Life After Death in the Bronx
Though the brake pedal is firmly planted to the floor under the weight of the massive size 16EE black steel-tip work boot which presses it down, the screeching tires barely, barely grip the parking lot asphalt. The car finally, mercifully, stops, mere inches before hitting the unforgiving red brick wall, coming to rest just under the illuminated red and white Emergency Room sign…
“Hold on baby, we’re here. Everything’s gonna be alright.”
“P-Please Tyrone…Please g-get me s-some help. S-Something…something doesn’t f-feel right.”
November 1967. It’s been a turbulent year to say the least. The war in Vietnam rages on as American GIs, en-masse, continue to die for what is becoming an increasingly unpopular cause. Race riots grip major American cities including Washington D.C.; Detroit, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; and Tampa, Florida, as long-simmering tensions reach a boiling point. Protests. Marches. Sit-ins. Amid the tumult and turbulence that is America in the 1960s…under a radiant crescent moon, a man from inner-city New York is seen hurriedly opening the passenger side door of a car, gently lifting a woman’s limp body, cradling her in his arms, and carrying her to the emergency room entrance.
It is quarter past one in the morning, and at the Obstetrics Department on the second floor of the brown, brick facade, six-story hospital in The Bronx, New York, Mrs. Gracie Winthrop is suffering severe contractions in the delivery room after being frantically rushed through the local highways and byways in a dented, rusted, and severely disheveled, white 1964 Dodge Polara, whose neglected appearance belies that fact that it is only three and a half years old. Had said vehicle been stopped by police for speeding, Department of Motor Vehicle records would indicate that it is owned by a Mr. Raymond “Go-Go” Booker, Dad’s friend and next-door neighbor (so nick-named for his affinity for patronizing strip-clubs), who has lent him the car with the express consent of rushing his wife to the hospital after returning from his shift at the power plant and finding her crouched in a fetal position in the throes of unexpected, premature, and frighteningly violent contractions. But the car is not stopped that night, despite its appearance, despite its excessive speed, and despite the fact that the driver, after carefully checking to make sure that no vehicles are approaching from the sides, proceeds through all of the red lights which he encounters. So he continues his journey, unimpeded, unobstructed, and no law enforcement officials become any the wiser that the vehicle’s registration has expired four months prior, the insurance has lapsed, or that Booker’s two-ounce stash of high quality “Colombian” rests atop the closed passenger-side sun visor.
He is now present in the delivery room, sterilized, and in a hospital gown whose drab green fabric matches that of the interior walls, urging his wife on and lovingly trying to support her through her intense pain and discomfort. He squeezes her sweaty hand tightly, professes his love, and offers her words of encouragement. Until that is, an extra doctor and nurse are quite abruptly called in to assist. He is assured by the attending obstetric nurse that, “Everything is fine, but it would be much easier Mr. Winthrop if you would kindly wait outside in the waiting room. We’ll let you know when everything is finished.” So he leaves. Not quite sure why, unquestioning, feeling that they are the professionals and certainly know what’s for the best. He pulls down his mask and gives his wife a loving kiss on her forehead. He tells her to be strong, he’ll see her soon. And with head down, departs.
So he sits down in the waiting room. It is hours though, not minutes, which he waits. He fumbles. He fidgets. He craves a Coke from the vending machine, reaches for his back pocket, and realizes with an audible sigh that in the panic of the moment, he has forgotten to bring his wallet. Luke-warm water from the wall-mounted fountain suffices. He watches, no, studies the faces of the others who wait, mostly blacks, Hispanics, and a few Asians. He asks the rather stern looking woman at the nurses' station for any information on what is transpiring, but none is forthcoming. He is somewhat taken aback though that “Stern-Face,” which he now thinks of her as, turns out to have a rather surprisingly pleasant demeanor. He paces. He vainly starts to peruse an article in the three month-old edition of Life which rests on one of the waiting room tables… “Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors has defied CBS censors by singing the word ‘higher’ while performing his group’s hit 'Light My Fire' during an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.” “Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors has defied CBS....” But after reading and re-reading the first few sentences several times over, he concedes, closes the cover and sets it back down.
And he returns repeatedly to the side entrance of the ward, out through the sliding electrical door, down the steps and into the adjacent courtyard to light up a smoke. He is exhausted and does not fail to notice a rather comfortable looking bench. But he doesn’t sit. Perhaps it is the guilt of knowing the pain that his beloved wife is enduring that convinces him to deny himself this small creature comfort.
But his cool nature, or perhaps it’s the relaxing effect of the nicotine circulating through his system, belies the fact that he is frightened and anxious and suspects that something could possibly be wrong. Very wrong. Even Janice, a petite and attractive young woman of, perhaps, twenty, who has exited from the main building into the shared courtyard, who asks if she can “bum” a smoke and proceeds to explain to him that she is here to visit her fiancée, Tyler, who has had a disc in his neck repaired (the result of a “not so gentle” game of touch-football with his drinking buddies), has no clue that something is worrying him. He suppresses every morsel of the worry in his mind and puts on his bravest face. Had he not been wearing such a dark shirt, the huge rings of perspiration under his arms and down his back might be evident, for despite the calendar indicating that New York City is in the waning days of November, it has been an unusually mild evening. But to the unseasonable weather alone can not be attributed the cause of such excessive sweating. It is the perspiration of worry. What does that mean easier if you would wait outside, he ponders silently as he finishes his cigarette, stamps out the butt with the tread of his huge work boot, politely excuses himself of Janice’s company, and reenters through the side doorway.
When the hands of the clock on the wall indicate three o’clock, the pack of Kools which had contained nineteen cigarettes upon his arrival at the hospital, now holds but four; even including the one “bummed” by Janice, this is an astonishing rate for this man who is a “half pack-a-day” guy. Again, he sits and waits. He notices the pictures on the wall for the first time. A Monet which he thinks is a Picasso, a C.M. Coolidge of dogs playing poker, and a panoramic view of Manhattan’s nighttime skyline. He thinks of again asking “Stern-Face” if there is any news, but decides against it. She seems very busy after all. He begins to feel pangs of guilt at having given her this nickname, albeit only a mental nickname; she is quite nice after all, and he decides not to refer to her as this any more.
The obstetrician in his blue hospital scrubs finally approaches. My father senses what might be seen as a discernable frown on the young pale face (too young to be a doctor, he thinks to himself). As he closes the distance, however, the frown disappears, and with the rather neutral expression which seems to remain, it is impossible to define his look. Worried? Anxious? Nervous? Indifferent? Or perhaps just exhausted and overworked? He just can’t tell. It does not escape his notice, however, that the doctor seems to inhale before speaking to him, deeply in fact, almost as if to gather the air, and perhaps wits, as you often do before making a statement of some type of monumental importance. Or is he simply letting his overworking imagination get the better of him?
“Mr. Winthrop, I’m Doctor Elijah…can I please ask you to sit down?”
Now why the heck would he be asking me to sit down?
“I don’t need to sit doc, is something wrong?”
“Mr. Winthrop, you have a baby boy. He’s doing just fine and you’ll be able to see him momentarily.”
“Th-that’s great! I’m a…a father! Thanks doc!” He turns and looks at the tired faces which occupy the waiting room. “Did you hear everybody, I’m a father!”
A stocky, goateed, fifty-something Hispanic man offers a hearty “Congrats brother.” A young black man in a Mack Trucks baseball hat and white t-shirt stenciled with the words “Hey Uncle Sam, Stop Sending Brothers to Die!” gives him a thumbs-up. Others, seemingly preoccupied, immersed in a magazine, too tired, or just plain indifferent to the exclamation of joy, offer no response. A smile of appreciation and silent nod of thanks are directed to “Goatee” and “Mack Trucks.”
But as he turns back to face the doctor, through his own beaming Cheshire-cat grin of fatherhood, he suddenly notices something rather strange on the too-young face opposite his. A frown. Why a frown during this moment of good news? What’s wrong with this picture? His now racing mind ponders the possibilities of what could be the catalyst of such an odd, such an out-of-place facial expression. It could only be…Her!
“Wh-What about my G-Gracie doc?”
“Please Mr. Winthrop… Please have a seat.”
He refuses this request and begins to panic.
“What’s wrong doc?”
He now speaks in an animated manner, using his waving hands as a second and third mouth as he often does when giving particular emphasis to his verbalized thought. It is not in any way, shape, or form aggressive as some may be inclined to think when watching this six-foot-four inch, two-hundred and sixty pound behemoth of a man; it is simply a mannerism.
“Jus’ tell me! What’s wrong with my wife?”
The doctor hesitates.
“Tell me, DAMMIT!”
...and so the pale-faced, too-young looking, hospital scrub-clad doctor proceeds to tell him that his wife is dead.
Doctor Elijah, two years out of Columbia Medical School, the eldest son of a wealthy, dynastic, Connecticut banking family, having decided to turn down more financially lucrative and prestigious offers from such hospitals as Cedar Sinai and Beth Israel in favor of working in this blighted and impoverished section of The Bronx, sighs. His hand now on the shoulder of the distraught man opposite him, he does his best to explain in layman’s terms and compassionately, how, in very rare cases, mostly during unusually severe contractions, fluid from the amniotic sac can form an embolism which passes through the uterus into the circulatory system of the mother. And how the foreign fetal cells can, and sometimes do, clog or completely block the pulmonary artery. And how this caused his wife to suffer a massive heart attack. And how every means at the hospital’s disposal was utilized in a heroic attempt to save her life…and how truly, truly sorry he is for his loss.
But by this time Winthrop's mind is spinning. So fast. Out of control. He is dizzy, his mighty legs feel weak and rubbery. He feels the sudden and uncontrollable urge to vomit; though he dry heaves several times, he doesn’t regurgitate. He is so shocked and overcome by what he has been told, that had Doctor Elijah been speaking to him in Swahili, Malyangapa Aboriginal, or Mandarin Chinese, it would have made just about the same amount of sense. No sense at all, that is. He stops listening. The words are garbled and meaningless.
Now he sits down. He feels that if he doesn’t, he will certainly faint. He puts his elbows on his thighs and cups his face in his huge hands. He begins to weep. All he knows is that the object of his desire, the only woman whom he has ever loved, she whom he met while on leave state-side, whom he fell head-over-heels for instantly, who waited at home patiently for the last eight months of his military service overseas to end, she who wrote letters to him every day professing her unremitting and undying love…has perished.
His own parents have long since departed this world. No siblings either; he’s an only child. He is now alone. He sees no way or reason to go on living. Emotions now come in vast waves and at mind-numbing speed. Terrible emotions seen through a long, dark, blurry, vertigo-induced tunnel. Devastation. Meaninglessness. Emptiness. Complete and utter despair. The thought of climbing the stairs to the hospital roof and jumping to the street below suddenly enters his distraught mind. He must end this nightmare now! The brief pain of hitting the hard pavement…and then blackness. Over in an instant. Does he have the guts to do it? Maybe sleeping pills? Just fall asleep and never wake up? No, he has none. Maybe just go home, get in the bathtub and drop an electrical appliance in? A garden hose in the tailpipe as he once read about?
The sudden, high-pitched, klaxon-like drone of a passing NYC fire engine snaps him out of his hypnotic daze of suicidal ideation. The long, dark, endless tunnel in which he has been trapped begins to dissipate from his mind, collapsing in on itself, imploding, finally giving way to light. And through the midst of his overwhelming sense of loss and pain, the room stops spinning, the dream-like foggy stupor lifts, and thoughts again begin to become coherent and rational.
Time which had come to a virtual standstill begins anew. And the words of Doctor Elijah return to him. Yes, the words. How? How could I have forgotten? I have a healthy baby boy! I’m a father. I’m not alone. I have someone to love. Someone to love me. Family. A reason to be, to go on living.
He un-cups his hands, mops the sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve, wipes the bitter tears of despair from his bloodshot eyes and brown cheeks, and looks up at the doctor. In moments, he will go to honor the dead, his beloved Gracie, but first, to the living…
“Please take me to my boy sir.”
“With pleasure, Mr. Winthrop.”
And on revitalized legs whose sensation and strength have returned, he begins purposefully walking down the hall to…
I, all five pounds nine ounces of me, am in the arms of a buxom middle-aged nurse who is gently holding me. Cleaning the remnants of blood and afterbirth off of my minutes old body. I am too young to comprehend any of the goings on around me. I know not where I am. I know not who I am. I know not what I am. I know not that four doorways down on the opposite side of the hall, my mother lies dead on a stainless-steel hospital gurney, a white sheet now covering her face.
My closed, mucous-caked eyes do not see the enormous man who enters the room with tears in his eyes, or the nurse who turns to him and asks, “Mr. Winthrop, would you like to hold your son?” Or this giant teddy-bear of a man reaching out his hands and gently cradling me in his massive arms. And squeezing me…and gently kissing me, the uncontrollable flow of his tears of joy wetting my tiny cheeks. And mouthing the words which I am too young to understand…
“Son…you look just like your mama.”
His…life after death in the Bronx.
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