My Country, ’Tis of Thee I Sing
Our return trip to the U.S. led us to yet another glimpse of death, although this time was only a brief passing by. While waiting in the Detroit airport for our flight to Amsterdam, our ten-year-old son went into anaphylactic shock after ingesting some type of nut product during our dinner at a Greek restaurant. While the epinephrine injection we always carry with us immediately helped him breath again, its effects are short-lived and we had to get to a hospital.
Within minutes, no less than four paramedics, one police officer and two Delta Airline representatives showed up at gate A40 to offer their assistance. In a tight circle of concerned discussion, a plan was made: we would be taken by ambulance to the hospital and Delta would both rebook our flights for the next day and make hotel reservations for us.
When we left the hospital at 11 p.m. that night, we were armed with 2 Epi-Pen injections and four prescription allergy medications to ensure that the reaction did not return during the flight. Everything was going to be okay and I felt safe again, but the stress of the holidays, the tragedy of the murder/suicide, the tiresome job of packing, and now this – it was too much. The words “exhausting,” “terrifying,” “overwhelming” didn’t seem adequate for what we felt. But as we stretched our legs under the comfortingly heavy duvets in our luxurious and paid-for room at the Westin, the past melted away to became just a story we could tell with varying degrees of urgency or ease.
But this story is only a segue to other stories I wanted to tell – stories about the America I left behind, stories that remind me of why it was good to leave, but also of everything I miss about that great, mythical nation.
When we arrived at Oakwood Hospital, just a few miles from the airport, my husband followed my son and my daughter and I found seats in the waiting room. It was already past her bedtime and she curled up into the chair, head against my shoulder, while I surveyed the environment and prepared for a long evening.
The waiting room was not itself worthy of attention – a small, colorless space with uncomfortable, low-backed chairs lining the perimeter and a TV drooping forward from its wall screws. The patients filling the room, though, emitted hundreds of stories, at least in my mind. In the first two minutes I had everyone figured out. It was like reading one of those grocery store romance novels where the ending is clear from the front cover.
The patients filled in the details of their own story, too. A man with a mullet hair-cut and heavy metal tee-shirt sat with his legs stretched out into the middle of the room and his head against the wall complaining to anyone who would listen.
“And then they told me if I want to get my gut checked out I had ta come here cuz this is the only goddamn hospital that has the machine for it. So now I gotta wait here for 3 hours.”
Not to be one-upped, a young woman with crutches pointed down to her sloppily bandaged foot and told how this was her second ER visit in two days.
“Yah, well I was here two days ago and they put the cast on wrong. It was hurtin’ me so bad, I couldn’t sleep. So I got me one-a-them rotatin’ saws from the shed and I took it off myself. ’Cept that I forgot about that bandage thing underneath.”
This animated Mullet-hair, who sat up and slapped his thigh. “Hah! Ya, I did that once, too! And then you hear this clrgh-clrgh ….”
“Yah, cuz the wrap is all twisted up in that saw.”
“Sure as hell was.” He couldn’t stop laughing at his memory of the event.
Where else but America, I thought.
“But shi-it, I wanted ta take it off myself so I didn’t have ta come back here again . . . and whaddya know.”
“You gotta sit here again.”
“I gotta sit on my ass for three more flippin’ hours for their mistake.” To accentuate her anger she slipped into her Angry Black Woman persona: “They bettuh be-ware my bedtime’s at 11. If ain’t no doctor comin’ ta git me by then, they gonna see some drama.”
“Yah she’s real funny,” said the older woman sitting next to her. “Draggin’ me down here with her twice in one week.” She sat hugging her purse as if someone might suddenly punch her in the face and grab it.
The girl rolled her eyeballs and then all was quiet for awhile. It was easy to laugh with them. I felt like I knew them.
We were seated next to an African-American woman wrapped up in an old brown and yellow blanket. It was so old and tattered it seemed more suitable for dogs, or covering old furniture in the attic. “Godda keep dat chill away!” she said, and patted her knees.
The doors next to us opened and shut constantly, letting in the cold winter’s night air. An old man in an wheelchair took so long shuffling in that I wished for the blanket. Next came a mother struggling to pull three tiny children behind her, all in footed pyjamas. An out of breath man ran in so fast that he wasn’t sure what to say when he reached the nurses’ window. His wife was in labor.
When a stunningly made up woman in a red and white power suit and terrifyingly high heels ran in screaming, “Where’s my son?” the woman next to me stood up and waved at her nonchalantly. “Hey, Dee-Dee,” she called out, as though she is always seated just there, and Dee-Dee is always running in. Dee-Dee paid no attention to her.
She sat back down and turned to me and whispered: “Tha’ son uh hers is causin’ her some trouble.”
“You know her?”
“Yah, she was inta some serious trouble befo’, you know. She was a re-e-eal bad girl. And then she found the Lor’ and got her own church an’ all . . . She’s a preachuh.”
She had a way of drawing out her sentences, long and slow, and then finishing them off with a few quick words to signal that there was nothing more to say about it.
“Wow,” I said. Meaning it.
“But that son uh hers. Ummm, lawd. He mighta been the one for tha’ security they jus’ call fo’. He prob’ly got shot again.”
Conversation came easily in this waiting room. I realized how comfortable all of this felt to me. How normal it felt to share personal stories with strangers. I told her our story.
“Poor child,” she said, shaking her head. “But I know. I know wha’ thas like. I’m allergic ta codeine.” She showed me her medical allergy bracelet. “Can’t breathe, can’t do nothin’. Like somebody come wi’ these great big hands ta choke the life outta you. Ooooh.” She shook her head again, making a whistling sound.
I liked this woman, the ease of being seated near her, the sincerity of her compassion.
“Where ya’ll from?”
I considered saying Indiana, because it was easier to explain, but the four backpacks and a carry-on suitcase with wheels piled up around our feet told a different story.
“Norway, the country.”
“You all from the COUNTRY of Norway?” She said country as though there might be another Norway, a town or maybe even a bowling alley by that name.
“Yep,” I said.
“I bet it’s cold up there!”
Everyone says this. Sometimes I explain the Gulf stream, and sometimes I just nod.
“What are the people like? Real different?”
“They don’t talk,” I said, anticipating her surprise. I like generalizing. It makes for an easier story, a more definite picture.
“Watchew mean they don’ talk?”
“Nobody talks to each other. If we were sitting here together in a waiting room in Norway, we wouldn’t be talking to each other.”
“Really? Now why is that?” She turned her neck to face me and knotted her brows. She looked truly interested.
“Because it’s so cold,” I said, and laughed. This is one of my theories, anyway. Cold draws people into themselves. When I lived in Costa Rica people talked so much that I had to pretend I had a headache to have some peace and quiet. If I tried to just “rest,” my host mother would move to the edge of my bed and continue chatting.
“It’s different. I like living there, but I miss America,” I continued. The stress and relief of the last hour made me want to share things. I felt an enormous sense of gratitude for the compassion of the Delta representatives, the kind concern of the paramedics who told our daughter jokes on the way to the hospital, the elderly volunteer who handed us a coloring book and crayons as we entered the ER, and tender-heartedness of the woman that I spoke with now who had been waiting for over two hours with sharp pains in her abdomen that every now and then caused her to double over.
I didn’t know how to express my surprise over witnessing such an outpouring of kindness in a place like Detroit without seeming offensive.*
“Everyone in Detroit has been so kind to us,” I offered as a compliment, wanting to ask her next what she thought of the positive plans for rebuilding Detroit I had read about in the news.
Her quick response startled me: “This ain’t Detroit! This here is Wayne, Michigan. Ain’t nothin’ like Detroit. You lucky they brought you here.”
In an instant her mood had changed. What I said hadn’t offended her, but it was important that I understand the difference.
She sat in silence and I didn’t ask for more information. No matter how bad life had been to these people, it wasn’t anything like Detroit, and they were proud to say they lived in Wayne.
. . . . .
* Detroit, the great American metropolis that was once the heart of the auto industry, a metonym for progress and new wealth, now looks like the bombed out sections of Baghdad. It has become a giant blemish that everyone tries to pretend isn’t there. Detroit lost much of its population in the past decade when people fled to places with more opportunity. Those who remain are the poor and uneducated. Recent statistics give the illiteracy rate at 41% and the unemployment rate at 30%, although some say the figure is actually closer to 50%. In 2010 Time Magazine published two photo essays on the city of Detroit that capture the demise of this great American metropolis: “Remains of Detroit” and “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline.” Is it any wonder I repeatedly typed “riot” instead of “roit” for the ending of Detroit when writing this post?