“Go ahead, 30.”
“Traffic stop. We’re on Route 6, headed west. ” I remember pausing and waiting for the car to pull over. “Hmmm, not really sure where we’re going to pull over. Hang on.”
I had noticed her just a few minutes earlier when I realized her car was on the wrong side of the road. I turned on my camera, thinking I might have a DUI, and began to follow. She came back to her lane and stayed there, though she was bouncing off the fog line and center line. So I lit her up to see what the problem was.
She never stopped.
“Not yet, dispatch,” I answered.
After more than a mile – at a terrifically slow speed – I blasted her with my air horn.
So then I hit the siren horn. A short honk.
“Hang on, dispatch.”
With lights going, I cranked up my siren and just let it go until, another mile down the road, she noticed me. She pulled over immediately and I told dispatch where I was.
When I got to the car, she looked at me with eyes marked by endless mileage. She stared at me hard, though not unkindly. Mostly, she just looked tired.
“Oh, Officer, what did I do? I was thinking about something else and…I just…what did I do?” Her voice broke a little as she looked away.
“Well, ma’am, you were in the other lane a little. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
When she looked back, her eyes were full of gratitude. “Thank you so much. I just – Thank you. My legs. It’s – ”
It was then I noticed how red her left eye was. Not red from crying, not red from rubbing, but a deep, bloody red inside her eye.
“Ma’am?” I said, shocked. “Are you okay?”
She sighed and the intensity of it shook her entire car. “No. I have some problems. I have surgery Tuesday. On my legs. It’s – No.”
We talked a little about surgery and I pointed out the giant scar running the right side of my neck. Her eyes got pretty big as I traced the length of the thing from the top of my ear to the middle of my neck.
“But you are okay?”
“I don’t think I will be.” When she looked at me this time, there were tears standing in her eyes. “I don’t think I’ll make it. I might not be here.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be – ”
She shook her head. “No, I won’t make it.”
I was stunned. What could I say? What is there to say when someone is that absolutely convinced of a mortality that isn’t some abstract construct years in the future? It’s not a matter of facing death at the end of a lifetime. This woman was at the end of that life, being 86 years old. It wasn’t abstract or theoretical for her. It was next week. It was a week away and all I could think about was how she was counting it.
By the week? Her last week?
By the days, maybe? Seven days…six days?
Or maybe something more odd. Maybe she was counting hours at 168 left.
Unable to say anything remotely approaching intelligent, I asked her about getting home and told her I’d be glad to give her a ride if she needed. Smiling, but with tears staining her cheeks, she shook her head and said she was fine.
I wished her well and immediately felt like an ass for doing it, and let her go. I watched her drive away as my Lieutenant, who’d been in the area, arrived.
“Thought we might have a pursuit,” he said. “I’ve got some stop sticks.”
I don’t remember what I said to him, I’m sure it was something stupid because I couldn’t get my mind off that woman. She was heading home, maybe to family but maybe not, and she’d wait for the next seven days. Then she’d go into surgery and know, when the fucking anesthetist put that goddamned mask over her face that that could well be the last sight she’d see. Not family, not friends, not an old lover who made her tingle, but a face hidden behind a mask.
I found myself hoping they gave her something before she went into the OR. Grind it up in her Wheaties or her prune juice. Just let her fall peacefully asleep looking out the window or talking to her daughter or husband or best friend. Just don’t let it be someone behind a mask.
Death is the big piss off for me. I hate everything about it. I am not convinced there is anything afterward so it just seems like a big damn waste to me. Worse, we know it’s coming. Because we are sentient (most of us, anyway), we live with death hanging over every moment and it drives me bugfuck.
But worse than the concept is the reality. I don’t want to know it’s coming someday and I sure as hell don’t want to know it’s coming now.
That woman, who I pulled over because she wasn’t driving particularly well, was facing my greatest fear: to know it’s coming.
Look, maybe she’s wrong. Maybe she’ll get through the surgery just fine. But she knows she’s elderly and it’s an invasive surgery and the elderly don’t always do so well, at the time or in the immediate afterward.
Either way, she was facing a nasty possibility with entirely more grace than I’ll be able to muster if I find myself in that same situation. Yes, she was crying. Yes, she was distracted. But I’d be raging and howling like a low-rent Allen Ginsberg.
She, on the other hand, had simply nodded, given my hand a slow squeeze, smiled as well as she could, and driven away.
That was that. She was in my life, she was out of my life.