March 19, 2008

The Calling Card

2008 1508 page28 cap HAVE A DEAR FRIEND WHO TEACHES literature. One day over lunch she tells me about a research project she is working on. It involves calling cards.

The practice of calling cards has been in place for centuries. A calling card can be a piece of paper with a family seal on it, or a card imprinted with a person’s name in beautiful calligraphy. My friend tells me the calling card of long ago was elegant and was meant to inform those residing in a home that a visitor had come to see them. It was also, at times, a reminder of a loved one come to visit.

I gently remind her we still have calling cards today, but now we call them business cards. She smiles and says, “They’re different. When I extend my business card, I am in essence saying, ‘I am here to conduct a transaction, collect money, discuss business—so here’s my business card.’” But a calling card, she explains, presented only the name of the individual, and it carried value in the form of a simple connotative phrase: I came to see you.

This conversation with my friend was light and friendly, easily forgotten. But a life-changing experience later brought it forcefully to mind.

Just Another Day?
I love my job. Teaching is what I do best. I commute about 30 miles every morning to Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s a wonderful commute; I am against the rush-hour traffic. Often I am fortunate enough to catch the sunrise.
 The commute today is no different until I am about halfway to my destination and hear an unfamiliar noise. The tire on the front driver side of my car has been punctured. I hear metal scraping on the road, and I know I am in trouble. Frantically, I look to my right and see vehicles. My brakes are not working. I attempt to steer off the road, but the steering wheel has lost power. I am headed straight over the bridge ahead at an angle at which I will certainly hit the concrete median that separates the bridge from the space below. I hear myself say, “Dear God, not today!”

What follows is a blur. I hit the median, and the car spins in circles. The scraping noise gets louder and louder; the spinning car keeps slamming against something hard—the bridge. Suddenly something hits my face, and everything goes black.

Help From a Stranger
“Ma’am, don’t move; you’ve had a bad wreck.”

2008 1508 page28I hear the voice of someone talking to me through my driver’s window. The car appears to be full of smoke. My right hand seems to be glued to the steering wheel. Using my left hand I try to open the door to get out. It doesn’t budge. I begin to scream, believing my car is burning and 
I am stuck in it.

“Ma’am, you are fine. There is no fire,” the man says. “My buddy and I just parked our pickup trucks across the way. No traffic is going to hit you. He’s gonna try to open the passenger door for the smoke to get out. It’s not really smoke; it’s just that the air bags deployed.”

I don’t know whose voice it is, but I am grateful for it. In a moment I see someone open my passenger door. Already he’s on the phone calling 911. He looks at me while talking into the phone.

“No, she’s not bleeding. There are no open wounds,” he says.

My head hurts. I wonder, Who is he? My driver side door is being opened. I see the man who has been talking to me. He must be about 40 years old. Sunburned. He has a cast on his right hand. I wonder how he got hurt. He squats next to the vehicle and gently places his hand, the one with the cast on it, over my own.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

My name? Why does he want my name? I wonder. I just stare at him. I am aware I am wheezing. I don’t know where my asthma medication is; I don’t know where my purse is.

“You had a bad accident,” the man says. “You probably got hit pretty hard with the air bag. Did you black out?”

Black out? It starts to make sense. I say “Yes” to the stranger. But I can’t say any more because of my difficulty breathing.

“It’s OK,” he says. “You are OK. You are safe. Your tire blew out, and you lost control of the vehicle. We were right behind you, and we stopped traffic. We watched your car spin out of control and the air bags come out. You are lucky those are concrete barriers or you would have been over the bridge. Can you remember your name?”

I can! I can remember! I think to myself. I can say it. But I need to remember to breathe.

“Dixil,” I tell him. Breathe. “I teach. I am going to work.” Breathe. “I have a training session I need to attend.” Breathe, breathe. The air feels like water just leaking out of my lungs.

“Dixil, we have to regulate your breathing, OK, because the medics aren’t here yet.” I feel the stranger pat my hand. “I just need you to relax for a minute. Breathe regularly. That’s good—just breathe.”

He keeps talking about some accident. Oh, his accident. He just broke his hand in a car accident last week.

The air bags lie flat on my windshield. The windshield is cracked.

I feel the stranger take my pulse. Just barely, but I feel it. The ambient noise is so loud. I hear ambulances or the police.

“You are very fortunate,” the stranger says. “And your tires don’t look like they should be shredding like that; they look almost new.”

I realize my breathing is much better. So does he.

“That’s good,” he says, and pats my hand as he goes through the motion of slow breathing with me.

Medical Help Arrives
The emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are approaching us, carrying a yellow board that looks very stiff. One of them carries a collar. I know he will put it on me. My whole body feels like it was crushed in concrete.

“It’s not going to hurt,” my friend says. “They will put the collar on you, and it will facilitate getting you out.”

The EMTs quickly put a neck collar on me and strap me onto the hard yellow board. My friend tells them: “I think she has some ribs broken on both the right and the left, and she is hyperventilating. She has asthma, and the smoke made her cough. She’s been wheezing a lot.”

I can’t remember telling him I had asthma.

The EMTs take me into the ambulance where they begin an assessment. Lights are coming at me . . . masks. . . . I see an IV bag being handed across me. I hear them talking to me. Their voices are soft.

“Can you feel this?” they ask. “Does it hurt when I press here? Can you follow the light?”

I can’t see my car anywhere, but in the distance I can see the traffic backup. Oh, no! I didn’t mean for that to happen.

A cop comes into the ambulance and talks to me. He tells me there is no citation or violation of traffic laws. Many witnesses saw what happened. I look at him; he looks very kind. I feel better. Maybe they will let me get out of the ambulance and go home.

I apologize to him for the traffic backup. He laughs and then says, “Lady, have you seen your car? It’s a miracle you are alive.”

He hands one of the EMTs his business card and instructs him to make sure I keep it because it will tell me where to find my car. Then he looks at me again and says: “You say a special prayer tonight. People don’t walk away from an accident like this. Not without a body bag.”

He adds, “I’m taking your car to the impound in Fort Worth.”

Getting His Name
My friend with the broken hand approaches the ambulance carrying my purse, my laptop, and my book bag. I was wondering about those items. He hands them to the police officer and says, “Here, she needs these. Her cell phone is tagged to her purse. She’s got family close by.”

I do? I do. My mother is visiting from Maryland and staying with my sister and niece in Burleson. When did I say this to him?

2008 1508 page28There is a pause as they arrange the packages inside the vehicle, then my friend says, “Dixil, you take it easy now. You stay clear off those dangerous roads, professor.”

The police officer begins to exit the ambulance, and I realize I never asked who my attentive companion was.

“Officer,” I whisper, “that man who brought my bag. I don’t know his name. I want to thank him. Who is he?”

The officer yells out to the stranger, “Hey, buddy, the lady would like to say thank you. Is there a name I can give her?” The officer walks over to the man and returns with a business card. He places it in the front pocket of my computer bag. Doors are about to shut, but I hear words from the stranger that I cannot erase from my mind: “Tell her Puppy says she’ll be fine.”

There’s a silent moment as one of the EMTs takes my blood pressure again, then he says: “‘Puppy,’ what kind of name is that? Is that what that guy called himself?”

A memory is stirred.

Grateful for Protection
About six hours later I am done with the hospital. My friend was right; I have cracked ribs. Three on one side, two on the other. My wrist is bruised as well. Everyone tells me how lucky I am. On the drive home I insist we stop by the police impound where the remains of my car have been towed. I need to recover my students’ papers. My family doesn’t protest.

As we inch our way through the lot, I notice one of the vehicles. My mother notices it too. “That looks terrible!” she says. It had my license plate stuck to the trunk. We stop. Everything has changed. Looking at the wreck I can better understand why everyone was amazed. I start crying. There is nothing recognizable here.

We quietly collect the items we find and head home. The drive is quiet. I tell my mother about the stranger who helped me. “Look,” I say. “He left me a business card. I’m going to call and thank him.”

My mother looks at the card. There’s not much there. There’s the name: “Puppy.” There is a phone number under the name. Then under the name, a slogan: “We care for people.”

Then, I remember.

A Childhood Experience
I don’t know exactly how old I was. I remember playing outside in the yard with my sister. She was riding her bike across the front porch when she lost control of it, and I watched in terror as her bike slid toward the edge of a significant drop at the end of the patio. I remember hearing her say something like, “Susan, don’t let me go!”

Susan was her guardian angel. My sister had named her guardian angel. I decided I would do the same. But what would I call my angel? I thought. Nothing came to mind. Right then, most of my life was preoccupied with a puppy that one of our neighbors had. He was so cute.

Puppy! That could be a name!

A Calling Card?
No listing exists for my friend. No Internet search has pulled his name up. The phone number on the card had been disconnected, and there is no forwarding number. No phone operator has been able to help me. The card is ripped at the corner, worn and jagged. I am certain it was not kept in a business card folio. This card was in someone’s pocket, placed there as an afterthought while getting dressed. Yet here it is now, in my hand.
A business card? A calling card?

Either way, it meant “I came to see you.”

Dixil Rodríguez is an associate English professor at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Vox Populi: Visual Rhetoric in Medieval Apocalyptic Art,” at Texas Woman’s University.