In Need of Assistance

Searching for the light

First of all, welcome to all the new subscribers. We’re rapidly approaching another milestone round number of subscribers that I won’t share since it’s still rather small. But it feels good and I’m glad you’re all a part of it. Thank you.

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Second of all, wow, that was an insane day yesterday at the U.S. Capitol Building. I don’t really have much to say about it beyond, “wow.” I’m so ready for some boring news cycles. We could all use A LOT of those for awhile.

Okay, let’s get to today’s story.

I’ve been waiting for the roadside assistance guy to show up for over an hour. This is getting ridiculous. I’m on Cedar St in San Francisco along with a half dozen homeless people. A few of them are sitting and talking in an encampment in the alcove of a building, two of them are tossing a football back and forth in the street, and another is sitting in a wheelchair on the sidewalk. Cedar is one of those narrow streets in between the larger streets that could be mistaken for an alleyway.

I want to be upstairs at the Stanford Children’s Health Specialty Services clinic with my wife Allison and daughter Em. We come here every three months to meet with Em’s neurologist, gastroenterologist, and surgery team to have her feeding tube swapped out for a new one.

Our Honda CR-V has a flat back left tire. We were halfway between our home in Sonoma and San Francisco when it happened. Allison was sitting in the back with Em and I was doing the thing that drives Allison crazy where I’m talking and look at her in the rearview mirror too much instead of looking at the road. Then I glanced toward the road again and promptly ran over something. Something dark-colored. Perhaps made of plastic. I don’t know what it was.

Sure enough, the low tire pressure alarm went off fifteen minutes later.

But the car felt fine so I kept driving south on Highway 101 past San Rafael, Corte Madera, and Mill Valley. Then up the hill in Sausalito and through the ”rainbow tunnel” that was re-named Robin Williams Tunnel after he passed away. And finally paying the $7.35 toll on our FasTrak device for the privilege of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco.

We pulled over briefly in the Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood because Allison heard a noise. I hopped out to investigate and wasn’t shocked to see that it was caused by the sound of the flat tire flapping on the pavement. I sighed, hopped back in, and said we should keep going despite the flat. We were less than five minutes away from the clinic anyway and we didn’t want to be late for Em’s appointments. I doubted we could do any more damage than had already been done.

Car trips with Em have been a struggle ever since we brought her home from her month-long stay in the hospital fifteen months ago. She has cerebral palsy, which means she has difficulty with the type of muscle movements that most people don’t have to think about. She’s also sensitive to how the car seat hits the back of her head and neck, making it difficult for her to get comfortable. But she has started to get better. She did great on the drive here today, but, of course, something crazy had to happen. Something always does—like Em screaming in her car seat because she keeps getting into contorted positions or her retching so we have to pull over to hook up her feeding tube to release the pressure in her stomach. I swear, our life is never easy.

When we arrived at the passenger drop-off area, I explained the flat tire situation to the security guard. He was nice enough to let me stay parked here until the roadside assistance guy finally shows up—whenever that will be.

I unloaded Em’s specialty stroller and sent her and Allison upstairs to the clinic. The guard and I have done the typical small talk and now he’s checking in with me periodically while I’m sitting here staring at my iPhone—as one does.

I should’ve brought my laptop. Our numbers at work have been suffering ever since we lost our largest client two months ago. The team was downsized and I’m responsible for getting us back on track. It’s both stressful and exciting. My job allows for flexibility, which is great. And we make money while we sleep, which is also great. But it means things can break at any time, so I’m rarely truly off work. You never know when a digital advertising crisis might occur.

In the rearview mirror, I see a police car turning onto the road behind me. I feel the sinking feeling and the lump in my throat I get when I’m about to be pulled over, even though I know I’ve done nothing wrong. I have my hazard lights on, but I’ve been parked in a passenger unloading zone for over an hour now.

The police car slowly rolls by and pulls over about forty feet ahead of me behind a delivery truck. The officer doesn’t get out of the car.

What the hell is he doing? Please just move on. I don’t need to deal with this today on top of everything else. There’s nothing to see here, officer.

He finally opens his door, stands up, looks back in my direction, and turns away from me. He walks past the front of his car in the direction of the group of homeless people and I exhale in relief.

The two guys throwing the football stop. The people in the alcove go quiet. And the guy in the wheelchair spins around to look toward the officer. I crack my window open. I can’t hear what the officer is saying, but it’s clear he’s telling them they need to move elsewhere. Moments ago they looked jovial. Now they look dejected. They start to collect their belongings. A man throws his blanket onto his shopping cart. A woman stuffs some items in her backpack.

Moving these people seems pointless. They weren’t bothering anyone and don’t seem like they’re doing anything illegal beyond, well, living. Plus, they’re just going to walk to some other street and set up camp there instead. It’s a never-ending shuffling of people around the city.

Ten minutes later the roadside assistance guy arrives. I’m eager for him to get the spare tire on quickly so I can join Allison and Em upstairs. “It’ll only take six minutes,” he says. I time it and he was right. That’s part of why I called roadside assistance instead of putting the spare on myself—they have those power drills that can change my tire fast like I’m a NASCAR driver. And we didn’t have to rely on my lack of upper body strength to get the lug nuts tight.

As I park in the garage and take the elevator upstairs, I can’t get the people on the street out of my head. They picked up and moved their entire lives in less than five minutes. And here I am lamenting about our hard life, worrying about work numbers on a smartphone screen, and bemoaning a flat tire. How many of them ever owned a car in their lives?

Allison and Em are waiting for the neurologist so I step into the hall to call some tire repair places around this part of town. All the shops are delayed and none of them can get it done in less than four hours. That’s not going to work. We’ll have to drive slower on the spare tire and the trip home will take a little longer, but I don’t mind. What happened earlier has given me some perspective. We’ll get home when we get home. At least we have a home. At least we live in a safe neighborhood. At least we have food in the fridge. At least we have family close by. At least we have all the services we need for Em.

We steadily make our way back over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the rolling hills of Marin County, and into Sonoma County. Despite driving on a spare tire and trying not to go over 55 miles-per-hour, the drive feels almost normal. Em is content in her car seat listening to her Spotify playlist and Allison and I are making small talk. It’s a rare, peaceful drive and I’m savoring it.

A few miles from home, Em starts to twist. We call it a twist when her muscles contract uncontrollably. Her head turns to her left and almost all the muscles in her body flex. She cries out. It must be so painful. It’s 3:15 pm and I realize she hasn’t had a nap yet and she’s been awake since 5:30 am. Allison is trying to comfort Em, but she’s irrational because she’s too tired. I feel helpless because all I can do is keep driving.

My feeling of peace and normalcy is expunged in a split-second by Em’s cries. Every time I start to feel hopeful, my positive thoughts are forced to pick up and move elsewhere—not unlike how those people were evicted by the officer and they were forced to pack up and move their makeshift camp elsewhere. Now I’m back in the tunnel that is our day-to-day struggle, searching for a flashlight.

Thanks for spending time with my words. It means a lot. I hope you consider sharing them with someone else.

Special thanks to Ryan J Williams, Adam Tank, Drew Stegmaier, Charlie Bleecker, Trevor McKendrick, and Vandan Jhaveri from Compound for their editing prowess.

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