Sleep avoided me after the pediatric cases.
With the adults and teenagers, I could usually doze off, but then empathy caused the nightmares. One night I was a rodeo clown with the bull’s hooves cracking my ribs. The next I was the carpenter falling from the roof. I’d slide from the peak and claw the rain-gutter from the edge before landing in a heap in the dust. Numb from the waist down, just like the guy I’d helped that day.
My first week as paramedic, I got called out on a guy who lost his hand in a press at the tire factory. I woke soaked in sweat and vomited in the bathroom.
It woke my wife as well. Janice would find me on the couch reading, or out in the garage working on a car at two in the morning. The first few years we’d return to our bed, but I couldn’t sleep.
A routine evolved over the years. She’d find me tying flies in the basement after dreaming my neck was snapped in a motorcycle accident. The details bothered her, so she’d stand there looking lovely and ask.
“What would you like for lunch tomorrow?”
It was always after midnight so tomorrow was today, but I never corrected her. I’d say, “The chicken salad sandwich was nice last week,” or “Peanut butter works.”
“How about a hard-boiled egg or an apple?”
I’d nod and we’d share a smile.
The nightmares were less frequent at the end of my career. Perhaps I’d seen it all and grown calloused.
My last day on the job she handed me my lunch-pail and I was out the door. Two rookies were polishing the bumper of the new ambulance at the station. The alarm sounded as I placed my lunch in my locker.
“Take the rookies,” the captain ordered. “We have a skydiving accident.”
I stretched my arms to the ceiling and yawned.
Dispatch gave us the details over the wailing siren, a middle age male with leg injuries. I guessed he probably landed in a gust that broke a few bones. Then they told us he had multiple lacerations to his face and head.
“I wonder what happened?” one rookie asked.
“Probably got drug through some brush,” I answered.
“Brush would only leave scratches,” he protested. “They said he had lacerations.”
“We’ll see when we get there.”
The wind, catching the parachute flagged us to the scene from over a mile away. The skydiver was where gravity placed him, twisted like a pretzel on the top of a sagebrush. A few cats skittered away as we got close. I didn’t think much of it. Feral cats or “field-lions” as we called them were common, and there was a barn across the field.
We splinted both legs and turned our attention to his face. Deep lacerations ran from his scalp down both cheeks. His right earlobe was torn in several places. Wes was his name. He was thirty-five, wasn’t on any medications, legal or otherwise, and had no allergies. He wouldn’t say what happened. We left a breathing hole as we mummified his head.
The younger ER docs would meet us at the door, but Doctor Hammond was old-school and invited us in. Wes grimaced as the Doctor tugged the blood soaked gauze from spots where it had dried to his skin.
“How’d you get these cuts?”
Wes was silent.
“He wouldn’t tell us,” I said to the doctor.
On the way back to the station, I ignored the rookies, hoping I’d worked my last accident.
I got my wish. The guys threw a big party, where they gave me a watch. There was plenty of pizza so at the end of the shift, I grabbed my untouched lunch. The Captain shook my hand at the door.
“You’re a hell of paramedic,” he told me. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“I’ll swing by from time to time,” I lied.
Hot air trapped in the car embraced my face when I open the door. The Captain’s voice came from behind before I could climb in. “Doctor Hammond’s on the phone. He wants to talk to you.”
I left the door open to vent the afternoon’s heat and strolled into the ambulance bay desk where the phone was off the hook.
“Hello?” I figured he wanted to congratulate me on retirement.
“You gotta hear this!” The levity in his voice contrasted with his always professional demeanor. “Ya know how they say cats always land on their feet?”
“Turns out that skydiver wanted to prove it. He’s a researcher who studies their equilibrium.”
“In cats?” I asked, remembering how a few scurried away at the scene.
“He took five up in a gunny sack. Apparently nothing brings out their survival instinct like free falling at a hundred miles an hour!”
“He jumped out of an airplane with a bag of cats?” I asked.
“They came out clinging to each other and looking for the most stable thing they could find, which was him.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“He wishes. They climbed to his head. He’d tear one free and throw it into space but they’d turn around and fly back.
“He pulled the cord soon enough to deploy the chute, but too late to keep his legs from breaking.”
“Well they say cats have nine lives,” I stated.
“Note to self. Declaw cats before taking them skydiving.”
“One more reason to be a dog person,” I said.
“He’ll live,” the doctor paused to chuckle. “Today proves genetic culling happens.”
“After today it’s someone else’s problem.”
“Oh ya! Congratulations on retirement.”
I thanked him, hung up and walked to my car. Maybe thirty years had drained my empathy tank. Halfway home I pulled over because I couldn’t breathe from laughing too hard. My eyes watered and my belly hurt.
When it finally quit, the lunch-pail caught my attention. I thought of Janice, putting up with my somber moods, and I ached for three decades of missed laughter. Inside, a sandwich was halved in triangles. There was an apple, a bag of chips and a note: Looking forward to having you home. Beneath the words, she’d lipsticked a kiss. I put the note in my pocket and ate the chips as cars flew by at the speed of thirty years.
She was waiting on the porch with the kids and grandkids for another big party. I smiled all night and helped her clean up when they left.
The alcohol fed warmth from several beers in my belly helped me fall asleep. But by midnight I was freefalling, tearing away field-lions from my scalp while dozens more, claws extended, dive-bombed my head. They say you wake before impact or you’ll die. I didn’t wake until the cats got off and scampered away.
She found me at the kitchen table, halfway through another beer.
“How was your lunch today?”
“Best ever,” I chuckled.
“I like your smile,” she said. “Wanna come back to bed?” Janice took the beer and finished it in three swallows. She straddled me, the warmth of her breasts on my chest. We shared a kiss and she led me upstairs to our bed.
“No more nightmares,” She told me.
“Wanna go skydiving tomorrow?” I asked.
“Sure.” She cradled my head in her hands and whispered. “I’ll pack us a lunch.”