Onward and Out
The ED wasn’t how I’d pictured it. From the triage tent, we could barely even see it. When I heard the news from Jim I pictured droves of nurses and doctors donning white gowns and masks, and families overflowing hospital rooms. I pictured an alien, distant type of human suffering with dying patients hooked up to life support in dark, sterile rooms beneath a blinding surgical light. The hospital was empty, or so we were told. Neither Jim nor I could set foot inside. Families weren’t allowed. Pop was all alone.
Pop probably didn’t believe in the virus. He wasn’t one to worry about much. As a kid I’d rub the condensation off our attic window and try to catch a glimpse of him working the fields through the late summer storms, just to be sure he hadn’t been struck by the lightning all around. I can hear the futile attempts of mom yelling his name on the porch, her voice dampened by the power of the wind and rain.
When I heard that COVID was in New York visiting home was the last thing on my mind. Going anywhere was the last thing on my mind. Stores were emptied. It felt something like the first scene of a horror film which intentionally puts its audience off just enough to remind them that something ominous is on its way. I can’t remember if it’d been a week or a month when everything went down—when you haven’t said more than a few words face to face to another human being in weeks, weeks might as well be years. The third time I saw the 601 area code I knew I had to pick up. I was told I had “maybe until tomorrow” to get to the hospital, and the sooner the better: “things can happen quick.”
Jim’s voice sounded the same, but worn. Pop kept an eye on Jim ever since his Dad passed. He became a brother to me. Jim didn’t want me to leave for college. He was afraid I’d change. The day before I left for school I waited for Jim to get off from work so we could go fishing one last time. I sat on Pop’s rocking chair on the porch, getting eaten by gnats in the late August heat. As the afternoon colors deepened and the cicadas filled the air with their song I felt my throat grow tight and my eyes heavy, much as I do now. When Jim returned we walked by the river to the fishing hole a few miles north like we always did. This time we didn’t talk about sports or girls. We didn’t talk about anything. Sitting on the bank I tried to remember what Mom told me before Jim’s dad passed: “Nothing collapses. Everything is onward and out.”
A few more families had joined us. “Social Distancing.” I looked over at Jim and then to the hospital where Pop was, and then back to the other families. Even though we stood alone we stood together. I felt the knot in my throat and the cold sweat on my hands. I felt our collective breath exhale as a cold dusk emerged and the sun set beneath the horizon.