Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Corpse In Limbo

I did nothing to save the first person who died in front of me. I simply stood watch, quietly, and let her go. She was old and white and wasting away in a nursing home, her dress covered in splotches the color of solid food that’s been run through a blender. Her death was unceremonious but quiet and I was the only witness, earth’s final sentry, there to do nothing more than close the gates after she slipped through.

There are two types of ambulance roaming your streets right now. Obviously there are the 911 ambulances: Two-man crews waiting to respond to emergencies real or imagined. But there are also the others: Private ambulances whose sole purpose is to take the infirmed to and from appointments. To work for a private service is to spend your professional life wandering through dialysis clinics and nursing homes, neither of which is pleasant. Dialysis clinics are sterile white rooms filled with the tang of bleach and the soft whirring of machines that slowly drain your blood like calibrated vampires so it can be scrubbed and then pumped back in. Nursing homes you know, though perhaps you’re not familiar with the smell—how the air is flat-out humid like the wrapper of a rotten Slim Jim, and heavy with the stink of dirty diapers, reheated food and unwashed bodies.

The hierarchy between these two very different ambulance services is clear—children don’t dream about growing up to be the guy who totes dehydrated lizards out of a nursing home. And yet which one you work for, private or 911, is occasionally a matter of luck. My particular type of luck turned out to be bad—when I finished EMT school the 911 service in my area had just hired a couple dozen people and the recruiter told me to call again in the summer. The private service hired me on the spot. I was only 25 and already I’d lived two lives—one as a failed salesman, the other as a published novelist and reporter in exile. Now, I was about to start my third. The first person to die before my eyes did so in early 2004, centuries ago, and looking back it’s hard to believe that it’s real, that at one point in my life it was so normal to be witness to something so strange. Like much of my EMS life the memory is fuzzy, soft light filtered through gauze, but the details are sharp as a hot razor. Combine the two and what you have is more sensation than recollection, more feeling than anecdote.

This is how it feels to me now.

It’s my second or third night and I’m partnered with a guy who never goes home. He’s a firefighter in the next county but he’d do anything for money and works a handful of part-time jobs. When he isn’t here or at the fire station he flips burgers at McDonald’s. Just before ten we are called to a nursing home for a sick woman. Technically, this is a job for the emergency service, but every so often the lines become blurred. Calling 911 suggests an emergency—something, anything, that couldn’t be handled by the nursing staff. This raises questions they’d rather not answer. But calling a private service, a non-emergency service, suggests a small but concerning problem, something caught and handled early.

My partner is tired. He walks slowly, eyes to the floor, as we push the stretcher off the elevator and wander down the long hall to the patient’s room. We ease alongside her bed. A nurse hovers in the background saying the woman didn’t eat dinner, isn’t acting herself and needs to be seen. I take her blood pressure, her pulse, count her breaths. Her eyes are closed, her skin—white and crinkled like parchment paper—is dry and hot. My partner asks for her papers. You never leave a nursing home without papers. Most people in a nursing home can’t talk and those that can don’t make sense so even a question as straightforward as Who are you simply doesn’t yield usable results. So you get the papers, a thick manila envelope stuffed with everything from medical problems to next of kin. More importantly, it is in this packet that you find insurance information and whether or not there’s a do not resuscitate order.

All your boss cares about is the insurance information. All you care about is the DNR. Simply put, there are uncomfortable questions that absolutely must be answered. What if she loses consciousness? Or if she stops breathing? Do I go all the way—CPR, electric shocks, slip a tube down her throat, drill a hole in her leg for medication. Or do I simply let her go? What does her family want? What would she want? The existence of this simple piece of paper, even its absence, means a lot. To everyone. At the hospital, the nurses will ask about it and the doctors won’t even look at you until you’ve answered. At her age, in her condition, everyone will agree resuscitation, beyond futile, would be cruel. So does she have a DNR? The nurse says she does, that it’s atop her packet, the first page in the stack. She walks out to go get it.

And that’s when it happens. Before my partner—who’s leaning against the wall—coaxes his mass into action. Before I pull back the sheet. Before anyone even addresses her directly. She opens her eyes—milky and unfocused—and tilts her head forward. Her lips part and then, without ceremony, she relaxes. Her last breath escapes. A single tear runs down her left cheek.

I know instantly what’s happened. But is it really that simple? That easy? The nurse has just said the patient has a DNR so that drilled-into-my-head-during-school compulsion to act doesn’t kick in. Instead, I spend the first few seconds staring into her vacant eyes, tracing the arc of that single tear—her final corporeal act—and marvel at this woman. Moments ago she was something to pity, bed-ridden and in a diaper. Suddenly she is a sage, plucked from her stained night gown to be cloaked in the wisdom of the ages. While I stood there, change jingling in my pocket, a little hungry, hoping my wife hadn’t given in to the temptation of watching the Sopranos season finale without me, this woman got the answer to it all. She knows why we’re here and, more importantly, what’s next. And if it’s not the black nothingness we’ve feared since acquiring self-awareness, then how small we must look to her now. In dying she has crossed over. Or hasn’t.

My partner, oblivious, has finally come to life and motions for me to grab the other end of the sheet so we can move her onto our stretcher. I need to tell him, let him decide what comes next but I don’t trust my own instincts. I’m brand new at this, I’ve never watched someone die. My experience with the dead—recent or otherwise—is limited. If he doesn’t notice then perhaps she’s not dead. The woman was hardly moving when we arrived and now, except for the trail left by her tear, she looks no different. With a yank we slide her over. He covers her with a sheet, buckles her in, starts pushing. I stare at her chest, her face, looking for signs of life I know deep down I will not find. We grab her packet and sure enough the DNR is stapled to the top. We ride the elevator, step out into the cool night. With a sharp metallic click the stretcher is snapped into the mount on the floor of the ambulance.

I think she’s dead.

My partner stops. He looks not at her but at me.

I tell him I don’t think she’s breathing.

He steps up into the ambulance, looks, feels, deflates. In the absence of the DNR he might do something but it’s not absent. It’s right there and this document, drafted and signed with the sole intention of clarifying this woman’s final moments, instead obscures our next move. Had she died in the nursing home, my partner says, we’d simply leave her but she’s here now. She died on our stretcher. In our ambulance.

We have drifted into murky water.

He calls the nursing home. We’re in the parking lot, he says. Your patient has died. She’s in your ambulance, the nurse tells him, she’s yours now. I stand outside while they argue. Our patient lies in state. What to do with her? The hospital doesn’t take dead bodies, nor does the nursing home. This woman has died and now no one wants her. She is a corpse in limbo. My partner hangs up. Fumes. He goes back in to explain, to plead, to threaten. I’m not sure why but he leaves me in the back with her.

I sit in the ambulance and stare into the woman’s half-open eyes. I grab the packet and flip through. If we are to keep one another company I should at least know her name. Her birthday. Turns out she is eighty-eight.

There aren’t many things you can do in the back of an ambulance with a dead woman. My cooler sits in the corner but no. I could talk to her but frankly, she is so recently dead, so unchanged from before, it feels as if addressing her directly will wake her. Well, not her but the ghost of her, which is even worse. This may sound foolish but I can assure you that only the most gruesomely killed or severely decomposed look as if they will not sit up and begin talking at the slightest provocation.

Are you still awake?

My wife, at the other end of the call, says she is. She broke down and started watching The Sopranos. You’re gonna love it. When I say nothing she asks if I’m mad and after a second I tell her where I am. Tell her that I’m alone with a woman I’ve watched die and who has become, thanks to my indecision, something of a refugee.

She asks how the woman died and even though I know this isn’t what she means I say peacefully.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Of Wind and Ice and Ryan Waters

Walking away is not easy. To do so is to accept that harshest of human preoccupations: failure. Above 8,000 meters, however, failure must compete for your attention.

Oxygen deprivation, frostbite, avalanches. The quiet but ever-present threat of death from exposure. It is respect for these competing forces – along with the superlative competency that keeps mountaineers alive – that has Ryan Waters rooted in place.

It’s mid-August 2006 and Waters, an experienced high-altitude climber, guide and Wheeler graduate, is at Camp 3 on K2. At 8,611 meters, K2 is the world’s second tallest mountain and arguably the most difficult to climb. Waters and his team have long trained for this moment and now find themselves one day away from a push to the summit. But nothing is going right.

After an assault of Broad Peak, another of Pakistan’s 8,000-plus-meter peaks, the team is exhausted. During the climb of Broad Peak, they reached the summit ridge before deciding they could go no further. In one of the most poignant moments of his career, Waters decided to push on.


Hours later he stood on top of one of the world’s great peaks, a young man in complete control of his element.

Such exuberance, however, must be tempered. Those who know say mountaineers either grow bold or grow old, but not both. That fortunes can change is something Waters knows all too well. In 2005, after two previous successful summits of Everest, he was forced off the world’s tallest mountain by a severe respiratory infection. To spend five days walking away from a trip that had dominated months of his life was more than a stinging slap.

And therein lies the crux of high-altitude climbing: tempering the audacity to push ahead with the wisdom to walk away when defeat comes calling. Because sooner or later it will.

As such, K2 perfectly sums up the dizzying, oxygen-depleted world of high-altitude climbing. Despite its highly-technical and challenging final stages, it remains unknown to the world at-large. As attention and accolades are heaped on its slightly taller but less challenging cousin, Everest, K2 waits for the unsuspecting, the unprepared. K2 has the patience of Job and a voice from hell itself can be heard in the winds whistling off its peak. Underestimate me, it croons, at your own peril.

The decision to turn back or push on is never easy and, after a tortuous night, Waters and his team decide to continue. Ignoring their screaming muscles and seared lungs, they make a run at Camp 4. But extreme conditions rarely send subtle signs and shortly after they get underway a falling rock tumbles toward them, smashing into Waters’s knee.

Still, it’s never an easy decision. “There always a piece of you that says ‘what if’,” Waters says. “But you gotta be able to walk away.” And so, under the mountain’s indifferent glare, the team descends. They are beaten but not broken. K2 will always be there.

Waters will move on to other mountains, other feats. He and a friend will complete the first unassisted ski traverse of Antarctica. But the allure of the unconquered is strong and in 2008 members of the failed expedition, minus Waters, will make a second challenge of K2. Once again things will go horribly wrong and, after spending two nights above 8,000 meters – the fabled death zone – some of them will die. Acknowledging the tragedy has cast a shadow over the mountain, he adds, “but it’s certainly a risk I have accepted.”

Risk, reward, failure, death. These are the constants of high-altitude mountaineering. They are truths to be accepted and, for the bold, they are rewarded with gifts that time or loss cannot tarnish. But those rewards, in mountaineering as in life, can be collected only by those with the wisdom, on occasion, to walk away.

Smoke and Magic Inside the Box

The South is a place of magic.

Tales of mysterious beasts and wild, half-crazed heroes roll clear down to the lowlands like mist from the Smokies.
Voodoo bubbles up from the mudflats in a whisper as black and syrup-slow as the waters of the bayou. It’s no wonder the stomping shuffle of buck dancers and the lonely moan of the slide guitar were perfected in the Southern night. Crowded by the song of Katydids, it is a darkness where the forsaken are rumored to find salvation in music.

So it was for Mike Snowden. Burned out by a lifetime of playing in bands – the endless travel, the constant in-fighting, the search for something that wasn’t there – he put down his bass guitar and walked away from music. In the seven years that followed he had a child, got a day job and settled into a calm that had previously eluded him.

But magic never dies. It merely waits. Five years ago, he realized his daughter had never heard him play. Never seen music swell up and flow from her father the way it can for only those who truly love it. But his bass carried too much baggage, was too complicated to be pure in a child’s eyes. So he picked up a banjo, then the drums, but neither fit.

“And then I came across a picture of a guy playing a cigar box guitar,” Snowden says. “I knew I had to try it.”

Snowden happened to have a friend who worked at a cigar store and had given him a handful of old boxes. The East Cobb resident had long been intrigued by the smell of the wood, the exotic cities stamped into the side. He knew there had to be another use for them and finally it struck. That old Southern magic.

Snowden made a guitar. Three strings and a plug. Varnish. Wood. Something so simple it reaches the purity of truth and carries a unique sound all its own. He started to play music again. First for his daughter, then for anyone who would listen.

He gave up on playing anything else, focused solely on this strange, three-stringed

“I sold or threw out all my old equipment,” he says. “It was liberating.”

He played festivals, recorded music, put out albums and, of course, made more guitars. Almost 500. Aerosmith’s legendary guitarist Joe Perry bought one. So did Audioslave’s Tom Morello. Sugarland’s Christian Bush gives them as gifts.

Snowden didn’t invent cigar box guitars, rather he reintroduced them to us. They first appeared in the 1840s when cigars stopped being packed individually in crates. Civil War soldiers made them. So did Bo Diddley. And Jimi Hendrix. Then, for a moment, they all but disappeared.

The internet is the modern day Crossroads, a place where magic floats in the ether like a blown kiss. It’s where Snowden saw his first cigar box guitar and it’s where the world first saw him – video of the wounded cry of a slide easing its way down the slender neck of his black Cohiba guitar went viral. People took note.

“There’s a whole underground scene of guys who play these things,” he says.

In September Snowden will play a series of shows in the UK culminating in Manchester’s fourth annual Boxstock Festival. Once again on the road, but this time with less trouble, fewer complications.

After that he’ll return home. To his family. To a place where the heavens speak through three strings and a twelve-inch box.

Simple maybe, but nothing short of magic.

Welcome to the Food Chain

Maybe it’s just a possum. You will say this in the dark, when the stars have been blotted out and you can’t see far enough to know where your sleeping bag ends and the great unknown beyond your tent begins. It is a prayer wrapped in a whisper, a childlike hope that what you don’t know can’t eat you. But that tingle in your spine, evolution’s genetic heirloom, disagrees. When you strip away wit, ambition, boredom, hatred of injustice and a love of baseball, you’re simply two hundred pounds of meat. In bear country.

Welcome to the food chain.

Before you receive a back country pass at Yellowstone National Park you must watch a video on bear safety. The video’s sole purpose is to convince you bears are not like Yogi. It suggests you clap every so often to make your presence known – pity the fool who surprises a bear. You watch dispassionately until the moment they show you a grizzly, and then you’re frozen in your seat. In abject terror, you’ll take a map from the ranger and ask about bear activity in the area. He’ll laugh and say none has been reported, but how quaint of you to ask.

As you hike in – alone because tourists at Yellowstone don’t leave their cars – you’ll clap before entering stands of trees. That evening, having not seen a single bear, you will confidently make a fire, cook dinner, sip whiskey and bask in the sublime realization that you are miles from anyone. Eventually it’ll be time for bed. Though you went before, you’ll have to pee again. And somewhere in the darkness a creature sniffs your tent.

So you tell yourself it’s just a possum. Until morning. When you get up, step out and find your camp dotted with bear tracks. Only then will you admit it wasn’t a possum. That you are alone. In bear country. Just another part of the food chain.

A horrifying realization. But exhilarating. Viva Yogi.