by Celia M. Ruiz
September 25, 2008.
“He’s not breathing,” our son’s girlfriend says, as she slips into our bedroom at three in the morning.
She appears collected, controlled, calm. It was just those words, “He is not breathing,” repeated exactly twice.
My husband, Michael hurls himself from bed, his training as an internist gearing into action.
It is a Bay Area Indian summer, the air suffocatingly hot, thin and quiet. I immediately think of an earthquake—but the house is not rattling. It is deadly still.
My mind resorts to new possibilities: our son’s eighteen-month-old son suffocating from the stuffed toys in his crib. Or maybe choking; he is always putting objects in his mouth. Or maybe it’s sudden infant death syndrome?
I stumble out of bed and follow Michael to the bottom of the stairwell. He sprints to the basement, where our son Diego set up bedrooms for himself, his girlfriend and his son. His girlfriend, meanwhile, stands in the foyer. I notice that she is dressed, not in pajamas. She remains eerily calm and alert.
It’s not that bad, she is not scared, she isn’t calling 911, I reassure myself.
“What happened to the baby? I ask, my hands clammy. “Did he swallow something?”
She looks at me quizzically and says, “It’s not the baby, thank God!”
Michael yells out, in panic, “It’s not Lalo. It’s Diego!”
I hold on to the handrail.
For a second, I am disoriented, standing in the foyer of our family home, the portal where Diego, his siblings, his father and I all entered and exited our daily lives. To the west is our living room, with large arched windows overlooking the San Francisco Bay, where we exchanged Christmas gifts, opened baby gifts from the recent baby shower, took family photos, danced to tango and Mexican rancheras; to the south, we sat in the formal dining room for Thanksgiving, birthday and Christmas meals; to the north, upstairs, we spent Sunday mornings reading, talking together in our bedrooms; and to the east, the kitchen, where just twelve days earlier Diego toiled for two days preparing a gourmet dinner for my birthday.
“Diego? What happened?” I ask her.
She looks at me blankly.
“At midnight I was in bed,” she says, “about to go to sleep, when Diego came in from the bathroom. He was breathing heavily and violently jerking his arms and legs and fell over my legs in bed. Her voice is strangely steady. “I thought he was having a nightmare, so I rolled him over and went to sleep. Two hours later, I woke up because I could not hear him breathing. It was dark, so I reached over and felt for a pulse. When I couldn’t feel a pulse, I decided to call Mike.”
I am perplexed. Diego is not a sleepwalker. Is it possible to have seizures and walk in a nightmare at the same time?
“Why didn’t you call us at midnight, when he fell over your legs and was having trouble breathing and jerking his arms and legs? Why didn’t you call us then?”
The girlfriend seems to be looking through me. She says nothing. She walks to the patio.
“Call 911! Michael screams. Quick. Call 911!”
I rush to the landline and dial 911. My hands quaver, my mouth feels as if it is filled with powdery clay. Panic shoots through my body, but I focus on my task.
I sputter, “My son. My so. He is not breathing, we need help! Please send someone fast, please, we need help.”
I am swallowing my words, holding my breath, repeating myself.
“Stay calm, ma’am, we’re sending someone to your house,” a distant mechanical voice replies.
I pace the kitchen floor, wringing my hands until they are red and puffy. I see the girlfriend through the French doors, lighting a cigarette and pulling out her cell phone.
An overpowering dread keeps me from going downstairs.
Time seems clogged in muddy darkness, yet my perception is heightened. Every word, detail, and action around me is captured as if by a camera in my brain, but each frame in a sepia photo negative, faded and translucent.
I instinctively know my son’s life depends on my ability to process input and take necessary action.
I call 911 again.
“Where are the paramedics? My son is not breathing. Please help me, come quick. You don’t understand, it is critical that you get here quick,” I say, as I call 911 again.
My words cut and warble in between gasps, or maybe they are sobs.
“Someone is on the way,” a voice says.
I wait alone in that invisible space between spaces—a mother’s most feared nightmare.
The girlfriend remains outside, smoking cigarettes and talking on her cell phone.
“Where are the paramedics?” my husband screams. “Call again! Tell them to bring Narcan!”
I dial again.
“You have to get here right away—and please, please bring Narcan,” I plead.
I stand between the telephone and the kitchen stove, where, for the last few months, Diego and I spent hours talking and cooking. He was home again after so many years away. We were looking forward to our shared future together. We were all grateful.
I want to go downstairs, but a voice deep within whispers Stay away, don’t go down there, you will not survive. Blood and hospitals paralyze me—ever since that day when I was thirteen and whisked away to see my father at a small community hospital at Gilroy, California, his bloody bandaged head swollen to twice its normal size.
But it is not just that memory that blocks me from running downstairs. No,I do not want to know.
My husband stays with Diego and keeps shouting, each time more anguished, “Where are the paramedics?”
I call the Alta Bates emergency room.
“My son is not breathing,” I say, “911 is not here. Can we drive him into the emergency room ourselves, please?”
“No, stay put. Help is on the way,” the voice says.
I brace myself, begin to go downstairs to join Michael, but freeze when I hear Michael’s pleading, “Diego, please, hang in there, hang in there, don’t go.”
I imagine Michael holding the limp body of his firstborn son in his arms, clearing blood and vomit out of Diego’s throat, blowing his breath, his life, into his son, pumping his heart.
Only twenty-six years earlier, Michael held his newborn son close to him, kissing his toes, listening to the swoosh of his heart. “This is the happiest day of my life!” he said.
“Where are the paramedics?” Michael screams as he gasps for the little breath he has left.
I don’t know how many times I call 911. Maybe four times, maybe six.
The girlfriend still does not appear concerned. She is just smoking and talking on her phone.
I think of the baby, who is sleeping just ten feet away from where Michael is attending Diego. Or maybe he’s not sleeping. I don’t know if he hears his grandfather’s desperate screams and pleas, or if he senses the panic permeating the house. I will never know.
Alone, hyperventilating, pacing, dialing and redialing 911, praying to all the invisible powers and imploring the spirits of my ancestors to please save my son’s life.
Suddenly, a group of people in uniform—police, firemen, emergency personnel flood through the front door. Paramedics carrying a stretcher run into the basement. Siren’s blare. Bright lights flash through the windows, casting garish red shadows in the living room. Faceless people run in and out of my home. I would try to talk to them, stuttering: “He’s not breathing. Help me, he’s not breathing. Will you take my son to the hospital? Please can you take him to the hospital?”
No one answers me. Had I become a ghost? I felt like a ghost.
A Berkeley police officer finally comes over and says, “Ma’am, please don’t interfere.”
I go back into the kitchen. The girlfriend still outside smoking and talking on her phone looks composed, calm.
Officer Kastmiler, Badge number 104, says, “Ma’am, we have a few questions for you.”
She directs me to the living room, where she sat next to me, a clipboard in her hand. She’s collecting witness statements. I search Officer Kastmiler’s face, trying to decipher a clue about the severity of my son’s condition. But she is inscrutable.
“Is he going to be, okay?” I blurt out.
“I have a few questions first, ma’am,” she responds in an officious tone. She asks my name, my age, my son’s name and history.
“I don’t have time to answer these stupid questions, I need you to take my son to the hospital now!”
I stand to walk away. She grabs my arm and says, “Ma’am, the sooner we get this information, the sooner we can take your son to the hospital.”
I answer a few of her questions, but I can’t focus.
“Where’s my son, are they taking him to the hospital yet? Will he be alright?”
I rub my hands trying to stop the escalating tremors within.
“He’s being taken to the hospital,” she says. “That’s a good sign!”
I cling to her words and repeat them.
She returns to her meaningless questions. I stand to leave.
Officer Kastmiler snapped, “Ma’am you’re not going anywhere until you answer my questions.”
She questions me about Diego’s history with drug use. I told her Diego had experimented with drugs as a teenager, that he had gotten into drugs in San Francisco, had gone into a treatment program in Portland, and been in recovery and was currently in Kaiser’s Outpatient program. She does not go deeper into his history, she does not ask what kind of drugs he used, if he had been a long-term heroin user. None of that.
I plead one more time: “I need to get my son to the hospital.”
She thrust a piece of paper in front of me. Had I reviewed it carefully I would have corrected a misstatement. Even though it was true that Diego had had trouble with drugs since he was a teenager, he was not a long-term heroin user as she noted in her report. The police have their own narrative: a simple case of accidental overdose. No need to collect evidence.
The police report describes the scene: blood and vomit saturated the bedding, the mattress and the floor.
How can anyone sleep through someone gasping for breath, regurgitating blood and vomit?
The girlfriend was not impaired. She had told us she was clean and sober. She went to work every day, and at home there were no signs of drug use. I had no reason to suspect that she was using drugs. None whatsoever.
Just then, Michael rushes into the living room, the baby in his arms. Officer Kastmiler tells us, “You can follow us to the hospital, or we can drive you.”
I notice my grandson’s widened eyes, and I saw myself as a young child, confused not understanding what was being said but knowing something dreadful had happened, feeling helpless as the adults around me rushed and disappeared.
The girlfriend left with the police to the hospital.
Michael was in the car, engine running. I sense an energy hovering above me, following me, trying to break through. I wave my arms erratically, pushing at the dark, empty air, yelling out, “NO, you cannot go. No.”
Michael yells, “Get in the car, quick!”
He is mute as we speed through the empty streets of North Berkeley, rushing down Martin Luther King toward Ashby, running red lights.
“Will he suffer brain damage?” I ask. “The girlfriend said he was seizing and struggling to breathe at midnight. Will he suffer brain damage if deprived of oxygen for three hours?”
Michael doesn’t answer me.
We leave our grandson at a friend’s house and rush to the hospital.
At Alta Bates hospital, a white light casts a garish film on Michael’s face. A hospital worker pushes a red metal crash cart, its wheels screeching. He stops and stares at us and then continues. A wobbly wheel careens left and right, leaving a trail like a black chalk mark, scribbling the white floor.
“Where is my son?” Michael asks the receptionist, who was languidly moving paperwork on her desk. “He was brought by ambulance, where is he?”
“Take a number, sir, there are others ahead of you,” the receptionist says without looking up.
Michael erupts. “WHERE IS MY SON! I NEED TO SEE MY SON!”
I look around. A man sits hunched over in a brown chair. The woman next to him thumbed her rosary beads, her lips moving fast. A bored teenage girl chewing gum glanced at me as she clicked away on her phone.
A security officer escorts us outside saying, “Any disruption and I will have to arrest you.”
“You don’t understand, an ambulance brought our son in, he is in serious condition, we need to see him, we need to talk to the doctor,” Michael tells the security guard.
“Just wait here. What is your name?”
We stand outside in that hour between daylight and night. The madrugada as they say in Spanish, where the night melts into the day. The moon hangs low, appearing lost in the sea of stars.
We notice an ambulance parked next to another emergency room entry a few hundred yards away. We run into that room. It smells of disinfectant. Machines tick as if about to explode. Nurses pushing gurneys with attached IV bags swerve around us.
Rows of cubicles line the east wall, separated by pale blue curtains on clips, like shower curtains. A distraught looking man–his gown hanging off him, his skin hanging loosely, a gold chain with a diamond-studded cross hanging from his neck, sits staring off. A nurse in white shoes and pants takes the naked man’s jewelry and places it in a plastic bag.
“No personal belongings,” she says.
The girlfriend is nowhere to be seen.
Michael approaches a nurse and asks to see Diego. She tells us to wait, that a doctor is attending Diego. Michael and I stood alone in that white, barren hallway. I think I hear a clock ticking. Or maybe it is my heart.
Tick, tock, tick tock.
The ticking grew louder and louder.
A nurse walks over to us and says, “Mr. and Mrs. Palomino, the doctor wants to meet with you in his office.”
I froze. “NO, NO, NO, I don’t want to hear it,” I yell.
A doctor approaches us.
I don’t remember what the doctor looked like or even if the doctor was male or female. I do remember that the doctor did not offer an introduction, did not touch my shoulder, did not touch my hand, did not utter words of comfort or hope.
All the doctor said was, “He is dead.”
I crumble to the floor. I float above my body. I curl into myself, never wanting to get up again. A voice deep inside of me– a voice separate from me, but me, maybe the spirits of my ancestors who were always with me–tries to console me: “Everyone has to die sometime, no one lives forever, death is inevitable, we all die, everyone has to die.
As if the rationality of our mortality would render the pain bearable.
Celia M. Ruiz is currently working on memoirs, My Name is Not Sally and The Day. She is a retired attorney who began her educational journey as a high school drop out, single mother of two children under five, and on welfare. Her memoir tracks the story of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the grit and will power it took to get herself and her children out of poverty. Once living a professional life in the San Francisco Bay Area, the worst challenge and tragedy of any parent struck: the death of her son only six days after his twenty-sixth birthday. She is of Mexican and indigenous descent. She started a low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in July to work on a third memoir about her father, Alejandro R. Ruiz, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient during World War Two.