The Middle of the Night
Five o'clock a.m. is an almost holy time for overnight ER staff. An eerie calm blankets the air, and the promise of sunrise fuels us to finish the last two hours of another marathon shift. Medicated patients have drifted into a deep slumber, and the parade of stretchers from the ambulance bay has finally come to a halt.
The call came at midnight. “He died,” the voice on the other end said. No emotion.
“How are you, Alice?” I asked.
It’s the middle of the night as I write this since I can’t sleep. I have spent too much time on Facebook, alternating between taking heart that so many people seem to feel as I do about the recent election and being dismayed to the point of nausea by some of the vitriol being spewed. Often it is both, as a writer describes some abuse or hatred aimed at her or, an epithet spat at him – but then refuted by a stranger or grandmother or teacher.
I'm an ob-gyn, so the middle of the night is like a normal workday for me. I view the drive in at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. as my transition time from interrupted sleep to an important moment for my patient and spend it reminding myself to make the shift from fulfilling my needs to theirs.
I see the ones who say they are suicidal. That claim guarantees an overnight: a metal bed with a black foam pad, a clean sheet, turkey on white wrapped in cellophane and, if there’s any left, a precious six-pack of Oreos.
I looked at her as I helped with her evening pills, hoping they would bring some magic to lift the cloud hanging above us. I looked at her hands, so deformed by this monster of a disease, and I feared I might cry in front of her. I knew she wouldn't like this at all but I couldn't shake the voice of her saying that she thought she would die tonight. Or did she say "wished"?
I was twelve years old at the time and the meaning was probably lost to me. She did in fact catch the teary look on my face, and truly like a mother she knew what was on my mind. "What if I die now, would it be so bad?" she asked. I mumbled something to the effect that this was not happening but of course evaded the real question.
"I'm at the hospital," my mother said."Talk to the neurosurgeon."
The ringing phone had roused me out of a deep sleep. Already, my heart was racing, and I was wide awake as the doctor began to speak.
It was one hour past midnight, late enough that even the college students who lived in the apartment building across the street had changed their Halloween costumes for pajamas, turned off their lights and fallen into a sugar-induced sleep. I lay in bed, remembering the Halloweens of my youth when Dad and I had gone trick-or-treating together. He had protected me from the goblins, witches and ghosts that had roamed the streets of our neighborhood, and I had shared with him some of the candy I accumulated.
If I wake up in the middle of the night, that’s what time it will be, give or take 15 minutes: 4 a.m. No matter what the season, it’s dark at that time of night, it’s lonely, even the cats are snoring. If a window is open, I can hear if an owl, a coyote or, rarely, a whippoorwill or chuck-will’s-widow is crying into the night. If it’s a warm autumn night, I can hear if passing whitetail bucks grunt or click while tracking does.