ambulance
Grim Reality

The Day My Children Witnessed Death

It had been a great day. A late spring snowstorm had broken into the skies over New Mexico’s high Sangre de Cristos and my wife, two kids, and I had indulged in fresh powder up at the ski resort. All morning, I watched my children push boundaries  — 9-year old Kieran pointing his skis into steep, soft untracked lines; Isa,13, dodging through the trees — and it was one of those afternoons that made all my time in front of the laptop, all the negotiation of schedules and budgets, worth it.

My family and I live in Colorado but we were in New Mexico because my wife, Radha, had recently released a book of poems with a Taos-based publisher. That evening we were headed to a reading with various New Mexican artists at a local literary center.

We brought the kids. Not just because the event meant something to their mom, but because, as parents, Radha and I want to expose our children to literature and art, which we think might help them grow into savvier and more empathetic people. Isa deals with a form of dyslexia, but I have read Shakespeare to her since she was still in the crib — and despite her difficulties deciphering printed words at times, she has never complained about not understanding the Bard. Kieran, meanwhile, asks me to read Whitman when he can’t sleep (“Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams…”). Still, they would have preferred to stay at the hotel watching Netflix.

adobe houses in new mexico

The reading began with George Chacón, a Taos artist, poet, and musician. A small-framed man with a neat mustache and wearing a fedora, he was introduced as someone who focused on his art and family. I liked him immediately and felt a strange kinship to him. He read poems and then talked about the long history of Afro-Cuban drumming before playing a rhythm on three congas.

We were seated near the back of the reading, kids in front of us. I could see Kieran bob to the drumming. Isa sat up politely, but shifted a little.

As an EMT, you use equipment: bag valve respirators and face shields, electronic monitoring devices. I had never performed CPR with my bare hands and mouth or with my kids watching me.

After a break to have two other poets read, Chacón came back for another round on the drums. This time he played a rhumba. His hands fluttered over the congas, summoning the double and triple beats, moving faster. His wife joined him onstage playing a rain stick. It was transfixing. The rhythm increased. Chacón stopped and the crowd bursts into an applause. Then there was silence—the poet was face down on the drum.

At first, no one spoke, then someone said “Come on, George,” as if the old man was playing a joke. I was expecting him to slowly start beating the conga again, assuming his slumped position was part of the act. It wasn’t. Chacón didn’t move. Another silent moment. Then action: People rose; a few rushed to his side.

“George? George?!” Nothing. “Call an ambulance.”

A young, confident woman in a white headscarf who was beside Chacón looked to the audience and asked if anyone knew CPR. Twenty-five years ago, I was an EMT in Boston and, later, Montana. I stepped forward, with a sinking feeling, realizing that I didn’t remember when I last re-certified, that the prescriptions of cardiopulmonary resuscitation had changed. As an EMT, you use equipment: bag valve respirators and face shields, electronic monitoring devices. I had never performed CPR with my bare hands and mouth or with my kids watching me.

When I reached him, George sat on a folding chair, knees out to the sides with three people attending to him. His wife had opened his shirt and was rubbing his sternum with her hand. The woman in the headscarf looked to me. She had big, kind, worried eyes. Chacón gasped, a big gasp of an inhalation that lifted his head from his neck for a moment. There was a sigh of relief.

rushing ambulance

I took his wrist, put my fingers to the soft slot under the radius bone. Nothing. I pushed a little harder. I felt the slightest, threadiest beat deep inside his wrist. I told his attendants to be sure to keep his head up his airway open. He gasped again. Beverly continued to massage his chest. I suggested we get him off the chair to lie down flat, but no one wanted to move him and there seemed no reason to change anything if he was breathing. Maybe. He gasped again. “That’s it George.” I was there, assisting, but felt unable to really help.

I’d seen plenty of death as an EMT. Gruesome deaths and quiet deaths. I once saw a young father electrocuted and still on a stretcher in a busy Mass General emergency room while his wife and two small children waited patiently on the other side of the door, unaware that he was gone. It’s always like this. As if it could not be happening. But it does.

You want to protect your kids from life’s hardest realities, but you also must show them how to stay calm and try the best you can to face a true crisis.

You want to protect your kids from life’s hardest realities, but you also must show them how to stay calm and try the best you can to face a true crisis. You have to remind yourself how to do that in these situations. Lists work best, rote memorization: A, airway; B, breathing; C, circulation. It keeps the emotional reckoning at bay.

At last, the police arrived. They asked George questions, but he was unresponsive. The fire department then entered, too, carrying black bags of equipment. Knowing the only I could do at this point was to stay out of the way, I went to Radha and the kids. The audience was all still there standing, pacing, or sitting on the sides of the room. I turned to my family and told them that the best thing we could do would be to go for a walk and come back and check in. We had brought Chacón along to the next set of rescuers. It was no consolation. I thought about my kids standing there, exposed for the first time to the reality of sudden death.

I held my son’s hand.

Out in the Taos night, it had begun to snow and the air was scented with piñon pine smoke. We picked up our dog from the car and walked in silence by closed shops. All the kitsch of Taos was still on display under lights: Hopi Kachina dancers with their blue and red headdresses and eagle beaks, coyotes, turquoise bracelets. Everywhere, too, were Dia de Los Muertos skeleton figures—the dead are smoking cigars, riding bicycles, drinking tequila. There were skeleton sets of the Beatles, and those in the traditional cycle of life—the skeleton couple falls in love, marries, has a skeleton baby, and in the last frame, the skeleton wife mourns over a grave.

George Chacón next to his iconic mural in Taos, New Mexico (Photo: Rick Romancito)

What to tell my kids, who had said absolutely nothing yet? I couldn’t lie. Kids deserve the truth, no matter how hard. So I told them that professional rescuers were with Chacón now. That I wasn’t sure what will happen but he had been breathing. I said he has a good chance to make it, that there was nothing we could do. That there was hope.

They didn’t say much, but their faces were serious. They’re smart kids.

My wife and my children sat in the car as I headed back into the reading space. More police and rescue personnel had arrived, red and blue lights blazing on the streets. The audience was still there, still concerned, waiting. Inside on the floor, Chacón was surrounded by firefighters and paramedics. They had assembled a CPR machine over his torso. He was filled with IVs, tubes, monitor wires. Every time the plunger of the machine pumped into his chest, his torso shook violently as though it was a water balloon about to burst. I knew it was over. The rescuers were engaged, but at this point, it was going through the motions.

He was filled with IVs, tubes, monitor wires. Every time the plunger of the machine pumped into his chest, his torso shook violently as though it was a water balloon about to burst.

Soon, it was official. A paramedic informed Chacón’s wife, that they had tried for more than a half hour and there had been no response. Would she give permission for them to stop? She would.

I gave the woman in the headscarf a hug. We did everything we could. But I still felt that I could have done more, and I think that she did, too. I still don’t know her name, but our strange’s embrace was a real comfort in the room with the dead man.

I went back to the car. I was not sure what to say and hadn’t given myself much time to think it over. I closed the door. The wet snow was piling up on the windshield. “He didn’t make it,” I said. It was hard, but I tell my kids the truth. What more is there than honesty? Any avoiding of the truth, any platitudes — none of it seemed decent, to them, to me, or to this man who just died. We drove away in silence.

I felt helpless, weak. Fathers are supposed to have all answers. Worse, I was leaden with the idea that I could have saved him. Wasn’t I supposed to be the EMT? Couldn’t I have done something? Moved him? Started CPR? No, it was not time for myself — even if when it comes to the unknowable of death a parent truly is no wiser than a child. It was the time to teach decency. So I simply comforted my kids, my wife. And we went home and sleep.

I felt helpless, weak. Fathers are supposed to have all answers. Worse, I was leaden with the idea that I could have saved him. Wasn’t I supposed to be the EMT? Couldn’t I have done something?

The next morning, wet snow weighed down the trees in Taos. Some of it was melting and rushing from overfilled gutters. Songbirds chirped.

“I feel bad,” Isa told me, “because, to be honest, I had been a little bored at the reading.”

“That’s ok,” I said.

I laughed. I told her that was fine and we all laughed a little.That is not bullshitting. It’s honesty. A moment like that is rare for a parent, when you are nothing more than another human, with no special knowledge or powers. And all you can do is be another human with your kids, maybe laugh, cry, be overwhelmed, and in awe.

ceramic skulls dia de los muertos

All we can do is what we love, I said. This one platitude still works, because it deals with the only way the living can go on when faced with the reality that the end is not romantic. You never know how long you have left. I realize I can remind them that, and it won’t be bullshit. When you’re a parent, there’s a lesson in everything. So that’s what I said. Don’t be sad about this man’s life. Let’s understand it. Celebrate it. And take it as a reminder not to waste time. Is it true? I hope so.

So we researched and learned about George Chacón and found out that he was dedicated to his art, to Taos. His was indeed a full life: He worked to promote Hispanic artists. He experimented in his studio. He deepened his study of Afro Cuban drumming for 35 years. He painted murals, including some at Taos Ski Resort where we had just experienced such a glorious day. Oddly enough, we also learned that George Chacón was born on November 2, Dia de los Muertos, and for years he and his wife threw parties that celebrated the day that celebrated the dead.

We picked up some green chile croissants at a cafe on our way out of town to end our time in Taos on a positive note. That’s what you have to do as a parent, no matter what’s shredding you inside. Then we hurtled north at 70 miles an hour toward home in the great open flats of northern New Mexico. The mountains held fresh snow on our right and the horizon stretched on to our left. And we were closer.

Doug Schnitzspahn’s work has been noted by Best American Essays and awarded a fellowship from the Colorado Council on the Arts. He edits Elevation Outdoors magazine and his writing has appeared in such titles as Men’s Journal, Backpacker, SKI, and National Geographic. He lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and two children.

Read More