My small nephew, almost five,
gave me a drawing for Christmas. It featured me as a caterpillar with
my name inscribed on the segments. In the picture I am surrounded by butterflies.
I have some vague suspicions about what this omen augers for the new year.
One of the butterflies has
darker, colored-in eyes. "What's that one?" I ask him.
"He's dead," replies
my nephew. He has an acute awareness of, and curiosity about, death, as
I supposed most people his age do.
"Really. Why?" I
"It was his time,"
he tells me casually, the way he might describe his lunch. Then he adds,
"It's the circle of life."
Do we ever really understand
death any better than we do at age five? That's practically the same lame
explanation I half-assedly muster when I'm pretending to accept the miserable
reality that we're all stamped by God with an inscrutable bar-code expiration
date, like dairy products, after which we get tossed off the earth.
During my Christmas at the
home where I grew up, my nephew frequently requests rescue stories. He's
quite keen on the fact that I am now, technically, a fire fighter. I would
have to transform grotesquely into a werewolf and devour a bleating lamb
before his eyes before I fell off his list of Favorite Things. His adoration
is amusing to my family but faintly tinged with embarrassment for me;
I know it's not particularly deserved and I rather suspect he'll realize
this someday in a dramatic reversal of affections. In the meantime, I'm
a hero and I don't take this responsibility lightly.
So I'm in something of a quandary
about what kinds of stories to tell. Unfortunately, many of the tales
that he would find the most exciting also feature endings that are dubious
at best for the patients involved. He wants to hear about cutting up cars
on the Beltway, rescuers bathed in flashing red lights as we use the jaws
of life to tear into a vehicle and free the trapped victims. He's all
for helicopters swooping down into parking lots to grab desperately injured
patients and fly them to the regional trauma center. I sense I am talking
along a thin line. He wants reality because he's trying hard to understand
and come to terms with it, but he also possesses scant defense against
the horrors of life on earth. He's not prepared for the whole story.
Of course, there's also the
consideration that I owe to my patients; none of them deserve to have
their most vulnerable moments recounted to a four-year-old as a thrilling
story. So I tell some general tales of mayhem, focusing on ones with happier
endings in which people do not die. I skip the details, omit enduring
images of gore or suffering, and focus more on how the ambulance works
and what I do with patients. This approach isn't entirely satisfying to
him. He asks for more stories, and I wonder if he isn't already flirting
with that line between fascination and revulsion, fear and courage. He
wants a story that might give him nightmares, the tale that makes his
mind feel cold. He wants to see what he can take.
It might take him anywhere,
this desire: onto a fire truck, into a spotlight on a dark stage, behind
the barrel of a gun, to a place utterly unlike home. My stories represent
a lure and a threat, like the death that would end far too many of them.