A trip as a family gives new perspective to competition

With a buzz, whoosh and perfunctory clunk, a pink printed-paper ticket slips between two black-rubber rollers like a rakish pink tongue. I point the minivan into the cool darkness of the garage, following the traffic arrows and admonishments that roll by like a litany of bossy Burma-shave signs. Nosing into an empty slot, the van erupts into a writhing pig-pile of kids elbowing each other for advantage: the first-one-out-the-door contest.

The garage smells of motor oil and automobile exhaust as our eyes adjust in the half-light, looking for an exit. In the momentary absence of parental gravity, two kids slingshot from orbit in opposite directions, one skipping along a pedestrian path lined in yellow enamel, the other dragging a damp finger across a dusty Dodge, humming a Miley Cyrus song. We make our way out of the garage pulling the kids behind us, eventually regrouping at a bank of elevators.

“Ninth floor,” I advise. One kid tries to pry another’s fingers off the buttons while the other body-checks him into the wall: the first-one-to-push-the-button contest. A soft bell chimes and a pleasant robotic-female voice directs us to “Car D.” Searching the letters above the elevators for “D,” we find the alphabet short by several letters, but around the corner, our oldest boy crows triumphantly that he’s found it: the first-one-to-find-Car-D contest. Another soft bell chimes and the doors slide open.

We’re greeted by an elderly man in a thin gown under a white-cotton blanket, groggy on a waist-high gurney with balloons of intravenous medicines swaying on a pole above his head. A jovial Asian man in blue scrubs waves us in; we’re followed by a Hispanic family speaking rapid-fire Spanish as the stainless-steel doors squeak and wobble shut behind them.

In the elevator car’s sudden fluorescent vacuum, the kids surreptitiously study the old man on the gurney while he surveys the now-crowded elevator garrulously. His eyes fall on our youngest daughter, half-hiding behind my legs, “What’s your name, dearie?” Her face flushes rose-pink, and lisping softly, she answers “Grace.”

The doors slide open and we’re struck with the stench of rubbing alcohol, chlorine, bedpans. A heavy-set man in a sheepskin vest with a cowboy hat on his lap talks quietly with a younger brunette in an alcove lined with vending machines while a newscast plays noiselessly on a TV screen in the corner.

Down a wide hallway, men and women in blue scrubs scurry in and out of open doors, creating stick-figure shadows in the shafts of late-afternoon sun reflected on the polished linoleum. A nurse stands in front of a mobile computer cart in a quiet backwater of the bustling hallway, pushing a mouse on a black pad. A lanky physician in a white coat confers with a pair of residents in green scrubs and surgical hairnets. We hear a nurse ask a patient in a loud voice, “Ruth, when was the last time you had a bowel movement?”

We pass door after door of elderly women alone on their beds, idly watching Wheel of Fortune or napping quietly with a spoon in a cup of applesauce on a tray before them. We find my mother in room 963, dozing. Mom wakes easily at our footsteps.

Above her head hang several bags of IV medication on a chrome tree; behind her, a medical multi-monitor tracks Mom’s heart rhythm and oxygen saturation with a running robotic commentary of clicks and beeps. Several clear plastic lines run from a burbling IV pump to access ports implanted in my mother’s hands and arms, bolstered with strips of white surgical tape.

Wide-eyed, the kids gather in a cautious knot at the foot of the bed. Grandma smiles, we smile. Our oldest boy snaps the cellophane, saying softly “Hi, Grandma.” The first-one-to-say-hi-to-Grandma contest.

Grandma returns his greeting softly, belying the ache all but hidden beneath her cheerful smile. Her eyes move deliberately from face to face, pausing at each with a twinkling smile. Our youngest girl studies a red light clamped to the tip of Grandma’s finger, glowing scarlet as if it rests in a blacksmith’s forge.

My wife Maria kisses Mom on the forehead. The night before, I’d hurt Maria’s feelings thoughtlessly, selfishly. Today, we’re hesitant, tentative, in forgiveness’s fragile calm.

The men in my family marry well; that’s how we roll.

I gather a few kids for a safari to the cafeteria, holding hands as we walk down the bustling hallway. The kids are thoughtful, pensive. As the elevator doors open, we’re still holding hands.

— Kevin Pottinger, his wife Maria and their four children live on Vashon.

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