The Time magazine was in the waiting room together with The Rolling Stone, fumbled, browsed and touched a million times, so I did the same. I killed some time leafing through it, and of course, when least expected, like the most of our life happens, just around the corner (unless one is seemingly in a situation where nothing ever changes, because even then—even in the most remote areas where time stands still, and one is determined to remain there forever, an early morning might dawn filled up with big metal birds spitting fire down on his head, and that’s the moment when everything inevitably changes), as I turned the page, the next one, all warm red & yellow, faced me displaying:
It was about a contest that’s initiated every year by Shell and The Economist.
This year it was writing an article about Do We Need Nature?
The first prize was $20,000.
Without even checking the site properly, I started writing the article at once. Eventually, toward the end, I did check the site, discovering that the article had all those scientific questions about genetically modified food, nuclear power, human cloning…
Also, it couldn’t go over 2,000 words with synopsis together. My article was already written, so I couldn’t change it anymore, and re-reading it I actually liked it the way it was, never mind $20,000. So, here it goes—
I need Nature.
My father is dying of cancer; my mother still works hard; I’m going through a divorce…
I need Nature, because only Nature helps me make it through. Get out and say hallo to a tree, or listen to a bird sing—it’s what I was taught since my early days. Nature was my only outlet—the green grass and the blue sky or sea. Out of the concrete city jungle.
Today I’ve spent 7 hours in the Emergency Room with my father.
He, with a 104 fever, and me cooling his forehead off, using the paper towels sprinkled by drops of water from the tap. How precious that water looked, as if shiny pearls were coming out of the blue, when needed the most. My father’s head was burning and his tongue was heavy. As I looked around, everyone was in need.
The woman next door cried like a little child. Hooked on all the tubes she was probably getting all the necessary medication, but no one was there to hold her hand. And she cried scared. A few times I wanted to enter her room and tell her everything would be fine, but it was against the regulations. One can get a glass of water on ice, a couple of Tylenols; they’ll check your blood pressure and temperature, even check your breathing, carefully pronounce your name and wish you well but, other than that, you’re left alone in a self-contained room with the door closed or with the curtain on for privacy so that you can cry undisturbed, or talk to the walls.
We remained there from about 2.30 pm until 9.30 pm.
As usual, they had to draw blood, do the x-ray, CT scan, go through the history of the illness times and again—there was always a young and eager doctor that needed to build an enterprize information from scratch. Still, he was a nice man, concerned, thoroughly doing his job—every time assuring us they’ll take a proper care, but in his eyes I could see an unsure sensation as he told us about all the possible infections—there’s a treatment, of course, but will my father survive it with his white blood cells count next to nothing…it was an open question.
A few times I approachd the window and just stood there like an unsaid thought. It was a habit from my childhood. For any turbulence and confusion the answer was always out there, and out there were also mountains and hills to climb, rivers to cross, valleys to inhabit. Now I could only see the brick wall of the next building, not a single tree to caress my mind, as a breeze would play with its crown.
Of course, I could have gotten out, passing a couple of security gates, walking down the long plastic and pastel corridors, seeing all the different human species confined each in their own compartment of private little hell.
In their fatigued eyes there was no life to greet, their clocks were set on half past dead, and only those asleep looked like already belonging to another world we’re all to encounter some day. Even if I saw and touched a tree in the end, I’d have to walk the same way back and sit next to my father and cool his forehead off, because his fever was going up, passing 104. What’s more, one was not allowed to roam freely around the department, because one of the doctors nicely warned that their privacy is limited, and, of course, the privacy and confidentiality of other patients too.
One was to sit and wait.
One had everything there—running water, air-conditioning, light, heating, cooling, but one couldn’t get out and breath the fresh air. I started to imagine the future, the science fiction; how little by little the whole world is to end up like a big ER where everything will be supplied, but the living space will be limited and plastic, and the views of the landscapes displayed on liquid screens.
I knew I didn’t belong to that world, so I sneaked out, leaving my father alone for a while because I was going to get him a drink. He wanted a Sprite, and for that one needed a Coke machine, and that excuse got me through all the gates. I even got two little Reese’s chocolates from the other machine. It was all still plastic and sweet, but it got me out for a while.
The night was lying empty and still. Everything looked secure and well taken care of. An occasional taxi would drop off another person in need, and then disappear into the darkness. The bright lights of the city were glimmering at the bottom of the hill like another galaxy. As if they were more promising, they look inviting and warm. But I knew them well, and I was grateful to be able to take another deep breath of fresh air and see a few trees dancing in the breeze. They looked as if coming from another world, and then I remember what my mother said once:
“This planet must have been the kingdom of animals and plants a long time ago, and then people appeared from somewhere to take it over and destroy it.”
She also desperately wanted to go pick some cherries somewhere, “with her own hand,” as she said, and as she did in her childhood. Finally, one told her she could still do it in Washougal, Washington. That would be on her only day off, once a week, of course, and it turns out that there’s never enough time or means for it.
Back to the ER, one guy covered in tattoos, lying in his self-contained cell, begged me to get him some water. In real life he’d look kind of mean, but this time he was helpless and his eyes were watery. Just as I was to get him some, the nurse appeared around the corner and got into his room closing the door. I started feeling as a ghost wandering around, free to leave any time, walk through the walls. I didn’t wear any blue or white uniforms, and some of the staff looked at me with unease. I didn’t depend on them nor was I one of them. I was fortunate enough not to belong there, although I was still a part of it all, witnessing silently as if chosen to tell the tale later on.
My father still lay in the same position, floating in the world of fever. The Sprite on rocks helped him a bit, and then he went back to his burning dreams.
My head started to fall on my shoulders, feeling dizzy. If anything went wrong, I was in the right place. They could also lay me next to my father, who conceived me anyway. Or, maybe it’s against regulations that anybody shares rooms, and since they were all taken, they’d place me out next to the reception desk. One woman already lay there on a stretcher, coughing her heart out and then spitting it into a plastic container. Sometimes she’d look around embarrassed, placed in the center of the action, motionless and helpless.
From time to time, with an ache in my heart, I’d think about my wife and how far from all of this she was. A five-minute walk from the beach. White sand and turquoise water. We’d swim in it together and watch the shadows of manta rays floating by. Our dog (her dog) would jump in and out after a stick of wood before a swell would tumble in. The sun beamed through the crystal clear water, no lifesavers around. Hardly anybody around. I could have still been there. Instead, I’m in a plastic room, pastel colors. Lifesavers all around, just push the button.
Then I’d think about my mother, somewhere in a huge room handling big carts full of mail until midnight, happy to have a job that pays the bills.
Then I’d think about my sister studying thousands miles away.
Then I’d wonder if the birds were already gone to sleep, it was already dark outside, or if they don’t sleep, where they disappeared every night.
I needed Nature.
I needed to get out of that place and take a deep, clean breath. I needed to hear that birdsong in the morning one more time and see the sky. I needed to look down a crown of the tree and dive into the endless blue.
The Doctor came in again.
His pale blue eyes were professional but confused by their own concern. He was still young and willing, and the wisdom was out there. He tried to look like the death is a bad blood test, but still mortal.
It felt as though I was there to give him a reason to believe, being already familiar with the situation. I even smiled calmly to make him feel more comfortable, making my question sound dumb but honest.
‘Is it something dangerous?’
He was back in the game, still a bit confused.
‘We are concerned it’s a fungal pneumonia, which is more complicated to treat than the bacterial one, considering his white count is extremely low.’
He was still cautious.
‘Is there any treatment for it?’
‘Yes, there is, they just need to find what type of fungus it is and the adequate antibiotic to treat it with but, like I said, it’d be up to his immune system and bringing his white cells up.’
I’d heard the same story many times before.
‘Before it was only in his mouth and throat, and now it has finally found its way to the lungs…’
I thought it out loud, recalling the former times when doctors used to say that fortunately the fungus hasn’t gone any further.
‘I’m afraid that’s our biggest concern. I wish you all the best and a good luck.’
It was his first case of Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia.
He shook my hand on his way out, making room for the nurse to come in and get my father ready for the OD (Oncology Department). She wrote down his clothes and counted the money from his wallet. There was about $20 in small bills. She laid them on his stomach like cards, being engrossed in doing her job right.
‘Please,’ my father uttered nervously, and she woke up like from a trance.
‘Oh, sorry,’ she put the money back in his wallet. ‘I just need to make sure everything’s registered.’
Finally, we were on our way to the elevator, down to the 5th floor.
Welcome back, Mr. Nanic!
Almost all the staff at the OD knew him. The same old room, the same old view, the same old city.
Tomorrow, one will at least be able to see some big, ol’ trees out the window. Until then, one can listen to the murmur of the oxygen like a little mountain creek in a silent night.