As I teacher, I try to learn from my experiences. At times, the lessons are so blatant that I take immediate pause and think, “This is a teaching moment. What have I learned here?”
For example, when you’re fourteen and walking down The Strip in Panama City Beach, you don’t hitchhike, no matter how sore your feet are, especially when the offer is from a carload of forty-something, mostly toothless men in a rusted-out Ford Crown Vic. You absolutely do not trust your brother when he tells you to stick the end of the radio adapter plug to your tongue right after he’s plugged it in the wall, and you don’t let yourself be alone in the same room with a man that you know beats his girlfriend (because you might do something rash like stab him with your pocket bottle opener).
However, other times, the lesson is more subtle, something you come to hours, days, or years after the event. With that in mind…
Several years ago, I lived in an upstairs apartment of a large complex. On a Sunday, around three in the afternoon, and as per my weekly routine, Fluffy and I were writing our grocery list to head out for our weekly run. He grabbed our bags; I grabbed my purse. When I opened the door, I heard: “Oh God. Oh, dear sweet Jesus. Oh, somebody help me. Jesus help me. I think he’s dead. He’s dead!”
I’m a moderately friendly neighbor. I don’t always know names, but I know faces. I wave or speak, pet dogs, and gripe about the weather, so I knew this voice. It was my redheaded diagonally downstairs neighbor. She was outside going into hysterics. I sighed and looked out around the complex. No one, and I mean no one was outside on this beautiful sunny Sunday. No kids, no adults, no college kids. No one.
To Fluffy, I said, “No one else is going to help her.” He shrugged, and we went downstairs.
When she saw us, she grabbed my arm and begged us for help. “I’ve already called my brother. I’m on the phone with 911.” When Red gave me her cell phone, the operator asked me to go inside and check the body of her boyfriend.
That is when I saw my first dead person who wasn’t all prettied up in a casket.
He was face-down on the carpet in the nebulous “no-room” space between the kitchen, dining area, and living area. His arm was outstretched with a piece of hard candy, a pink Jolly Rancher, just beyond his fingertips. Their golden retriever mix was going ape shit, racing around the room, barking at us, at her, at the dead boyfriend. The operator told me to have her put the dog in another room and then roll him over for further assessment.
When Red grabbed his arm, she squealed and began hyperventilating. Fluffy, cool and calm as always, bent down and helped her heave her boyfriend – a heavyset man – onto his back. He was purple, swollen, bloated, and leaky. Red squealed again and jumped back.
To the operator, I said, “Ma’am, he’s purple. It looks like he’s been dead a while.”
She said, “I can talk you through CPR.”
My automatic response was, “No!” The guy was purple. His lips were blue and swollen. All of him was swollen.
Fluffy knows CPR, but when I asked if he would do it, he shook his head at me. “I’m sorry, but this guy is dead dead. I’m not doing CPR on him.”
At this point, Red launched into full panic mode. She was too upset to try, not that I think she would’ve. I walked back outside, still on her phone, and I heard the sirens of the ambulance. Moments before it arrived, her brother did. I gladly handed him the phone, got myself and Fluffy into my car, and drove to the grocery store. In the parking lot of Publix, the adrenaline wore off. I had the shakes for a solid half hour.
Later, we returned to the complex to find it crawling with police, paramedics, and gawkers. People were actually sitting outside their apartments in lawn chairs watching all the goings-on. “Where were they when she was screaming for help?” I asked. “No one to be seen for miles until all the lights and sirens come.” I was as sick and disgusted by the living as I was by the dead guy.
Red was out on her porch with her mother and brother, and she got up to thank us for trying to help and trying to calm her down. “They said he died while I was at work, probably not long after I left. We were going to get married this summer.” I gave her a hug.
While unloading groceries, I said to Fluffy, “Just so you know, I’m going to be clingy for the next few days.”
The next morning, as I was getting ready for work, the lesson came to me: when someone is screaming for help, I will try to help…to an extent. I could never give CPR to a complete stranger. I just don’t have it in me to do something like that for the corpse of someone I don’t love. I feel a little bad about that, but now I know.