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My Country, ’Tis of Thee I Sing

17 January 2012

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.”

“Nor what?”

“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.

.  .  .  .  .

Part 2 of my reflections on America from an ER waiting room will appear next week.

* 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?

Lee Plaza Hotel - Once one of the most luxurious residential hotels in Detroit, Lee Plaza closed in the 1990s. (Photo by Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre from Time Magazine: "Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline.")

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 January 2012 15:35

    I remember feeling quite the same way when living in London. I loved and respected my British counterparts, but I missed the easy crazy that is sometimes the United States. As a fellow Mid-Westerner, I am often accused of talking to anything that looks interesting. Very un-British… But, as I hope would be case in most places in the world, being human is being human. And all we can hope for is to connect with compassion, even for a moment with a total stranger, in this crazy thing called life.

    • 17 January 2012 21:20

      “easy crazy” – I love that! And I agree, connection means compassion for me. Otherwise I have no reason to care. I have thought and thought about the African American woman with the blanket and I so regret not getting her name. Just to have a name to put with my thoughts.

  2. 17 January 2012 16:13

    Damn, you write well!

  3. 17 January 2012 16:24

    First, poor all of you, what a way to end your trip! I’m glad C’s ok. I’m trying to figure out if I knew he was allergic… I think I did, once, but had forgotten.

    Also, I second Jon’s sentiment!

    • 17 January 2012 21:22

      You also made my day! 🙂

      … we found out C was allergic to nuts when he was 6 mo. old, but you are certainly forgiven for forgetting it! 🙂 It was a good reminder to us as well that we can never be too careful. Who knew Greeks used nuts in sauces?!

  4. Teresa Owens permalink
    22 January 2012 04:17

    Yes, Jena, your writing is wonderful….I guide people to your blog all the time. I can even read your posts aloud and keep people poised while they imagine the smells, and scenery. ANYWAY, I apologize for the intrusion, but I’m on my way to Bergen on Monday, and will be there for 2 months. Is there a way I can contact you via email? If you’re willing, of course….It would be great to meet you!

  5. Sophie permalink
    24 January 2012 04:02

    Just another passerby, but I felt compelled to make a comment. First off, I love your style of writing. On top of that, I thoroughly enjoy reading your comparisons between Norway and the U.S. As both an immigrant and a natural citizen of the U.S. — my parents immigrated here from the Philippines when I was 1 1/2 — I truly believe I am obliged to challenge this country into something of greatness, especially with the vast amount of resources, wealth, and commitment this country holds for its citizens. The basis of all my comparisons always rest with Europe and its surrounding countries. Though I do understand that no such Utopian society exists, but when you live in a country that supposedly is “for the people and by the people,” I can’t help but imagine: what if? So with that said, I hope you continue writing and examining such comparisons because it shows me what this country is lacking as well as its forthcomings. It’s refreshing to read from a first-hand experience.

    • 24 January 2012 12:12

      Thank you for reading and for your kind words. My recent posts, of impressions I had of the US while back at Christmas, were written for the very reason you mention — to challenge the country into greatness. When I was there I couldn’t help but love all that the US is and is meant to be, while mourning what it has become. Especially what has happened to its once great cities, like Detroit.

  6. Jeff permalink
    25 January 2012 18:27

    I’ve also got anaphylaxis to peanuts and you’ve just described my worst nightmare! Glad everything turned out well though, despite the delayed departure. I have to echo everyone else’s sentiment here – you’re a fantastic writer! Please keep writing:)

    • 25 January 2012 20:49

      Oh no! Poor you! But listen, the one lesson I learned is that the Epi-Pen is your best friend. Don’t ever be without it. EVER. We have become a bit lax with it the past few years (my son is 10 now, and we were more careful when he was a toddler), but I realized that accidents DO happen. I saw very clearly that my son will die without the Epi-pen. It’s not an “if” but a will. In the minutes before I could get the injection out of my backpack and into his thigh I witnessed it taking over his body and shutting him down. But a few seconds later I watched as he started to breath again, became more alert, and was able to speak. Wear it around your neck for heaven’s sake! (protective mother speaking). Just don’t take anything (like restaurants!) for granted. And make sure your friends know how to use it in case you aren’t able to give it to yourself.

      On a happier note – thanks for your kind words about my writing! I’ve been overjoyed to read that so many people are interested in reading my impressions and take the time to comment.

      • Jeff permalink
        25 January 2012 21:31

        Oh don’t worry, I always have minimum two with me, I and keep benadryl tablets with me when I’m heading to far away places where it might give me the only chance to survive…I’m not even sure if it will do anything, but I figure if I’m that desperate I may as well try. I thankfully don’t remember my last reaction (23 years ago now), but the story of you having to give your son the injection sends chills through my body. I remember when I was younger, my stepmom (who is a nurse) would go to my school and teach the teachers how to use the Epi-Pens, which I’ve since done with friends and colleagues. She also wrote many letters to Air Canada to ask them to remove peanuts from the plane – always a touchy subject, but it makes me happy. I’ve definitely taken that for granted when flying abroad and encountering airlines that still serve peanuts. I do like that Norway, and I think Europe in general, doesn’t have this put-peanuts-in-everything love affair like Canada and US does. Makes me feel safer, but I have to admit, I have become more complacent since moving here…and unless I want to make my own bread, I’ll have to deal with “kan inneholde spor av nøtter” on all of my bread from the store.

        And you’re welcome – the comments are all well deserved!

      • 25 January 2012 21:46

        The peanuts on airplanes really irks me because it is so unnecessary! And I do feel safer in Norway for the same reasons, but I’ve noticed peanut products (Snickers, peanut butter) sneaking into the grocery stores. At any rate, kids still aren’t bringing it in their lunches.

        But the Benadryl tablets are a very good idea! I’m glad you suggested it because I wonder about when we’re on hikes and going to hyttes and someone brings out the chili nuts. So we should def. take that with us as well. At the ER they gave C. benadryl and said it was always a good idea to top off the Epi-pen with that (as the Epi-pen is short-lived. )

  7. Jeff permalink
    26 January 2012 21:10

    It’s good that the kids aren’t bringing it to lunch – fingers crossed it stays that way. The worst I’ve found here is usually on hikes when people like to bring a bag of nuts for energy (fair enough, but just keep those nutty fingers away from me afterwards!)

    And yeah, I figure if something happens, I’d pop a couple of Benadryl first, then use the Epi-Pens as necessary, and just hope that the Benadryl starts kicking in before the Epi-Pens wear off. I do hope that one day they will provide the anaphylactic folks with the actual dose of medicine they use in the hospital for those situations when you’re impossibly far from any help (hikes, remote work camps, fieldwork, etc). Or maybe that already exists and I just don’t know about it? Hrm, I need more doctor friends.

  8. Jeff permalink
    31 January 2012 21:26

    OK, my complacency finally bit me in the ass on Sunday. They were serious when they said those Safari cookies ‘kan inneholde spor av nøtter’ (I’ve eaten them before many times with no problems, but I guess when you take chances…). Luckily no trip to the hospital, but I popped a benadryl right away and spent a couple of hours imagining how it might feel getting jabbed with the Epi-Pen. Nothing like a good scare to smarten me up!

    • 6 February 2012 09:14

      Oh no, Jeff! I am so glad the benadryl worked for you. We, too, take chances with “spor av nøtter”, but it’s almost impossible not too. Everything says that nowadays. It does make me think, though, that it’s best to pack only home-made goods when out in the wilderness.

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