His Middle Name Was Herbert


I was in an emergency room with my mother last Friday, after she experienced a searing pain in her side. The nurses, all business-like, took her blood pressure hastily and I commented on the busy day they were having.

“Yes,” she said. “And some kook is holding up the freeway, threatening suicide on an overpass, so our ambulances are being held up. I mean, just jump so everyone can get on with their day.”

We nodded in agreement. In a place where people battle to live, throwing away a life is like tossing away a perfectly good sandwich in front of the hungry. I didn’t think much about it. I was in battle mode, which only has two settings: life or death.

We got the results that said it was a large kidney stone, the pain equivalent to childbirth until it passes into the bladder and is ready for passing. It was stuck. We relaxed, though, knowing it wasn’t life-threatening, which was easier for my mother who was pumped full of painkillers. I then sat back and began to take inventory of what and who was around us. We were in a room near the double doors to the outside, right where the gurneys roll in all the broken people from the ambulance.

I noticed this man being wheeled in. He was young and handsome, tanned and toned, sun-kissed and shirtless with arm tattoos, and he was holding his nose that was bloodied. He looked dark, maybe Hispanic, maybe not. I couldn’t tell. But I was filled with curiosity and concern. He was a bit surly, deflated, embarrassed, and hopeless. Yes, hopeless, I decided. And I couldn’t look away. His body was strong and muscular, but he was filled with so many broken pieces inside, he glowed.

There was a police officer behind him who was pale, with a shaved head and a puffed up chest. I couldn’t decide if he was concerned or disgusted. Had this young man run a red light and killed people? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so concerned. Maybe he’s was a killer. But I was. I heard his birth date and knew he is 22. Too young to be there.

“What is your middle name?” a nurse asked him.

“Herbert,” he said, sounding like a boy who referred to his stuffed animal. Well, he is no Herbert. Was it his grandfather’s name? I was almost certain it was. He wanted to cry. Maybe he had been. Yes, I decided. Angry tears. In 22 years, life had already wronged him.

“What’s he in for?” the nurse asked.

“Attempted suicide,” the EMT replied. And I heard the nurse’s voice in my head. Just jump so everyone can get on with their day. And I knew he was the one, even before I checked my phone for the local news, and found a video of him with one lazy grip on the overpass, contemplating a boozy death, while the other held a cigarette.

And I wonder if all those people, the thousands he had held up that morning on their way to work, who said the same exact thing, or had agreed as flippantly as I had . . . if they had known his middle name was Herbert, given to him when he was a baby by a woman who most likely loved him and had hopes for his future — would they still have said: Get on with it?

Maybe. But I know I wouldn’t have nodded.


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