone forever. "I am going to stay," I force out. I want to reverse time—when we ate ice cream for dinner and cuddled in my father's hospital bed until he fell asleep each night. Instead, we are watching two large men with mammoth hands put my dad's dead body onto a stretcher.
The doctors and nurses chat in the kitchen, and I stay where I can see my father in the dining room, unable to move. The doctors wait for the coroner to sign the death certificate. I don't know what appropriate dead body etiquette is. I can barely take in what is happening as I watch the rose colour in my dad's cheeks leave his body. I want to scream but can't, so I sit and witness my father here but gone.
I stand, surprisingly able to move my legs that feel like bricks and drag myself up to the tan carpeted stairs that overlook the front door like I did when I was a little girl and a teenager, where we would greet friends and family and say our goodbyes. I perch like a bird gazing over them, but this time I am looking at the outline of my dad in a body bag, and he would not be coming back.
Someone from the care home told my mother that my grandmother was found unresponsive and slumped over in her bed. The only information we had was that she had turned blue, the nurses worked on her, and now she was being taken to the hospital by ambulance. With a splitting headache, I drive with intrusive yet realistic thoughts—what if my grandmother and father die the same day—what if my mom's husband and mother die the same day? That's all I could think of for the thirty-minute drive to the hospital. Are we about to plan two funerals at the same time? Were we going to arrive at another loved one's dead body today?
"Well, the family will be up." I smile grimly, "Maybe we can get a two-for-one deal at the funeral home." My mother laughs and shakes her head at me.
We arrive at the hospital parking lot, which is daunting and too familiar. The trips we had with my father: his stroke three years ago, his colonoscopy when the doctor told us the cancer was too invasive for surgery. I knew what that meant. One session of chemotherapy landed him in an emergency room from severe dehydration. I shudder at the thought, push the window button down, grab a ticket, and find the closest parking spot. We walk up to the emergency room entry and step in front of the automatic doors—a burst of hot air wacks me in the face. I notice two wheelchairs, empty and waiting to be claimed by some other family.
We beat the ambulance, and my heart is no longer in my chest cavity. It's in my toe, trying to escape this madness.
We find a spot to sit. Shortly after, my brother walks in groggy and puffy like us. He, too, was attempting to sleep off the worst day of his life. He and his wife had left us later in the day to tell their kids their Papa died. I notice the look on his face. It's the same as mine and the same as my mother’s—grief-stricken. It’s a look I’ve come to know well. My surroundings make my throat close up, still waiting for the ambulance to arrive, and when it does, my throat restricts even more.
On the other side of the two oversized beige emergency room doors, we had no idea if my grandmother was dead or alive. The smell of antiseptic with an assortment of artificial fragrances turns my stomach. We sit silently in a row, wearing our unwanted grief—waiting in disbelief.
I finally see red lights barreling into the side of the hospital. My mother gets up to speak with the receptionist, then gets buzzed into the other side. The massive doors swing when I am let in about ten minutes later.
My grandmother's glazed-over blueish-grey eyes take in how terrible we look, eyebrows raised in her sweet and tender tone, says, "You don't look good. What happened" and continues to repeat it a few more times until we crack. We decided on the car ride to refrain from telling her about my father dying that day. It felt like good manners for your ninety-two-year-old grandmother, who just had a heart attack and may not survive the night, to spare her the details of why we looked so gaunt. She says again, "You don't look so good," which felt like she was peering into our souls, then my mother tells her why. Hand over hers, we stayed by her side for the night.
Our matriarch held us as we held her. Our matriarch survived and made it another year and one month. Our matriarch felt our hearts shatter that day, or maybe it was an awful coincidence.