Monday, February 7, 2011

the old man and the red sweatshirt woman

i keep playing it back in my mind in slow motion. in real-time, though, it happened so quickly. the roar of the crowd. the pounding of footsteps on pavement as racers held the finish line in their sights just fifty yards ahead. metal crowd separators stood between us and the runners in the lanes leading them just fifty yards ahead to the finish line. on the far side, separated by red ticker-tape were the marathoners in their own lane. on the near side, closest to me were the half-marathoners, so close to finishing, yet so far away. my eyes scanned for a single familiar face as i stood on my tippy toes and watched too many strangers to count run by.

a man in his late fifties or early sixties as he came into my sight, as if i was meant to see him. just as he passed my foothold in the crowd outside his running lane, i watched his body pause and head almost snap back. he dropped to the ground and i saw, heard, felt his head smack the asphalt. his body lay limp for a single second before he began to convulse. is anyone else watching this? i looked around as the women huddled next to me in search of their own family member or friend looked on in horror. several runners stopped and kneeled next to the man, unsure of what to do or how to help.

i gasped for air, feeling claustrophobic but unable to move or look away or close my eyes. someone yelled for a medic. the man seized again and i felt tears streaming down my face, and a rock in my throat, which must've risen from the pit of my stomach where it sat quietly just moments before. a medical team arrived and asked everyone to step away. people around the man scuffled and scattered. a woman kneeling next to the man did not get up, but continued whatever she was doing. a medic must've asked her to step away again, because she yelled, "i'm a nurse and a paramedic, i know what i'm doing!" more scuffling as the medic came in closer and allowed the nurse to continue working while he asked her questions to understand the man's situation.

i looked on and saw the man had stopped moving. complete stillness. a woman next to me said, "oh god, i think he's dead." i don't know what possessed me to look back over but when i did i saw the man lying limp, except for the movements from the nurse performing cpr on him. i turned away and didn't look back.

just as i turned away from the scene, erin returned from her search for our first friend to cross the finish line to report that she lost him in the chaos beyond the finish line. she asked if i'd seen our other friend and i said, "no," then explained that a man had passed out right in front of me, cracked his head on the pavement in seizures and now they were giving him cpr. tears had been on my cheeks, but now i couldn't contain my sobs and erin pulled me away from the crowd to console me.

i sobbed uncontrollably in her arms for what seemed like forever, thinking to myself, stop being so stupid, dian! you don't even know the guy. i paused for a moment, lifted my head and said, "i can't see that man die, we have to go now," then dropped my head again and wailed more sobs into erin's shoulder. she tried to honor my request and back me away, but my legs would not move.

once my emotions were somewhat under control, we walked forty feet closer to the finish line and stood back from the fence, where we could still see racers pass by, but where the crowd also blocked my view of the man and his cpr administration. i stood facing the race lane, near catatonic as visions of my father flooded my mind.

seizures in the hospital. seizures that started in the early afternoon and got progressively worse until 3am, but didn't subside completely until after 6am. seizures i documented from 10pm to 5am, cataloging length, intensity, and interval. seizures i witness alone while the rest of the family slept comfortably in their beds like i'd asked them to. seizures i thought i'd moved past, more than five years after his death. seizures i now knew i would never forget.

just to my right, a woman in a red sweatshirt slunk down to her butt and held on to the legs of a woman in a white sweatshirt standing next to her to keep her from falling completely to the ground. the white sweatshirt woman removed her sweatshirt, folded it up and put it under the red sweatshirt woman's head for comfort. a police officer walked past and asked the women if they were okay. he spoke into the speaker/microphone attached to his shoulder, an extension of the walkie talkie on his belt and calls for paramedics.

just after an ambulance pulled up to the scene, erin overheard someone say something about an iv. she looked over to the area the medics had been tending to the man to see the paramedics were preparing to load the man onto a stretcher. the red sweatshirt woman next to me seemed to be fine, although she would also be loaded onto a stretcher for further precautionary evaluation.

it was super bowl sunday, and we had plans to watch the game at a friend's house later in the day. the thought of laughing and cheering being anywhere other than on my couch with my girl and my dog made my stomach churn. erin canceled our plans on my behalf and held me tight. my heart pounded as i thought about the man getting on the stretcher and being taken away. i was relieved to think he'd survived. a wave of tears came and i let them. no sobs, no sounds, just tears, and the slight rise of another lump in my throat. both the tears and the lump subsided within sixty seconds and i focused on the race again, attempting to pause the loop of my father's seizures.

erin's face lit up and she screamed our friend's name. i followed her lead and found myself surprised to be hooting and hollering right along with her, "wooohoo! yeah, you did it!" in between whistles and clapping, the ring on my middle finger slapping up against the bones on the inside of my palm. erin grabbed my hand and asked if i was ready to go find them.

i was ready. ready to leave the man in his ambulance on his way to recovery. ready to leave the red sweatshirt woman in the care of the white sweatshirt woman and the paramedics. ready to leave my father's seizures and my heavy heart at the finish line and move on to whatever was next.

we found our friends, congratulated them on their half marathon finishes, and chatted for an hour before heading back to our respective homes. erin and i stopped for lunch on the way home and i continued to process the morning's events. i apologized for bringing up the man and the sound of his head hitting the pavement and his seizures again, but i needed to process it all, rather than let the tape of my father's seizures continue to loop in my head. she held my hand and let me talk, let me cry, let me be.


as i sit here this morning trying to put everything together and make sense of yesterday's events, i'm struck by just how random life really is. that man woke up yesterday morning to run a half marathon, and instead got within fifty yards of finishing to be taken away in an ambulance, barely clinging to life. a woman woke up yesterday morning, put on her red sweatshirt to cheer on a friend or family member, and passed out on the sidelines, missing whomever she'd been cheering on.

and me, i woke up thinking i'd do some cheering, some eating, some more cheering and more eating, surrounded by friends. instead i was reminded of just how fragile life is, how sacred the space on my couch is, and how my memory isn't about what's important, but what's impacted me the most, no matter how much i try to forget.


sometimes we're the old man who's so close to finishing, and life takes over with its own agenda. sometimes we're the woman in the red sweatshirt who pushes herself too hard for the sake of another, doing more damage to ourselves than good for another. and sometimes we're the innocent bystander who watches it all and tries to piece the learning together for the good of us all.