“ICU” by Samuel Freeman

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “ICU,” physician Samuel Freeman writes about the complicated challenge of providing medical care to indigenous communities in Northern Quebec, a challenge that led him to reckon honestly with his calling and motivations. “ICU” was a nonfiction finalist in our 2022 Perkoff Prize competition for writing about health and medicine.


By Samuel Freeman


Authors note: The essay is based on true events. However, out of concern for patient confidentiality and to preserve anonymity, certain identifying features and circumstantial details have been fictionalized.


The boy had finally made it through bad weather by air ambulance to our ICU, and now his body was shutting down. Each organ’s failure brought on the other’s, a gruesome domino effect. The machinery of modern medicine was humming along, keeping him alive: expertly trained staff cared for him, a ventilator breathed for him, IV drips kept his heart beating, an artificial kidney filtered his blood. All of it was meticulously recorded, analyzed, and calibrated. Still, his prognosis was grim.

He was in critical condition from a suicide attempt, after ingesting a number of toxic substances: lubricants, solvents, detergents. He was from an isolated Inuit community in Northern Quebec, which was accessible only by plane, or, in the summer months, by boat. Aside from a small local hospital with limited resources, the nearest facility for acutely ill children to get care was our hospital in Montreal, a thousand miles to the south.

I approached the room where he lay sedated and unconscious and sat at a small desk facing the floor-to-ceiling pane of glass that was the room’s inner wall. That partition, a feature of the state-of-the-art ICU, turned the room into an aquarium. I could see in while the space remained sealed off from outside contaminants: unwanted germs, people, and sounds.

I looked through that aquarium glass at the patient and his nurse, devices twinkling and pulsating around them. Inside the room, several relatives, including the boy’s mother, sat by him. I stared: the room was a diorama, a silent film.

It had been almost a year since my first trip North, as the only pediatrician for a handful of Inuit villages, artificial settlements of five hundred to two thousand inhabitants created by the Canadian government to force the Inuit into a “civilized” way of life. They dot the Quebec coast of Hudson and Ungava Bays, tiny outposts on an inconceivably vast expanse of tundra.

Once a month, I packed a bag, a cooler of provisions (groceries in the villages are expensive and usually less than fresh), and my stethoscope, and flew North on a propeller plane with the feel of a Greyhound bus. I spent the week running pediatric clinics in the villages, seeing patients with chronic conditions, or doing specialized consultation for the rotating cadre of general practitioners who worked in the villages. In Montreal, I checked up weekly on children from those communities who were admitted to hospital, which is what had brought me to the ICU.

As I sat outside the boy’s room I sensed activity behind me. A teenage girl was being pushed down the hall in a wheelchair, surrounded by an escort of hospital staff and family members. She was from the same community as the boy and was also on my list of patients to see. She had been transferred to Montreal a few days before him, after shooting herself with a hunting rifle. During a night of drinking, she had become upset about a recent death in her family and decided to kill herself. She had taken the rifle into her room, propped it under her chin, and fired.

When she’d arrived at the village nursing station a large piece of her cheek and jaw were missing. Despite all the blood and mangled flesh, the two village doctors had managed to insert a breathing tube into her trachea, a daunting technical feat that had probably saved her life.

One of those doctors told me subsequently that three things had struck him during the adrenaline-fuelled night he and his partner had worked to save the girl: the shocking nature of her injuries, the fact that she never once complained of pain, and the moment when, still conscious as the small medical team labored frantically to save her, she had raised up her hands and joined them together in the shape of a heart.

The girl had asked to visit the boy, a friend from home, where everyone knows everyone. As she was wheeled down the hall toward his room, the lower part of her face deformed by her injuries and the first, crude stages of reconstructive surgery, she let out a voiceless cry. Her body crumpled onto itself with grief.

Suicide among Indigenous children and youth in Canada is an epidemic, with rates severalfold higher than the national average. The situation is even worse for Canada’s Inuit, whose suicide rates are some of the highest in the world. After a year working in Inuit communities, I had seen how this reality manifested through self-inflicted hangings, shootings, and medication overdoses.

I had also learned that suicides were often carried out impulsively, without premeditation, in reaction to seemingly trivial conflicts or moments of intense emotion: a fight with a friend or parent, a break-up, an insult launched over social media.

That made the approach to suicide prevention and screening I’d been taught during my medical training nearly useless, based as it was on the expectation that suicide was preceded by depressive symptoms and thoughts of death, and that patients without a concrete, practical plan for killing themselves were at relatively low risk. Many suicides I’d heard of in Inuit youth had come out of the blue, blindsiding even those who knew the victims best.

The girl was wheeled to the boy’s bedside, where her body spasmed from the force of her crying. Her chin dropped to her chest, and she wept, I imagined, at the realization that her unconscious friend did not have long to live, while she was severely wounded but very much alive. Members of both youths’ families stood in a circle, held one another, and prayed.

As I watched the scene unfold through the glass, I felt ashamed. In the year since I’d started working in the North, I’d done little more than what I was doing in the ICU: watching, documenting, collating.

It had been a difficult year. The work itself was routine, but the context was a challenge. I was a white man in my midthirties who didn’t know the North and spoke not a word of Inuktitut, the local language. The communities I worked in were close-knit and had good reason to be wary of outsiders, given a long history of colonialism, forced relocations, and abuse by the medical establishment. Most people providing government services in the North—nurses, doctors, teachers, child protection workers, and police—were white and from down South.

My clinics were not a big hit. Many families didn’t show up for their appointments, and when they did, they often seemed dissatisfied. I couldn’t tell what wasn’t working, but I was sure it was my fault. Was I was being unwittingly offensive or, since English was a second language for most families, simply incomprehensible? Did parents see me as the instrument of a state bent on breaking up their families, probing for a reason to report them to child protective services? With my Western ideas and medical background was that, in fact, what I was? Or was I simply entitled, expecting warm smiles and gratitude as advance payment when in reality they had to be earned?

With no sense of what I could do to make things better, I dragged myself along, replicating the rituals of medical care I’d been trained to perform: poring over thick paper charts filled with all manner of handwritten scrawl, peppering families with questions, examining ears, throat, heart, lungs, belly, concluding appointments with a flurry of recommendations I seemed to be reciting mainly for my own benefit. My consultations felt like a wooden performance, a pantomime of care and healing.

That day in the ICU, I was struck by the strange voyeurism of medicine, by the desire I’d seen in myself and in other physicians to be close to the action, the damage, and the efforts to repair it. While that desire enabled extraordinary acts, it often resulted in far less: a meaningless note added to the medical chart, a story to tell your colleagues over drinks, the self-satisfaction that comes with witnessing the hidden violence of human experience, of being able to say, I was there, I saw it happen.

Naturally, doctors want to feel useful and necessary, to test their skills and themselves. But that noble calling has a morbid underbelly: to be useful, essential, and challenged means someone else is sick or injured or on the brink of death.

The voyeuristic impulse could be intense, a form of bloodlust. When the village doctor told me about caring for the girl in the aftermath of her gunshot wound, I was sickened to notice an uncanny pang of emotion arise in me: envy. If only I’d been there too, my distorted logic went, I could have done something vital, something real. I should have been devastated by what had happened to the girl, but instead I coveted my colleague’s moment of heroism, decisive and noble next to my own insipid, bureaucratic contributions.

In truth, my desire to work in the North—a demanding, in many ways undesirable job (all that travel, that isolation, that weather)—had stemmed from a twisted curiosity. I had wanted to see the hardship faced by Inuit communities, to be the young, energetic doctor who was undaunted by the harsh climate, the difficult living conditions, and the cultural differences. I had wanted to return home with my own stories to tell.

Instead, there I was in a Montreal ICU, watching two young people from a village I worked in who had done themselves horrible harm. Although those circumstances had nothing to do with me, I couldn’t help but experience them as a reproach, a message about what I represented as a physician: inadequacy, lack, absence.

I had gone North chasing my own sense of challenge, accomplishment and catharsis, so on that day in the ICU, I should have felt some satisfaction at seeing a wrenching, intimate scene up close. Instead, I thought only of how I had witnessed it all from behind soundproof glass, partly present and partly absent, a spectral figure. I was observing without affecting the outcome, watching without making meaningful connections. I was a ghost.

I stood up abruptly, flushed with the sense of my presence as a transgression, feeling I’d stayed too long in a place I didn’t belong. Soon after that, I would stop working in Inuit villages, a decision that felt necessary but also like an admission of guilt: my confession. It was impossible for me to continue doing work that left me feeling like an intruder and an aggressor, presuming to help people without even understanding what help they needed or if they wanted help at all. Yet I also had to own up to the fact that I wasn’t above what I was repudiating; I had been part of it.

As I walked hurriedly down the antiseptic hallway out of the ICU, I thought about how confession was an implicit demand for absolution, and so was also an act of entitlement, putting my own conscience at the center of a human drama in which I had no role to play. Wallowing in guilt was as self-indulgent as basking in the release of forgiveness. But if neither guilt nor its resolution was my due, what was?

That anguished moment felt nearly like an ending for me, for my career, but as I stepped out of the hospital into the midday light, it opened ever so slightly onto the possibility of my playing another role in medicine, one in which I could stop being a ghost and become a person.

Of course events are impervious to such musings; the boy died that night, while the girl continued to heal.


Samuel Freeman, MD is a pediatrician, writer, and creator and host of Practicing, an interview podcast about the work and lives of healthcare providers. He has published over twenty opinion articles for a general audience, in English and French, in outlets including the Washington Post, STAT, Huffington Post, the Montreal Gazette, and La Presse. This is his first published nonfiction essay. He lives in Montreal.

“Helpline” by John Hales

Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you all are well and staying sane. Today’s essay by John Hales won the 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In his essay, Hales writes about the challenge of keeping one’s sanity and stability in the face of stressful circumstances–a subject that’s especially relevant to readers today.


By John Hale

Although we weren’t exactly drug-dependent, at least in terms of how drug dependency had been defined in the mimeographed packet we’d been handed while undergoing volunteer Helpline training, and we weren’t stoners compared to some of our friends who toked even more than we did, most of us who worked shifts at the university’s telephone crisis line smoked a lot of marijuana. We joked that it was an occupational hazard. All that stress. All those panicked calls from people not right at that moment enjoying the effects of their own drugs of choice, or telling us at great length the ways their lives truly and deeply sucked. We lit up the second our shifts were over, often on the way to our cars in the union building parking lot, sharing a joint and, if someone had thought ahead, a bottle of something, anything, alcoholic. And then, weather permitting, adjournment to a nearby city park to smoke and drink some more. All that drug talk on the phone; all that human misery we couldn’t avoid ingesting a fair amount of as it cascaded over the phone: fears of where bad trips were heading, thoughts of suicide, more mundane yet really depressing narratives of loneliness—I’m so ugly, I’m so alone, I’m so pathetic I’m calling you.

Adding to the stress was our twenty-four-hour stretch of professional sobriety, begun (like airline pilots) no later than midnight the night before, a Helpline rule we took seriously. Even though most of us didn’t spend the week stoned anyway—our drug abuse mostly began the moment we were off the phones for the night and for us with Friday shifts continued only through the weekend—we understood that we needed to arrive for work straight and sober because in contrast to our relatively inconsequential daily lives, our work here had real consequences, and we didn’t want to fuck up. I was only twenty; I needed all the focus I could muster. But the second we were off the clock, we found release in weed.

We probably would have benefited more from prescription pills for anxiety or depression—pharmaceuticals that targeted the symptoms we’d caught from our callers. But marijuana, the opiate of the Helpline people, had to do, combined with nature in the form of the nearby park we’d head for. Or maybe it would be straight home for sex with a loved one, or somebody at least willing—once almost with a really nice volunteer I’d shared a shift with, she as stressed and stoned as I was.

My most anxious shifts were Friday nights, four P.M. to midnight—shifts I was assigned routinely for reasons probably having to do with the fact that I seldom had plans for the weekend anyway—spent enclosed in the tiny too-bright windowless union building office Helpline had been allotted, just big enough for two small desks, three volunteers and four telephones. One phone was kept available for reality-check calls to Poison Control, or, scariest of all, last-ditch calls to the Salt Lake City Police Department when it looked like our efforts were failing to keep folks from offing themselves or falling off some horrible edge only they could see. We were amateurs, after all, volunteers trained during a frantic pre-semester week of day-long orientations, and so we basically just took in what callers had to say, our responses limited to what the professionals who’d oriented us called “reflective listening.” As in:

“I’m so depressed. I have no earthly reason to keep living.”

“I hear you saying that you feel depressed and that it’s difficult for you to find reasons to continue living.”

Sometimes we were allowed to ask questions that might lead to useful answers: “What did you take? Do you know how many? Can you find the pill bottle and read what the label says?” Sometimes we’d offer referrals, phone numbers of helpful organizations we read off a ragged Rolodex. Sometimes we’d offer sympathy or even suggestions, both of which we’d been told in no uncertain terms not to provide but did anyway. Sympathy was unprofessional, suggestions beyond our competence, and both were beside the point for the average caller. Even so, we couldn’t help reaching out in more personal ways—it was called Helpline, after all, not Reflectline. And because our orientation hadn’t given us much instruction in maintaining professional distance, we were touched more often than you might think, which made our work harder, the dope smoking more necessary. We wanted to help. We cared.

Sometimes we did help, a little. It was easy to mock reflective listening, but I learned that being listened to was not something people experience much, and even our idiotic line-by-line rephrasings occasionally nudged people’s spirits to lift so they finally hung up with a nice “Thank you, I feel a little better.” But too often our clumsy efforts simply weren’t up to the task. When the hallucinations were literally overwhelming—a voice speaking from a really bad trip, saying that the walls were closing in and the caller’s heart was actually stopping (I can feel it! It’s stopping! )—saying, as we were authorized in these cases to do, “Listen to me. Your heart isn’t really stopping. It’s just the drug” was the answer to a question the caller had tripped far beyond asking. And when I heard myself saying into the handset something like, “I hear you saying that you’re holding a gun to your head,” I knew I was way in over my own head. And then the dropped phone, the ominous silence: far worse than the dial tone of a hang-up. By then we’d called the cops, our last resort, which we hated to do.

Most late spring nights, after shifts both harrowing and ho-hum, after the first joint or two, those of us not heading home for the comfort of sex could be found inhaling more quantities of illegal substances, well past the legal hours of one of Salt Lake City’s smallest parks, just off campus and built around a reservoir paved over for tennis, with swing sets and picnic tables and trees that shadowed the streetlights. We talked shop, alas, but only in the brief fragments of attention good marijuana allows, and then gradually switched to subjects not tethered to human tragedy. I wonder today why those of us without love lives wanted to keep hanging out with the same folks we’d just spent eight hours with in what was basically a bunker, and a not very well-defended bunker at that. Maybe that’s why marijuana was our drug of choice. It offered the perfect balance of community and isolation; you share a joint, you sit in a circle, you try to carry on a conversation, but weed carries you deeply into yourself. And after all those strangled connections over telephone lines, and a room that closes in with stress and anxiety and sweat that trickles down your neck during the worst calls, it’s by yourself you finally want to be. Marijuana allowed us to withdraw into ourselves communally, in the proximity of people who understood.

Maybe that’s why my one post-shift assignation was a failure. Either too much smoke, or not enough, the joke went, and we hardly knew each other. But earlier that night Nicole and I had worked through a really bad call, didn’t know the outcome, and so along with being stoned, we’d done way too many straight shots of callers’ despair, and we desperately, and impossibly, needed both connection and withdrawal from human need of any kind. So we—kind of—connected, but I felt somewhere else, and I think she did too. We joked about it later, were less awkward with each other with time, but never tried again.

By late April that year, the first and only year I’d grapple with mental health challenges other than my own, finally it was warm enough at two A.M. to allow hours of outdoor dope smoking, although even during the winter, we’d sometimes huddle in the snow, so anxious were we to get as far as possible from the room’s four close walls echoing with human pain and need. But in the deepest winter we’d more often circle up in someone’s small apartment, and when well stoned and hungry, brave the bright neon lights of Bill and Nada’s, an all-night diner that somehow, in the polarized early seventies, catered to both heads and cowboys, who’d seat themselves according to their outfits in booths on opposite sides of the long room: a United Nations of otherwise mutually antagonistic types seeking late-night comfort without the complication of eye contact or conversation. Outside was best, though—smoking herb in nature, sprawled on the park’s new-grown grass.

One night that spring, the park wasn’t nature enough, so we headed south toward Moab. Apparently we needed sandstone. We’d finished our shift on time. Some nights calls would continue beyond midnight (we tried hard to not think about crises that undoubtedly occurred after hours: phone calls met with a soothing but unhelpful recorded message), and because we cared about the person on the other end of the line, we kept talking until we could hang up gracefully and politely, albeit without solving any problems. But that night, all was quiet at midnight, and we headed out, lighting up as we locked the union building door behind us.

“I want the desert,” Kenny said. “I just need to fucking get out of Salt Lake.”

“So do I,” I said, not having felt any such need until Kenny mentioned it, but immediately recognizing how right he was.

“Let’s get Sal. He’s gonna want to go too.” Sal was Kenny’s roommate, a political science major heading for law school, once he got his grades up.  Kenny was a psych major, and Helpline credits actually counted toward graduation. Nice guys—not good friends, but easy to hang with and funny, and Kenny and I had been through some tough shifts. I was an English major. I wasn’t sure why I was volunteering. I kept forgetting to register for the class, so I never got the units.

“Plus, we need his car,” Kenny said. We knew that my piece-of-shit Fiat gave us a place to do a number and might get us back to our apartments but probably wouldn’t make it to Moab. Kenny had a Jeep, but with a ratty, leaky top, and it was a four-hour drive through some mountain passes, and cold, high desert at the end. Also, we needed Sal’s stash, something that went without saying.

Sal was watching TV, half asleep, but he too thought Moab was a great idea. As we knew he would, he volunteered his car, a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant that he called the Blue Val. It had long since faded beyond something you might have been able to call blue, but it was dependable, and Sal and his car were inseparable.

We stopped at my apartment long enough for me to grab my sleeping bag and a coat. And a war-surplus poncho I’m pretty sure had done a tour in Vietnam, and a bag of cookies and a couple of cans of chili. We chipped in to fill up the Blue Val at an all-night gas station, launched ourselves on I-15 and headed south, lighting up a thick joint for the road. Sal—there was never a question of who would drive—reclined against the angled back of the driver’s seat, inhaled deeply and manipulated the column shift with dignified slow-motion ease.

I passed out before we hit Provo, too often the first to go under, finding in unconsciousness the best escape I seemed able to make that year. I woke in Price a couple of hours later, stirred by bright service station lights and more demands for cash, and stayed happily awake while we sped south. The Blue Val would hit maybe ninety, and with no traffic and the Utah Highway Patrol apparently home in bed, we made it in a couple more hours to the Arches turnoff, a mile or two before Moab, past the dimly lit but unmanned National Park pay station. We drove the curvy road until we turned off on a short dirt track, then motored far enough away from the pavement to keep the Park Service from noticing that we were where we shouldn’t be: far from the official campground, beyond the law in so many ways.

This is the part of the trip I remember, the last leg from Price, the narrow dirt road, our illegal, makeshift camp. Whatever the night sky looked like had been lost in the headlamps, the tunnel of yellow light the Blue Val barreled through, but when Sal switched off the lights, the sky just pounded us with dark. Our eyes slowly adjusted to blackness, then stars, the broad, moonless expanse of what would become in a month or two the summer Milky Way, stars from horizon to horizon, those famous sandstone national-park formations now simply looming black cutouts against all those points of light, each star a cold piercing distance from the others. I remember the eastern horizon, just a little pale, the barest beginning of sunrise, the sun still hours from finally putting those stars away.

We threw down our sleeping bags on the sand and watched the sky as we lay limp, taking it all in.

“Oh, wow,” someone said.

“I hear you saying, ‘Oh, wow,’” somebody answered.

But finally we didn’t anything, just passed one more joint from hand to hand. It was completely quiet, no wind at all, no traffic, no harsh campground Coleman lights. Although Arches had long since ceased being the anonymous outpost presided over unevenly by Edward Abbey in the ’50s, it was a long way from the busy recreational destination it is today, and that night in 1972 it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

I surprised myself by not immediately falling asleep—in spite of the long drive, the stressful shift and my habit of never staying awake long enough to truly enjoy the drug I’d ingested. And by not thinking very much. I lay there on my sleeping bag for a long time watching the sky, feeling the sand shift beneath my neck and shoulders as I made myself completely comfortable.

I remember one thought coming to me that night, at that moment: I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m not sure I even cared about the beauty we’d driven hours to behold. Other than being somehow beyond caring, I’m not sure what I was actually thinking that night. But I’m pretty certain I’d stopped thinking by then about the dropped phone, the deadly silence on the other end, the long, detailed narratives of abandonment and betrayal and aloneness.

Although I don’t remember exactly how my shift had gone that night, the one I wasn’t thinking about just then, I’m tempted to remember it as a hard one. Today, I recall all too clearly the details of some really bad shifts, when the voice at the other end stopped being merely sad and self-pitying, stopped giving me helpful answers to questions that we were allowed by training and policy to ask, and started sounding at once both matter of fact and slurred, with longer pauses between short, monotone fragments of just giving up.

We hated to call the authorities, but we’d be genuinely scared about what might be happening to the person we’d been listening to for an hour, who’d finally stopped talking, standing beside the open window, we’d imagine, or collapsed beside the phone.  We knew the police dispatcher would trace the call, cops would race to the address (or, alternatively and unpredictably, take their own sweet time), break down the door, and assess the situation, calling an ambulance or the coroner. Or possibly they’d just search the place for drugs, having been given probable cause. By us. This was bad enough—the jackbooted-thug approach to mental health services, the drug bust we’d so helpfully narked.  But also this: once we’d made the call, we were completely out of the loop. We’d never know what they found. Policy prevented the authorities from telling us, so we consistently imagined the worst. Either way, there were consequences to the decisions we were too young, and not wise or experienced enough, to make.

More likely that night it had been the usual: voices telling stories of simple, awful loneliness, ten o’clock Friday night completely alone. The suicide calls made me crazy with worry, but the routine calls, all those voices connected to all-too-ordinary lives of meaninglessness and just simple profound sadness, in some ways took the heaviest toll.

Tomorrow, like it or not, we’d be up with the midmorning sun, too bright to ignore. There would be a drive to a place with picnic tables, the realization that other than a bag of chocolate chip cookies, we had nothing to eat—no can opener for the chili, let alone anything to cook it with. We’d drive into Moab for supplies, mostly beer, and pay the uniformed ranger on our way back in and find a legal campsite for the night, which we’d pay the Man for too. A nice beer buzz, maybe some more weed, then the afternoon hike to Delicate Arch, that hard, dry sandstone horseshoe, graceful and fragile and literally above everything, above the complexity of green, the danger of drowning. It’s simple up there—just rock and sky.

Maybe that’s it, about that night: it was simple. Nothing to untangle, no bodies to pull from the depths, no frustration with the routine insufficiency of mirroring human tragedy, hours operating on the failed theory that understanding one’s place in the great scheme of human desire and disappointment is the first step toward happiness. Many years later, I can say I wished it worked that way, but I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m not sure I believed even then the theory, having observed its routine irrelevance in Friday-night practice. So maybe a fleeting sense of one’s place amid all that unfeeling, uncomplicated landscape is possible, when stoned enough, literally miles from what troubles the world you’d been having a professional one-way conversation with, in the company of a couple of guys you liked okay, each in your own stoned fog.

About the sandstone, though, and nature—the all-night drive that still makes all kinds of sense to me. When somebody—probably Kenny—said, “Oh, wow,” I wish the person who’d reflected humorously (okay, probably me) had said something smarter, less smartass, more true, or at least useful.

“I hear you saying that being in this landscape, stoned, at four in the morning, feeling the chill desert air, smelling sagebrush, watching the eastern sky pale behind distant desert mountains, satisfies a deep need, provides clarity, supports the best kind of spirituality, answers at least a few of the hardest questions and makes us all happy.”

Of course, nature isn’t any simpler than anything else humans negotiate their way through. Trust me on that—I’ve read Emerson. And as I think about it, maybe it wasn’t nature at all, or even the drug that helped disengage my frontal lobes. That night, it was partly where I wasn’t. It wasn’t the place I had done time in and driven miles away from. Space, for sure, the open black sky, stars bright pinpricks, the distant mountains—no sweaty armpits in a tight, floodlit room.  Responsible only for my own pathetic self. Not much in the way of consequences, no complicated connections with despairing strangers or even good friends.

I was happy, I think.  Or, as I keep thinking about that night, maybe I wasn’t thinking. Or for that matter exactly happy. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about my own sense of not knowing who I was—at all—and where I was going, and come to think about it (which I didn’t right then) my own low-grade loneliness, my anonymous student life, my having no one to go home to, not even the meager hope of some future, less strained hookup with Nicole, the kind and beautiful Helpline volunteer. But I knew this much: I’d put real time-and-space distance between myself and that windowless room of phones and white walls, connected by telephone lines to other bare rooms of despair and heartbreak, the bright, cold city, everything I was running away from that night. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t care. Care was simply not required. Morning was coming, neither called for nor begrudged, but with creeping slowness all its own that may have been just what I needed.



Dr. John Hales is the author of the memoir Shooting Polaris: A Personal Survey in the American West, published in 2006 by the University of Missouri Press.

He has published essays in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Ascent, and in the anthology On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. His work has been cited numerous times in Best American Essays and in Best American Science and Nature Writing, and has been a finalist twice for the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He has also earned a Pushcart Prize, and he has been profiled as one of Twenty-Five Nonfiction Writers to Watch in Writer’s Digest.