Near sun-drenched noon on July 15, 2014, I was cruising along the Route 30 bypass near Greensburg, PA, westbound on my way to West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh to hold vigil with my cousins for Aunt Donna’s cancer surgery. I had signaled and moved into the passing lane for about a quarter of a mile, heavy traffic humming along in both lanes at 55-60 mph, when suddenly, on a slight downgrade just beyond the Mt. Pleasant exit, the large SUV in front of me swerved erratically back into the right lane. To my astonishment a white Jeep SUV had come almost to a complete stop, looming in the passing lane like a battleship with a blown out right rear tire. Instinctively, I hit the brakes, hoping at best to minimize impact. Somehow I managed to stop my vehicle, making no impact with the white Jeep.
Within a nanosecond I recall gaping at my rearview mirror—a red steel mass bearing down to blast my vehicle, like a sitting duck in a pond of concrete, into an inferno of burning gasoline and twisted steel. I also remember a fleeting image of a mouth agape in horror, as the driver of the vehicle behind me also never ‘got the memo’ about the white Jeep that had decided to come to a parking stop in the passing lane of a busy and dangerous highway. I didn’t want to die right there, like that. Then the damnedest thing happened. Somehow the big red mass on wheels, about to send me and my little hybrid wagon to the bone yard, made a darting maneuver around my right rear fender like a rocket ship from a Star Wars movie.
By that time the man riding shotgun with the driver who had used extremely poor judgment—and that’s as kindly as I can put it—had climbed out of the white Jeep and began waving traffic in the right westbound lane to a stop so that his wife or girlfriend with the sheepish grin on her face could do what she should have done in the first place—moved into the right lane, emergency flashers activated, to pull off the highway. As I gradually resumed highway speed, I had trouble resolving the image of the driver’s ‘whoopsy’ smile, which indicated to me that she had no idea how close she had come to putting us all on the evening news: Cataclysmic Multi-vehicle, Chain Reaction Accident on U.S. Route 30 Near Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Kills Seven, Injures 20, Closes Highway for Nine Hours.
My heart was still pounding a half hour later as I continued my journey, hoping for better fortunes on Rt. 22. Realizing that I was nearing the Parkway, where there would be no place to stop in order to collect myself, I detoured to Rt. 286 and drove along a route that I hadn’t known was undergoing major construction. It was difficult to find a place to make a merciful exit, but after about a mile, I turned in to an Arby’s in Holiday Park. A warm face smiled at me from the counter. I decided to order a small sandwich, not knowing what my lunchtime options might be if I ever did arrive at the hospital in one piece. I was in an unfamiliar strip mall neighborhood, not knowing anyone, but I felt comfortable venting my horrific experience to the approachable counter lady.
After listening to my breathless description of the nightmarish non-accident and commiserating together about the state of driving and drivers today—too fast, too close, and too distracted—I felt moved to thank her for being there and for listening to me. She accepted graciously. Before I left Arby’s to continue my commute, I told her, “I think God wanted me to meet you today.” We smiled again, and I walked out . . .
I arrived at the hospital around 2:00 p.m., just in time to give Cousin Dan and his wife, Lisa, an opportunity to grab lunch at one of the Liberty Avenue eateries in Bloomfield. Before leaving they informed me that the surgery that had originally been scheduled for an hour or two had, at the last minute, been designated for four hours. The medical profession loves to impart news in small doses to patients and their loved ones.
Positioning oneself optimally in a surgical waiting lounge can be an art form in and of itself. In this elongated, chair-filled space I could choose to set up shop at the near end with the fussy little girl testing her grandmother’s patience. Or I could try the far end near the panoramic window where the chatty minister with the piercing voice was sermonizing nonstop on a multitude of topics in his attempt to entertain a family in wait. Hard to make a snap decision, I opted for the “squirmy little girl” end, but within 15 minutes found that too distracting. I compromised by repositioning myself toward mid-lounge, far enough away from ‘squirmy,’ but not too close to ‘chatty,’ whose voice penetrated every nook and cranny of that room.
Because I had already taken in more than I could process for one day, I decided that writing might help me pass the time better than reading. I reviewed a multi-page handout with some poems and writing prompts, courtesy of Laurie McMillan, who was offering a short series of writing salon sessions in her home, ironically in that same neighborhood. I couldn’t quite settle on any of the poem prompts. Then I saw her exercise called “Collage for Home.” I tried the first one and managed a decent response. These were short and sweet, limited to four or five sentences each. I could keep moving toward the end of these ten, concrete-sequential prompts, bringing some order and predictability to this day. Below is my response to the prompt called, “A Tree I Have Loved:”
The little Washington Hawthorne with skinny, braided trunk, planted by amateur hands, too close to the road along my front yard. You held vigil there for as long as you could—your small jagged leaves handsome through the thorny spikes. Who could have known I would find you dead on the late April morning grass—spine snapped from the weight of the fast melting snow on your leaf-laden branches. I pick you up in my arms and lay you to rest. You will shade Larry in Heaven . . .
Dan and Lisa returned a little before 4 p.m., having enjoyed the brief respite and Italian offerings of the Pleasure Bar. Having completed my short written responses to Laurie’s take-home prompts, I was ready to chat a bit and assist my cousins with their telephone contacts. Dan took a call from his brother Bill in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and he invited me to talk with Bill in the elevator hallway outside the surgical waiting lounge.
Bill expressed his appreciation to me for helping his mother with some yard work and basement clean up earlier in the summer to get the house ready for sale. Of course, that agenda had been railroaded by the abdominal “masses” that the surgeons were working to remove as we spoke.
At about the four-hour mark, around 5:30 p.m., I needed a walk, a shot of warm July air. I longed to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the neighborhood that blossoms around this behemoth medical center. Dan said he would watch my brief bag so I wouldn’t have to carry it on my walk.
It was pleasant to be among the early-evening dog walkers in the tree-shaded parklet nestled between the two one-way branches of Friendship Avenue. After looping around several long city blocks, I stopped at a Subway on Liberty Avenue to purchase a bottle of water to take back to the hospital. Upon my return to the fifth floor lounge, I entered an almost-deserted waiting room. I presumed that Dan and Lisa must be in post-op conference with the surgeon. Only chatty minister and family in wait remained camped at the window end. They were quieter now, busily consuming boxed pizzas.
A little before 7:00 p.m. Dan, dutifully carrying my brief bag, and Lisa emerged from the conference room, followed by the surgeon, still in scrubs, who flashed me a smile of acknowledgement as he crossed the lounge to exit another door. Dan and Lisa summarized the gist of the surgeon’s post-op remarks. There were scenarios about percentages and chances for survival, tempered by age and overall health status, following the surgeon’s remark about removal of a “more aggressive mass” higher in the abdomen. No phrasing was more illusory than “. . . we got everything we could see.”
We got everything we could see, the surgeon assures,
surgical mask hanging from his vaulted neck.
Everything we could see . . .
How to consider those words . . .
Everything—so definite, so complete, so satisfying.
The rub comes with the ‘we could see.’
Could they have seen all of it . . . most of it . . .
all but what part of the ‘it’ left somewhere?
What more could they have seen?
What more could they not have seen?
Everything we could see . . .
We had made the transition to the last leg of the hospital vigil. Aunt Donna would be prepped and moved to a room on the ninth floor where cousins and I could spend some time with her. We gathered our belongings and followed the color-coded arrows to the appropriate elevators and ascended. A smaller visitor lounge became the new encampment. I sensed that Cousin Dan and Lisa might need a few minutes alone, so I retraced our steps toward the elevators to the window with panoramic view of at least three Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The descending sun blazed a coppery tone to this living mural.
The elevator arrival bell broke my reverie. I turned and watched two attendants wheeling a patient on a gurney. Though her face was swollen, eyes sealed shut and hair collapsed and limp, I stole a first look at my last surviving aunt, post-surgery. I felt like I should say something to her, but I just watched her float by, feeling guilty that I should have seen her first. I knew it would be a while before she was ready for visitation, so I stayed by the window for another ten minutes.
Within a half hour they told us to move on to the nurses’ station and that Aunt Donna would be ready soon. The young nurse on duty was all business, offering no small talk and only brief, measured answers to questions. She must have felt the need to insulate herself from emotional involvement with the patient and the patient’s loved ones.
Finally, ‘terse nurse’ gave a green light for our entrance. At 9:00 p.m. it had been a long vigil—cousins with the early morning preparation and rushed trip to the hospital, the changing agenda right before surgery, the post-op conference with ‘we got everything we could see’ surgeon, not to mention my harrowing drive on Route 30 at high noon. I watched Cousin Dan give himself up to the vinyl chair adjacent to his groggy mother’s bed, lower his face into his hands, and convulse with emotion. Nothing more beautiful could have brought the sun down on that day.
© Dave Knoepfle