When you're in the ER alone, do you ever listen to what happens on the other side of the curtain? And afterward, what do you tell yourself about what you've heard?
"Just wait," said the nurse.
The doctor will be with me shortly, I joked.
She gave me one of those hard, tight and polite smiles. Her face was thin, there was a tiny tattoo on her neck and she looked exhausted, like a mom with too many kids.
Is it busy?
"Oh, yes," she said. "We're extremely busy."
She pulled the curtain closed and was gone.
It was just past noon, and outside there was a high blue sky. The sun was warm. It was one of the last great afternoons of the year, too fine a day to be inside behind that curtain.
It was a day to sit in a park and watch the leaves, like those in the red maples, and other trees still in green, still holding on. A day to walk the dog in a field and kick up some birds, a day for children chasing a ball on grass, a day to watch the light change on the skyscrapers on the river. It was not a day for ER curtains.
What brought me there wasn't serious. It was a stupid, really, a stupid thumb, infected just behind the nail. I tried dousing it with iodine — the way we'd medicate our cuts when we worked in the butcher shop. But it kept swelling and finally it was like a ridiculous baby eggplant on my hand.
When you're behind the curtain with someone you care for, your spouse or a child, family or friend, you care nothing for what's outside those curtains. The universe is right in there with you. Your child is ill. There is only time for prayer and bargaining with God.
Yet when you're alone, and there's nothing really wrong except for a ridiculous thumb, you can listen to the monitors, and staff chatting quietly, a cough, a laugh. But you can't see anyone.
Then I heard the woman. She wasn't old and she wasn't young, but that's all I could tell of her.
"Oh, no. Oh, oh, no!" she screamed. "God, O God, no!"
And it went on, across the room, on the other side of those brown curtains.
"God! God! God! God!" she yelled. "O God."
I didn't want to listen, but I couldn't help it, and she went on for some time, long minutes and minutes more. I could hear staff members talking to her softly. Then more sobbing.
She tried to catch her breath. It was violent. It was the worst sound of all, that poor woman trying to gulp down some air, and anyone who heard it surely must have prayed for her. O Lord, help her, I said out loud, alone, as she sobbed.
If you're old enough — or if you've been hurt by sudden loss when you were young — you can remember that gulping in your own mouth, when breath is denied you, when someone you loved crossed over. At first I thought of my mom in an ER with my dad at the end, but then I began thinking of all the wives and husbands in a place like that, all the parents and children and friends and siblings and comrades, all those who've lost someone, and who tried to find air to scream.
If you live long enough, then you know the sound of it.