Grateful for Godot

By Deborah Simmons Harris 

 

While many literary critics might have determined, and not necessarily negatively, that Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” was ‘much ado about nothing’, its historic lack of clear meaning as it reflects life taught me volumes. 

I read the play in French when I was in college, enjoying the nuances portrayed by the flowery sounding words as they flowed over the pages, rendering – to me, anyway – wise and practical prose in the form of a play about two homeless men who pass their idle lives waiting for a significant visitor who, indeed, never comes.

The sense of ‘going nowhere’ and ‘talking about nothing in particular’ as the two scruffy, unkempt men joke about life, then, conversely, ponder its meaning, becomes the theme of the comedic script, making me think about how comfortable it is to busy ourselves with life’s mundane, tedious, and even unpleasant tasks, welcoming the warm blanket of security they fold around us; we know they will always be there. 

When I read “Godot”, I had experienced nothing terribly tragic and had everything to look forward to – travel, a career, marriage, a family, health.  As French majors, my colleagues and I eruditely discussed the philosopher Pascal and how his discourse about needing to busy ourselves with life to avoid the very difficult questions it continually throws our way juxtaposed itself with Beckett’s airy play.  Young and naïve, I found it all so amusing.

One frightful weekend in my life caused me to relish Godot’s world and its meaning. 

Our twelve-year old son Joshua, because of complications of prematurity, has complex medical needs, requiring tubes, respiratory equipment, home care nurses and heavy green oxygen tanks to keep him at home, away from the isolation of the pediatric intensive care unit at our local children’s hospital. The infamous Minnesota winter one frisky Friday night last year had slung the temperature to near 20 degrees below zero. The air was like shard glass, scratching its way down the fragile lungs of anyone who dared to venture outside. Joshua was hungrily sucking in five liters of oxygen to assuage his own lungs, sick from virus. Frank blood mixed with copious, thick secretions spewed from his tracheostomy tube as he coughed, producing a painful hacking sound. Some of the disgusting gluey stuff stuck unapologetically to the white bedroom wall. I hovered over him, suctioning his labile airway, wiping his hot brow with a cool cloth, exhausted from hauling the heavy oxygen tanks up from the basement.

Another cough called my attention away from Josh, to the unlit room just down the hallway; this cough was fainter and lacked enthusiasm. Our seventeen-year-old son Nicholas was so weak from a series of respiratory viruses that had exacerbated his asthma and taxed his immune system, he had little strength to ward off the nasty tentacles of flu virus that had gripped our household.

I stopped briefly at the rickety wooden bookshelf in the hallway, only momentarily thinking that I might never retrieve the calm life that would allow me to read the books it held. Squirting a dollop of the cold, clear antibacterial hand gel I stashed there with the books on my trembling hands, I scrambled to Nick’s room.

Normally athletic and enjoying the fast pace offered by each winter’s hockey season, I could not imagine this boy speeding along the ice, checking his aggressive foes and throwing his arms and hockey stick up in victory as his team scored. Instead, Nick lay motionless, flat on his back with no pillow supporting his head, his usually active muscles now floppy and still. I touched his forehead and fear zipped through my own febrile body; it, too, achy, warm and plagued with a gnawing, percolating nausea.  Nick was too hot.

I placed a well-used thermometer, ready at his beside, under Nick’s limp tongue, watching as the digits climbed to near 105 degrees. Please, not meningitis, I prayed quickly as Josh’s oximeter warned of his own low oxygen saturation rates, beckoning me back to the other room.

Josh’s heart rate climbed in competition with Nick’s temperature as he struggled to breathe through the bloody, greenish secretions fighting to occlude his trach tube. I dripped sterile saline solution into the bloody, occluded stoma in an effort to loosen the sticky ooze, then suctioned again, giving Josh a couple of gulps of air before I sterilized my hands again to draw a tepid bath for Nicholas. 

Not meningitis, I prayed again, this time actually begging God in the fraction of a moment I had to internally verbalize my fear before gently prodding Nick from his bed and into the bathroom. Nick had meningitis as a baby; we had already escaped its menacing grip once.

I had to get Nick’s temperature down. I had to get Josh’s heart rate down.  I had to get Josh’s oxygen saturation levels up. I had to get my spirits up.

It was too much for my weary body and soul.  My husband Victor was somewhere near Falluja, Iraq. As a field officer CWO4 and platoon commander summoned to active duty from the ranks of the USMC Reserve, he traveled hundreds of miles each week by bird, as he called the rickety helicopters he traveled in; those he first come to know as a grunt in Viet Nam.  Much of the time, though, he traveled by convoy, subject every second to the beguiling wares of roadside bombs. My heart ached almost as much as my flu-ridden muscles to hear from him, to know that he was safe, hating the uncertainty that is the constant companion of the Marine Corps spouse. I needed him here now as two of our three boys waged their own battles with a virulent enemy.

Should I call 911?  It was too cold to transport the boys to the emergency department myself and I was too sick.  I couldn’t even get them ready to go.  The significant nursing shortage in the Midwest meant there was no home care nurse that winter to help me.  Family members were afraid to come into the house, shunning the grasp of such a debilitating illness on their own households.

Trudging through gauze pads, once sterile cotton applicators, sopping blue chux pads, rendered so by the thick formula that had leaked from the gastrostomy feeding tube, and soiled diapers discarded hurriedly on the floor throughout the night – the fallout from Josh’s relentless cares – I staggered to the phone to ring the specialist on-call. It was about three o’clock in the morning.  I hadn’t stopped moving in hours, not long enough to really feel my groping sense of panic, nor the dropping temperatures in the house.

Squinting at the faint LED digits of the thermostat, the numbers confirmed more fears. The furnace had gone out. 

Guiltily thinking this was all part of a wicked curse, at best, my more reverent side chastised such cynicism. Nevertheless, I just wanted to experience the comfortable place self-pity took me, about the only thing  left to count on now.  For crying out loud, I was screaming inside, we can’t even get to the hospital.

I couldn’t leave the house with Jon, our middle son, still asleep, not yet ravaged by the horrible symptoms that defined the rest of us. I was not certain if there was something wrong with the gas main.  I couldn’t find the pilot light. Still awaiting a call-back from the sleepy and perhaps aggravated physician I had just paged, this time the crisis call was to the gas company.

Despite my own fever, I began to shiver from the cold creeping into the house. I gathered Nick from the tub, desperate in my relief to find his temperature down to about 104 degrees. Josh was beginning to breathe a little better, thanks to the hefty dose of prednisone I had been taught to give him in such an emergency. The doctor called back to affirm a plan of a few more doses and waiting until morning to travel to the hospital, especially given the situation with the furnace. The gas man came, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow with a scowl on his well-lined face, probably from the irritation of having to actually answer to an emergency while he was on-call.

Nick began to respond to ibuprofen, the fierce temperature backing stubbornly away to about 103 degrees. The gas man fixed a wayward part on the icy furnace and, guilty, I supposed because of his initial behavior, offered me the advantage of the Gold Service Plan that allowed him to repair the mischievous thing, charging only for the hardware. Having heard my conversation with the doctor about blood, fever, oxygen and Falluja, he had dismissed his earlier ornery demeanor and sheepishly asked me to thank my husband for his service to the country.

We had heat, lower temperatures and heart rates, and higher oxygen levels. A bit more encouraged, I thought we might live.

Having crawled so vulnerably through one of the most challenging nights of my life, I changed my sweaty, soiled gown and sank down on the side of the unmade bed to watch the scrolling news bar at the bottom of the 24-hour news channel. I relied on it to stream much ado about nothing across the screen when I hadn’t heard from Victor in a while. If there was nothing too bad there, I convinced myself that he must be safe.

…helicopter crashes…Iraq…cause not released by the military…31 Marines on-board…confirmed dead…

My G-d, whatever happened to the simple life; the one of boring housework, girlfriend gossip, complaining about the neighbors, grocery shopping, what’s-for-dinner, worrying over bills, and the blah-blah-blah of committee meetings? The life in which I was simply waiting for Godot?

Thirty-one was about the size of Victor’s platoon. Hope drained from my spirit as my heart seemed to thump to my stomach. I ran to the computer, not knowing what else to do. I needed resolution. I couldn’t take the fear anymore.  It was grabbing me from too many sides.

“Where are you?” the typed words screeched in the email box. “Are you OK?  Just reply with anything. I need to know if you’re safe!”

Despite the nine-hour time difference and the miles that separated our worlds, he was there. On base and at the computer. Alive. Words never felt so good.

“What’s the matter, Babe?”

Ridiculously relieved, I anxiously related the scrolling news story. Isolated from most of the troops, he had heard nothing of it. I rambled about the night, the sick kids, the furnace.

“I’m glad you are OK.” The email emitted concern. He attached a picture then, showing his Marines in the area I told him the crash had occurred, the sky orange and ominous, thick with swirling sand. They breathed in sand there like we breathed in ice here.  The picture was taken a few days before fellow Marines had met an untimely demise.

“We were just headed there again in one of the birds,” his words, luscious to me now, continued, “but had to turn back because of the sand storm.” The sense of relief was so strong, it was like a massage to my aching body.

Love you, miss you, we both concurred, as I headed back to the beckoning of Josh’s alarms and Nick’s now stronger moans, awakened with a new appreciation for the essential elements in Beckett’s treatise on life: the hope and endurance portrayed by the squabbling banter of two homeless men who found a way to carry on, no matter what might come – and better off for not knowing.

 

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