The red man: a mother’s tale

Red-manLate afternoon last Sunday I went to fetch a woman from the emergency entrance at the new children’s hospital in town.   You take the sickle-shaped drive up to glass doors and behind them you see a spacious cave, pale green and grey, more like a hotel lobby than a landing stage for frantic families.

She was waiting beneath the portico outside, craning anxiously  forward; before I’d even set the brake she raced across and leaped in.  Only when she was beside me did she ask was I “for Georgia”.  I was.

“Let’s just run to the supermarket in West End,” she said, “I need ice-cream and that, stuff for my daughter.”  Not much of a ride for me, ten minutes in traffic, but a ride is a ride.

She was white in the face but sweating, brown hair unraveling from a ponytail, the neckline of her tunic dragged down to the side.  As we moved off she began a high-speed chatter and it occurred to me anyone might shelter in front of the hospital, with it’s busy street-frontage.  The area is dotted with hostels, and residents commonly wander around in search of remedies.

She had to get ice cream she said, because it was one thing her daughter would eat more than two spoonfuls of.  She needed shampoo, and maybe she would get some crackers, though they could be hard to swallow.

“How old is she?” seemed like a safe enough question.

“She’s four, but she was three when she came in.  It’s a year on Friday.”  What could you do with that?  You are honour bound to ask what’s going on, aren’t you?

The woman said her daughter had a crushed diaphragm and upper spine.

“Her brain can send messages to her body,” she said, “But her body doesn’t know what to do with them.  They get to the middle of her chest and then they sit there; like a traffic jam that never moves forward.  So I do everything from there onwards.  I’m the green man.”

I noticed the Southern Cross needled into her left forearm.  The blue stars were a little coarse and rough-edged now; she’d probably worn that hopeful constellation for decades.  She had a tiny gold stud in her nostril, and a red stone in her ear.

There was little traffic to slow us and we were only seven or eight minutes getting to the shops, but in that hiatus Georgia told me how twelve months previously, she drove herself and all three of her children into a catastrophic accident.

She wasted no time on details about causes, state of mind, none of that, she talked about consequences.

“My second daughter, well she was really, really badly injured but she pulled through.  She’ll be injured all her life, but she’s okay, she can get about.  My son, he climbed out with hardly a scratch – unbelievable, isn’t it?”

“What about you?”

“I had it really bad,” she said, “Lost a few toes, almost lost me foot, but they sewed it all back on, a miracle. I had quite a few broken bits, ribs, calf-bone and that, but they fixed those.  Punctured lungs, both sides.  For about a month I couldn’t remember much, but it was shock not brain damage. I’m lucky.”

“Are you in pain?”

“More inside than out,” she said. “Tara was the one who really caught it.  She was in the back, strapped in her capsule.  She was  three, like I said.  Smashed up. It was an accident.”

“I’m so sorry.”  The protocols of empathy.  Vacant words that could leave you quite alone with your anguish, but Georgia was used to them.

“Oh that’s all right,” she said, “Don’t be sorry. It was an accident. My best friend was in the car behind.  She saw it all happen.  She saw it all, she knows it was an accident.”

This then was the mantra, a cloak and a cover: “It was an accident”.

They lived up north, in Mackay I think. That’s over a thousand kilometers from where we were, but her crash had been just a few hundred meters from their home.  The whole family was flown down by air ambulance.  For the last eleven months she’d been beside the smallest girl; for months she slept on a gurney right next to the child’s bed, but now insurance put her up in a small apartment nearby.  Until three weeks ago she came each morning at seven, and stayed until seven at night.

“And now everything’s changed again.  Three weeks ago my best friend got flown down as well, from an accident.”

When disaster blows out to this degree of magnitude, your ability to believe can be momentarily suspended; it can turn you suddenly agnostic, even downright atheistic on a cynical day.

“What?  The same friend who saw your accident?  Your best friend?”

“Yes.  A week shy of a year from our crash, she’s had one herself. They flew her down too and now she’s over the road, at the Mater.  She’s that far from nearly written herself of, but they’ve saved her,” Georgia said, “So now I’ve got the two of them and I go back and for across the road all day.  She’s divorced, see.  No kids.”

“You’re married.  That’s something, isn’t it?” Here was something, a gleam of light at last.

“Yes, it is,” she said, “But he can’t be here.  He has to be there.”

“But at least you’ve got his support,” I said hopefully.

“Not really.  He’s up there working and looking on to the other two full time.  I can’t expect much can I?  Who has time?”

Irredeemably stupid, I asked: “So have you got a good marriage?”

“Honestly?  I don’t think there’d be a marriage without this.  We were on our last legs.  Sounds weird.  This saved us.  We’re better now than we were for years.”   This is why I like people: there may only be yea number of pieces in the puzzle, but the ways we in which can arrange them is infinite.

As we rounded the corner into the supermarket precinct, with all its adjacent shops and little public square, she said, “Listen, I’ll only be a few minutes, can you wait for me?  Keep the meter running, I won’t be more than five, ten?”

“Okay,” I said.  I was parking, not focused, and she leaped out, dashed up the stairs and disappeared between glass doors.

So I waited, illegally parked in a disabled zone.  It was a warm and golden sundown hour and the area’s drunks and addicts were out lazing in the public forecourt.  A thin woman and her companion lounged on the concrete edging and shared a two-liter bottle of soft drink.  From time to time the woman glared at me and mouthed obscenities, her expression a mixture of fear and rage.  The man, thin and shaved bald, leaned over and clasped her in his arms, stroked her hair; he seemed to be reassuring her that I wasn’t the anti-Christ, a cop or Shrek.

After five minutes I decided to put the meter on hold.  I was worried about this woman.

Almost ten  minutes passed before it occurred to me anyone could shelter in front of the children’s hospital; you needn’t be associated with any of the goings on inside, nobody would move you on from there.  I started to review Georgia’s anxious body movements, and couple them to her story, which now seemed remarkably decorative considering we had only spent seven minutes together.

I thought about the secret police I’d encountered way back, living in Apartheid South Africa.  Since I left I’ve read a fair bit about the lives these people are made to concoct for themselves before they go undercover.  The ones I met had chosen utterly incredible stories, stories that should have made anyone think, “This can’t be right!” But for some reason, you most often just accepted their bullshit, even as you shook your head.  I’ll tell you about them another time.

By then I was berating myself about why I hadn’t asked her to settle the first part of her bill before the shops.  But I second-guessed that immediately: perhaps she didn’t offer to pay because she didn’t want to risk waiting for another cab; because she was in hurry to get back to her child.  Then I began to get angry with myself about when or if I would ever grow up.

The woman with the soft-drink bottle had decided to lie down on the ledge.  She was so thin her body-line looked no more than six inches deep, except for her hip-bones draped in yellow cheesecloth which stuck up like hillocks in a Fred Williams landscape.  She had her head on the man’s lap and he stroked her hair carefully. She had the back of her hand over her eyes, like a Victorian hysteric.  Then another bloke stumbled over to them, and the sitting man mouthed the words, “Fuck off.”

Fifteen minutes into waiting, I surrendered to goodwill. I decided it was better for your health to believe, and allow disappointment arrive when it really had to, not before.  Just then Georgia ran out with three white bags dragging her down: I knew it wasn’t just ice cream and crackers she was needing.

On the backward leg to the hospital she told me that nowadays they could take skin from inside the nose and use those stem-cells to repair ‘diagramatic’ injuries like her daughter’s … but only if ‘the red man’ started blinking first.  I preferred the red man; he was easier for both of us to understand than the other word, with its dangerous silent consonants that could change the meaning of everything.

As an example, she cited a famous 20 year-old rugby player who just last year had suffered a catastrophic injury during a game: “Broke his neck. Snapped it.”  Even so, after a couple of months his red man began blinking, there was feedback, and they had something to work with. A couple of months ago he ran a half-marathon.

But in Tara’s case they’d waited for that bloody red man for months and months, and now they were pretty certain he was permanently switched off.

Buff-rumped_ThornbillThe child is four.  Georgia was going to be Tara’s green man for as long as her body wouldn’t say yes to her brain, or until Tara was big enough to manage other options.

“So like, when she needs to toilet, the brain gives her a ‘feeling’ of pressure, and even if her organs don’t know what to do, her little mind understands and she warns me,” the mother said, sounding rather proud.

“Who looks after you?”  I asked.

“I look after myself,” she said, “I have to.  Next weekend will be a year here exactly, and the three of them are all coming down here.  We can celebrate. They’re flying down.”

“It worries me that nobody looks after you,” I said.

“I’m fine, I have to be,” she said, but I saw water glittering along her eyelid.  I wanted to tidy the wisps of brown hair from her forehead, and say something appropriate, but I’m just useless at that stuff.

This time she directed me to the back of the hospital, the regular entrance where visitors go in, more homely, less intimidating than the great glass doors beneath the concrete awning on the other side.

As we pulled up she whipped out her phone, “Here, have a look at them,” she said, and thrust the image in front of my eyes.

I can tell you now, those children were beautiful. All three had large, dark eyes and strong brows, and wonderful glowing complexions.  Tara, lying down across the front of the group, was propped on one elbow with her hand cupping a round pink cheek.

The husband was a handsome, black-haired man with shining blue eyes. He looked buff and healthy, his tanned skin shone, and he had the same ruddy cheeks as his kids. Worry attacked me.

“Listen,” I said, “Why not go and have a bit of a makeover day before they get here?  A bit of a hairdo and a face do?  Just for you?”

I was lying: I didn’t mean just for her.  I was fearful for her, the lank hair untidily pulled back and shabby clothes, unpainted toes, and the dark skin beneath her eyes.  She didn’t look older than her husband, but she had none of his volume, his shining wellness.

She reminded me of a little bird I had recently written about for another project: the buff-rumped thornbill, acanthiza reguloides.  It is a round, busy little creature that hops about the undergrowth wherever there are no houses.  Its feathers are beige and brown, with just a tiny flare of yellow below the tail, to flag at males.  You can spot buff-rumps across ten million hectares of eastern Australia, but most of us will never see them, let alone know what to call them, even less discern them from the other eleven thornbills in their family.

“I know,” she said, looking away from me, “I’ve thought about it.”

“You should. He’s coming down to see you.  You should, for yourself.”

“I’m thinking about it,” she said again, and looked away. In her tone I heard, “It was an accident.  I don’t deserve it.  He might leave me.  I don’t deserve it.  I’ll never deserve it. It was an accident.”

She said, “You know, if you drive straight ahead and round the corner, there’s a rank there.  You could pick up someone else.  You could get a ride back.”

“You’re the end of my shift,” I said, “You’re my last.”  I swiped her card, we said goodbye, good luck.

There were five cars lined up round the corner.  It seemed momentarily odd that my brown bird had called for a pickup when these guys were already there.  Then it seemed not odd but ‘beshert’, destined.

Brown bird said the others were coming down, and now I remembered it was the Easter weekend.

Maybe on Thursday I’ll bake some chocolate caramels and drop them in.  I won’t interfere.  I’ll tell the nurses at the desk about the brown bird hopping between the two hospitals, and the little girl with a red man in her chest; they’ll work it out.  They might be a bit wary.  I’ll leave them my card.  I’ll show them my license.  You don’t want anyone to doubt your cookies, even if you’re worried about your motives yourself.

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