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Summer/Fall 2019

Jonah and the Whale

 

by Amy Bailey

 

Liquefying. The fish has oozed his life juices. The blue-black betta sits in a snack-sized Ziploc on our screened porch oozing and decomposing, each day deader than the last. We haven’t buried him yet. We’re lazy. We’re also atheists of the highest order with no compulsion to propel him into fish heaven with a prayer in his honor. And it’s hot. It’s always hot here in Alabama. Especially in September. And my mom is playing bingo in the dining hall, or smoking a menthol on the porch of her nursing home in Cincinnati, in a perpetual state of waiting for me to call and me not calling.

Just as I turn from the dead fish to head back inside to think about calling her but not call her, the dog steps in through the pet door of the porch, and she seems wobbly. Confused.

Instantly the dog collapses on her side, writhing and shaking, her tan and white speckled fur limbs thrashing against the planks of the deck floor. I rush to her, try to talk to her, but she’s clearly seizing. Her mouth is foaming, and her tongue is lolling in the back of her throat. She isn’t breathing. The foam of her saliva covers my shirt front and thighs as I pull her to me and try to tilt her head sideways to allow her tongue to drop out of the side of her open mouth. I clear her tongue from her throat, and she gasps as the seizure continues. They say not to put your hands in the mouth of a seizing person; they won’t literally choke on their own tongues. But a dog tongue? My fingers are in and out of her mouth, keeping the tongue from blocking her windpipe. I keep her wrapped tightly in my arms as her body thrashes so she doesn’t hit her head on the floor. I’m screaming for my daughters. “Find my phone! Call Daddy!” I have no idea what’s happening or what my husband can do from work, but I need the phone desperately. Minutes pass and finally her limbs settle; the muscles of her body release and relax. Exhausted, she closes her eyes in my lap, and her breathing returns to normal. The girls, running around screaming, have finally located the phone and drop it on the floor beside me. But the seizure is passed, and I just hold the dog, hoping the seizure is a one-off, an anomaly not to be repeated. It does repeat, of course. Many times over the next 24 hours. She seizes; she thrashes; she empties her bowels; no one sleeps. And I don’t call my mom.

 

***

I drive the dog to the vet, speak with the office workers about her seizures and symptoms, and they ask to keep her overnight to run tests, give her fluids, and closely monitor her for any more seizure activity.

The next day at lunchtime, my cell phone rings. I expect it’s the vet with news. Instead, it is a Cincinnati number. It’s not my mom’s number. It’s not the nursing home’s number. I answer.

“Mrs. Bailey?”

“Yes?”

“My name is Dr. Griffin with the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. I’m an ER physician. Have you heard from your mother’s nursing home about what happened this afternoon?”

No. I had not. Should I have heard from someone? I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Your mother’s been involved in an accident.”

An accident? She’s 73 and she wheels herself around a nursing home all day, playing games the activities staff has invented, bidding on penny auctions where they sell off dead residents’ belongings left behind by families, watching television, giving the staff hell, and bumming smokes off the old man down the hall. What kind of accident could he possibly be talking about?

His voice is agitated. This ER doctor who sees trauma all day is bothered by something. The details are fuzzy, but a medical transport crew has just dropped my mother off in the ER and immediately left, having only said she was involved in an accident in an ambulette. I have no idea what an ambulette is.

“She was on her way to her dialysis treatment. Something happened on the interstate where the driver slammed on the breaks, and she came out of her wheelchair. She has multiple traumas; we’re still assessing what those are.” I let him ramble on. I interject only the occasional “Okay” or “mm hmm.”

“The driver of her ambulette apparently contacted another company vehicle and crew nearby to pick her up and transport her here. They did not call 911. And then they just…left. So we’re unsure exactly what happened. Maybe she wasn’t wearing a seat belt, I’m not sure. She has some lacerations to her face and head, also her hand and arms, that we’re addressing immediately, but she’s arrived conscious and alert. However, she doesn’t quite know what happened.”

I tell the ER doctor to keep me posted while I make a dozen calls to family, the nursing home, and the transport company who is contracted for the dialysis transportation to see if they have any answers. Like what the fuck an ambulette is. I like answers and facts. I have to know what actually happened.

 

***

When I was five, my mother decided I needed religion. She located several children’s books of Bible stories to share with me. She sat beside me on the bed one evening and read aloud the story of Jonah and the Whale.

The great whale had swallowed Jonah whole. Jonah camped out in that whale belly for three full days, praying to live, praying to God. And what do you know? God said, okay, you learned your lesson. And that nice whale finally spewed Jonah back up onto the shore without beaching itself in the shallows.

I looked at her after she finished the story, my tiny feet tucked under me as I sat cross-legged on the bed, and matter-of-factly told her, “That can’t happen. That isn’t real.” Whales don’t swallow people and spit them back out unscathed onto beaches, three days later. The facts don’t add up.

 

***

The vet’s office finally calls to say the dog is ready. I drive over to see if they’ve assessed what is causing the seizures and how to make them stop. They bring her to me in the exam room while I wait on the doctor to explain the situation. The dog is tired, lying on the floor snoring. My phone rings again with a University of Cincinnati Medical Center number. Again, I answer.

My mom’s traumas are more involved than they had anticipated. The impact of the accident broke the femur in each of her legs. Whatever happened in this accident, there was enough blunt force to break both of the largest bones in the human body. She needs surgery to repair her leg bones a new doctor informs me. I have only one thing going through my head.

“I understand, but…will she make it? Can her body withstand that surgery?”

She’s diabetic. She’s on dialysis. She’s had congestive heart failure. She’s suffered several small strokes. She’s overweight. She has smoked like a goddamn forest fire for most of her 73 years. Her body has been shredded in this accident. The facts don’t add up.

He pauses, and I hear him breathing. “We don’t know. All we can do is try, and we can’t leave her the way she is. Right now, she’s immobilized but awake. We’ll try to stabilize her and keep her out of pain so we can perform the surgery tomorrow afternoon.”

“Is anyone from our family there yet?” I ask him.

“Her brother and his wife are here talking to her now, yes,” he says. I hang up with him and call my aunt on her cell phone. I hear my mom talking in the background.

“I’ve got Amy on the phone,” my aunt relays to my mom.

My aunt is standing near the bed, I can tell. From beyond the receiver, I hear my mom tell the room she needs to burp. “I want to sit up!” she demands. She’s trapped by braces, tubes, and needles, immobile in that bed; she can’t sit up.

The vet walks in as I finish the call. He waits patiently. He explains the dog’s situation—it could be a brain tumor or it could be renal failure, but we might not know for some time. In the meantime, he prescribes anti-seizure pills, phenobarbital, a Barbiturate, a controlled substance.

As he prepares the medication for me, he knots his brow and asks, “Is there anyone in your household that is an addict?” I’ve known this man for fifteen years as his client, and this is the first personal question he’s asked. We never get too personal.

“No, no, not a problem there.” I ask questions about the dog’s health, what happens if another seizure occurs, what I should do if it does, how do I administer the medication.

And then I say, “I just. I have a lot going on,” for no real reason in particular, except to excuse myself of peppering him with twenty questions while trying to keep the information straight and seeming what I suspect might appear to be unmoored. I need some sort of excuse for my state of mind, apparent or not. But a look passes over his eyes; he’s still and leaning against the counter across from me in the exam room. That look casts aside everything happening outside the room.

He stays silent just long enough that I go on to fill the space between us. “The dog is having these seizures, and I just got a call saying my elderly mother is in the hospital with two broken legs, and I don’t know what happened. She was going to a dialysis appointment, and I don’t think they had her wheelchair strapped in properly, and she’s a mess, and she lives out of state, and she’s going to have surgery, and they were just saying they don’t know if she’ll make it through or not.”

 “What’s your mom’s name?” the vet asks, more command than question. Simple curiosity isn’t why he’s asking. We’re getting very personal. A tinge of panic pushes my blood through my veins a little faster, pushes more of it into my skull. I’ve heard this question asked of others in just this tone before. We’re in the Bible Belt. I know what this question means. It’s part of the performative ritual for help. No one ever asks me this. I don’t allow such things.

It’s still hot outside; I feel the heat tiptoeing into the room, prickling in my armpits, prodding behind my brow. That fish is still oozing in the Ziploc on the back porch, waiting to be buried under a large rock in the backyard. I’m still telling my mom Jonah and the Whale isn’t real; that can’t happen. That fish’s facts don’t add up.

But I don’t shake my head. I don’t smile and wave a dismissing hand or start gathering my things to leave.

I imagine my mom lying in that whale of a hospital bed, trapped, broken, and disoriented. I see her on the edge of my bed, closing the book with exasperation, grasping for, hoping for, some flash of faith within me.

I don’t say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I need to get going.”

I tell him.

“Julie. Her name is Julie.”

And just like that, his head is bowed, his eyes closed, the dog is still lying on the floor beside me, the sides of her chest, the soft white part of her underside, rising and falling rhythmically as she sleeps.

It’s only the two of us here, and the dog. I know this isn’t about a fish or a whale or a man trapped inside. This isn’t about facts adding up. I watch the top of his bowed head, I see the gray hairs streaking through the brown, and I crack open. This is about her, I think. Maybe she needs this; maybe she wants this. Maybe this works, I think. She wanted me to call.

I inhale the air between us like a better-late-than-never communion and swallow thickly. His intent is a knot stuck in my throat. I am Jonah, now. This is my whale. Blinking rapidly to stave off tears, I, the atheist of the highest order, stare straight at his closed eyes and hold my breath. Who am I to add up facts? Who am I to say what’s real? I let him dial.

“Dear Father, let us pray for Julie.”

 

 

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