Coyote | Nicki Orser
Sometimes it’s hard to look at the big picture of your life, of our lives together for the past seventeen years. Mostly, I see snapshots. Like the one when we’d taken apart your bed to rearrange your room and there was a message scrawled in sharpie on the underside of the frame in your eight-year-old hand: Dad gave my brother five dollars and I wish I was dead.
I laughed when I saw it, not on purpose, but because it was so dramatic. I laughed at the ridiculousness of where it had been written, the spelling, the childish script. I guess I had laughed at the fact that it had been hidden for the past five years and we hadn’t even known it was there.
Two years later, at fifteen, when you really did want to be dead and you tried to kill yourself, I was in shock.
When it happened again at seventeen, I was blind-sided once more. Not that there hadn’t been problems in the months leading up: the new crescents covering your arms – never too deep, hidden almost always beneath long sleeves; the vape pens and lighters I’d found in your backpack; the battle we faced most mornings when it was time for you to leave for school.
In January, you’d blacked out on your bedroom floor in a pile of laundry after drinking half a bottle of vodka.
“Hey,” I’d called, pushing against your bedroom door which was blocked by your trash can. “Hey, are you in there?” I said again before shoving it open and seeing you on the floor.I shook you, gently at first, then more frantically. When you didn’t move, I slapped your cheeks, the way people do when they’re about to fall asleep while driving, until you finally stirred.
I lifted you in a makeshift fireman drag, like the one I’d seen a friend do while practicing for the police academy exam, and pulled you onto your bed. You seemed just as heavy, the same dead weight, as the bag used to simulate an injured body that my friend had dragged around that dusty field during her test years ago.I turned your head to the side in case you were sick, and stood at the foot of your bed.
Not the same bed as the childhood message, although it would have been nice if we could have had it all spelled out: “I’m D-R-U-N-K” or “I’m S-A-D” or “I’m in T-R-O-U-B-L-E.”
In February, I sat with you in the vice principal’s office as she laid out the contents of your backpack on the floor in front of us. She’d typed up a helpful list and included it with your suspension paperwork: one nicotine vape pen, one canister of nicotine vape juice, one nicotine vape pod, marijuana, one grinder shaped like Rubik’s Cube with marijuana residue, rolling papers, marijuana joints, one pipe with marijuana residue, one lighter, six cigarettes, and pepper spray. PPD Incident # PE 22-672.
In the weeks after the suspension, when you’d started working with your counselor, Martin, I thought things were getting better. You looked tiny next to him, the former nose tackle who had traded in his NFL career to coach football at the junior college and mentor teens at the local high schools to keep them out of juvie. Working with him had let you avoid a criminal record for bringing drugs to school and it seemed like things might be turning around.
Yes, I know I always say that, but that’s why I was surprised when I saw the cops parked in front of our house after I pulled into our driveway that night, exactly one month after your suspension. I was afraid to open the car door, thinking, Oh shit. What now?
“Your daughter is around the corner,” the officer began.
“Son,” I said.
“They’re with one of our officers,” he continued, “and appear to be intoxicated.”
I assumed I would take you home, put you in your bed, and wait for you to sober up, but the cop was insistent that I take you to the ER, that something was terribly wrong. He suspected some kind of overdose.
My mother and I had both had our spells of sadness over the years, as had your grandmother, your great grandmother, and probably many of the grandmothers before. The Dark Place, I’d heard it called.
While your great-great-great-grandmother’s last episode had landed her dead on her kitchen floor with her head in an oven, the darkness had lightened some over the generations. My mother’s depression seemed more of a muted brown when she died, the color of her nicotine-stained walls. I liked to think mine resembled a dusky beige, like what you’d find on a paint swatch at Home Depot, the kind you could browse while contemplating freshening up the walls of a laundry room.
I’d hoped by the time it hit you, there’d be hardly any darkness left.
In movies people kill themselves by taking pills, but it’s not as easy as it looks on TV. At least it didn’t work for me, either time I had tried it, and luckily not for you.
When I was a teen, no one told me my great grandmother had hung herself, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned that my grandmother had stopped taking her heart medication because she, according to my Aunt Sue, was just too tired to live anymore.
I’m not sure that it would have made a difference, knowing all that. I doubt it would have made me any less depressed, but it might have saved a decade or two of shame, knowing I wasn’t alone.
It’s hard to know what finally did help with my depression, I’d tried so many things over the years. Getting sober in my twenties was a start, searching out therapists who did EMDR and somatic therapies also made a big difference. Another part of my recovery was starting a writing group and getting all my crazy thoughts on paper. That was when I was really able to see the patterns in my family through all of those generations; that was when I began to realize that it wasn’t completely my fault. I wasn’t a bad person trying to get good, just a sick person trying to get well. Having you and your brother was the biggest motivator of all.
Knowing that the two of you were depending on me forced me to keep trying. More than anything, I wished I could figure out how to save you from the same kind of pain that I’d gone through, but it seemed like you would have to learn it through your own experience.
While in the hospital waiting room, I took advantage of your intoxication and quizzed you on what you had taken. You were unusually talkative in this state even though I couldn’t make out everything you were saying. I tricked you into giving me the password on your phone: 1 2 3 4 5 6. Really, kid?
I scrolled through your texts and tried to piece together what had happened, while simultaneously redirecting you each time you announced you thought we should leave. We walked over to a Dasani machine, I bought us each a bottle of water, and you told me about the alcohol you had hidden in your room and the package of Benadryl you had taken a few hours earlier.
When I Googled Benadryl overdose, I learned there had been some kind of Benadryl Challenge happening on TikTok, where teenagers filmed their recollections of hallucinating after taking large doses of the drug. I wasn’t sure if you had taken the Benadryl because you knew it wouldn’t show up on the home drug tests we had been forcing you to do. I didn’t know if you had used it to get high or if you knew that taking a large dose could be fatal.
When your dad arrived at the hospital, we’d agreed that one of us would always stay with you, that we would visit in shifts. We didn’t want to leave your brother home alone all night and the hospital was restricting the number of people in the ER because of COVID.
When I arrived back at the hospital, around four in the morning, you were wearing a gown and your arm was strapped down. You kept spasming and flailing and had pulled your IV out once already. You had an IV of Ativan in one arm and a blood pressure cuff on the other, plus a dozen EKG leads stuck to various parts of your body. The nurse explained that the electrocardiogram would record the electrical signals of your heart and sound an alarm when something was off.
I wished I had read the signals of your heart; if I had, maybe we wouldn’t have been in this situation.
Because you were twitching so much and your eyes looked so crazy, you reminded me of someone from The Walking Dead when they were transitioning from human to zombie. You seemed like a little frail zombie though, not a dangerous one, and I couldn’t help petting your zombie head, and your crazily matted zombie hair.
You had been awake for almost 24 hours straight now, if you counted the morning of school that day, which had happened a million years before.
I texted your dad another update: He’s twitching and can’t talk right. I think he can sometimes understand me though.
“Can people overdose on Ativan?” I asked the nurse. “It seems like you’re giving him a lot.”
“This is protocol in these kinds of cases,” she said.
It seemed unfathomable that there could be other cases like yours.
You were pulling things from the air and putting them into your mouth. Sometimes you would hand me one and I would pretend to eat it.
“Yum,” I said, thinking I hope this is a strawberry and not a spider.
You tried standing up in your bed a lot but I found if I rubbed your hair softly the way TV moms do, the way I would have liked my mother to have done, I could get you to lie back down and settle you pretty quickly.
We went through that scene on repeat all night. You’d sit up, try to stand from your bed, the alarm on your IV or heart monitor would go off, and I would coax you back into a lying position, push the hair back on your forehead, and distract you while an attendant shut off the alarm. After the fifth or sixth time, they just showed me how I could turn the alarm off myself so the nurse wouldn’t have to keep coming in every few minutes.
It felt like we were communicating even though you couldn’t speak. It felt like I was sending you messages through mental telepathy.
I love you. It’s ok. You’re going to be ok. We’ll be home soon. That last one was a lie and I figured if you could read my mind, hear my thoughts, you could probably also tell when my thoughts were lying, so I’d try to quickly correct myself. I think we will be ok.
Around 1:00 that afternoon, your dad came to switch places and your doctor let us both stay with you for a bit, then pulled us aside to tell us that she had gone through a similar thing with her own child when she was a teen.
“You’re going to get through this,” she said. “It is possible for things to turn around. My own daughter is living proof.”
She recommended a book to read and said we were doing a good job even though that was clearly a lie. She said we just needed to make it through these terrible teen years, that things could get better.
She wasn’t patronizing or condescending like the psychiatrist we’d been working with for the last several months. She wasn’t menacing like the nurse who’d checked you’d in the night before, the one who’d tried to bully you into holding still by threatening to take your temperature rectally if you wouldn’t keep the regular thermometer in your mouth. She didn’t seem clueless about addiction and didn’t judge us for having problems. She didn’t rush off after making her rounds even though the ER was crowded with sick patients and nurses in scrubs rushing from curtained room to curtained room.
Instead, she pulled us aside and talked to us. Of all of the doctors and nurses and nursing assistants and hospital guards and therapists and substance abuse counselors and social workers and transgender specialists and psychiatrists and medical staff that we had dealt with over the last few years, this doctor was the first to really give me any hope.
Around 2:45 on Thursday afternoon, the EMTs arrived to transfer you to the Kaiser ER in Marin. It had been nearly twenty hours in the ER now, about the same amount of time it took to start and stall in labor before having an emergency C-section the day you were born.
After spending the next day with you in the new ER, it started to feel like I was making a cosmic shift somehow because I was getting kind of good at taking care of you, even, dare I say, good at being a mom.
I had spent my whole life feeling guilty about how bad I was at that, at being a mom, at taking care of people. I have an inner Nurse Ratched voice that thinks mean thoughts whenever someone is sick or starts to complain too much.
When you or your brother would stay home sick, I would start out saintly at first, bringing you orange juice or Tylenol, reminding you to let me know if you needed anything. But give it a few hours and I’d be thinking shut up and drink your stupid juice. Or shut up and go to sleep. You’re not that sick, just go to school. And Dear god, please shut the fuck up and leave me alone.
But in the hospital, it started to feel really different. I started to feel really different.
I texted your dad around nine that Thursday night to let him know that they were moving you to the Telemetry Unit, room 302, in a wing of the ICU.
You finally fell asleep, just after midnight Friday night, after being awake for more than forty hours. Of course, as soon as you fell asleep, the nurse came in and announced she needed to give you a new IV. You were sleeping on your stomach at the time and she had to lift your arm at a weird angle to reach the crook where the old IV was situated, leaking blood, and not delivering medication effectively. She missed the vein on the first try and switched to the other arm to look for a better one. It took her two more attempts before she was successful and you slept through all three punctures.
Your dad came to the hospital early Friday morning to change shifts. I’d parked across the street from the hospital the day before, next to a field full of hairy vetch and wild lupine. The grass had seemed bright the day before with shocks of purple, but that morning everything was pretty gray.
My eyes were adjusting to the change between the hospital room and the outdoor light when I saw a stray dog near my car. I looked around for its owner but as I got closer and got a better look at it, I realized it was a coyote.
He was just standing there on the sidewalk as though he was waiting for me. We looked at each other for a second and I reached for my phone to try to snap a picture of him, but in the moments it took to enter my code and click on the camera icon, he had trotted off, disappearing into the early morning fog.
There are legends about coyotes. Some Native tribes considered them mythical creatures. Some believed they could linger between the land of the living and the spirit world, that they were mediators between life and death. I guess that might explain what he was doing hanging around a hospital.
When I returned to your room in the early afternoon, you were awake and had no memory of the past two days. You didn’t remember the police or the hallucinations.
You had no memory of the deep bond we’d forged the nights before. I wondered if you would at least feel it subconsciously, the way they say coma patients do, but it didn’t seem like you did.
We would spend another twenty-four hours in the Telemetry Unit waiting for a room to open up at a treatment place somewhere, an adolescent facility that had a private room to accommodate a trans teen. Your dad and I debated back and forth, trying to decide whether you should go to a hospital or substance abuse rehab center. We didn’t have much say since we were at the mercy of the insurance company, what they would authorize and pay for, and what the psychiatrist on duty deemed the best plan.
When we finally did get a chance to talk to the psychiatrist after lunch, she wasn’t on board with our ideas of rehab.“We’ll be transferring him to Willow Rock, an adolescent facility in San Leandro,” she said.
They didn’t allow visitors during the assessment period but she said we could call you anytime. She handed me a post-it with their website and I looked it up on my phone and scrolled through the pages, reading their philosophy: “Recovery involves living a meaningful life with the capacity to love and be loved.”
The EMTs pulled in just after two that afternoon, and we hugged you goodbye one more time before they wheeled you away on the stretcher.
“We’ll call you as soon as you get there,” I said. “You’ll probably get there faster than we’ll even get home.”
We stood in the parking lot and waved, but I’m not sure if you could see us. We couldn’t see you through the mirrored back window but we waved anyway until the ambulance pulled onto Monticello Road, then we each walked toward our cars.
“See you at home,” your dad said, and I nodded.
When I got to my car, I remembered the coyote. Had it shown up next to me the morning after you could have died because he knew I needed a sign or because he knew it wasn’t your time? The doctor in Petaluma had repeated how serious this was, how this could have gone so much worse: “Kids have died from these kinds of overdoses,” she had said. “We were so lucky.”
I hoped you could be like the coyote: no matter how scrappy or tattered he got, he’d find a way to survive. The superstitious part of me wanted to believe that the coyote, and that particular doctor, had both been placed there on purpose, that they were there to bring us some kind of comfort, maybe even some luck.
Something had alerted the neighbor who had found you to call the police on the night of your overdose. Something urged the police officer to insist I take you to the emergency room. And something had changed in me during those nights in the hospital together. Whether it was medicine or magic that had kept you alive, I was willing to accept the help, from wherever we could get it.
Coyote by Nicki Orser was selected as the runner-up of the 2023 HoneyBee Prize in Nonfiction by Hugh Reilly. Here’s what Mr. Reilly had to say about the piece:
“Coyote” dealt with the tragic epidemic of suicide among trans teens. This timely story explores the love between mother and child and the toll societal pressures place on families. The language was spare and powerful. The anecdotes were authentic and helped to lead the story to a memorable conclusion. I particularly enjoyed the use of the coyote as a metaphor. I have long had a passion for Native American culture and history and the inclusion of the “trickster” coyote in the story gave it an ethereal flavor.
More about the author:
Nicki Orser, a Nebraska native, completed her MFA at San Francisco State University where she was the recipient of the Joe Brainard Creative Writing Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Dunes Review, The American River Review, and Susurrus. She lives in Northern California with her two sons.