Grief Sponge

I drove back through my old ambulance district the other day, a detour from the route I drive every week to EMT class. This place holds a lot of memories for me. I met the woman who would become my wife here. Effeminate Partner and Farting Partner were both groomsmen at my wedding. I’ve been back in this area for six months now, and Monday was the first time I had ventured off the main highway in ten years.

Not that I don’t notice things as I pass through every week. The Death Tree has two more crosses hanging on it, and the trunk bears a few new scars. The field beyond it where we landed the helicopter now bears a row of miniature storage warehouses. The local seafood joint is still open, albeit in a new location just down the street. My old ambulance station is now someone’s house. I hope they got the wiring fixed. It’s a bitch when you can’t run the air conditioner and the microwave at the same time.

Monday I had time to kill before picking up KatyBeth, so I turned left instead of right on my way home, and cruised slowly through town.The ambulance service that covers this area now has their station in a strip mall downtown, but their rig wasn’t in the parking lot. Maybe they were on a call. The medic who used to work this station, one of my former students, died of cancer a few years ago. I don’t know the crews who work here now.

The town itself really hasn’t changed all that much; a few new businesses, a few less old ones. The local convenience store probably still gives free fountain drinks to the cops and EMTs. I stopped at the local Popeye’s and ate. I asked the manager, and she confirmed that they still send their leftover chicken and sides over to the Police Department after closing. I doubt the local ambulance crews hang out there as much as we did, swapping lies and mooching free food. The crews these days are far too busy to be up at midnight eating a midnight snack at the Police Department.

On my drive through, I found myself continuing onto the highway west of town. What used to be timber land and pastures has sprouted new neighborhoods and businesses like so many weeds. Not even the small towns are immune to urban sprawl.

The place just doesn’t have the same feel any more.

Without conscious thought, I turned off the main highway through a brick archway into an upper middle-class neighborhood. Ten years ago, the archway wasn’t here. There was no artfully manicured shrubbery, no wrought iron fencing, no neighborhood community center.

Back then, there were just a few nice homes on tree-shaded lots, separated by acres-wide tracts of hardwoods. It used to be quiet, peaceful. Now, every lot is taken up by very large, ostentatious homes on very small lawns. Most of the trees are gone, and there is traffic on these streets. No doubt soon they’ll form a homeowners association, maybe gate the community and hire a security guard to keep out the riff raff. You know, the same riff raff they were ten years before.

On a quiet street in the oldest part of the subdivision, a house sits at the end of the the cul de sac. The garage door is closed, but the lights are on inside. I slow down as I pass, wondering if the people who live there now know this house’s history. Did they meet the couple who built this house, maybe shake their hands when they closed the sale? Did they wonder why a young couple would want to sell a home they built only a couple of years before? Or did the neighbors fill them in on the whole story through neighborhood gossip?

I scan the mailbox as I inch past, and the name stenciled there stops me cold.

The Websters.

They still live here.

I stop my truck next to the curb and clench the steering wheel, breathing hard as my eyes cloud over. Through the rear view mirror and my tears, I can still see the house, but the image is of the same home ten years ago. It’s the same image I see in the occasional nightmare, the ones that make me call my ex in the wee hours to ask if Katy is okay.


“Dispatch to Medic Six, Quaint Little Hamlet Police are on scene. CPR is in progress.”

“Thank God,” murmurs Effeminate Partner. “Maybe there’s a chance.”

I say nothing in reply. I never like these calls, especially when the patient’s age is measured in months rather than years. I just lean my head against the hot window, close my eyes and mentally go through my checklist.

Broselow tape in the side pocket of the trauma bag…Epi dose is 0.1 ml/kg…first dose will be Epi 1:1,000 down the tube, then I’ll get a line, probably intraosseous

Because I am outwardly calm, because I teach Pediatric Advanced Life Support thirty times a year, because the more tension and chaos on a scene, the more placid my demeanor gets, Effeminate Partner thinks I am all over this. He thinks I am unaffected.

No one is ever unaffected when they’re doing CPR on a six-month-old baby. Not ever.

It’s simply that I don’t do my praying out loud, and I don’t do my crying in public.

And so I continue running this call in my mind as EP navigates the winding roads on the outskirts of town. It will take us close to ten minutes to get there, all told. The address is outside of town limits, well out into the parish. QLH Police Department shouldn’t even be responding.

It doesn’t matter.

When you hear the call go out for a baby not breathing, you go. And you do not worry about petty shit like jurisdiction. Podunk Sheriff’s Office understands this as well.

Tom will be there doing CPR…I’ll get EP to set up a BVM and oxygen, and have him take over ventilation…once Tom can talk I’ll get the details of the arrest…try to question the parents if I can…I’ll need a #1 Miller blade for the laryngoscope, maybe the pediatric Magill forceps…lots of calls for kids that age are chokings

EP makes the right turn from Parish Road 214 into the housing development. It’s quiet here, and peaceful. The sound of a siren is obscene here, so I lean over and switch it off. EP pulls into the driveway at 112 Mockingbird Lane directly behind the QLH Police cruiser sitting there with the driver’s door and trunk lid ajar.

We bail out of the rig and start fetching equipment, resisting the urge to rush headl
ong into the house. The front door is open, and we can hear a woman wailing in there, but these calls get even more chaotic when you start sending people to your rig for equipment you should have lugged inside in the first place.

Plus, I can focus on process rather than the fact that a six-month-old baby is dead and will likely stay that way.

Newly laid flagstones lead us to the front door. The sod in the yard, while obviously professionally done, has yet to fill in. You can still see the faint lines where it was rolled out. This entire place is brand new, no doubt the dream home of a young professional couple just starting a family.

Inside, we follow the wailing through the foyer and living room, past a Fisher Price activity gym set in the middle of the floor. Just off the living room, a young woman close to my age kneels just outside the door to the nursery, sobbing into her hands.

Her crying has waned to a ragged, soul-rending moan, and her blonde hair is plastered to her tear-streaked face.

“No, no, no…God please, please, please…nooo…Oh God Jesus please God…”

She rocks back and forth, shoulders shaking as she sobs her mantra over and over into her hands as if the words had the power to blot out the horror of finding her son face down and lifeless in his crib.

Words just don’t have that power. Mine least of all.

I duck past her into the room as Effeminate Partner gently takes her by the shoulders and scoots her aside.

She had decorated the nursery with loving care. Winnie the Pooh and friends decorated every surface. Eeyore decoupaged on the bureau, looking back forlornly over his shoulder. Kanga and Roo decorated the other side. One wall was a cheery fireplace, Christopher Robin sitting cross-legged in front of the hearth, Pooh at his side with his arm deep in a big jar labeled “Hunny.” The wall opposite the crib was a mural of the woods; Owl in his tree, Piglet and Tigger frolicking outside. Bees swarmed around a hole high in the trunk of the tree, and a little door was cut into the base of the trunk.

I can envision the mother lovingly tracing this mural on the wall, filling in the colors as the days passed and her first child grew in her womb. There are a few of Daddy’s touches here too. The Tigger doll on the bureau is wearing a miniature Saints helmet, and there is an Atlanta Braves banner pinned to the wall above the crib.

Amidst the cartoon cheer of a small child’s bedroom, Tom Tate kneels on the floor with a small body cradled tenderly in his arms. It’s a little male child, clad in yellow Winnie the Pooh jammies with feet, dwarfed by Tom’s burly frame. His body is limp, but his neck and hands are stiff with rigor mortis.

The AED case lies open on the floor beside him, the pads not even removed from their backing, the CPR mask not even torn from it’s wrapper. Both of them are far too large for the baby.

Tom is chanting his own mantra, but his voice is quavering.

“One and two and three and four and five and breathe…one and two and three and four and five and breathe…”

He looks up at me, and I can see the horror in his eyes, the horror that comes with being a father and being forced to do this job.

When you’re a father as well as a cop or EMT, your particular curse is that you see your child’s face in every tragedy. You see your teenager in the bloody, broken face you pull from the wreckage of their graduation present. You see your wife’s face when you knock on a stranger’s door at 3:30 am to tell them their daughter has died. And you see your infant’s face somewhere in that purple, mottled face wearing the fuzzy yellow pajamas, and you start CPR even though your rational mind reports that you are far too late in coming.

I can see all of that and more in Tom Tate’s eyes as he looks up at me mutely, mouth still silently mouthing his CPR cadence, hands still moving on the baby’s chest. For all intents and purposes, he’s been doing CPR on his own child.

“Tom,” I say gently, putting my hand on his shoulder as he once again lifts the infant’s stiff little body to his mouth. His muscles are corded with tension. He is literally shaking.

Tom,” I say more forcefully this time, but my voice is quavering too. “You can stop. He’s dead.” I reach out and pry his hand away from the baby’s chest and take the stiff infant from him as he lets out an explosive, shuddering breath and rocks back on his heels.

He sits there silently, chest heaving and hands shaking, hollowly staring at the floor, and I sit beside him cradling this boy’s stiff little body to my chest, both of us wondering if we’ll ever be able to banish the memories of this day.

Behind us, the mother’s cries begin anew as she realizes what our stopping means, and EP kneels on the floor behind her and pulls her back to his chest. She dissolves into a heap, burying her head in his chest, clutching at his arms, wetting his shirt with her tears.

EP just holds her and croons in Cajun French, something I can’t understand. This isn’t how we are taught to deal with grieving family, but Powerpoint presentations and case scenarios in a sterile classroom cannot prepare you for days like these, and so EP holds this woman in his arms and croons to her, professional distance be damned.

I stand up, still holding the infant against my chest, keeping my back to his mother in an attempt to shield her from the sight of him. It doesn’t occur to me that she has already seen what he looks like.

I walk on wobbly legs over to the crib and peer down into it. No thick blankets, no fluffy toys or pillows lie there. The only thing in the crib is a light, thin coverlet and a pinkish, foamy stain on one end of the mattress, forming an obscene blot directly under a mobile clamped to the headboard, brightly colored fish dangling from monofilament line strung on the ribs of an equally cheery miniature umbrella.

They did everything right. Nothing for the kid to roll over on, nothing to bury his face in, not even a pillow. The mattress is firm enough, and there are no gaps between the mattress and the frame. No thick blankets or toys in the crib. No baby monitor, but he is a little old for SIDS.

I pull the infant away from my chest and notice the same bloody purge dried on the infant’s face, marring his features. The rigor has started to set, and his face is flattened a bit where he had lain on the mattress, his nose and one cheek mashed a little out of shape. Dependent lividity renders his face and chest mottled and purple. He has been dead for hours.

No mother should ever have to find her child like that. No parent should have to live with that memory.

Some of that purge is smeared on Tom’s lips and cheek, and I gesture silently toward my face, finger pointing as if to say “wipe that off before she sees.” Tom absently wipes his lips with the back of his hand and stares at the foamy, blood-tinged smear.

I gently place the baby back in the crib, away from the bloody stain on the mattress, and cover his body with the pale yellow coverlet with blue trim, the one with Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore embroidered on it. Tom stands next to me, alone with his thoughts as he stares down at the body in the crib.

“Body in the crib.” Even thinking it sounds obscene.

Tom is the first to break the silence. “Call the coroner?” he asks softly.

“Yeah,” I sigh. “Probably need to cancel anybody else that is still responding, too.”

He nods his head, agreeing. Takes a few deep breaths. His hands are clenched on the crib rail so tightly I can see his knuckles whiten.

“You okay?” I ask, looking at his face. His eyes tell me everything I need to know.

“No,” he says simply, “I’m not. But I can handle it.” And his carriage tells me that, too.

Neither one of us wants to turn around and face the mother. That task falls to me, and I help EP pull the mother to a standing position in the hallway as Tom packs up his AED and gently closes the door to the nursery behind him.

We steer her into the living room and ease her into a chair. She sits there, arms wrapped across her chest, staring vacantly at the baby’s activity gym still sitting in the living room floor. I kneel down in front of her, blocking her view.

She looks at me, eyes searching mine, and EP gently brushes back wet hair plastered to her face. “Is…is he…”

“Yes Ma’am,” I tell her softly. “He’s dead. He’s been dead for a few hours.”

Her eyes well with fresh tears, and her lower lip trembles, but she sniffs loudly and holds back the sobs. She nods her head in affirmation, as if admitting to herself that what I’ve told her is true. She looks back down at my face, and asks in a cracked, hoarse whisper, “Did he suffer?”

I share a look with EP, and Tom makes a choking noise and turns abruptly away, walking quickly back into the foyer. “No Ma’am, I think he died in his sleep. What is your baby’s name?”

“Bryon,” she answers softly. “With an ‘O’. It’s an old family name.”

Bryon,” I say approvingly. “Good name for a little boy. Had Bryon been sick lately? Did you have any problems with your pregnancy? Was he premature, for instance?”

“No, none of that,” she shakes her head. “I was on bed rest for the last couple of weeks because I’d been having premature contractions, but I carried him to term. He’s always been so healthy…” At that, her voice trailed off and the sobs began again and she buried her face in her hands.

I waited silently, kneeling there in front of her as EP stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders as her body heaved with every sob. EP stared mutely at a spot on the wall ten feet over my head, his jaw clenched and his eyes moist.

I put my hand on her knee and squeezed gently. “Ma’am? Is there someone we can call? A family member or a minister? How can we contact your husband?”

“Our minister, at First Baptist Church,” she nods. “You can reach him through the church directory…” Her voice trails off, and then her head snaps up and she looks at the clock over the mantel. “Oh my God, my husband will be home any minute now! He works at one of the plants, and he gets off work at four o’clock, and Oh my God, what will I tell him?”

“We’ll take care of that,” I assure her, not at all sure how. I flash a look at EP. He nods in understanding, takes his hands off the woman’s shoulders and turns toward the door. He makes it only a few steps and then turns around. “Ma’am,” he asks uncertainly, “what’s your name?”

“Karen Webster,” she answers. “My husband’s name is Kyle.” EP says nothing, just nods and walks outside.

“Karen, we’ll get your minister down here as quick as we can,” I tell her gently, moving to a seat on the couch beside her chair. “I need to tell you what’s going to be happening in the next few minutes, okay?”

She says nothing in reply, just looks at me questioningly.

“The coroner will be here asking questions. There may be Sheriff’s Deputies here taking pictures and gathering evidence. Just try to answer the questions as best you can.”

She just nods vacantly, staring at the Fisher Price activity gym on the living room floor.

There will also be an autopsy, mandated by law in infant deaths, I don’t say. A pathologist will be photographing and x-raying Bryon’s body, cutting him open and examining his organs, doing toxicology tests and myriad other indignities in the faint hope of determining what killed him.

I quietly ask her a few more questions and pray that her minister will arrive her before her husband. I don’t want this responsibility.

She had been working outside all morning. Her husband had left for work at 7:15, and she had slept in until Bryon woke at nine. She had fed him, changed his diaper, and played with him in the living room until nearly noon.

She read The Green Mile as she nursed him, and then put him to bed. She went outside to work in her flower beds, checking on him once before two o’clock. She said he had rolled over onto his belly and was sleeping peacefully, so she had gone back outside. Three hours later, she had gone back inside and found him dead.

I sit uneasily on the couch, looking around the living room. A cordless phone handset sits on the mantel in front of a family portrait; Kyle standing behind Karen, hands protectively on her shoulders, Karen holding Bryon in her lap. Everyone is smiling, even the baby. My pager buzzes angrily on my belt, jarring the silence even in vibrate mode. I try to ignore it, but in a few minutes it buzzes again, reminding me that I have to pay it heed. I quietly slip the pager from its case and check the display.

10-21 dispatch.

I clear my throat apologetically. “Karen,” I ask, nodding toward the phone on the mantel, “may I?”

She nods her assent and retreats back into her thoughts, and I pick up the phone and walk around the corner into the dining room to call dispatch.

“Medic Six,” I tell the voice that answers. “You paged?”

“What’s the holdup there?” Satan demands nastily. “I got your partner on the radio and he said it was a Signal 61. You’ve been on scene for thirty minutes!”

“And we’ll probably be here for a while longer. We’re waiting for the coroner.”

“Thirty minutes on scene
for a natural death?” Satan snorts derisively. “There’s a cop there to handle things, isn’t there?”

If I had worked this kid, I’d be tied up on the call for an hour, minimum. You can give me another thirty minutes, at least.

I say as much to the dispatcher, trying to keep my voice calm and professional.

“You need to stop playing social worker and savior and get your unit back in service,” he tells me curtly. “I’m logging you as available in the computer right now. Advise when you get back in town limits.”

I carefully consider what to say next, and say the only response I can think of. “Fuck you, dispatch.” I thumb the button to end the call before he can reply.

I walk back into the living room, but before I can say anything to Karen, her husband bursts into the living room. He is wild, frantic, desperately trying to shake Tom’s grasp of his arm.

“Get your Goddamned hands off of me!” he roars. “That’s my wife in there!”

He pulls up short in the living room, looking first in bewilderment at his wife, then at me. Karen runs to him and collapses into his arms, sobbing hysterically, and I edge between him and the nursery door. He reflexively wraps his arms around her and stares over her shoulder at me accusingly.

Tom Tate moves closer behind him, and I can see EP standing in the foyer with his back to us, talking urgently into the radio.

Never taking his eyes off mine, he grasps his wife by her arms, and slowly, deliberately moves her to one side. I stand in front of the nursery door, hands at my sides and palms open. Tom lays a restraining hand on his arm and he shakes it off.

“Let me in there,” he commands, his voice low and menacing. “Now.”

“He’s dead, Mr. Webster,” I say softly, confirming what he already knows. “There was nothing we could do.”

Kyle Webster’s reply is to sweep an entire row of pictures from the wall in a frightening, splintering crash, and he buries his fist in the drywall just a few inches to the left of my head.

“OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR AND LET ME SEE MY SON!” he screams, and I flinch as spittle flecks my face.

“You don’t want to see him, Mr. Webster,” Tom says gently, wrapping him from behind in a bear hug. “Not right now.”

Kyle Webster’s face starts to contort, and his voice breaks as he asks again, this time pleadingly. “You have to let me in there. He’s my son.”

I just stand there mutely, not moving. I don’t know what to say, or do. I only know that he doesn’t need to see his son as he looks right now, and I would spare him that pain if I could. If he were to shake loose of Tom and swing again, I am not sure I would duck. His shoulders start to shudder, and I watch as he folds inward on himself, going limp in Tom’s grasp. His mouth opens and closes, and his throat works, but no sounds come out. His wife lays a trembling hand on his left shoulder, and Tom lets him go as they both collapse into each other’s arms and sob out their grief together.

We stand there together watching them, and presently we are joined by a dapper little man wearing black slacks and a light blue polo shirt. EP trails behind him. “Brother Combs, from the church,” EP whispers by way of introduction. “I already filled him in.”

Brother Combs politely shakes hands with each of us and whispers a word of thanks. His hands are soft and slightly moist, but his grip is firm. He nods to us and turns his attention to the Websters, placing a hand on each of their shoulders and leaning his head close, talking softly to them.

“Come on, let’s go outside and wait for the coroner,” Tom whispers huskily. “I don’t think I can be in here much longer.” EP nods in agreement.

I say nothing, looking around at the Websters, whose world has all but ended, standing forlornly in their living room with their firstborn son dead in a room twenty feet away. Glass crunches under my feet as I turn and look at the hole Kyle Webster punched in the wall beside my head. I sigh, and begin picking up the shattered pictures Kyle swept from the walls in his brief explosion of rage.

I pick up the biggest pieces of glass, and gather the remnants of the broken frames. A few are still intact, and I delicately pick the broken shards of glass from the frames, taking extra care not to damage the photographs they house. Tom and EP watch for a moment and then join me, literally picking up the pieces of a couple’s shattered memories. We deposit the broken glass in a can found in the kitchen, and quietly stack the frames on the dining room table. Brother Combs looks up from his prayer as we turn to leave, and smiles his thanks.

Outside, Tom slumps on the trunk of his cruiser and EP lights a cigarette. None of us speaks for several minutes. I finish writing my run report sitting on the bumper of Tom’s cruiser with my clipboard balanced across my knees, straining to see in the gathering dusk. EP flicks his butt onto the pavement, grinds it under his heel, and checks his watch.

“We should be getting back into service,” he reminds me. “I’ve gotten three pages from dispatch in the past twenty minutes. The last one said to call the shift supervisor.”

“I’ll call him in a minute,” I reply. “Frankly, they can all kiss my ass.”

EP nods but says nothing. He knows I’ll take whatever heat we have coming.

“Either one of you have kids?” Tom asks.

“Nope,” I answer. “Just got married, myself. I hope to, one day.”

“Me neither,” EP offers. “I’m divorced, and not likely to get married again any time soon. How about you?”

“Two,” Tom sighs, “both of them girls. The youngest isn’t much older than that kid. She just turned one in March.”

“Go home and hug them both tonight,” I suggest, tearing off a carbon copy of my run report and handing it to him.

EP grunts his endorsement, “That’s what I’d do.”

“Oh, I intend to,” Tom says quietly. “Believe me, I intend to. You boys be careful tonight.”

EP and I drive back to the station in silence. The phone rings in the station not sixty seconds after we mark back at station with dispatch. EP answers, and wordlessly hands the phone to me.

The shift supervisor isn’t quite breathing fire and threatening jobs like I’m sure the dispatcher had wanted, but he is not pleased. Mainly he wants to hear my side of the story, and I tell him, leaving out nothing. In the end, he’s at least partially mollified, but chastises me for telling the dispatcher to fuck off.

“Next time, just call me and clear it first,” he urges.

I lie to him and promise to do just that in the future, not bothering to point out that the dispatch supervisor is the one responsible for relaying those messages, and the only ones that get forwarded are the ones he wants to, and since the company only records the 911 line, it’s always our word against his.

I kick off my boots and sit on the side of my bed, totally drained, unable to get Bryon Webster’s mottled, lifeless face out of my mind. I can still hear his mother sobbing her prayers into her hands, kneeling in the doorway and rocking back and forth.

I check my watch, and note that The Missus’ shift begins in an hour. She’s probably already awake. I dial the hospital and ask for her room, and the tears start to flow before she even answers. By the time she picks up, I can only cry brokenly into the phone. I’m making absolutely no sense and I know it, but it doesn’t matter. In five minutes she is opening my bedroom door, and she holds me until I fall asleep.


I blink the tears away as I look at the house in my rear view mirror, and my vision clears. Even now, ten years later, the memory is still raw enough to make my breath catch in my throat. After the fear surrounding Katy’s birth had passed, after we thought we had put most of her health problems behind us, I could go months without thinking about it. But occasionally it surfaces, and the fear it engenders still chills me. Mostly it comes when Katy is in another room playing and I can’t hear her. I’ll get up to check on her, and invariably she’ll be playing or watching a DVD, and she’ll look up at me and smile, and the fear passes. There are nights when I’ll get up and tiptoe into my daughter’s room and bring her to bed with me because I’m the one who had a bad dream.

EP is remarried now, and he and his wife are still childless after years of trying. I know he has held her through long nights of disappointment, tears and frustration, but they haven’t given up. I wonder if, on the nights he holds his wife and comforts her, does he remember doing the same for Karen Webster the day she found her son dead in his crib? Would they have traded places with the Websters, if only to have a child for six months? Did the Websters think those six months were worth it?

I look up, and a neighbor’s front door is open, a man framed in the light with a phone pressed to his ear. He’s staring intently at me, no doubt calling the police to tell them there is a strange man parked in front of his house, crying and staring in his rear view mirror.

I wipe my eyes and put my truck in drive, and slowly pull away. A last glance in the mirror almost makes me stop again. Above the top of the privacy fence, silhouetted against the setting sun, I can make out a swing set in the Webster’s back yard.

I hope that means what I think it means.

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