The Symmetry of Hands
“9–1–1 Emergency,” said the woman on the phone, “what is your emergency?”
For the last eighteen years, I’ve lived in a small neighborhood of townhouses. And there’s just something different about townhouse neighbors, maybe because you share a common wall and a common roof with your neighbors on both sides. Or maybe it’s the common footprint of each of the places, the standard floorplans of the kitchen and bedrooms, so you know your way around without ever having been there. Same on the outside, same on the inside, just decorated differently.
So yes, eighteen years there, and my old lady neighbor used to come over and knock when she was having trouble with something broken in her home. Over the years, I have hung pictures for her, changed difficult-to-reach light bulbs, fixed her refrigerator door, programmed her garage door opener, even fixed her telephone wiring once. As she got older, some health condition she struggled with started to slow her down, so that even the short walk over to my door would tire her out, and she would simply phone instead. “I’m sorry to be a bother,” she would always start.
Yesterday, she called on me one last time.
“Are you with the body now?” the voice on the phone asked.
Her health took a noticeable turn just a few years ago, around the time she turned ninety. It was just after dinner one night with my wife and kids, when someone started on my doorbell with urgency. I opened the door to another neighbor, a busybody from across the street that I didn’t get along with. “Bobbie has fallen,” said the neighbor, her tone insinuating that I was somehow at fault, “right out in the street! And she can’t stand up!”
I hurried outside, and there she was, plopped down in the street, her oversized white sailing-jacket twisted around her awkwardly, while her tiny Italian-greyhound dog anxiously scurried around her, binding up her legs up with his leash faster than she could unbind them.
“Tony! Tony! Stop that. Come here, sit,” she said, trying to reign in the nervous critter. The dog wasn’t buying it: something was wrong, people just aren’t supposed to sit down in the middle of the street.
“Well Bobbie,” I said approaching, “do I blame Tony for this? Or maybe … too many margaritas?” I heard my busybody neighbor snort derisively.
Bobbie looked up, raising her eyebrows over her glasses. She had a girlish haircut that reminded me of a tennis champ from the 1970s, and shining blue eyes. Her Irish or English complexion was regularly flushed in the daylight, but I like to think I caught her blushing that evening.
“Gin and tonic, I should think,” she said. “And this puppy. Just can’t get my feet under me.”
“Can I help?” the other neighbor asked me, “I can’t pick her up, maybe you can?”
“No worries,” I said. “Let’s get you home, Bobbie. Wait right here.” I left the two of them there, and hurried back up my driveway. I returned quickly with an inexpensive but reliable office chair from our garage. It had wheels on the three legs, and I wheeled it out into the street and positioned it behind her. I had the other neighbor hold the chair, while I stood in front of Bobbie.
“Okay my dear, I need to pick you up now,” I said.
“But what will your wife say?”
“I know, there could be scandal.”
“I hope no one calls the papers,” she said.
“Just think of it as a big … weird … hug,” I said while wrapping my arms under her shoulders and lifting her up and into the chair behind her. As I lifted her, I could immediately feel how frail she had become; the large jacket she wore concealed her tiny frame, and she couldn’t have weighed much more than my youngest child. Looking back, I realize that this big weird hug was the first time I had ever really touched this lady before, anything more than a handshake. We both politely ignored the contact awkwardness as I wheeled her down the street, up her driveway, back into her house, and helped her into her favorite chair by the window of her living room.
“I’m going to need you to start chest compressions, sir,” said the voice on the phone. “Press the heel of one hand on her sternum, and press on the back of that hand with your other hand on top…”
I remember when my oldest child was being born that I learned something new about surgery. He was a C-section, one of those everyday miracles where five people enter an operating room and six people leave. I had seen as many surgeries as most people have on television and in the movies, so I thought I knew what to expect. But I learned something new that day: the smell of surgery was a complete surprise. The scalpel they used for the C-section was a gizmo with a combination knife and cauterizer, like a sharpened soldering iron. And when they cut, and when it sizzled on my wife’s belly, I’m sorry but it smelled like bacon.
I learned something new too when performing chest compressions on my old lady neighbor. She had collapsed at the end of her driveway, maybe while out there getting the morning newspaper. She was in her terrycloth morning robe and cotton pajamas, her head was sideways to the ground, her mouth and eyes were frozen open, and her face held an expression that said to me: “Really? Right here in my driveway? Goddammit…”
The landscapers had found her there and hurried to get me. My cellphone, connected to the 9–1–1 operator, was on the ground next to the body, the speakerphone turned on. I had been on the phone for barely a minute so far, and I could already hear the police-car sirens approaching.
“Umm, I’m not entirely comfortable with this”, I said towards the phone, my hand resting on my dead neighbor’s hands. Her skin was still warm to the touch, her face and hands were just as blotchy as I remember them, though the colors were darker, the reds and purples of a sunset. There were two ornate gold rings on each hand, I recall a dull emerald in one of them; she had never married, I wonder if the rings were a gift? Maybe just her favorites? Did she put them on in the morning, or did she always wear them?
“It’s only for a minute, sir,” said the voice. “I can hear the emergency vehicles are close.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
Here’s what I learned that day: when you’re pressing on the chest cavity of a dead meat-sack of what was a person, the body wheezes. You can hear it, bubbling deep down in the throat. It wheezes, like a saturated sponge trapped in a stuffed suitcase. I never heard that sound before. It definitely didn’t happen when I worked on the plastic CPR manikins, thirty years back when my mom the nurse led my scout troop in emergency response training.
“Okay sir, please let the police take over for you now.”
I stepped away from the body, as two police officers and two EMTs took over, taking turns with much more aggressive chest compressions than I could bring myself to inflict, my polite awkwardness persisting. An everyday anti-miracle, where six people are there as chest compressions start, but only five people leave.
I was told that another officer asked to be let into her house, and that he went looking in the kitchen for a Do Not Resuscitate notice. Apparently the protocol for elderly people in failing health who live alone is that you pin a DNR note on your refrigerator, because that’s where the emergency responders are going to look for it. I think now maybe we need a new protocol, because I wouldn’t want my own DNR order to catch my eye every time I’m going for the butter. I’m considering going with a tattoo instead, right on my chest: “DNR. Thanks, but no.”
“Thank you for calling, sir,” said the voice on the phone. “You can hang up the phone now.”
Immediately after my son was born, birth-juice wet and discovering his first breaths, one of the operating room doctors had a stethoscope on him, and she thought she heard a slight murmur. She carried him quickly to the warming table and assessed him carefully, but it turned out to be nothing. He was wrapped and in his mother’s arms within a minute.
But I think back now and I realize: those were the first hands on him. I have no idea who that doctor was, but she was the first. Someone, after all, has to be the first. And symmetrically, someone has to be the last — for each of us, there are hands out there, slated and waiting. In the case of my old lady neighbor, that was me: I got to be that for her. I’m sure that the idea of five or six emergency responders aggressively working on her lifeless body for fifteen minutes out in her driveway would have mortified her while she was alive. So I’m glad, for both of us, that I got to be the last loving hands for her, there at the end.
And tonight, I think I’m going to knock back a gin and tonic and take that office chair out into the neighborhood again. One more ride around with a dog leash wrapped around my legs, just for old time’s sake.
Rest in peace, dear Bobbie.