The final day of work before vacation, one is always distracted; part of the mind is busy with the task at hand while the other part of the brain is already swinging in a hammock under a palm tree. That is the only reason I can come up with to explain my lapse in judgement. I have a rule for myself when it comes to family members of my young patients. They can put on a lead vest and stay with their little one, or they can wait outside in the hallway. I never, ever allow them back in the control room with me. I don’t know why this night, I allowed the father of the 9 year old boy to do just that.
He said his son was lethargic, that he had been sleeping all day and all evening and the family was unable to rouse him. Sure enough, we had to physically lift him from the gurney onto the CT table and he didn’t stir. The father said the boy had been fine the day before and had displayed no other symptoms, had no physical trauma. Before I started to scan, I turned to the father and said, “I’m not allowed to answer any questions nor give you any sort of diagnosis.” He nodded and I began to take images of his young son’s brain. Within a matter of seconds my heart dropped. I could see an enormous tumor coming into view. It was ugly, malignant, mottled, and huge. So big, the rest of his brain tissue was being pushed aside. WTF. This was exactly why I never allowed parents into the control room. I had no time to think or compose my face. I quickly closed the computer and said briskly, “Ok, all done, let’s get him off the table and back to the ER.” The father searched my face for some sort of clue. I couldn’t meet his eyes, but did my best to maintain a mask void of emotion. I only cried after I had taken him back to the emergency room and found a bathroom for privacy. Asi es la vida. Such is life.
9 years old. Not fair. Not his fault. I couldn’t stop thinking about how that family’s life was about to change forever. They just didn’t know it yet. But I did. As I left for the evening, I walked past the room and saw the dad hunched over his son’s sleeping form, his face lit by the glow of his cell phone, tap tapping away, presumably to mom. He still didn’t know. It felt so strange, intrusive, to know something so deeply personal about someone else’s child that they themselves don’t know. Me, a total stranger. Like an unwilling sage from another era. I’ve seen your future, but it is too sad and terrible to share.
Early the next morning I boarded a plane for Maui. Such a strange, incongruous event. The family would know by now. And I was headed to Maui. It seemed disrespectful in a way. I had 5 hours to mull it over and being in the plane helped. The mind numbing thrum of the engines, the sense of being caught in space and time. Not on land, not in water somewhere between earth and outer space, moving at high speed and yet, no sense of motion. Racing away from, or towards the sun, time ceases to have any meaning. You are neither here nor there. Is it 2 o’clock or 5 o’clock? Who can really say? Does it matter? You are in a lilliputian world of folding trays and tiny bathrooms, little, square paper napkins and overhead bins. The world is very small and very manageable. There is nowhere you can go and nothing that needs to be done. You’ve left, but not yet arrived. You are not really anywhere. You are in between. That is how I decided to think of the boy. He will not tear his parents’ hearts in two, he will not die. He will remain in my mind’s eye neither here nor there, nowhere for him to go, nothing for him to do. He will remain, in my mind, not arrived, not quite departed, sleeping in the grey, soft place between places.
Disembarking from the plane, Maui greeted me with warm familiarity. The salt tang of the air, the humidity, the chickens in the parking lot, the way the sun glints off the palm fronds like gun metal-almost blinding. As I navigated my way out of the airport parking lot, a Maui cruiser (piece of junk) pick-up truck flew by. In the back were a few local boys, eyes squinted against the wind and sun, brown skinned, hair flying. Sometimes Maui feels so wild and free. We aren’t “allowed” to do that on the mainland. It brought to mind days past, before we had agreed to one more rule in the name of safety. Some of my favorite memories were riding on top of a pile of junk in the back of my dad’s pick up on the way to the dump-the wind tearing at my hair, eyes watering, the fields whipping by on a back road, the excitement and joy of being outside and alive.
Technically, this was a “work” trip to fix up my rental condo and find a new long term tenant. I thought to myself for the umpteenth time how glad I was to have chosen a condo in Maui instead of Fresno. Living in the Bay Area and making “enough” money to pay one’s bills still means that you will never, ever own a home, not where you live. So, Plan B was to buy a home somewhere I don’t live, but maybe would again someday-Maui. Even a “work” trip is a treat, especially as it meant I would get to visit with old friends and paddle with my old outrigger canoe club from the year plus that I did live on island.
One day after addressing a leaky toilet handle, a couple girlfriends from Upcountry invited me to join them for a hike in the forest of Poli Poli. An hour drive literally up the slope of Haleakala, far away from the beaches and tourists, is the Poli Poli forest. Criss-crossed with human and game trails, often enshrouded in fog, it is a side of Maui many never see. You may not see another soul. We had been hiking for about an hour, deep in conversation, twigs cracking underfoot, the dogs sniffing and darting this way and that when suddenly our conversation stuttered to a stop, the dogs froze, and the hair on my arms stood up. I hadn’t seen or heard anything, but something was wrong. Then, just to our left, obscured by the thick brush there was a grunt. Our eyes flew open and we all said at the same time “pigs!” Our previously heavy legs found new energy and we hustled away just as fast as we could. Wild boar are no joke. They are a favorite of hunters in Maui and will defend themselves with their razor-sharp tusks. This boar was letting us know he did not intend to become Kalua Pork today!
The work of cleaning, and painting, and interviewing prospective tenants was tempered by cold papaya with a squeeze of lime, paddling out with the club, floating in the warm, gentle sea, evenings with a book by my complex’s pool. One night, a friend of a friend invited me for a night time walk at the beach at the end of my street to see the turtles haul out. It is a new thing, for the turtles to haul out on this side of the island, and it indicates that they feel safe. I had not known they had started to do this. My smile was like a split coconut to see one, then two, then four turtles start to heft themselves out of the water and onto the wet sand. They would lay their heads down and close their eyes after each harumph. I can’t imagine the effort to move those giant bodies. Their big, dark, almond shaped eyes always seem other worldly to me-sort of alien, sort of wise.
One of the highlights of the trip was a chance to paddle an OC1. That’s a one man outrigger canoe for the uninitiated. My old co-worker Sarah and her husband Ryan owned a couple of these sleek, lightweight boats, and Sarah arranged for us to go out and paddle. I was excited to try out these fast, responsive boats, but also nervous about the inevitable “huli” for the trade off to being light and fast is that they are also very tipsy. Sarah and her friend helped me to get in and out of the way of the breaking waves. My muscle memory took over and it felt wonderful to twist, reach, plant the paddle and pull. The repetative nature of paddling is so zen. My mind and muscles settled into the rythm and the shore quickly receded. Sarah and her friends surrounded me and we felt like a little pod of sea creatures traveling upon the cobalt undulations of the sea. After a time, we stopped to rest and somebody did a huli. We laughed and swam and floated and it was good. On our way back to shore, we spotted a pod of Pygmy Killer Whales. A rare thing as these deep water cetaceans do not come to shore unless they are sick or in distress. A whole pod had beached themselves near the canoe club the month prior. Necropsies had been performed and this was how we knew what they were. They had died of pneumonia or some sort of lung infection. We’d heard there was a second pod hanging out near the canoe club. It was a thrill to see them. They were small, about the size of a dolphin, but without the long snout. They had the rounded head of a killer whale. They spy hopped and flicked their tails and one jumped out of the water completely. It was a spectacular show and they didn’t seem sick. But, I am sad to report, the next morning, two were dead and washed ashore. It would seem they had the same sickness. It was a double edged sword. A once in a life time opportunity to see this rare and beautiful animal but the only reason we got to see them was because they were not ok. Asi es la vida. Such is life.
Old friends visited, gentle waters enjoyed, condo spiffed up, and a new tenant installed, it was time to go home. In the airport, before boarding the plane, I stopped to use the facilities. While I was doing my business, I saw something that made me laugh till I shook. My poor luggage had toilet paper on its shoe. Asi is la vida. Such is life.