Finger on the Trigger

Judy Goldman



My husband is not a complainer. It’s just that he’s a person who believes there’s a medical procedure for every ill. I, on the other hand, am more willing to watch and wait, try alternatives. I believe each time we sign on for an invasive procedure, we’re rolling the dice.


I’m driving; we’re running errands. Henry’s not able to get behind the wheel yet. In time, he’ll teach himself to work the brake and gas with his left foot, but not yet. “We’re so close to the dry cleaners,” he says. “Let’s swing by and drop off my khakis and your sweater. They’re in the car.” I roll down my window. It’s one of those warm winter afternoons North Carolina is famous for. Clear and cloudless.


My own private list of If Onlys:

  1. If only he’d tried acupuncture instead.
  2. Or physical therapy.
  3. Or biofeedback.
  4. Reflexology.
  5. Meditation
  6. Massage.
  7. If only he’d decided, Well, I have back pain, but I can live with it. I’ll skip the epidural.


I drive through the parking lot of the dry cleaners, up to the pinkish stucco building, ease in as close as I can to what used to be a drive-by window but is now a drive-by door. I do a great job of getting close without scraping, twist around for Henry’s pants and my sweater on the back seat, thinking I’ll hand them over, through my open window. But I can’t reach the clothes. To help me maneuver, Henry takes my purse from my lap. I turn off the engine, get out of the car, scoop up the pants and sweater. By this time, the owner, a small, middle-aged Asian man, has opened the drive-by door and is standing in the threshold. I shut my rear door. The driver’s side is still open. I’m about to place the clothes in his arms when a rangy young man bolts from inside the dry cleaners and pushes right between the owner and me. The three of us are now wedged in this tiny space. To anyone driving past, we must look like an intimate little gathering. We’re so close we could hug, or brush dandruff off each other’s shoulder. My first thought: Oh, this guy works here. He’s rushing out to take over for his boss. I glance up. But why is he wearing a ski cap? I keep thinking. It’s not a ski cap. It’s a ski mask. Which reveals only his eyes. Focused on me. My eyes move down his body to his hand. He’s holding a pistol. Aimed at my abdomen. His finger on the trigger.


A knock on the door. The doctor bursts in. “I gave you the Saddam shot!” he says to Henry, with great enthusiasm. His face, his gesturing, everything about him is emotional, adrenalized. “What’s a Saddam shot?” I ask, hoping his answer will explain everything – the contorted look on Henry’s face, the feeling that there’s a cold hand on the back of my neck. “I gave him the mother of all shots! Very potent,” he says, still intense. “In fact, I gave him two shots!” Later I’ll see that there are two small Band-Aids on Henry’s back, covering two injection sites. “But he can’t move his legs.” That’s me, trying to ask a million questions, but not knowing how to ask even one. “Your husband is going to be fine,” the doctor says. A little more back and forth, and he leaves the room. It’s four o’clock. Two and a half hours since we arrived for the epidural.


An epidural is an injection of steroids and anesthetic into the epidural space between the spine and the spinal cord. So common, it’s routinely given to women during childbirth.


From where Henry is sitting, he can’t see a thing. Whatever I decide to do next will be just that: my decision. Totally up to me. I sling the clothes across the driver’s seat into Henry’s lap, jump back into the car, grab the handle, slam my heavy door shut. All in one swift motion. My window is still down. The guy could easily shoot me through the opening. He’s six inches away. If he wanted, he could reach in and grab my neck. I turn the key, let out the emergency brake, put the car in gear. My arms and legs feel leaden. But I push myself with everything I have, push to move faster, faster, saying out loud, over and over, in a voice my harsh breathing makes throaty: “Quick! Quick! Quick!” And I speed away.


More If Onlys:

5. If only I’d tried to talk him into acupuncture, physical therapy,                                      biofeedback, reflexology, meditation, massage, or maybe just living with                    the pain.            

6. If only I’d been called back to wait with him before the epidural.


A nurse breezes in, carrying paper-wrapped tubes and instruments in the fold of her arms. She catheterizes Henry, leaves again, then almost immediately bursts back in. “Oh, the doctor ordered an MRI,” she says to Henry, “but the MRI machine is in use, and anyway” – she turns to me – “you’re going to have to fill out a bunch of forms before we can even call a transporter, so it’ll be a while before your husband can have the scan.” “Is there any way to hurry the process along?” I ask. “Does the scheduler in the MRI department know this is an emergency?” I’m now placing all my trust in the MRI. This will give us the information we need to make everything go back to normal. “Could we maybe call for a transporter while I fill out the forms?” “That’s a great idea!” she says, as though I’ve just suggested something that could be a lot of fun. A movie followed by doughnuts. An elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. New shoes. “Let me see what I can do. Maybe I can get the doctor to write ‘stat’ on the request, which would give it emergency status.” The doctor didn’t indicate this was an emergency? My husband paralyzed from the waist down is not an emergency?


“Call the police!” I yell, my whole mind willing Henry to hurry, as I speed away from the dry cleaners. By this time, he knows what’s happening. “Reach in my purse! Get my cell phone! It’s on!” But Henry, way too slowly – you will never see my husband rush, not ever – leans over on one hip, reaches into his pants pocket for his phone, a motion made awkward by his aches and pains and seat belt. Now he’s flipping his phone open, punching the button to turn it on. I hear the familiar chimes. Then he slowly and painstakingly hits those three numbers, a turtle’s pace: 9-1-1. Why wouldn’t he just use my phone? When we get home, he calls the dry cleaners. The owner is okay. He tells Henry the police did arrive, but too late. The guy had already taken all his cash.


They said they’d come for me. But the outpatient clinic was busy, and they were rushed. I was left in the waiting room, reading about very young celebrities in People. If the process had been slowed down, would the doctor have been more relaxed? The nurse who prepared the vials less hurried? If Henry had had the epidural five minutes earlier or five minutes later, if we could just go back to that exact moment and do one thing differently, could we rewrite the story?


For days afterward, I find myself crying. I’m washing my hair or fastening my bra or meeting a friend to walk in the neighborhood, and my eyes suddenly well with tears. I keep seeing the gun. The sleek shape of it. The steely shade of charcoal-gray. I can almost smell its hot breath. I see the ski mask. How incongruous it seemed at first for a face to be covered in black wool when it was sixty-five degrees out. I replay everything with Henry. He listens. I replay. I cry. He pats my hand. I cry. Sad. That’s the emotion I feel. Why sad? Frightened, haunted, even angry over what happened to the owner of the dry cleaners -- sure. But sad? Just when Henry is doing better -- this despair? It does not make sense. I should be grateful he’s managing so well, grateful we weren’t hurt in the holdup. Really, it’s no big deal. But it all feels so personal. Clammy. Punishing. As though this small, insignificant incident has a wide reach. Everything suddenly laid open. A hammer has been brought down, smashing off an irregular piece of my head and sending it flying.


I arrive at the hospital the morning after the epidural, around eight. Henry was admitted late last night, brought over by gurney. As I enter his room, I see that the covers are twisted into a knot on the side of his bed. His cotton gown is pushed up in thick folds under his chin. For a second, I take in his broad, hairy chest. But then my eyes clamp onto the nurse’s hands. She’s easing a thin rubber tube farther and farther into his penis. Henry is tapping the mattress with his index finger, a small gesture he thinks no one can see but which tells me how much this hurts, even though he’s not about to say so. “What’s going on?” I ask the nurse, aware there are many different inflections I could use, but I’m choosing this neutral one. At least, until I find out more. Is it possible the other catheter slipped out? Did it stop working? Do catheters need to be replaced every day or so? I’m testing different explanations in my mind. Henry is not letting up with the tapping. I lean down and press my face, still cool from the spare March morning, to his sweaty, determined face. “Apparently, the doctor called in early this morning,” he says in a voice that sounds breathy, gravelly, “and he left orders for my catheter to be removed. I think it was around five when they took it out. But I couldn’t pee. I’m getting all these IV fluids and my bladder is really full. They have to catheterize me again.” Why did they expect him to be able to pee when he has so little feeling below the waist? I should have gotten here earlier. I could have prevented them from removing the catheter. I should’ve spent the night. Why did I let Henry talk me into leaving? There ought to be a course in school for this sort of thing. Calamity 101. I wish I could do everything in life twice. It’s not until the second time that I catch on.


I hear myself telling the story of the holdup over and over. I want everyone to know. At a dinner party, I make my friends join me in a re-enactment. “Okay, John, you be the owner of the dry cleaners. And you, Bobbie, be the robber. Just jump out, Bobbie. Like this. Hold your gun lower. Point it at my stomach. Wait, both of you stand here. No, closer.” I pull the two of them right up to me. We’re huddled together. “Yeah,” I say, “that’s it.” I’m making it funny so we can all laugh – my fellow actors and our audience. I go home from the dinner and cry.


It’s been two years since the epidural. Two years since those long weeks in the hospital and rehab facility, when no one seemed to know the way forward. Two years of trying this, trying that, surgeries, uneven recuperations, hospital infections, falls, middle-of-the-night runs to the ER, gout, neuropathy, neurogenic bladder, blood clots. But also, during those two years, the gradual return of sensation and mobility. One side coming back, slowly, over time, down his leg, inch by inch. Now, all that’s left from “the accident” is just a little spotty paralysis in his left leg and foot -- and a totally paralyzed right leg and foot. Wheelchair to walker to four-prong cane to burl-handled cane.


Dreams are usually dim, unclear and forgettable, as though written in smoke. Even as you’re starting to recall them, they’re beginning to fade. But this one won’t let me be: We’re having friends over for a party. Everyone is milling around in the den. Four guys from Terminix are also here for our quarterly pest inspection. I’m frustrated that I don’t have time to supervise them, so I practically command the one who’s in charge, “You can look around the house, but do not, under any circumstances, spray inside. If you see a problem, check with me before you do anything.” The guy nods okay, and he and his co-workers head up the stairs. After awhile, I notice Henry’s gone. I leave our company to go look for him. I find him with the Terminix men in the upstairs guest room where our grandchildren sleep when they spend the night. The workmen are coating the window- and door-frames with powdery white insecticide, circling the room with their spray guns, spraying it, thick, everywhere, outlining the twin beds with poison. With all the spraying, the room has taken on the color of snow. “Why didn’t you call me?” I scream at them. I’m so angry I’m trembling. (I’ll still be trembling when I wake up.) The first one shrugs. I shoot my question at each – nobody answers -- until the one in charge finally tilts his head toward Henry, as if to explain they didn’t call me because Henry gave them the go-ahead. There’s a large, cleaver-like weapon lying on the floor. I pick it up. Whom shall I use it on? Suddenly, I realize what I’m doing. I am horrified. Quickly, but gingerly, I lay it back down. Then I spot a jug of red wine. I grab it by the neck with both hands and, with great anger, sling it across the room. The bed Henry and I sleep in downstairs suddenly appears in this upstairs room. Gushes of red wine and jagged glass all over our cream-colored down comforter. Now look what I’ve done. You don’t have to look far for an interpretation. It’s the feeling that I alone am responsible. In charge. Even when I allow someone else to be in charge, I need to be in charge. At the same time I’m feeling that I’m the only smart one around here, I’m also terrified of misjudging a situation, making a wrong decision, bringing ruin. And. I’m furious. Furious with the doctor who administered the epidural. How dare he injure my husband! I’m furious with everybody who has done anything wrong these past years. Anyone who came close to doing anything wrong. Anyone who even looked like they might do something wrong. I’m also furious with Henry. He’s the one who made the decision to have the epidural. Forget the fact that, at the time, I thought it was a good idea. I’m too busy thinking that if I can’t trust him to make good decisions, I can’t trust anyone. I’ll just elbow my way in to make all the decisions. Which also makes me furious.


Time passes. All of a sudden, I get it. Because someone threatened me with a gun, I can finally cry – really cry -- over what happened to Henry. As though I’m confronting it for the first time. As though what occurred at the dry cleaners is the same as what occurred two years before, when a medical error, in a quiet, measureless way, changed everything.


Years later, after the statute of limitations passes, we’ll learn that the problem was the formula injected into Henry’s spine. Too viscous. This is not a very full explanation. But it’s all we know.


We count on our doctors to get rid of our pain, keep us from being debilitated or old. Just as we count on our own ingenuity. Jogging is good for our health? Swimming? Fish oil? Check, check, and check. We should stay away from carbs? Fats? Wheat? Dairy? BPA? Well, all right then. At some point, though, all our efforts – and the efforts of our doctors -- will be insufficient. The efforts might even backfire. The doctors and nurses – the whole medical world -- could not keep Henry safe. Then again, I couldn’t keep Henry safe. Henry couldn’t keep Henry safe. So then, this: We’re all just flawed people – doctors, nurses, patients, husbands, wives – hoping to escape the traps that fate sets.


Of course, we know the doctor didn’t set out to harm Henry. He wanted to help him. Regardless of what went wrong with the injection, the doctor really doesn’t deserve our censure. Vilifying someone, even if only in our minds, isn’t fair. If a plumber comes to the house to fix a leaky toilet and all of a sudden, water floods the bathroom and the tile floor buckles and has to be replaced, we don’t harbor great bitterness toward him. Whether it’s a floor or a body, things get botched. The mishap was – a mishap. An accident. Bad luck.


Why write about what happened? What’s the point of carrying around all these memories, with their grim details and bad feelings, then spending years unloading them onto paper? What I know now – what I didn’t know when I started – is that these words are my attempt to figure out how to forgive. Forgive the medical error. Forgive the doctor. Forgive Henry. Forgive myself. Through typing and retyping these sentences, an understanding has made molecular passage into my hands. Made its way all the way up to my heart. We all do the best we can.

This piece is an excerpt from What We Can Count On, Goldman’s memoir-in-progress.


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Judy Goldman is the author of two novels, The Slow Way Back and Early Leaving, and the memoir Losing my Sister (John F. Blair), which was a finalist for both SIBA’s and Foreward Review’s Memoir of the Year. Her collections of poetry, Holding Back Winter and Wanting To Know the End, have won the Gerald Cable Poetry Award and the three top poetry prizes in North Carolina: the Roanoke-Chowan Prize, Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize, and Oscar Arnold Young Prize. Both her prose and poetry have been featured in many publications from Real Simple Magazine and Our State to The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Kenyon Review, Ohio Review, and Prairie Schooner, among others. Born and raised in Rock Hill, SC, Goldman lives in Charlotte, NC.