SICK: A Memoir

Part I

Late-summer rainstorm in Denmark. Nearly black...

It’s the same dream.  Not the only dream I have, but the only one I remember.

Dad’s driving down the interstate, the sky so dark you might mistake it for dusk.  A rain drop pelts the windshield.  And then another.  Then a few more.  Not long after, the torrent comes, an army of fat droplets assaulting the windshield.  The wipers slosh waves of rain back and forth, not fast enough at even their highest speed to clear one sheet of rain before the next covers it, distorting the view.   This is how the dream always begins, and it’s always at this point in the dream that an eerie sense of calm comes over me. I realize I’ve dreamed this before, but believe with every ounce of my being that this time it’s real.

The rain halts. The sky lightens slightly.  A cone-shaped cloud forms in the distance. It’s a tornado.   I blink, thinking how much this is like the dreams I have.  I’ve always wanted to see a tornado, I think.  They look so much like cotton candy spinning in the machines at the fair, so soft and innocent looking.  You want to touch it as it forms though you know you shouldn’t.   The cloud lowers, growing bigger and darker until it barrels into the ground and stirs up the earth.  On the other side of the highway, another cloud rotates, spiraling into a tight spin, stretching until its end reaches the ground.  The larger twister splits into two that dance around each other before heading in separate directions.

I look to Dad who is more mannequin than man.  His arms rock back and forth slightly, keeping the steering wheel in position.  His gaze remains forward, unwavering.  I don’t say a word.  We ride into the storms, mesmerized, until the very last moment of the dream when the clouds aren’t so pretty and soft, but angry and moaning.  The darkness surrounds us, and I realize this is a dream and my real nightmare is about to begin.  The desperate gasping wakes me.  It always wakes me first.

Part II

“Sadie’s choking!!!  She’s choking!!”  I scream as I race toward my parents’ bedroom. My older sister stands in the middle of the hall, grasping her neck, her mouth agape, her pretty brown eyes wide with terror.  “She’s choking.  She’s choking!”

Dad bolts past me before I even enter his bedroom.  Mom’s at his heels.  I race into their bedroom, pick up the phone, dialing 9-1-1.  I don’t know why the dispatchers don’t greet me by name.  Someone in my house chokes every other night, except for me.  It’s never me.

“Hello, 9-1-1.  What’s your emergency?”

“My sister’s choking! We need an ambulance!”

“Is there an adult there with you?”

“Are you sending an ambulance!?  We live at 88 Stratton Circle. You have to send them now!  She’s choking!”  I hear her fingernails tapping the buttons on a keyboard , hopefully typing in our address  and summoning the ambulance now.  I’ve done this too many times.  Best to get the ambulance en route and allow the dispatcher to ask her twenty questions afterward.

“Is there an adult there with you?”

“Yes!  They’re helping her.  Hurry!  You have to hurry!”

“What is she choking on?”

“Nothing.”

“You mean you don’t know what she’s choking on?”  The dispatcher asks, her voice laced with confusion.

“No.  She’s choking on nothing.  They do this every night!”

“Oh.”  She says, recognition heavy in her voice.

“An ambulance is on the way, Andrea, but I need you to stay on the phone with me.”

Thirty seconds, I think to myself.  It’s been thirty seconds, and the ambulance is probably just getting on the road.   She has a minute and a half before she passes out.  Four and a half minutes before she’s dead.  But they never pass out, I tell myself.  They never pass out.  She’s not going to die.  She’s not going to die.

“Hello?”

“I’m still here,” I say.  I look through my parents door to see my father slapping  Sadie’s back in a desperate effort to help her catch her breath.  His eyes, Mom’s eyes, and surely my eyes, reflect the same terror in Sadie’s.  She gives another horrific gasp.  I cover my ears and close my eyes tight as though that will somehow make it all go away.   Prayers race through my head.  God don’t take my sister.  Help Sadie.  Save her.  Make it stop.  And then, the squealing gasps soften, elongating into deep breaths, and I know it’s over.  At least for now, it’s over.

“She stopped.”  I tell the dispatcher.  “She’s not choking anymore.”

“Do you want me to still send the ambulance?”

“Mom, do you want them to still send the ambulance?”  I call, but I already know the answer.

“No,” she says.

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