Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Driving Out of Town

The sun was falling lower in the sky, starting to turn the brick walls of the hospital to a buttery bronze. It was one of those incredible late winter days, when the daffodils were opening up, the breeze was actually warm, and one could smell the earth, readying itself for spring.

The ambulance attendants wheeled me out, gently rolling my gurney into the back of the ambulance. They went through their checklists, tightened the elaborate harness holding me firmly to the narrow gurney. The siren sounded and we were off.

It hit me, then. I really had had a heart attack. Not just back pain, or a torn muscle, or perhaps pneumonia. This was the real thing. Oh, I think I knew it when my doctor at the clinic ordered an EKG, or when he asked me for my car keys and said he was driving me to the ER. Or when the nurse handed me a small container of aspirin and told me to chew them up and swallow.

“It gets in the bloodstream quickly, that way, and that’s what needs to happen.”

Oh. OK.

They drew blood, did a second EKG, and both my doctor and the ER doctor came to tell me they’d been talking with the cardiologists at St. Vincent’s. There was a cardiologist here today, too, and he was looking at my blood work and the EKG.

“You need to go to Portland,” the cardiologist said, a few minutes later. They’ll do an angiogram there, probably when you get there. But, I heard the word “if” in his voice.


It had felt great, when the oxygen flowed into my nostrils, immediately easing the thick, dull pain that had been in my neck and between my shoulder blades all morning. That’s another sign, they had said.

I filled out a one page checklist on what I felt, and I was checking most of the boxes. Oh, a cardiac health survey. Oh. I’m close to 100% on this test. And, that’s not good. This isn’t a test I’ve wanted to ace.

But it is good, the cardiologist said. We caught this early, and you’re already getting all three of the anti-clotting drugs we use for heart attacks. But, you’ll need the angiogram, too. Time to learn new vocabulary, time to be a smart student of the human heart, my heart.

Time to relax now, time to chill. I was going for a ride, and had three EMTs with me, ready to work on me if I had another attack. Good stuff still flowing into my vein, into the first IV I’d have on this journey.

I was born in this hospital, almost 57 years ago, back when it was brand new. My dad was one of the doctors on staff. When I was in high school, I’d do my homework in the waiting room every day, waiting for my dad to get done with his rounds. Some of the nurses would look in on me, and I became a part of the hospital family.

I went off to college, but returned late one night, after dad’s second big heart attack. He was here a week, tenderly cared for by so many of the nurses he worked with. He died here, too, and I remember the good talks we had that week, before he lost consciousness and slipped away.

The day after he died, I brought something back to the nurses station, and got a big hug from one of his favorite nurses. About ten years later, we reconnected. I was a lawyer then, and she wanted me to help her sell her house, entrusting me to sign the papers for her. Trust: it goes both ways over many years. It has no price.

I did my first adoption here, too. The mom signing the papers, with tears, letting her baby go to people who could raise her daughter well. She wasn’t up to it, and trusted me to know her daughter’s new parents were up for the job. We cried together, and I cried again, a few minutes later, watching the new parents hold their new daughter.

My mom spent part of her final illness here , too. A lot of visits, a lot of tears. I was here again last year, for a colonoscopy. Taking care of myself and wanting to avoid cancer. Cancer has killed so many of my friends, and I want to be proactive on that.

The ambulance rolls towards town, and we pass the funeral home. My doctor and I, we joke about sending me there. When I was the DA, he was the medical examiner, and we would find ourselves at some pretty amazing scenes. We had fun, analyzing and pondering how people had died, helping to answer the family’s questions, helping them in their grief. It was part of our jobs, and we were a great team. He’s still the medical examiner, and I think of his kindness today, driving me to the ER and sticking around, making sure I was in good hands, knowing I could die today.

The funeral home is where this community comes together, to grieve, and to be with each other, as we sort out the impact of another person dying, one of our own. I think I’ve played all the roles there, well, except the final role, in how we work through our grief. One time, I was the officiant, reading my good friend’s obituary, telling a few funny stories, and getting the crowd to tell a few more. It was a good role to play, a good way to honor him. He’d asked me to do that for him, and I couldn’t say no.

And, in the next block was my dad’s office. Mine, too, after I came back from law school and hung out my shingle. Practicing law was fun, a lot of challenges. I was humbled by how people trusted me with their secrets, with their stories, and what they had done. I heard of their disappointments, their tragedies, and their goals for their families.

A block down the side street was where I lived when I first got married. I moved into Karen’s house, and we made a family there. Sean was nine, and slowly let me into his life as a stepdad. He went to grade school, junior high, and high school. He went off to college from that house, and we were so proud of him, for all that he had become, and for all that he would do in his life.

It was a small house, really not big enough for three. But we did well and fixed it up. I still remember getting my foot tangled in the pipes underneath the living room, the day I was putting in long mats of insulation. Cobwebs and mouse turds were everywhere, and I was covered from head to toe. I was the least claustrophobic of all of us, and thought I’d get the job done fast. When I finally crawled out, it was a sight to behold. And, I never went back.

The ambulance slows a bit. We are almost downtown, and the new library is on the left. When I was a kid, it was a lumber store, and I loved the smell of the fresh cut Douglas fir and cedar, and the big bins of all sizes of nails and screws.

Now, it is one of the nicest places in town. Two stories, filled with books, and study tables, and chairs to sit and read in. Anytime you go in, a couple of dozen folks are there, working on computers or studying, or checking out books. And, the children’s library takes up a good share of the main floor. I always love to go in there, and see kids with a big pile of books to check out.

It’s the third library we’ve had. When I was a kid, the library was in the top floor of the old city hall. A creaky wooden ramp led up to the old library, which smelled so good, old books and leather and a bit of dusty paper. When I was in the first grade, we paraded downtown, all in a row, and took turns getting our first library card.

The second library was opened a few years later, filling up an old car dealer’s space. We thought it was great, with glass and aluminum, and fluorescent lights, and big stacks of books. No creaky old ramp, but the librarian would still give you the evil eye to be quiet when you walked in the door. In high school, I’d meet my friends there to study, and then slip next door to the Swiss Chalet, the local hamburger spot, and get a snack.

Another block, and we are in the center of town. We blow through the red light, the driver pulling rank over the pickups and log trucks, people trying to make a living today. On the right is the Beals Building. My dad’s first office, right after World War II. That was when all the businesses and professionals were downtown. The place was jumping, and when I was a kid, Saturday afternoon was when folks went to town and did their shopping.

On the ground floor was the Man’s Shop, the only place in town you could get a nice shirt, or a pair of jeans and some work boots. I always liked the back of the store the best. That’s where all the work clothes were, and I liked the smell of the leather work boots, loggers’ caulk boots, and the racks of the gray striped work shirts that all the loggers wore. Oh, they’d cut off part of the sleeves and the hems of their jeans, so they wouldn’t get tangled up in their saws. And, soon, their shirts would get greasy from the oil on the chains of their saws. But, it was where real guys bought their clothes and their boots, and you could always smell a bit of sawdust and oil back there, back in the back of the store.

Across the street was the old drug store. There was always a huge scale by the front door, the metal painted gold, and a big dial. It was always fun to make the big needle move when you went inside. The scale is over at the Y now, but they don’t let you step on it anymore. It would be fun.

The drug store was always fun, and you could get penny candy there, and sticks of peppermint and butterscotch. I loved the clerk there. She always wore thick eye makeup, her eyelids bright purple or pink. When I was in high school, she asked me to trim her hedge. I was looking for something to do, and we agreed on a price. But, it was the biggest hedge I’d ever seen, and took me three days to do the job. I made the offer of what I thought one day of work would be, but boy, was I ever wrong. A good lesson to learn, though: always make sure you know how big the job is before you make a commitment.

We roll a bit further, still stopping folks in their tracks. We pass by the stationery store, the one where at least two generations of clerks have retired now, ever since I started going there with my mom. Its still my favorite place to get cards, and paint now, since I’ve started playing around with my artistic talents.

There used to be a laundry across the street, big enough they had a steam boiler. When I was a kid, the noon whistle would always go off there, telling everyone in town it was time for lunch. Next door was the Piggly Wiggly store. It closed when I was a kid, and now, hardly anyone in town remembers when we had a Piggly Wiggly store. I just like the name. But, I miss the noon whistle. It would be a good thing to bring back.

The next block is the courthouse. I work there now. Well, not today. Today, I’m having my heart attack. I’m one of the judges there now. That still seems odd to say. When I was a kid, I’d go with my mom there, to pay the taxes or get something from the extension service. They had big wooden doors then, almost too big to open. And, there was always that big black sign on the front, “no caulk boots”. You couldn’t have the loggers marking up the white marble tiles on the floor.

We’d always walk by the Circuit Court doors. We knew the Circuit Judge, Jack Bohannon. He was a nice guy, who always had a smile and joked around with my dad. Judge Bohannon had a fishing boat in Garibaldi, and court was always adjourned the whole month of August, so Judge Bohannon could take his boat, the Nan B II, out every day, across the bar, and trawl for salmon. My dad had a boat, too, just a sport fishing boat. But, when we went fishing, we’d always check to see where Judge Bohannon was fishing, and he’d call us on the radio sometimes, and come by when we were coming in, to see how we were doing.

When I was in high school, I worked for the county clerk, reboxing old records and shredding a pile of cancelled checks. It was dusty work, down in the basement, but I got to know people there. The clerk was the clerk of the court, so I saw the Judge a lot, but he was pretty serious when he was at work, and we didn’t talk much about fishing.

The courthouse has been good to me. I practiced law for quite a while, and got to be the district attorney for a term. I think I did some good things when I was there, starting the victims’ assistance program and beefing up the child support program. I started handing domestic violence and DUIIs differently, too. People still tell me I was a fair guy when I did that job. And, that’s a nice thing to hear.

Now, I’m the justice of the peace. I hear all the traffic cases, and small claims, and most of the eviction cases in the county. I hear a lot of the aches and woes of the community, and see poverty and addiction and mental illness in most of their awful and painful colors. And, I get to do some good with all of that, and help folks get back on track. It’s a good job for me, and my ability to listen and be calm and come up with the right decision gets tested all the time.

So, I silently send a blessing to my fantastic staff and all other folks in the courthouse, as the ambulance picks up speed a bit and heads out of town. I’m leaving my robe behind today, and instead, I’m wearing a hospital gown and have an IV tube running down into my arm.

We pass a dairy farm, and I think of all the good times I had on my grandparents’ farm, between Cloverdale and Woods, in the south part of the county. They loved the land and their cows, and the routine of milking every day. It was a good place to visit, and to learn how to do a bit of milking and farming. My grandpa taught me to milk by hand, when I was about seven. His big, calloused, meaty hands wrapped around mine, as I held Dream’s teat, trying to coax a bit of milk out of her warm, soft udder. Dream was my favorite cow, and she would low a bit whenever I came into the barn.

We head out of the valley, the sun highlighting the green of the pastures, the light not as faint, pewtery like the light of winter. This light promises Spring, and is richer, fuller. On the left is the ribbon of water that is the Wilson River. We will head up to its headwaters now, along its banks, and I will see the rapids and the long stretches of calm, and the many forks and creeks that feed into it. The late afternoon light will sparkle on the water, and the white mottled bark of the alders along its banks. In a month, the alders will bloom, their dark bronze blossoms like spider legs along the thin, twisty ends of the branches. In April, their leaves will fold out, accordion ribs slowly flattening, slowly hiding the river and the depths of the forest from our eyes.

We enter the canyon and there is the spot I caught my first steelhead. It was a cold winter day, freezing, actually, when my brother took me fishing. We cast out into the deep green of the river, the current falling slowly after a storm. Icy winds started forming ice in the eyelets of my fishing pole. Suddenly, a fish grabbed my bait, mud shrimp with yarn and an orange plastic lure, resembling some salmon eggs. It was a long struggle, and I nearly fell in, fearing cold river water running over my boots and drenching my Filson wool red and black plaid coat.

We landed the fish just about dusk, and scrambled up the bank, slipping on rocks and mud, more than half frozen. I still have that photo, of me barely holding up the huge steelhead, a big grin on my face. Thanks, brother, for that day.

We head higher, moving up the highway, a few trucks and pickups pulling off to the side. The siren is on now only once in a while. I can tell the driver knows this road, and knows when to slow for a particular corner. The EMT sitting next to me checks my IV and makes sure the anti-coagulant in the bottle is going where it needs to go. I am in good hands.

We pass milepost 11. That is where our cabin was, when I was a little boy. We went there a lot, before my folks built the big house west of town, the place with five acres and lots of woods for me to roam with our dog. I liked the cabin, two rooms and a big porch swing in the summer. It was above a creek, and it smelled like forest and creek water. I’d play in the creek for hours in the summer, building dams and catching crawfish, and enjoying life.

My dad and brother and I would wander around sometimes, occasionally planting trees. It was part of the Tillamook Burn and Doug fir trees were small. Deer ate them incessantly, and we often had to replant. Now, the trees have grown up and are nearly ready to harvest. The place has been rebuilt, and it looks real nice now, not like the dark green shaked cabin I remember from the 1950s.

We lived there one winter, after my folks had sold our house in town and the new house west of town wasn’t quite finished. We nearly froze, as the place wasn’t insulated and the only heat was a trashburner stove in the kitchen. Sometimes the pipes would freeze. I got the measles there and laid in bed with a fever one morning, while Mom went out to rethaw the pipes after Dad had left for work. After that, we didn’t go there much, and I remember helping my dad type out the contract to sell it a few years later.

We go on. Another mile and we pass my high school chemistry teacher’s house. She’s long gone now, but she was one of the best. She made me think, and made me a good scientist, one lab experiment, one equation at a time. She expected a lot out of me, and I rose to the challenge. Years later, I thanked her for being such a good teacher. She laughed and thanked me, and said whatever I did in my life was all up to me. Good advice from her, as usual.

Up and up we go up the canyon. Past the place where the game officer showed me a tree, the bark all shredded by bears. We pass the place where the old Jordan Creek Inn stood. Best breakfast around when I was a kid. It burned down about twenty years ago, and now you wouldn’t know it ever existed. A friend of mine owned it for a while, packing a pistol as he was afraid of being robbed. I think he just liked wearing a revolver on his hip. He always wanted to be a cowboy.

Up Cedar Creek, my dad and I would go deer hunting. It was on the way to Triangle Butte, where you could see the ocean and Mt. Hood, and even Mt. Rainier on a clear day. In the 1960s, it was a lot different. The various fires of the Tillamook Burn had taken all the big trees, and there were just big snags left. A lot of the snags were logged, not burned enough to destroy the thick, even grained wood that fed all the mills in town. Little Doug firs were growing up, but they were just a few feet high. The hills were covered with bracken fern and fox glove. The fern turned brown, brittle in the fall, and it was hard to walk through the hills without making a big noise.

We’d always stop for lunch at a place we could look out over the mountains, binoculars at the ready, looking for deer. We always ate big sandwiches, and there was plenty of coffee. We didn’t talk much, and deer hunting was always a silent affair. Still, the smell of bracken fern in the fall always reminds me of our hunting trips.

Now, they log Cedar Creek, hauling out big truckloads of good sized logs. And, I wonder about the passage of time, the passage of my life, measured in the thickness of trees.

We fly past Lee’s Camp. I always like that little store. A good place for a cold pop and a snack on a hot summer day, those days when it’s a hundred degrees out and you can’t believe this is the Coast Range. They always have pictures of guys with their fish or their deer or their elk, all stapled up on the wall by the cash register. You won’t see my picture there. I may fish once in a while, but I’m a lousy catcher. I make a better fisher.

Another six miles and we go by the south fork of the Wilson. There’s a prison camp up there. I used to represent a lot of the inmates, guys seeking to set aside their convictions. Post conviction relief, the law calls it. A lot of guys got burned by their lawyers, people in suits who didn’t know the law or didn’t do the job to defend their clients. I liked most of my clients there. Oh, they were criminals, but most of them had been plagued by drugs and alcohol, broken families and not having any dreams, the dreams I had when I was a kid. Life has a lot of forks in the road, and I think I’m pretty blessed by the ones I’ve taken.

The inmates all wear jeans and denim shirts, with a big orange stripe on the side. One time, when I was the DA, my family and I were about a mile from the camp, taking a hike. I had on my jeans and a denim shirt. One of the guards drove by and gave me the eye. He talked to me quite a while, checking me out. If I was one of his, I was clearly escaping. He looked a little surprised when I pulled out my DA badge. It was a good lesson for me: always dress appropriately, no matter what the occasion.

I went there one time when the Governor came. The inmates had built a fish rearing pond, and were raising thousands of steelhead and salmon smolts. It was quite a project and the state was pretty proud of it. Two former governors came, too. I showed up, being the DA, and I got to say a few words during the ceremony. It was a fun day, everyone relaxed and having a good time. The Governor took time to talk to some of the inmates, and it was good to see everyone just as people, happy about taking care of fish and loving the land.

We climb to the summit, the heavy ambulance lagging a bit, slowing down, as we climb to a thousand feet, and then another five hundred, making the summit. I say good bye to Tillamook County, perhaps for the last time. The sun is almost set now, and I see the mountains of my homeland silouetted against the late afternoon sky, still blue. I wonder if I’ll be back, and I hope I will. I have a lot of things to do.

Down and down we go, bouncing over that section of the highway that always sags and splits a bit, in the winter. And, every year, the highway department fixes it up and every winter, it slips and sags again.

We fly downhill now, the Washington County side. In a blur, we pass the place they used to keep all the old trolley cars. We stopped there one spring day, and took a ride. It was a ride back in history, back to the day when people in cities rode the trolley to work, before the days of freeways and traffic jams and malls and parking lots.

We pass the place where my dad and my brother almost got killed. They were headed out to the valley one day, I forget what for. An old man pulled out in front of them, my dad hitting him nearly head on. Mom and I had to go pick them up. They were fine, just shook up, my dad feeling awful he’d killed a man and his wife, coming out of a fruit stand, with a box of apples. Dad and my brother had to go to court later on, telling a grand jury what had happened. Nothing came of that, not that I remember. My dad never talked about it, after that day. Just like he never talked about D-Day, or the Battle of the Bulge, or the day he helped liberate Buchenwald and was the first doctor for all the Jews in that camp.

We charge over Prune Hill. No one calls it that anymore, except the people I’ve known for half a century. There used to be a lot of prune orchards there, back when Brooks prunes were grown and harvested and then dried. Now, hazelnuts and apples grow there. There must be more of a market for those now. But, I still call it Prune Hill.

We go on now, still a bit of siren, a few lights now and then, scattering the farmers and the folks commuting into Hillsboro or Portland. I doze a bit, fatigued by the day, the pain fully gone now, the oxygen in my nose and the IV drip doing their magic. Soon, we hit the freeway and a Sheriff’s car helps us move the traffic off to the side.

We pull into the hospital, to the place that only the ambulances go. I’m quickly slid out of the back, my three companions jumping into action. Around a corner and then another, and up an elevator, and I’m so lost. A nurse greets me with a big smile, fastening my new ID bracelet on as she stethoscopes my chest.

“Welcome to Cardiac Care,” she says, the crew quickly sliding me onto the hospital bed, my home for the next four days.

Neal Lemery, 2/23/2010


Wanda said...

Prune Hill...yup. So many of these things I remember with you. And you have to stop making me cry--okay?

Wanda's mom said...

And I remember them all!
Get well soon.