Screaming Blue Miss Helen

James O'Brien

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.

She bolted upright. I hugged her to my chest and wiped her tears with my T-shirt. Brian Jones took another look up her nose and reached for the first of the four pairs of tweezers he'd try for the excavation. He made an exploratory dab. She jerked her head away. He did it again. She did it again. He left the room for a few minutes and came back with a nurse and a Q-tip swabbed with numbing gel. The nurse put her in a gentle headlock, I pinned her legs down, and she started screaming for her mom.

Brian Jones put the swab up her nose and she bucked like he'd just put electroshock pads on her chest and yelled, "Clear!" I could only see her eyes, which howled with daddy-betrayal, but now the entire hospital could hear her how much sh-sh-she w-w-w-anted to go home. Brian Jones put down the swab and gently inserted tweezers #2 in her nostril. With artful expertise, he calmly navigated the flesh around the opening and peered in. No luck. He backed away and left the room. She sprang up, got on her knees, and affixed herself to me like a koala bear to a tree, which was good because in that position she couldn't see what Brian Jones was holding when he came back in the room: a tray of utensils like the ones Jeremy Irons used in Dead Ringers.

He unwrapped the sanitary paper from the tray and sat on the edge of the bed. Another, male, nurse joined the female nurse and they both took hold of her head. She went wild. The female nurse called her sweetie, the male nurse told her about his dog Hershey, but she wasn't buying any of it. Her screaming hit first-Wednesday-of-the-month levels as Brian Jones dug in with tweezers #3. Her eyes bore into mine with rage and blame. I pressed down on her legs, kept talking to her, and told her everything was going to be okay, even though I was starting to realize she'd have to go under the knife. After a few minutes of gentle burrowing, Brian Jones backed away and sprinted out of the room. The nurses unclenched her head. She got on her knees and tried to make a break for it.

I picked her up, held her on my lap, and wiped the sweat and tears off her face. Brian Jones came back into the room with tweezers #4--a small scissors, actually, with a tiny fishhook meant for those hard-to-reach-spots. As we pinned her down, she started writhing and weakly screaming, "No, no, no! Daddeeeee!" All the adults said the same thing, which at this point--20 minutes after our first kiss--sounded like bald-faced lies: "It won't take much longer, honey." Brian Jones adjusted his glasses with a newfound purpose and dove in. C'mon, baby.

She arched her back as the nurses held her head in a nurse-vise grip and I held her ankles and listened to high-pitched tales of Hershey the dog and people all around us murmuring about that poor little screaming kid in there and, just as I started to think it was going to be the knife at worst and the shot at best, Brian Jones uncoiled from her face, like a gardener pulling a weed. "There it is!" we all told her in unison. Brian Jones held it up. It was huge and blue and by far the most beautiful thing I've ever seen come out of a nose. She crumpled into my arms and whimpered.

They gave her a Popsicle. We signed out and thanked the nurses and anyone else we could thank, but we couldn't find Brian Jones, who was off putting out another fire. It was almost midnight.

We drove home along the perfectly quiet city streets and didn't play the radio. I held her hand and told her how good she'd done. She sucked on her Popsicle and made me promise to tell everybody "every detail" of our adventure. And every time I have, somewhere in the background, Evan Dando's been singing, "All my life I thought I needed all the things I didn't need at all/All my life I thought I wanted all the things I didn't want at all."

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