By Cady Chapman Davies
The pager on my belt squeals with familiar tones. Tom, the 911 dispatcher, sounds stressed while declaring there’s a boy missing at the Fox Hall development. The mother can be heard in the background screaming, “I want him found now! You find him now!” It is an unusual blistering July afternoon on San Juan Island. The sheriff’s dispatch is alerted to the missing boy around 2:00 pm. The youngster has been missing since noon.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, another turkey call,” I think, as I head out to get the ambulance. I am particularly grumpy today and have lost my usual patience. The boy probably wandered over to a friend’s house, fell asleep in the bushes, ran away, or some other mundane normal event. I’m aware that I tell myself these things to stay sane, compartmentalizing to squash nagging fears. This could be one of those dreaded calls. Maybe the one that could make me say, OK fate, you win. I can’t take it anymore; I’m getting a desk job.
We, the Emergency Medical Technicians, are stationed near the cops. The paramedic gives valium to the mom in the back of the ambulance. More details of the story trickle down to us. The eight year-old boy was playing with the neighbor kids most of the morning. They lost track of him sometime, perhaps 11:00 or 12:00. Time is fickle to youth.
Living on a small island in the Puget Sound, you’d think it would be easy to find someone. But there’s a lot of space here: forest, grasslands, nooks, crannies, and of course there’s water everywhere. The beach is a favorite play spot. The Coast Guard is called in. I sit listening to the radio traffic in the air conditioned ambulance. The hoopla outside the window has kept me preoccupied up to this point, but my own predicament keeps bubbling up to the surface, screaming at me to pay attention. I do everything I can to squash it, “Not now, I’m on a call,” I chide myself, “I’ll decide later.”
I look out the window; thank God the local Search and Rescue Team has finally arrived. I decide to brave the heat and get more involved, anything to keep me from thinking about myself. I grab the portable radio and circle up with the crew. The radio crackles, a special dog team is coming over from the mainland.
“OK, we’ll start at the neighbor’s house and work a grid. You all know the drill,” yells the chief. The three of us female EMTs hold hands for a second, but don’t look at each other. The wind starts to blow, creating a furnace. I shake my head at the helicopter skirting the frothy bay, fighting to stay in the game.
We fan out between the houses and the rocky shoreline, sticks in hand moving bushes aside, looking for clues. It takes the rest of the day and part of the night to finally reach the beach. As I work the walking lattice, my mind keeps wandering, back and forth over the ground, back and forth weighing the decision. Should I get that damn abortion or not? It’s not that I don’t want a kid; it’s just not the right time. But my conscience argues with me, “You make the right time.”
My stomach clenches when I notice the Dive Team dragging the pond. I put my hand over my belly and sigh. Now is not the right time to be thinking about my troubles.
The air and water vehicles have long given up. Our headlamps start to dim when the replacement crew arrives from the mainland. Hot chocolate is served with ham sandwiches. Our sweat has dried and I shiver from the evening fog. Day one is over and speculations are running rampant. Perhaps he just walked on the ferry or he was stuffed into the trunk of a car. The gruesome visions intrude into our psyches, creating our own private horror shows. We do not share them with each other; it’s too obvious that we each have our own variety of what some fanatical person could do to an eight year-old boy. Do I really want to bring a life into this crazy world?
When I finally get home, my body is exhausted. I try to disengage my mind, to let it all go and fall asleep. I’m a fix-it kind of gal. Nothing is too dirty if you can just wrap it up, deal with it and send it off. The long wait and not knowing is what causes the most wear and tear on emergency teams. After the adrenalin rush is over, it’s all downhill to exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Am I the kind of person who could even take care of a baby? As I fall asleep the lost boy and my fetus start to meld into a dream. I have to find him, but my body is galumphing through a uterus shaped pool.
The next morning we all look about the same, dead on our feet and raw. None of us asks the others if they’ve slept. What’s the point; we know the answer by the droopy eyes, the sweater inside out, and the slumped shoulders. I wear the same clothes as yesterday. I wash my face and dab at my cuts with anti-bacterial wipes.
It’s with the fifth cup of coffee, and the boredom of standing around waiting to be deployed, that start the inappropriate jokes, a band-aid for self preservation. “You know what the Paramedic said to that stroke patient yesterday, the one with left side paralysis?” We shake our head dubiously, “You’re going to be all right!!” We’re so tired we can’t stop giggling. Tears stream down my face. “It’s not that funny,” I exclaim, which starts another round of hiding behind our hands so the parents don’t see.
This second day is mainly like the first, tromping through the woods. But hope is draining like sand in an hour glass. Amazingly, today is even hotter than yesterday and we have stripped down to the bare minimum, giving up our official look. So far I’ve been lucky with my pregnancy, no morning sickness. I’d hardly know it, except today I’m more tired than I should be and I have to stand up-wind from the other sweaty responders since my nose seems to be oversensitive. By mid-day I am beyond cranky and keep asking, “Where the hell are the rescue dogs we were promised?”
Living on an island has its draw backs. It sometimes takes an eternity to get government aid. The dogs are coming, we keep hearing. “Yeah right,” we all think. It has been the proverbial “two hours” for the past eighteen.
We fan out over the hay-cut fields within visual sight of each other. The afternoon sun creates a giant shadow in front of me as I notice the circling vultures. I walk toward the death birds with apprehension, the inescapable stench of decay overwhelms me and I am close to vomiting. I just know he’s going to be there under those circling vultures.
When I arrive, it takes my mind awhile to put the scene together, torn flesh with ribs showing. My faculties finally put the body parts together, but somehow it just isn’t right. I’m so ready to assemble the pieces into a boy that the ears on top of the head throw me off. “Shit, it’s a lamb,” I say out loud, disgusted. I am momentarily disappointed. As relief floods through me, I chide myself, “You are just like one of those damn carrion birds, hanging around the edges of death.”
My tired body slumps and gets ready to keep on moving. The pager startles me back to life. They found him. He fell down an old well and broke his leg, conscious and alive. He needs to be transported to the hospital for exposure, but otherwise his vitals are good. Stumbling back to the emergency vehicle menagerie, I see the ambulance pulling out, parents on board, clutching their precious package. Both hands instinctively cover my womb. With a deep breath in, I know. Whoever’s in there is mine. I want to jump for joy. Our searching is over; we’ll go through this wild life together. I relax into the moment and it feels right.
Someone heard a whimper and found the broken well cover. It’s that simple or lucky, perhaps its diligence, whatever, we don’t care. We slap each others hands high and low, laugh and drink our last cup of coffee as fatigue and satisfaction settle in. I slide down the side of a tree to sit on the ground and swirl the black sludge in my cup. I decide to pour it on the ground; I’m sharing my body now.
The group is happy. We’ve done it again with just the human resources of feet, eyes and ears. I close my eyes, and smile, who needs dogs anyway?
©2008 Cady Chapman Davies