I wrote this piece a few years ago and have never been able to figure out what to do with it. Sometimes it seems trivial and pointless, sometimes it feels symbolic of something bigger. But, I think that may be the point – our perceptions of things, event, and people shift as the circumstances in our lives change.
This essay is pretty long, so bear with me. I think for me, it illustrates how the seemingly trivial is always important to someone. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote of fiction writing, “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” The water may be the most important thing in the world to that person in that moment.
That’s the thing, one person’s trivia is another person’s disaster. At our cores, we are all driven by desires and fears that we ourselves don’t even understand. When we forget this fact, or assign judgment or value to someone else’s basic needs, we lose sight of our shared humanity. And, in a post 9/11 world, I would submit that we all need that common humanity more than anything else.
Post 9/11. That’s how we talk now. Before and after 9/11. Where were you? The world has become a darker, scarier, more uncertain, and more cynical place. Or, was it always thus, and did it take a cataclysm for us to notice? I remember where I was.
In those days, I kept a small travel trailer at the clinic for the nights when I was on call. Sometimes my husband would bring our daughter down and they would keep me company. Some nights I was on my own. The trailer sat like a small island in the gravel parking lot, incongruous next to the horse stalls. I viewed it alternately as a prison and as a refuge; it all depended on my day.
That morning, I listened for the whistle of the tea kettle as I tried not to whack my elbow on the bathroom door while brushing my hair. When my cell phone rang, I expected it to be the office calling with an emergency. For some reason, it never occurred to the receptionists to walk the 50 yards to my trailer door. I picked up the phone – my husband. Oh, please not another ear infection, I thought. Our 2 year old daughter was the frequent victim of mucus laden attacks on her inner ear.
“Turn on the TV.” Considering that it was not even 7 am, Mike sounded far too awake.
“Huh?” Normally I’m the morning person. However, this was just the beginning of the global slide into chaos.
“They’ve attacked the World Trade Center.”
“Who’s attacked what?” I turned on the television, and, like millions of others that morning, watched the scene that changed everything.
Shamefully, I don’t think I really knew what or where the World Trade Center was before that day. I’m a native Californian, I’ve never been to New York City. It wasn’t on my mental radar. I can’t say that about many landmarks anymore. Can anyone? Now, when I hear of a place, I turn to the internet, to a globe, to the paper. I have learned to dread the guilt of my own ignorance.
On a personal level, that was a strange day. Yes, I know that is an abominable understatement. Clients dropped like leaves from the appointment book. They didn’t cancel; they simply didn’t show, and the phone was Gothically silent. Even the parking lot for the small animal clinic, normally a seething mass of people and pets, was a sea of unrelieved asphalt. The few of us in the office turned lost ears to the radio and traded “where were you” stories in the hushed tones of mourners at the funeral of a well-known stranger.
When the phone rang around 3pm, we all jumped.
“Can the doctor come check my lamb? He’s still not right from yesterday.”
As I opened my truck door, the insanity of the moment washed over me. Thousands of people were dead, more were missing, no one knew what would be attacked next, and I was driving to someone’s backyard to check on a sick lamb. Quite frankly, I was surprised that the lamb had made it this far.
“My lamb was playing with the dog in the back yard, and I don’t know what happened, but we have sprinklers that stick up, and there are guts coming out.” The blond titan trembled as he clutched a bundle to his chest.
“Let’s take a look.” My smile held more than a little confident condescension. Certain truisms exist in modern livestock medicine. Profuse bleeding is rarely profuse. Broken legs are almost never broken. Guts are hardly ever guts. Owner assessments are notoriously unreliable. Except when they aren’t.
The lamb lay on its side wrapped in a beach towel. As I peeled the technicolor terry cloth back from the fuzzy white body, I saw it. A loop of glistening pink, like a beautifully polished fat worm, protruded from the white curls of the abdomen.
Evisceration is not generally a good thing.
“Hmmm... yes, you’re right. That is intestine. This is pretty serious. We could do surgery...”
“Do whatever you can. He’s our pet.” The panicked expression sat oddly above the burly muscles and straight shoulders.
Cop, my mind said. “Ok, I’ll get a technician to help me, but I need to let you know that sheep have a bad tendency not to survive things like this. They’re just not very tough.”
“We have to try. Please.”
“Ok. It’s probably going to run $400-500....” Lambs sold for $30-40.
“That’s fine. I know it’s just a stupid sheep, but he’s our sheep. I can’t go back and tell my wife that we didn’t try.”
“Ok. I’ll do my best.” I was beginning to look forward to this. The lamb was cute, and it was refreshing to have such a concerned owner. “Do you want to stay?”
“Yeah. I can help. I’m a cop. I’m used to stuff.”
“Great. Give me a minute to get everything together.” I set up for the surgery, and guided owner and lamb to the stainless steel table in the middle of the garage that doubles as our exam room. “Ok, hold his head here.” I turned the knobs on the anesthetic machine to release the flow of gas. Catching a sharp whiff of the isoflurane gas, I jammed the rubber opening of the plastic mask over the lamb’s muzzle.
The small body stiffened briefly as the anesthetic kicked in then relaxed, crumpling onto the cold steel of the table. The cordless clippers stuttered before engaging. Animal hair wreaks havoc on clipper teeth. The teeth peeled strips of white fuzz from the abdomen. I covered the offending intestine with a saline-soaked gauze square, then prepped the now smooth, pink expanse with disinfectant. Taking pity on the small, half-bald body, I slid a thick bath towel under the lamb. My fingers slipped an IV catheter into the tiny jugular vein and started the flow of fluids. Drip. Drip. As I placed a blue drape over the lamb so that only the surgical site was exposed, the breath whooshed from the man hovering near the lamb’s now concealed head. I understand. Though, it helps me preserve a sterile field, the drape obscures the patient and robs it of identity. I turned to the sink to scrub my hands and don my gloves. Though my student days dwindle further into the mists with each year, I am still unable to scrub for surgery without feeling the ghost of an instructor at my shoulder, ready to criticize my technique.
Gloves snapped into place, I turned to my patient. The fluids dripped into the line in counterpoint to the hissing rise and fall of the black rubber bag hooked to the anesthetic machine. Good to go. “Ok, I’m going to start now.” As the scalpel blade broke the first thin line of scarlet across the pink skin, I heard a shudder sweep through the room. I looked up at the clammy face of my owner cum assistant. Oops.
“I don’t feel so good.” An impossibly small voice gasped from the brawny man.
“Go. Now. Go next door and tell them to give you some water and send me a technician. Go. We’ll be fine here.”
Victim out of the way, I proceeded with the surgery. The intestine snaked through not one, but two holes in the abdominal wall, eventually tunneling out under the skin. Miraculously, blood flow to the intestine appeared intact, and the abdomen lacked the gross contamination I had dreaded. Mumbling a silent entreaty to an indifferent universe, I extended the incision, replaced the loop of intestine and flushed the abdomen with fluids that trickled over the drape, towel, and onto my shoes. After flushing and exploring the abdomen, I realigned the abdominal muscles and began to suture the muscle edges together. Like making a pillow, I thought as I closed the last layer of skin.
My fuzzy patient surprised me by sitting up shortly after I had removed the anesthetic mask. Maybe you’re tougher than I thought, I mused as he swung his head around like a drunken cobra. Go for it, lamb. Do this.
Leaving the lamb with the technician, I went to see if my client was conscious, and to tell him the good news. His head came up as he caught my entrance into the waiting room. “All done,” I projected as much confidence as I could muster. “He’s come out of the anesthesia and is doing well for now.”
His shoulders sagged as the tension rushing from them deflated his body. “Really? He’s ok?”
“For now, yes. The rest is going to be up to him. The next few days will tell us a lot.”
“Thank you so much. God, I can’t believe he’s ok. Thank you!”
“Don’t thank me yet. I still don’t know how this will turn out. And you are going to be giving him a bunch of shots at home.”
“Ok. I think we can do that. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened to me back there. I’ve seen so much worse as a cop.”
“It’s different when there’s an emotional attachment. Come on back over. He should be done with the fluids about now.”
Lamb and owner reunited and sent on their way, I relaxed into the evening. The next morning, the world ended.
As I climbed from my truck into the eerie stillness of the neighborhood of small ranchettes, reality fractured. Nothing moved that afternoon. Road noise was muffled; the sky was empty. It felt as though time had stopped, yet here I was, checking on a sick lamb.
The woman at the door looked both frazzled and unaccustomed to being so. Her gestures were the jerky movements of someone unused to a lack of control. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually like this. I’m just so worried about him. He doesn’t want to play, and he’s not eating much.”
“Ok, let’s take a look at him. He may just be a bit painful. He did have a fairly major surgery last night after all.”
“Oh, do you think that could be it? I hadn’t thought of that. I know you must think I’m so silly to be worried about a stupid sheep with everything else that’s going on today.”
“No, you’re not stupid. He’s obviously important to you. I do have to admit that you are my only appointment so far today.”
“I bet. I called work and told them that I couldn’t come in. That I have to take care of my lamb.” A slightly chagrined look crossed her face. “I’m a cop, too. They called all of us in. That’s why my husband isn’t home. But I told them I wasn’t leaving my lamb.”
And I fell a few more feet down the rabbit hole.
The lamb looked at me brightly from his soft bed in the kitchen. Vitals, hydration, incision, everything looked fine. “Is he straining to pass manure at all?”
“No, he hasn’t had any trouble with that.”
“No problems giving him the antibiotics?”
“No. Neither of us like poking him with the needles, but we’ve managed to get it done. But,” her voice softened hopefully, “he is almost due for his evening…”
“Would you like me to give him his evening meds?” This is not an uncommon request.
“Oh, yes. Would you please. I just hate sticking him.”
“Not a problem. I think we’ll increase his pain medication a bit. That should perk him up.”
“So you think he’ll be okay?”
“It’s still pretty early, but everything looks good. I think he’s just feeling a little sad and pathetic.”
“Thank goodness. I was so afraid he had peritonitis or something.”
“No sign of it. I think he’ll be fine.”
As I drove home that evening, down abandoned freeways, past the strangely still airport, ringed with law enforcement cars, I thought of the people who had lost their lives that day, and briefly, of the lamb who had lived.