My husband, Alan, and I were at the Atlanta airport waiting for our sandwiches at a restaurant when I was startled by an intrusive sound: a loud forceful woman’s voice counting, “20, 21, 22, 23… 30.” I tried to place this in some meaningful context. I could not.
I bolted out of the restaurant. There, kneeling on the floor, was a woman dressed in a pink rhinestone-studded sweatshirt and a pink rhinestone-studded cap giving cardiac resuscitation to a tall, heavy man lying beside her. I assumed she was an EMT worker; it seemed odd that she was dressed in pink rhinestones, but I recalled that the next day was Halloween and chalked it up to that.
The man’s entire torso was exposed, revealing his plentiful, flabby abdomen, which rippled in response to the woman’s life-saving activity. Another man crouched at the patient’s head, tracking his pulse.
My own heart was pounding. I felt utterly pulled into the drama in front of me, simultaneously observer and silent participant. Alan, who had followed me out of the restaurant, could not bear to watch and walked away. I looked around for someone who might be the man’s family. No one had stepped forward to claim him. He was alone.
Another man approached carrying a small black device he used for electrical cardiac stimulation. Two minutes had gone by, but it felt longer. Still no pulse. Now I could see the patient’s pale, lifeless face. He looked very far away, almost peaceful in spite of the rigorous efforts being made by the woman in pink, who now was looking spent. Then she and the man at the patient’s head traded places in a wordless exchange. The counting and thrusting continued. I heard one of the men say, “Still no pulse.”
I found that I was annoyed with the dying man. He was not that old. Had he ignored his doctor’s orders to take care of himself? Why hadn’t he lost some weight? Would it have made any difference in preventing his imminent death? How much control over our lives do we really have?
I am a cautious person; I follow the rules for healthy living, believing it will make a difference. Perhaps my dying man had thrown caution to the wind. I thought of my brother-in-law, who lies in the sun without sunscreen. He claims the sun’s rays bounce off of him. He is a brilliant, successful man, yet he flirts with danger in this risky, foolish behavior.
Alan circled back and gently took my arm to lead me away. “Let’s leave this poor man to die in private,” he whispered. I felt glued in place by my need to see what would happen to him, but, reluctantly, I let Alan walk us slowly to our plane. Putting on my seat belt, I felt locked into myself. Stunned, I felt I had just had a personal loss. I had never seen anyone die.
Madeleine Jacobson is a retired psychoanalyst and psychotherapist using her gift of time for memoir writing and classes. She lives with her husband in Tarrytown, close to her daughter and granddaughter. Her passions include ballet, literature and time with family and friends.