by Ellen Darion
My father’s doctor calls me at work.
“Dr. Martin,” I repeat. “Oh yes, hello. I know your name.”
The doctor tells me he is on his cell phone, and the connection is bad. “Also,” he adds, “it’s very windy on Riverside Drive.”
“Yes, it is,” I answer pleasantly, smelling the brackish Hudson gusting up over the park. Why is the doctor on Riverside Drive?
“Do you have a way to contact your father?” Martin asks. “I got some test results I didn’t expect.”
“I have phone numbers,” I say. “Is this an emergency?”
“We need to reach him.”
“Why?” I ask. “What are the test results? Or can’t you tell me?” Patient doctor confidentiality, I’m thinking. I watch too much TV.
“I can tell you,” he says. “Your father’s anemic. He needs to stop taking his Coumadin right away. “
“I don’t know how fast I can reach him,” I say. “They’re on a cruise. In the Mediterranean.”
“I know,” he says. “That’s why I came to the house. I wasn’t sure what day they were leaving.”
“They left Wednesday.” It’s Friday afternoon.
“And I hoped maybe I could catch them before they took off.”
“You’re at the house,” I repeat.
“Yes,” he says. “Outside.”
“So this is an emergency.”
“Well, I saw him right before they left and he was feeling fine.”
“I know,” I said. “I saw him, too.” I was there five days ago, and we talked Monday night, after his appointment. His doctor had cleared him for the trip. This doctor.
“So what do I do?” I ask.
“Try to reach him.”
“And tell him what?
“To stop taking the Coumadin.”
“And call you?”
“Yes, if he can. But stop taking the Coumadin right away. That’s the message. If he’s feeling fine, great. If not, he should get to a doctor.”
I’m picturing the ship, another mile out of port since we began talking.
“What if I can’t get through?”
“You’ll get through,” he says. “If it takes a couple of days, it takes a couple of days.”
“He’ll be okay?”
“I hope so,” Martin says. “He was feeling fine when I saw him.”
I hope so gets me out of my chair.
The emergency information I have for my parents is at home. I have always carried these numbers with me, for decades, when they travel. Except now. They’re under a magnet on my refrigerator, at least half an hour away by cab.
I stop at the bank machine in the lobby for cash to pay the driver. Outside there are cabs everywhere: a small gift. Mine smells like air freshener, fake pine. I give the driver my address.
“Storrow to 93?” he asks.
“Whatever’s fastest,” I say. Do your job.
We bump over expansion joints and the landmarks roll by. Home Depot. Stop and Shop. The giant salt pile. Bunker Hill. My parents are on a cruise in the Adriatic, on their way to the Dalmatian Coast. It’s very beautiful, I said when I saw the brochure. White washed towns on rocky crags overlooking the sparkling blue and green sea. Coumadin is the drug my 82-year old father takes so his blood won’t form clots and make him more susceptible to a heart attack, or more susceptible than he already is. It is also apparently making him anemic, which is why he has been so tired—even though the organ panels showed nothing wrong—why he naps all the time, gets winded walking up three stairs. The same drug that is helping him is hurting him.
At home, I drop everything inside the front door and run for the emergency information sheet. I see an 800 number for the travel agency and an international one for the cruise company in Athens. They’re not in Athens, they’re in the Mediterranean. I call the travel agency and get a recording. I’m placed on hold. My call will be answered within fifteen minutes.
I hang up and call the number in Greece, but the call does not go through. I try again, more dead air, then the international operator comes on and says she’ll help. Nothing happens. I turn on my computer to find out what time it is in Greece. Ten p.m. Tavernas are open, the streets are teeming with people, shop owners in the Plaaka calling out to tourists, following them part way down the street. And no one who works there will be back in their offices to get my message until Monday morning, even if I manage to leave one.
I call the travel agency back and stay on hold. Fifteen minutes, they predict again.
There’s nothing else to do. The international time zone map in front of me shimmers, and I type anemia into the search box. Anemia can lead to rapid heartbeat, arrhythmia, and organ failure, the American Medical Association says. My father already has an irregular heartbeat and a pacemaker and he’s technically in heart failure, has been for two years. The heart is an organ. Where is the chicken and where is the egg?
My own heart is pounding along with my head and I try to slow down my breathing, inhale for ten slow beats, fill the diaphragm, exhale for ten, the way a dental tech once taught me to control anxiety. But I can’t keep count. The AMA screen in front of me melts into the page from the travel agency on my desk and their logo comes swimming up at me: a compass overlapping the globe. Below the globe I see tiny print I hadn’t noticed before: an email address. If they’re not answering the phone they’re not answering emails, but it’s something I can do. EMERGENCY for MR AND MRS DARION, I type in the subject line. Call your daughter as soon as you can. Martin says Dad must stop taking Coumadin. It’s Friday 10 p.m. your time. I hit send, then read my message over and over and over again.
At twelve minutes, a pleasant sounding man says, “World Tours and Travel.”
“This is an emergency,” I say. “My parents are on one of your cruises and my father’s doctor called with an urgent message, please help me with this.” The man offers me the numbers I already have plus the email address and a fax number.
“But that’s an office on land and it’s ten o’ clock in Greece. There’s no one in the office: We need to reach the ship.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t have any contact information for the ship itself. We would have to go through their office.”
“There’s no emergency number?”
“We would have to go through the office,” he repeats, “and the office is closed.”
“Is there someone else I can speak to?” I ask.
“Hold on please,” he says. But the voice I hear next is his, saying “Your best bet is to send an email and keep calling the office number.”
“”No, it’s not,” I say, my voice rising. “No one is coming back to that office tonight or for the next two days which are Saturday and Sunday and my father could die!” I break into sobs and hang up.
The keyboard in front of me glistens with tears. Salt water. Ocean. It’s all the same. I cannot help my father. I see him getting more and more tired-this has been his chief symptom: fatigue. Exhaustion. Or as he puts it when he’s not too discouraged: his get up and go has got up and went. He will sleep more and more, feel too weak to move, won’t want to get out of bed. I have seen this part. My mother will demand the ship go to port so he can get to a hospital, but if he just stopped taking this one small pill he’d be okay. Meanwhile the ship is sailing further and further from state of the art medical facilities. My father has a heart condition, and he needs to stop taking one of his medications. It’s that simple.
And so is this: They can find my father. They will find him. My father, a radar technician who made it through World War II on a ship with suicide bombers diving straight at him, who kept the radar running so his ship could communicate well enough to keep a lot of other guys on destroyers alive till they made it to the mainland, who swept mines in the Pacific and made it home in one piece sixty-five years ago, my father is not dying on this cruise. It’s the twenty-first century and they have a group of seniors in the middle of the ocean and no means of emergency contact? Not possible. I call the travel agency back. One ring. They can find him and my father can vanquish this enemy, too. He just needs to know it’s there. Two rings, and then the three short beeps that mean I’ve got a message. I disconnect to retrieve it; it’s too soon for anyone in Greece to have received my email, it’s too soon for anything, but I can hope. It’s not Greece, it’s the travel agency, a woman who identifies herself as the customer service manager and assures me that there was another number, she found someone who could reach the ship, and he promised he would. I want to kiss her. I am sitting still, trying to slow down my breathing again, and in two minutes the phone rings and it’s my mother, sounding half asleep and asking if I’m all right. The connection is terrible, but I have never been happier to hear her voice. “He’s okay,” my mother says.
She gets off to call the doctor and I call the travel agency back to thank this wonderful woman, to let her know this worked. They don’t want to put me through when I ask for her by name, they think I have a complaint, but I say, “Please. She just saved my father’s life.”
“I’m just so happy I could help,” she says. She’s glad everyone’s all right.
“Thank you so much,” I say. I press the phone to my chest as if my parents were in the receiver, tiny and whole.
A few hours later the doctor calls me, this time at home. “Thank you for helping me reach your parents,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say. “Did you speak to them?”
“Yes,” he says. “Your father says he feels fine.”
“Good,” I say. “Are they coming home?”
“I don’t know,” Martin says.
“You don’t know? What did you tell them?”
“I told them if he starts feeling weak, to get to a hospital. But he feels fine.”
I look at the phone as if it has sprouted wings.
“I’m being paged,” the doctor says. “I have to go.”
We’re back where we started from. Why didn’t he tell them to come home? If my father starts feeling weak, will they even make it to a hospital in time?