A short time ago the basketball-sized lump of guilt I’ve carried for years broke free. I watched it roll away, feeling as if the space it had occupied was suddenly replaced with helium buoying me up to the stratosphere.
Higher and higher.
Free after decades of guilt.
Good bye to guilt left behind from my years at Gonzaga University and watching the ‘Zags demonstrate their basketball prowess. I was with my then boyfriend, watching the team dribbling, passing the ball, excited cheers as swish it flew through the net. But the fast-paced play faltered when the referee stumbled and slumped down.
Players paused. All eyes turned onto the figure lying on the floorboards. “Is there a doctor in the house,” someone shouted.
I wasn’t a doctor. However, I’d worked as a nursing assistant in a nursing home. Trained to respond to emergencies, I fumbled past others seated in the row, hurrying to the sidelines where the referee now sat, a hand pressed against his chest.
Was he having a heart attack? “Can I help?” I asked, looking at his white face. “Has someone called for an ambulance?”
“I’ll be all right,” he said and got to his feet.
“Really. Please! You need to get this checked out! Just to be sure you’re not – “
“Aww, he’ll be fine,” interrupted a man who sat next to the referee.
I protested again but the whistle blew and play resumed as he jogged back onto the court. I went back to my seat, upset. He should be going to the hospital. A few minutes later, I watched as he fell again. This time the ambulance was summoned and emergency medical crews lugged him off by stretcher. That might have been the end of the incident – but I heard the next day he died of a heart attack while on the way to the hospital.
The news scorched me. He’d died. God, why hadn’t I tried harder to make him listen to me? I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that he was dead and that realization marked the beginning of carrying the basketball sized lump of guilt. If only he had listened to me. If only.
Never again, I resolved. Never again would anyone die on my shift. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a nursing assistant any more. What mattered was making my voice heard when emergencies happened.
That lump spurred me to take action when friends on separate occasions overdosed on medications. Each time I insisted the ambulance be called and stayed close as charcoal was applied by hospital staff.
Later I could understand somewhat why the referee and his friend hadn’t taken me seriously. When I was 24 I was mistaken for being an eighth grade student at a private school. I looked like a kid, evidently too young to be taken seriously.
What I didn’t realize until today was how deep my guilt was. Sure, I understood I looked young, too young to know what I was talking about – however, I still blamed myself for his death.
As of today, I stop shouldering that burden. I am NOT responsible for him going back out onto the court. Sadly, for his family, he rejected my help. His friend, evidently wrapped in the excitement of the game, thought it wasn’t serious enough to warrant taking the referee out of the game.
How difficult it is to give advice and have it unheeded. It is infinitely worse when that refusal to listen results in death. But carrying the guilt for so long is energy-sapping. Draining. Useless.
And I forgive myself.
© 2016 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved.
Mary Louise Van Dyke is finding the peanut butter years of her life both sweet and challenging as she divides her time between working and spending time with her family and elderly parent.