A Writing Prompt
To be read at your own risk
You might save this one to read on a sunny day…
Funny is easy. My students can do funny and clever all day long, but turning the corner to profound is the end game.
This is your last warning, it gets dark after this point…
This week, a nurse who teaches cardiopulmonary resuscitation told me that she’d once been to the beach with her husband. They’d come across a young couple who’d just pulled their little son out of the surf, unconscious. As a nurse—she’s been a nurse for forty-one years now—she’d set to work performing CPR on the child. Medics had been called, but they’d need to drive to the beach and transfer their equipment to a dune buggy to reach this remote site. It might be a long wait, so the nurse and her husband took turns doing CPR as the young parents watched in fear.
Soon into the procedure, she’d realized the boy was dead. Her husband had also. But they’d continued to give mouth-to-mouth and do chest compression. This scene is set back many years. They didn’t want the parents to know the child was dead, and it seemed unethical, somehow, to stop rescue efforts before the paramedics could arrive and call it.
For an hour, they put their mouths to the boy’s mouth and blew him full of breath and watched their own breath come back out. What had begun as a noble act quickly became unbearable. This nurse and her husband had had to overcome their discomfort in order to spare the young parents for as long as possible.
An hour later, the paramedics arrived and declared the boy dead. Last week, the nurse told her story to demonstrate to students how long they might need to perform CPR, and to say how physically exhausting the hour had been.
As a writer, I wanted to be Tom Spanbauer and ask her to “unpack” the story. To really delve into the “on the body” aspects of it. How could she tell the boy had died? What changed about the body—and her own body—in that endless hour? I wanted her to talk about the horror of doing a good deed, a heroic deed, and having it go sideways. I wanted to stop the CPR class and ask her if she regretted the act, and how that event had changed her. What was the first thing she’d done afterward? Got drunk? Bathed? Wept? Does she ever dream about that hour?
Because the story was so upsetting, it seemed like the only way to deal with it would be to master all the details. This is how I dealt with my father’s murder, I wanted to know moment-by-moment what he’d likely felt and how death had occurred. I wanted the toxicology reports and autopsy photos. If you can’t fix the problem, at least you can explore it fully and exhaust your emotional reaction by doing so.
When I talk about doing justice to a story, this is what I mean. If you mess up the tone of this… or portray it with clichés or shallow details… you risk turning it into Weekend at Bernie’s. That would be almost as tragic as the original event. But this is exactly the kind of conflicted story that draws me. I’ve since taken it to several friends—a lot of friends—and some see it as heroic, while others see it as corpse abuse.
It’s the undecidability that will make the story. Perhaps the wife thinks it was worth the trouble. But the husband wishes they’d stopped and allowed the young parents to realize the truth sooner. It’s a similar set-up to Stephen King’s Children of the Corn: a traveling couple happening across a dead child, and what action they take beyond that. How their ethics might collide over what course to take. People will argue over the ethics, but no one will ever win.
Just the fact that the story has stayed with me for a week, and that I’m presenting it here, means that it’s worth exploring. And no, it’s an unhappy story, but to me only the tough ones are worth writing. Funny and clever are easy. Students bring those in all the time. But it’s the heartbreaking stories that people remember.
Write this or don’t. But this is what I mean by an undecidable story.