Friday night, my wife calls me at school and says she has food poisoning. I can hear the crack in her voice, so I drive home, imagine a weekend juggling two kids under two while she’s holed up in the john. When I arrive, she is hunched over in pain and says she needs to lie down. I hold our four-month old daughter and order a pizza for dinner. Ten minutes later, my wife hobbles back, doubled over, and panting.
“Should I call urgent care?” I ask.
I am on the internet looking for our doctor’s number, but it’s past five and he’s in the suburbs, a half hour from our house in the little country town. We have a Domino’s close but not a doctor. Priorities. Minutes pass. The pizza guy hasn’t come and our almost-two-year old son is looking hungry. I microwave some macaroni and cheese for him. He eats without a fight. My wife, glassy-eyed, slumps over on the couch like some plush toy that’s lost its stuffing.
“I think I need to go to the emergency room,” she says.
I hesitate and scan the room. Pilots can declare emergencies, but not parents. Every day we spend with our kids presents a moment for which we’d love to shout “mayday” into a black box, but we don’t. We’ve both built up a tolerance.
The pizza guy rings the doorbell and knocks me out of the stupor. I pay him, shove the pizza box in the oven, and then grab the car seat to buckle our daughter in. My wife gets our son’s shoes Velcro-ed. In ten minutes, we are in the minivan driving to the ER.
The hospital is a white ranch building with two long wings that seem to extend forever into a field. We are both from the north where every building of authority has more than two floors. I look in the rearview mirror at our kids strapped in their car seats. Our nearest relatives live a thousand miles away in cities with hospitals on every corner or so it seems.
“I’m going to have to drop you off at the entrance,” I say. “I can’t leave them and take you there.”
My wife nods. I pull up and she pushes herself off with a labored turn, then limps inside. I keep thinking, this is what drug dealers do in movies when their junkie buddy O.D.s, except the dealer normally opens the car door to shove the junkie out. I just pull around to park. I put my son in a monkey backpack whose tail doubles as a leash. My daughter’s car seat snaps into a stroller. The normal ER entrance is under construction, so I have to follow a thin red line marked on the floor with chevrons. Halfway down the long hallway my son discovers the echo and starts to scream. A sign reads: This way to Emergency. I am following.
When we enter the waiting area, my wife is already inside the triage room with the nurse. I can see her silhouette through the frosted glass as my son pulls me toward the blinking lights of the vending machine. This is the closest I will get to her for the next two hours, until I get a friend to pick up my son, and I feed my daughter her bedtime bottle, affectionately known as “the dream feed.”
In the waiting room, my daughter falls asleep briefly on my shoulder, and I put her down in her seat, wolf down a bag of potato chips myself, and make small talk with the only other person there: a middle-aged woman with bangly jewelry whose mother lost consciousness earlier that day.
“You got your hands full,” she says to me.
“You bet,” I say.
“Their mom is inside?”
“Mine, too,” she says. “What’s wrong with theirs?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
On the television, another Friday night rerun segues seamlessly into the next show, erasing the top of the hour. My daughter is up but sits calmly in the stroller. Finally, a nurse calls me up to the window and tells me I can go back to see my wife. I wheel the stroller past the beds and maintain eye contact with my daughter. It’s a rural hospital, so the Friday night ER regulars have been recast: GSWs, ODs, D&Ds: none of the gritty acronyms appear at this operating theater. In their place, we have a woman with an ectopic pregnancy, an old woman with dementia suffering from dehydration, and an agitated old-timer having a stroke who slurs and babbles at all the nurses and eventually has to be restrained and then sedated. His wife is crying and I feel guilty for listening to her sobs. By the time I sit down next to my wife, I can just see the old man’s big toe wiggling through a part in the curtain separating the stalls.
My wife looks better even in the paper gown. She is on a bed, on pain killers, watching reruns of “The Apprentice” with the volume all the way up to cancel out the warblings of the stroke victim. My daughter’s eyes widen each time he shouts. My wife says her diagnosis is suspicion of appendicitis.
“Suspicion?” I ask.
“Take the baby home,” she says. “They’ll schedule me for surgery and you can pick me up later.”
Halfway through another rerun, a nurse pops in and says the surgeon wants to talk.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I say, my inner-Donald Trump rearing. “I’ll put her to bed after we talk to the surgeon.”
By the time The Donald has fired his third tearful contestant, another nurse arrives and wheels my wife out of the ER and into a somber white hallway. When I catch up to them both, my wife already has a surgical cap on her head. Finally, I ask the nurse the question my wife is too shocked to ask.
“When will you be scheduling the surgery?”
“They didn’t wake all of us up to schedule, honey,” the nurse says. She points up ahead to a dimly lit room full of hospital beds. “There’s the surgeon now.”
He looks like a Roman consul, except instead of a toga, he wears lime green scrubs. He stares only at my wife, probes her side. “We’re going to pump your stomach full of gas, insert three holes in your tummy, put our instruments inside and take out the appendix. It shouldn’t take any more than twenty-five minutes.”
He says the word “laparoscopy,” but I picture one of those inept mechanical claws in a pizzeria arcade game lowering into my wife’s abdomen, blindly snatching at viscera. It’s nearly midnight. My daughter is four hours past her bedtime, but now the fluorescent lights are gleaming and the surgery ward has come to life. Two older nurses are prepping the recovery suite. They pull hot blankets out of an oven, tell me to take one and lay the baby on an empty bed, but she’s too busy watching.
The anesthesiologist, a chipper Asian man, has a rolled up magazine in his back pocket. I read for a living, but not while a team of men and women near me remove organs. There is a calm familiarity to the magazine though that tells me this is routine, that I shouldn’t worry. He attaches a hinged pulse-oxygen meter to my wife’s index finger. My mind settles into the cadence of her bleeping heart.
I know the word “appendix” in a different context. It’s the chapter at the end of a book. It’s the place where the author sticks minutiae. The arcane tidbits that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Lines of prose beyond the normal.
“It’s time,” the nurse says.
“Do you have any dental work that might fall out and choke you?” the anesthesiologist asks my wife as they wheel her away.
I tell her I love her. I hold our daughter up for one to see the other. For the first time that night, my daughter cries hard, arms flailing, legs drop-kicking air with abandon. Eventually, she will settle into the warm blanket on the bed and my wife will recover well, too. But right then, I let my daughter wail and declare the emergency I am too afraid to admit.