Screaming Blue Miss Helen

A daddy, a daughter, an emergency room.

She has a penchant for drama queenery, but this time the shrieks were legit: The eraser was stuck up her nose. That's what happens when a girl three days away from her fifth birthday pretends an eraser is a nose ring and inhales. Now her brother was screaming, her mother was freaking, and she--she was doing both, because I'd bloodied her nostril trying to get the thing out with a tweezers and a flashlight. It was bright blue. I could see it.

I packed her up and drove to the emergency room. The admitting nurse said kids stick peas and beads up their noses all the time, which made me feel better. Part of me figured we'd be in and out of there in a couple of hours, but another part, the ER vet part, knew better. After signing her in and getting her fitted with a hospital ID bracelet, I found two chairs by the aquarium. She ogled the fish and, with giddy escape-from-bedtime mania, talked about Finding Nemo. I settled in for the long haul.

Make that "girded myself": The emergency room is anything but settling. It is a holding tank of ambiguity, a purgatory between death and life, and, like airports or bus terminals or Laundromats or the sidelines of kids' soccer games or any other place where you find yourself trapped with yourself, and in its dull captivity, you take stock of all the things you've done and haven't done, the perfect father or husband or person you haven't been, and you start living Evan Dando lyrics like "Just look for sunshine to be burnin' full time/To be filled with hatred for the time I've wasted/And I'm so impatient for a new sensation/God knows what I thought I'd do/I bit my own sweet heart in two."

Talking about restlessness, here. Talking about the feeling that happens when the universe forces you to put the brakes on and you realize yet again that you're a greedy bastard, that love and family and music and friends should be enough, but at the moment they're not, because at the moment you aren't feeding that voracious harpy that taps you on the shoulder at the oddest hours to remind you that there are people better than you who are creating art and scoring touchdowns and having passionate love affairs and helping the poor and then there's you. A distracted fuck-up who apparently can't keep his daughter safe from herself, much less the world, stuck in a waiting room with a bunch of sick and tired zombies watching reality television and reading months-old magazines and half-listening to your daughter talk about fish and books and cartoons and school and Grandma and why this and why that and why this again and why that again and will it hurt and you feel bad for not being all there but you listen to it all the time so there are times when it Just. Becomes. White. Noise.

Then there are other times when absolutely the only thing you want out of life is to see a blue eraser come popping out of her right nostril.

We killed the first three hours by going to the bathroom 700 times and drinking at the fountain 600 times. We read books and blabbed and hurry-upped and waited. Then the nurse showed us to our curtained-off cubicle, which housed a bed and a TV that had four channels, all of which carried news of teenage shootings, so we left it off. For the next hour, I told her stories of the other times I'd been in the hospital with her, about the time her uncle ran around the block wearing only his saddle shoes, about the time her grandpa, etc. She wanted more. Her eyes were wide and fixed on mine and happy to have me all to herself. Captive.

I helped her off with her clothes and put her in a tiny hospital gown. She sang songs and poked her head out the curtain at the other patients, most of whom were seniors who lay unconscious on gurneys. She crawled on the floor and asked what everything in the room was for. We were both calm and terror-free. I told her that if she jerked her head around when the doctor tried to get the eraser out the doctor might need to give her a shot that would put her to sleep so she wouldn't jerk. She didn't complain, but her eyes welled up with tears and trailed up to the bunny on the ceiling, which she decided at that moment she hated.

The doctor came in. He didn't introduce himself, but his name tag said Brian Jones. I resisted the urge to make any cracks about Rolling Stones and swimming pools, so as not to interrupt the reassuring monologue he was giving. He told me about the CPR move we'd try first and told her, "Daddy's going to give you a kiss and blow into your mouth." Which is what I did, but it produced no eraser--just snot, blood, tears, and the sourest there's-therapy-in-my-future look I've ever seen on her face.

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