When the teenaged girl’s physician joined us, I knew it was no ordinary transport to another hospital. At first I thought he wanted to keep us on our toes, but he ignored us. He hovered over his tiny patient. She was too tiny for a 17-year-old. He watched the girl as we loaded the gurney. We counted “one, two, three” and lifted her with precision and gentleness. That was easy to do because the gurney was so light it felt empty.
The elderly doctor climbed into the ambulance and sat on the bench next to me.
“Riding along?” I asked.
He shook his head.
A car with a bad muffler annoyed us with a rough idle. To shut out the noise my partner closed the rear doors from outside. He went to the driver’s seat and put the key in the ignition, leaving it off while the doctor struggled to make small talk with the young woman. He did not tell us how long he would be on the bench and we did not ask. Men grow quiet when we sense problems peculiar to women.
Our patient had a brown, pretty face that would have been prettier had it not been gaunt. Safety straps crossed the linen and blanket, slack because of her size. She made little downward movements to bury herself. That prompted the doctor to say, “In no time at all you’ll be back on your tennis team.”
She wriggled deeper into the stretcher pads. “I feel secure here,” she said. Except for her head, she was ensconced in bedding, all we could see was her face and the long, brunette hair that flowed over the sterile covers.
The doc chatted with her, smiled, and kept his crinkled eyes focused on her face with laser beam intensity. He did not look at me, but pointed in my direction, so the girl glanced my way. “He’s a really nice guy.”
He didn’t know me from Adam. I was 21, longhaired and looked young for my age. Nonetheless, he passed the ball to me.
In life as in sports, men do not need to look at each other to pass the ball. It was my job to catch it and move it forward. If you fumble the ball in sports, your athletic reputation diminishes. You can restore your reputation with a successful catch later on. If you drop the ball in life, you don’t get a second chance. Though opponents in sports may be your teammates in another game, opponents in life do not play games. This day my opponent was anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that, unchecked, leads to starvation.
After the doc hurled the ball into my chest, he opened the doors. The muffler racket had ceased. There was a hush. He turned and managed to speak some final words of comfort to his patient. I listened to the softness of his voice, but heard no words. I was too busy squeezing the ball into my chest and into my heart. No way was I going to drop it.
The doc closed the doors, and I locked them from inside. My partner started the engine and the journey began. It was spring and he avoided the potholes, which was not an easy thing to do in Detroit. Some never got patched and could shake an ambulance and the people inside. We swerved a few times, but it was a smooth transport.
The girl stared at the corner cabinetry stocked with white towels and bandages. She scrunched up her nose.
“We’ll get to the hospital in no time at all,” I said. I tried to make my voice sound reassuring like the doctor’s, but it sounded forced.
The girl did not reply. The juxtaposed doe-like eyes and sharp cheekbones revealed the indignity of her medical condition. Not much was known about anorexia nervosa in the late 1970s. Most men had never heard of it. Worse, we couldn’t wrap our minds around it. It was impossible to hold onto hunger. How could thin young ladies premeditate starving?
Music is a useful topic in the back of an ambulance. To break the ice, I rattled off the names of some contemporary teen heartthrobs. I schooled myself with music magazines so that I could rely on all genres for all sorts of patients. Many disliked sports, but almost all, male and female, wanted to teach me music appreciation.
She was beyond the teen idol phase and into Detroit native, Stevie Wonder.
“When you get well, you can see him live in concert,” I said.
She smiled at me.
“Maybe you’re ready for a sandwich,” I said. “When we reach the hospital …”
Her precious smile crumpled into a grimace as her gaze drifted off.
My shoulders tensed up. When women suffer, men lose courage, which is often replaced by exasperation.
The girl should not fear food. She should complain about the greasy grub for lunch in her high school cafeteria, and she should pig out on chocolate fudge brownies at night. In the morning she should huddle in a corner of homeroom locked in a race with the bell to squeeze in a new day’s gossip. She should decide which girls to invite to her next slumber party. In place of cot straps in an ambulance, she should be strapped up in a bikini at a beach flaunting her suntan. Her skin was the type to achieve a Coppertone hue. She was the girl from Ipanema. She should shop at the mall with a gaggle of girls – or shop at the mall alone, turning the heads of young men. She should babysit some lucky little kids. They should play Twister and make “ants on a log” with raisins, cream cheese and celery.
“You should eat some food,” I told her.
“I know,” she said in a flat voice.
“What’s your favorite song from Stevie Wonder’s new album, Songs in the Key of Life ?” I asked.
Her smile returned. “As,” she answered. She half-sang some lyrics in a fragile voice. “Listen to the fade-out at the end,” she instructed. “It goes on and on.” She hummed the ending to “As” three times. Her voice strengthened as a cause and consequence of music.
She turned her head from side to side when I talked about Joni Mitchell’s album, Court and Spark. She firmly told me why Joni Mitchell couldn’t hold a candle to Stevie Wonder. My agreement broadened her smile.
If she does not eat, she will not be able to flash that smile. Doesn’t she know how lovely her smile is? She will never dress up for the high school prom. She will never wear a corsage or slow dance with her date. She will never walk the stage at her graduation ceremony. She will never flip a tassel to the left side of her graduation cap. She will never work part-time jobs to help with college. She will never charm customers into buying her recommended music, the latest fashion accessory, or the special of the day.
“You’ll never see Stevie Wonder in concert if you don’t eat,” I told her.
“I know,” she said.
She flicked her hair off her pointy chin, revealing the plucked chicken skin of her neck. She was at once adorable and repulsive to me. Her illness was a decision, not an infection. Any fool could see she regretted it.
This fool had to make a last-ditch attempt to compel her to fill a plate with food. Why?
Because she must eat for the energy to choose which battles were worth fighting and the energy to fight them. She must appreciate constructive criticism from her tennis coach. She must mentor a younger girl and teach her to challenge barriers without declaring war on men. She must fall in and out of love. She must experience the bitter sweetness of kiss and make up. She must forgive others. She must find the strength to forgive herself so she can eat again.
“You must eat some food,” I said.
I waited. “Okay?” I pleaded.
She did not reply.
We arrived at the hospital and I pulled the blanket up around her neck. That precious smile reappeared.
“Thank you,” she whispered. The ambulance stopped. The smile flickered out.
The last thing I remember that day was sitting in the ambulance cab staring over my shoulder through the interior window at the empty gurney in the back. I wondered what the old doctor would have thought. I knew I had not dropped the ball. There was never a ball in the first place. The only thing that had been passed between two men, one old and one young, was ignorance over a pretty girl starving herself to death.
Michael Morgan was born in Detroit. He held a variety of jobs in Detroit and received degrees in English and teaching from The University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. Expert storyteller Mary Morris recommended him for a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College, Vermont, where he was mentored by acclaimed novelist, Tim O’Brien. Michael retired from the University of Detroit Mercy where he worked as an educator for twenty-six years.