No one expected it. But she looked right at him and clear as a bell said, “Don’t take me yet. My momma isn’t here.” Tweed had heard of this sort of thing, of course; you can’t be an EMT for thirteen plus years without hearing such stories. He just hadn’t expected this to be one of them.
“We aren’t taking you anywhere yet, little lady.” He had begun to carefully tuck a rolled blanket behind her head.
“Oh, I wasn’t talking to you. There’s so many of them.” The little girl’s eyes shifted and turned, looking intently in every direction. “You know, they aren’t all white like the pictures. They are like butterflies.”
Tweed knew he needed to stay detached, focused. He pretended the moisture he wiped on the shoulder of his dark blue shirt was sweat. Talking was good. He needed to engage this tiny, torn girl and keep her talking. “Do you like butterflies?”
“Can you tell me who you are?” The little girl had once again locked Tweed in a flash of her amber brown irises which had been almost eclipsed by wide, shocked pupils, dark and piercing. Tweed accessed that she was probably going to pass out again. “I’m Don Prentice, but my friends call me ‘Tweed.’ I’d like you to be my friend. You call me Tweed too.”
“Okay, Mr. Tweed. I’m Tianna. My momma will be here soon and then I can go.” Tweed wasn’t quite sure this girl understood what was happening, but it was clear that she had ideas.
“Where do you and your momma stay?” This was important. It kept Tianna focused on right now.
“Momma and me live in the green roof building. She told me to take two tomatoes to Aunt Jen.” At this, Tianna’s pupils flexed and drew to pinpricks and returned. Breath caught and then resumed. Tweed raised his orange Nitrile® gloved hand and motioned for the attending fireman to come closer.
Without looking up, Tweed gave directions, “You boys split up and go to any buildings with green roofs. You are looking for the mother of a black or mixed race child, four to six years old, named Tianna. Tianna has had an accident and the mother is needed.” Tweed spoke in even, unhurried tones without sounding any alarm in his voice. The fireman had to lean in close to hear then sprinted back to the hose truck where five other firemen listened to instruction and headed out.
“You said something about butterflies. What do you know about butterflies?” Tweed was sitting on the curb. His face was positioned so that Tianna could see him, and he could watch her eyes closely. He gently stroked her forehead with his thumb.
“Momma caught one and showed me about the color.” Tianna’s face had relaxed a little. “She brought it in from the porch. When she put it back, she showed me the color powder on her fingers.” Tweed thought this was good.
“Momma told me they look so bright because they shine back colors they don’t want.” Tianna paused and took three panting breaths. Tweed noted that her breath was getting a little fainter, but he was surprised by how sharp and clear she spoke.
“I think they keep the colors they want God to see. God sees the inside.” Tianna’s voice chirped with joy. Tweed wiped a little more moisture from his cheek on his shoulder.
“So, the butterfly is really all the colors you don’t see?” Tweed asked. He was having a hard time speaking. This child was not like any he had known. His initial triage told him that her chances were about one in a thousand. The car’s driver had already done a good assessment and phoned it into 911.
Jeanne Purcell was that driver. She had been retired for the last seven or eight years, but Tweed knew who she was. She was a legend at Central ER. If he had heard her 911 call and recognized her name, this child would have had at least a one in one hundred chance.
Jeanne’s call was short and to the point. “My name is Jeanne Purcell, RN, retired. I’ve had an accident. I have pinned a young black female between my bumper and the bumper of a box van. I am located at seven-zero-zero-nine Lawson Avenue on the south side. The child has a crushed pelvis, possible spinal damage and will need a vascular surgeon before she can be released from her current position.”
The 911 operator had sent an ambulance with a driver and Tweed, EMT. Because there was a car involved, the operator had sent a fire truck with half a dozen men. And, in part because it was the south side, he had sent three police cars. But the operator had not called ER to request a vascular surgeon. He had not known that Jeanne Purcell had spent sixty hours a week for most of the last forty years of her nursing career at Central ER. He had not realized that a citizen caller might have special knowledge.
Tianna’s small frame had been pinched between two steel fingers. Jeanne had knelt beside her and waited as sirens closed in on her location. A few folks from up and down the block gathered and looked on. Kneeling was Jeanne’s preferred position at this stage of her life. She didn’t care who was behind her or that the hem of her dress had caught and lifted, or her compression stocking were torn and hung open. She had two things in mind as she waited for red and blue lights to flash close at hand; pray for this unconscious child and pray that she would have the strength to hand over her keys and stop driving.
Jeanne had not had any trouble parking her old Lincoln. But as she went to maneuver from her spot, this beautiful child on the curbside had caught her eye. The child had smiled at Jeanne and caused just a slight pause in her routine. Without thinking, she had put the car in drive instead of reverse and the transmission lunged. That was it. Although Jeanne was no longer nimble, it had taken only about a minute to assess and call 911. She could even remember how many years ago she’d seen a similar accident at the A & P loading dock where a semi had rolled back on one of the workers. She had attended the vascular surgeon who had saved that poor man’s life. That surgeon became her husband, dead for the past four years from untreated colon cancer. He had been buried on the day they were scheduled to board a transatlantic freighter at the start of their great voyage around the world. They had planned and modified their plans for that voyage most of their married life. Life is not predictable. Life does not respect plans.
Tweed already had his gloves on when the ambulance rolled up. 911 had given him enough details to know there’d be blood and trauma. Jeanne stood and was ready to assist as he walked up. It had taken a minute for him to register who she was as she filled him in on vitals. Nine and a half crucial minutes had passed between Jeanne’s call and Tweed’s request for a vascular specialist.
“God sees all the colors. The ones on the outside and the ones on the inside. That’s why angels in pit’chers are white. White is all colors at once. Did you know that?” Tianna’s breath fluttered between each sentence.
Tweed’s mind was racing back through volumes of college physics and high school art classes. He was looking for a question to engage Tianna and keep her with him. “Do you know what a rainbow is?” He asked in earnest but was already looking for another question.
Tianna perked up and spoke in a textbook sentence that she might well have memorized. “A rainbow shows all the colors in the visible spectrum. That means all those colors make white. Momma says that they make a special piece of glass called a prison that lets all the colors out of light.”
Tweed smiled at Tianna’s misspoken word. It served to pull him closer to her. She was just a small child after all. “The butterflies say that God is going to let me go through a prison today and let my colors out,” Tianna smiled. Tweed wasn’t quite ready for that. He had thought this nearly scientific conversation about light would keep her mind off her situation.
“Do you know what is happening?” Tweed decided to go ‘all in.’ He felt he needed to keep her talking. He might as well be direct, since all his questions kept circling back to life and death and metaphysics.
“I’m stuck between two cars. My feet don’t move. My hands don’t move. I’m waiting to say goodbye to my momma so she won’t be too sad. And I’ll be alright.” Her eyes were clear, perhaps clearer than they had been. Tweed for his part fought back a mist.
“I’m bigger than a sparrow, Mr. Tweed. So, I know God watches over me. He has every hair on my head counted and he has wrote me in a book, so I’m ok.”
Tweed could not speak. Though he had caught sounds of a commotion behind him. Three firemen and a police officer were ushering ‘momma’ through a wider circle of onlookers. Jeanne followed behind the last thirty feet or so.
Tianna’s mother, Mrs. Cortez, had gathered that her daughter was hurt but conscious. The firemen had filled her in that she would not be able to touch her child because of the situation and that she would have to be strong. Mrs. Cortez had been prepared, but not enough.
At the sight of Tianna’s body locked between a front and rear bumper, nearly ripped in half at the waist, she slumped to the ground and pressed herself against Tweed’s back to be closer. “Baby, are you hurting?” she managed to sniffle out.
“Momma, they said I could wait for you. So, I did.” Tianna’s voice was quiet now, but sure.
Momma practically whispered into Tweeds ear, “I’m here now, baby. This nice man can get you to the hospital.” Tweed winced. Her words felt like needles in his ear.
“M ‘am, we are waiting for a surgeon before we can take the pressure off your daughter and release her. A surgeon is on the way.” Tweed had spoken out of the corner of his mouth so that he could keep vigilante watch on Tianna’s eyes.
“Momma, I’m going to home today. You don’t be sad. They are coming closer in. They say you did real good raising me and you should be proud.” Tianna took a pause for breath. Tweed noted that the panting was shallower and had a slight rasp.
“I love you momma. And the lady that has this car, she named Jeanne. You have to help her, momma. You have to be her friend. They tell me that’s why I was your child. I’m not scared, momma. Jesus loves me.”
One small Atala fluttered up and lit on Tianna’s far shoulder. It’s blue and black wings slowly opened and closed as it crept close to her collar. Tweed and Mrs. Cortez both watched it. They needed someplace else to rest their eyes. Then the butterfly stopped. Mrs. Cortez leaned her full weight against Tweed. She was a slight woman. Tweed waited a moment, knowing that Tianna was outside of time, now. A moment would make no difference.
Finally, he turned and caught Mrs. Cortez’s arms and helped her up. The gathered crowd had hushed. The city street was a muted buzz. Tweed held Mrs. Cortez so that she would not see him cry.
Jeanne stepped forward and reached out to Mrs. Cortez. Although she was old, she was sturdy. She took Mrs. Cortez and held her close and rocked her and whispered in her ear, over and over. “I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”