6 May 2021
I wasn’t normally a smoker but that night when Rothco, the ER charge nurse, joined me outside and offered me a cigarette I gladly took it.
I had just X-rayed my first dead person, a twelve-year-old with a thin line of peach fuzz across his upper lip. We didn’t normally have to X-ray dead people, but the morgue’s machine was broken so they’d called and asked if we’d shoot some films, see if he had any fractures to go along with the bleeding in his brain that had killed him. The story I’d heard was that he’d been walking home when a car hit him. What he was doing on the side of the road in the dark didn’t seem to matter.
After finishing the X-rays, a little after midnight, I had walked out the side door of the hospital. It didn’t make sense to me that the night was so alive with the sound of cicadas and frogs when inside, no more than thirty yards away, this boy was lying dead on a stretcher. I wondered what his parents were doing, and if they had any idea their son wasn’t home. Maybe they were already on their way to the hospital. I wondered what my mother was doing – probably sleeping – and if she was dreaming about me. If she did dream about me was it twelve-year-old me or the current 23-year-old version? Was I the same person to her, never changing?
This was all rolling around in my mind when I saw Rothco walk out of the hospital and come towards me. He was in his forties, shaved his head and rarely smiled.
I took the cigarette he offered, puffed on it twice and tried not to cough.
He lit his own, then said, ‘Sorry to make you X-ray that kid back there.’
‘It’s part of the job,’ I said. ‘People die every day.’
He raised his eyebrows and nodded as if to say, Sure, try to be tough. After exhaling a wall of smoke, he said, ‘My mother is dying.’
‘Pancreatic cancer. Every morning when I get home, I expect to find her dead.’
This was the most he’d ever spoken to me. I wondered if he’d seen me almost lose it in there, when I had to lift the kid’s leg and set it on an X-ray cassette—how I had to wipe my face to keep from crying. If this was his attempt to comfort me in some way.
‘I moved in with her and switched to night shift three months ago when she got sick,’ he said. ‘This way I’m with her during the day, and she’s sleeping when I’m at work.’
Across the road, a pair of bats circled a streetlight, consuming bugs, completely in control of their flight. I didn’t feel in control of anything.
‘Sometimes I check on her on my lunchbreak,’ Rothco said, ‘just to make sure she’s breathing.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I’d whispered the same words to the dead boy when the two of us were alone in the trauma room.
Cars drove by on the road, their speed and the darkness making it hard to tell their make and model, sometimes even their color. Around the corner from us, a woman was talking on a cell phone, telling someone that her baby had a fever.
Rothco took a final drag of his cigarette, tossed it on the ground and stomped it out. ‘I’m going to ride over there now, check on her. You want to come? Twenty minutes round trip.’
More cars pulled into the ER parking lot, and I wondered if one of them might be driven by the kid’s parents. I imagined them breaking down when they saw their boy. His face was bruised but not too bad. What they wouldn’t be able to see was the hemorrhage in his brain, and how both of his femurs and his pelvis were fractured.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I’ll go.’ I’d told Ray, the other X-ray tech, that I just needed to get some air, but I’d deal with him when I got back, say I’d decided to go ahead and take my break.
When Rothco turned the key of his truck, Johnny Cash boomed from the door panels. We drove through the neighborhood that bordered the hospital, heading in the opposite direction of the apartment I’d moved into three months ago after finishing X-ray school, leaving my mother in our house by herself. I’d moved out because I had a real job and could afford it and I was an adult; it was time to go. But now, I felt guilty for leaving her. My father had been gone for over a decade, and my sister had moved to North Carolina two years ago.
‘You know,’ Rothco said, ‘if you’re going to stay in this game a long time you’ll see a lot worse than that kid. You’ll see babies with limbs missing, burn marks on their foreheads. You’ll see shit you won’t ever forget. Some nights, I swear, it’s like fracture city in there.’
‘Great,’ I said.
‘You could always go work at McDonald’s, or the mall.’ I knew he was joking, but I didn’t laugh; it wasn’t funny. None of this was.
We didn’t speak again until we pulled into his mother’s crushed-stone driveway. The house was white and square, much bigger than the one I’d grown up in. There was a row of palm trees in the front yard by the road, and a wooden fence circled the back yard.
Rothco climbed out and shut his door, then opened it again. ‘You coming?’
The inside of the house was sparse, and Rothco didn’t turn on the lights, so I could barely make out a couch, a love seat and a recliner. Was this what it was like to be a burglar, to be able to see only the outlines of what was in front and around you?
Rothco said, ‘I’ll be right back,’ then turned down the main hall leading away from where I stood.
I opened the sliding glass doors that led to the back yard. There was no grass, only a pool surrounded by cement. With the underwater lights on, I could see the steps at the shallow end. I sat on one of the lounge chairs and listened to the hum of the AC. I thought again of my mother. Three days ago, she’d left a message on my answering machine, asking if I could come over and help her get the lawnmower started. She said she thought it might be the spark plug or maybe she’d flooded it. I stood there and listened to her leave the message and didn’t pick up the phone or call her back because I didn’t want to mow that damn yard I’d mowed thousands of times before. Now, sitting by the pool, I wished I’d driven over to her house right then or the next morning, and replaced the blade and checked the spark plug and gone ahead and mowed the yard.
This is an extract from Signs of Life, an anthology of fiction and memoir written by doctors, patients and carers around the world, published by IndieMosh on 30 April and available through Amazon. The audiobook will also be available on Apple, Audible and Amazon.
Signs of Life is edited by Dr Sarah Sasson, a physician and writer from Sydney. Her work explores human relationships, memory, medicine and biology and has appeared in Meanjin, Medium and Grieve Anthology, among other places.