The Sleepless Nightmare: The Finale
Have you ever had to watch your wife beg? The combination of emotions that flood through you as the person you love, the person you made a vow to protect and provide for, stands crying in front of someone you barely know and pleads for something so basic that you have failed to getis an intoxication of rage. Anger, humiliation, fear, worry, intrigue… they all merge into this unified moment of hope that, just this once, something will work for us. If there is a god in heaven who knows even half of what we’ve been through, surely they will not deny her this.
As Paige stands there, having made her plea with all the logic, and compulsion, and courtesy that a woman of her considerable intelligence can muster, the shelter’s security man looks down at her and opens his mouth to give the answer that we both knew from the beginning had to be coming…
But this is the middle of the story, not the beginning, and you really have to know the context to truly appreciate the moment that happened here.
When Paige and I arrived at the City Rescue Shelter in downtown Oklahoma City, we were both perfectly healthy. Within a few days of living there we had both developed coughs that provide generous amounts of phlegm and leave us momentarily dazed when the fit subsides. Mine has backed off a little but won’t go away completely, Paige’s has progressed into the first stages of pneumonia. She’s tired all day and she’s always thirsty. It seems that no matter what she takes for it, she just keeps getting more sick.
It’s Saturday, she started her new job two days ago, and it was wonderful. She’s delighted with her class, her peers, and even her boss, and all we have to do is get her to work each day to finally be out of this horrible place.
When she got up this morning she was dizzy; in fact she almost fell trying to get into the bathroom for her morning bout of, well… the things you do in the bathroom when you have a virus inside you. She couldn’t eat, not that it mattered. The staff are annoyed with her for upsetting the daily routine with her selfish illness so they didn’t wake her up until she had missed breakfast. There’s a vending machine, but she’s not allowed to get anything out of it. Lunch is at 11:00, she’ll just have to wait. She wants to go lie back down, but she’s not allowed to do that either, her illness is irrelevant.
She comes outside to see me. It’s over 100 degrees outside, and the heat falls on you as if poured from a cauldron far above, but we’re not allowed to have contact inside the shelter. No one cares if you’re married. Men and women have zero contact.
We get into our van to sit and talk. We don’t have air conditioning. There’s a breeze when you stand outside in the shade, but that’s off limits to us. There are security cameras perched around the building to make sure that no one who lives here is “loitering” around the building. This isn’t “loitering” in any legal sense of the term, mind you. The cops who come out of the building, hands resting on their pistols, to point out the signs they’ve posted that say “NO LOITERING WITHIN TWO CITY BLOCKS” (creating an entire square mile of downtown Oklahoma City where no one who lives in the shelter is allowed to be standing still for any amount of time) couldn’t actually arrest you for standing on a public street, minding your own business. But they’re not above telling you that they will, and they will certainly kick you out of the shelter.
We’re only in the van for a few minutes when Paige starts gasping for air. It’s just too hot here. She starts to panic, we have to go back in where she tries to sit down.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute! I need to see your shelter I.D.,” the BTL member at the front desk says.
I watch my wife give in immediately, knowing better than to ask for a moment to get her breath. She stands back up, panting and wheezing, and finds the I.D. in her purse. He types in the information without looking at the card, he’s been working the desk long enough to know our numbers. She sits back down and I try to comfort her, ask if she needs anything, but this doesn’t last long. We’re inside now and we’re not allowed to have contact. I have to walk away and leave my wife to recover from the attack on her own. As I walk off we agree that we’ll take her back to the hospital again when she’s up to it. Maybe if we don’t tell them we’re staying at the shelter this time, the doctor will actually treat her.
Before I get away, I see her go up to one of the security guys. She tries to tell him what’s going on, her eyes flowing tears as she holds onto the counter for balance. If she doesn’t get better over the weekend, she can’t go to work. All she wants is rest and water. If she loses her job, we’ll still be living on the street. She’s not asking for money, she’s not asking for anything tangible! She just wants to rest and go to the water fountain occasionally.
She tries to appeal to his humanity with her pleas. She tries to tell him we’re not junkies, we’re not criminals, we just got stuck for a few weeks. I stand there, powerless. I’ve never felt so small and weak in my life. I watch my wife beg. I watch the man say he can’t help her and walk away. I watch my wife cry. I turn around and go to the men’s day room to stare at the floor and try to figure out what I’m going to do.
Half an hour later, I go outside to the men’s smoking area. I light my last cigarette and try to find a new direction to approach the situation from. I’ve always been a firm believer that you can think you’re way out of any problem, it’s just a matter of persistence and patience. Lately, though, I’ve found that belief tested far beyond its normal limits.
The doctor told her to rest and get fluids, but she’s not allowed to do that. Once, she talked them into letting her lie down. After about twenty minutes, she tried to get a drink of water and they told her if she could get up to do that, she obviously didn’t need to rest. How do you reason with someone like that? How do you find a middle ground for communication there? My mind is tempted to ponder the things it takes to make a person capable of denying water and rest to someone who can barely stand, but I don’t have time for that. Paige needs help, now. I want to be angry. I want to kick down doors and find the people who are abusing my wife and rescue her from them, but there’s no money for that. I have to find a way to work within their system. I have to find a way…
I don’t get to finish my thought. Someone tells me that Paige just passed out outside the building. I run as fast as I can. When I get to her she’s barely coherent. She came outside hoping to find me and finally succumbed to the combination of viral infection and environment. I hear an ambulance coming down the road as I hold her hand and try to tell her it’s going to be alright. We both know I’m lying, but she smiles anyway.
The paramedics arrive and start taking care of her. Security man comes out and asks me if she had gotten a prescription from the earlier hospital visit for rest?
I stare at him blankly. “No,” I say in the most calm voice I can muster, “the doctor did not write sleep and water on a prescription note. They don’t do that.”
“Yes they do.” He explains, “If she had had that kind of note they would have let her lie down.”
I’m instantly overwhelmed by how sick this is. The anger I’ve been locking away all day is kicking and clawing at the door in my mind. My senses become very aware of everything around me: the blistering heat from the worst summer in over thirty years, the lights and diesel sound of the ambulance, the mumbles and gossipping of the crowd that’s gathered, the paramedics strapping my wife to a back board for transportation, and the shelter security man who was too busy to get involved earlier pulling me away from her side to make sure I understand that this is all our fault and that they are in no way liable because she didn’t follow the rules by getting a prescription for sleep.
The door in my mind finally gives. I have an I.Q. of 142, I have more education than everyone in this building put together, I was making $125,000 a year at my last job, I’ve travelled to Africa, England, Wales and Mexico doing philanthropic work, I’ve blown more money in a night of lap dances than it would take to get us out of this mess, and now I have to stand here and listen to an idiot, who doesn’t care about my wife’s condition, sing three choruses of “I didn’t do it!”
I’m so angry I can’t find my words. I try to tell him that we’re not animals, I try to tell him that she doesn’t deserve to be treated this way. He calls me an asshole.
I get my things from my locker before going to the hospital to sit with my wife. I can’t stay here anymore. Maybe they will let her sleep when she gets back tonight? Maybe she will get back before 7:00 and they won’t make her sleep on a plastic mat on the bare concrete floor? Maybe I can get one of the doctors to write water on a prescription?
I’ll be sleeping in my van from now on. It’s not going to hurt anybody but myself, I know this, but I just can’t look these people in the eyes anymore.
When I was a child, I watched “The Elephant Man” with my parents. I always remembered him screaming “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! I’M A HUMAN BEING!” We used to laugh about that. Sometimes someone would scream it from the other side of the house to be funny. It’s not funny anymore… not to me.