The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments and musings
I had never seen a flag ceremony up close before, but I saw my first one recently when working in the ED. It was early in the morning, and we had just begun our shift. The PA, a chipper and beautiful young woman, and I were sitting in the doctor's nook talking about our Thanksgivings, when a silence suddenly penetrated our conversation, like a creeping fog that subtely immerses an entire city. I turned around and saw that everyone was standing up around the nurse's station, eyes directed at something to the right.
My eyes followed their gaze, and I saw three men dressed in handsome military attire standing to the right of the nurse's station. They had the caps on, the buckles and the buttons, white gloves, and erect posture. One of them held a folded flag in his hands, and with a nod of his head, signaled his partner to unfold the first flap. The flag ceremony began.
I watched, captivated, as the two unraveled the flag. Their movements were so swift, precise, and synchronized. They locked their eyes, nodded, and then made the same movements to open the flag wider, and wider, one folded triangle at a time. The stars and banners began taking form, and soon the flag was opened wide,
Up to this point I still did not know why this ceremony was taking place. I thought there was a holiday that I missed, or perhaps this was a yearly, or perhaps even monthly ritual, at this hospital. Or perhaps they had opened up a new facility and were honoring it. I was correct in that they were honoring something, but I was also completely wrong.
All activity had stopped in the usual ER. All the nurses, doctors, techs, and patients had paused to stand and watch, some with hands over their hearts. The room felt sacred and serious.
The soldiers were standing behind the nurse's station, so the station's counter covered most of my view of them from the waist down. It wasn't until they lowered the flag, and my eyes followed it's graceful movement downwards, that I saw it: something long, a lump, a mass with a a protrusion at one end. The whole thing was covered with heavy, velvet, black cloth. When I heard the sound of wheels creaking, my suspicions came true. That mass is a human. That human is on a gurney. That person is dead.
That last second right before the flag finished covering the body seemed to last an eternity. Once the body was completely covered, and the obvious evidence of life lost hidden behind the flag, time sped right back up again. Within seconds, the soldiers had wheeled the gurney out the double doors. I watched as some of the standing people followed. His family members. I suddenly felt so much love for them. The rest of the party separated, and the day progress as usual.
Still in the minutes, seconds, and hours afterwards, I still felt a chill. I kept on thinking of the protrusion at the end of the gurney. The head sticking out from underneath the velvet cover. so impossible to ignore. The PA spoke to me, "When it's military, it's always really sad."
Even though the patient had already been wheeled away, and the room that he was in cleared and made way for a new patient, I was shaken at how close death was. It was as if, after picking mushrooms and washing my hands clean, the scent of the earthen fungus remains, musky and somber. I had never been so temporally close to death before, and I could feel it still creeping on the floors of the hospital, like a lingering fog.
I only heard about the case from here and there, but the story pieced itself together: came in my ambulance, unable to breath, coughing, coughing, history of heart failure, didn't want any resuscitation, and then, in the middle of the night, a pronouncement was made. I could only imagine the stress, the number of phone calls made, how much that doctor fought to keep the patient alive, how hard that patient fought to stay alive, and how much that family tried their best to keep someone they love afloat. And then knowing that the fight ended, it broke my heart a little.
We saw a good number of patients after that. I saw many cases that I had never seen before: a case of shingles, another of serotonin syndrome, and then a case of something called Stiff Person Syndrome. Some patients were pleasant, others uncooperative and cranky. Some were good historians, some were very poor historians. But they all came into the ER, not just because they wanted to feel better, but because they wanted to live. After starting the morning with a death, I began to see how precious life is, and how everyone's life matters as much as anyone elses.
I think this is a simple truth that is often unappreciated: that everyone's life matters. I think we often go through life choosing to not recognize others as human, choosing to recognize only our own lives. We see others as half human, half alive, negligible. But when you recognize that there is life in others, and you recognize that each life is precious, everything takes on a different light, one that is serious and sacred. It was only after feeling, closer than I ever had before, the darkness of death--that black velvet covering--did I appreciate this light more, and what a difference it has made in my ability to love others.
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.