By Angelica Parker
The CPR Class was four hours long and held in the ice-locked month of February. I was twelve, or maybe I was one year into teenagehood; I’m not sure, one of those ages. My mom had dropped off my sister Julia, our friend Carley, and me in front of the cinder block building, an off-white hue against the snow. Inside was a room, the walls peeling like eggshells do from hard boiled eggs, gray linoleum floors and fluorescent lights bleaching our skin into a corpse colored wax. We were given sugar sprayed doughnuts and apple cider. The class began. It dragged me along.
We watched videos with poor special effects and even worse acting. The hinged voices of the half-baked actors were punctuated with long sighs from each of us. The fake plays of concern made me cringe and the awkwardness wafted like a gas from the screen. I tried to focus, but apple cider did little to wake me and the flickering light was somehow injecting me with exhaustion.
Somehow a CPR dummy was laid down in front of Carley and me, then Julia was given hers. Severed torsos with gaping chasms for mouths. It was odd how human-like they looked. Their hair was actually outlined in plastic waves, as though they were giant Ken dolls.
The teacher chirped, and then we did compressions in the rhythm of that highly annoying song “Staying Alive.” I suppressed a laugh. Talk about ironic.
Beside me Julia was bashing into her dummy far too hard. I could hear the sproing of the spring as the chest heaved up again to meet her crushing fist. His wide mouth made it look as if he were screaming on and on. I elbowed her and told her she needed to calm down, “If this were a real dude you’d kill him again, idiot.” This was a great example of why we needed this four hour class.
Saving lives had to be taught.
You weren’t allowed to just rush in and wrap bandages around a bleeding cut, you had to be “trained in first aid,” and you could get into a lot of trouble if you splintered ribs or something while attempting to crush a stalled heart into a rhythm. You had to practice on these false rubber humans first. So, I molded my hands into one giant fist and began the compressions, pausing to breathe. I figured this would never happen in real life.
Then the teacher, who had been more of an instructing noise than a person said, “This is very important everyone.” I paused from my chest thumping to listen. “If you see this card on an unconscious person you do not resuscitate them.”
Instantly that foggy not there feeling I’d been struggling to shake was tugged away. The teacher held a small rectangle in her outstretched hand. She waved it.
My hand stretched upward, as though the ceiling had become a magnet and my hand metal. She called on me. “Why would someone not want to be saved?” I didn’t understand why someone would want to die when there was a chance to be brought back.
The teacher smiled, her lips tugging back from her sharded teeth, makeup creasing. She explained how some people didn’t want to be brought back. They didn’t want to risk becoming a vegetable, or they were too old...
At that time I felt horrified. Not that I didn’t understand, but that if I were to come across a real person with this card, I would have to let them die. What would it be like to have that card weighing you down in your pocket? To have that constant reminder of impending death in the form of a piece of paper?
The teacher’s voice sliced through my mind again. “Also students, check the wrists for a small metal bracelet. Some prefer that to the card, since it is harder to misplace.”
Metal death? I couldn’t figure out any reason for someone to want to not take the chance to extend their life.
At that time I was twelve, or thirteen. Death seemed to have that capital ‘D’. It was something I was just beginning to realize didn’t only hang above the elderly, or men that drink too much liquor and get behind the wheel. I was beginning to recognize what I understand now: that it is constantly there, when you cross the street, or get behind the wheel; your heart could go to sleep at any moment.
I know these two things for sure: I was fourteen and the hospital room walls were the color of puke. Pink and white, thick like paste.
The ever-present snow was shivering outside a large window with a faded pink curtain folded neatly off to the side. I heard the bleeps of a heart monitor, like a clock marking the seconds in angular peaks and valleys. There was a white hospital bed with bars, as though the patient was a prisoner. And there was a man in the bed. He was old, old enough to be somebody’s grandfather.
His hair was black but gray was creeping in and his face had bits of salt and pepper whiskers sprouting from it. I couldn’t see his mouth, he was swallowing a tube. His chest would rise with a smokey groan and then release and the tube would grow foggy with condensation. I glanced at his hands. They looked like rubber, like they weren’t real. On his left wrist I saw a bright purple bracelet. The color little kids would dress up in when they play princess. On it in white were the letters ‘DNR’.
I could hear the thick syrupy sounds of crying just outside. I didn’t want to be here and yet I couldn’t leave. I was just as trapped as he was.
Why was he wearing that bracelet? His heart was beating, the tube inhaling. What was the point?
“We’re going to take out the tube soon. You all should say your goodbyes now.”
Then, there were people and their faces were swollen. I wanted to leave. I already said that, but that was the only coherent thought in my head in that moment.
“Mom, why’s Grampa wearing that bracelet?” There was a girl, her face overtaken by blue eyes.
“We don’t want any doctors to accidently bring him back. There’s too much brain damage. He needs to go.”
I wanted to melt into the wall. So I did.
In CPR Class I was twelve, or thirteen, it really doesn’t matter. I was young and I didn’t know the color of those walls. I didn’t know about the hospital bracelets, or life support.
When I heard the phrase “pulling the plug,” I took it literally. I imagined a doctor weeding a plug out of a socket, a person sighing away. Not someone drowning in not enough breaths. Not the way your brain isn’t the same after being unconscious for a couple of minutes.
I envisioned the movies, a person pressing down a few times, an ambulance with shrieking lights, and suddenly, they wake up. Like a stalled heart was an excuse to sleep for a while.
Back then I couldn’t see any reason why you would let someone die. Why you wouldn’t do everything in your power to restart their heart. To give them a second chance, or just keep them alive as long as possible.
Sometimes it’s better that they don’t come back. Not if they can’t really live.
Julia was talking to the teacher; Carley too. Both of them asking questions. The room buzzed with them. They became white noise and I stared down at the screaming dummy. I wondered if that’s what people feel like when they are locked inside of themselves with a person pounding, slamming, into their ribs like bats against their heart.
Was it worth it to be alive, not really being able to live? Was it worth the gamble to just leave when you could’ve been fine?
I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t want to be there.
Julia began pumping into her dummy’s false heart again. I did too. When I bent over to breathe into him I thought, if you were real and had that card, I would have to let you go.
Angelica Parker is a sophomore creative writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy from Manton, Michigan, and a poetry editor for The Interlochen Review. She is the winner of a Gold Key, three Silver Keys and an honorable mention from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for her poetry. She has also placed first in regionals for the Patriot’s Pen Essay contest. Her work has appeared in the Red Wheelbarrow and on Teen Ink’s website. Her inspiration tends to do that, just appear magically; under coffee tables and in a good Radiohead song. You know how people can see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in toast? She can do that with her inspiration, especially if she has spread the cream cheese on her blueberry bagels in a particularly artful manner.