My grandmother went to the doctor yesterday. As a precaution — probably at Mom’s urging — he gave her a prescription for oxygen. I went over there last night to find one of the big metal tanks lurking in the corner of the room.

My grandfather was on oxygen for several years at the end of his life. When he was at home, he had a machine that would distill the oxygen from water. But he had a collection of the tanks too, big ones and small ones, to use on the occasions he went out.

I honestly thought that, after he died, I’d never have to see one of those tanks again.

I can vividly remember, the day after Hurricane Katrina had passed, that he was on his last tank of oxygen. Dad and I loaded the empties into the trunk and set out in search of replacements.

We were in Meridian, Mississippi — a place where many of Dad’s relatives live, and a city that, despite being over 200 miles from the coast, still suffered a fair amount of damage from Katrina. The city was like a ghost town: hardly any cars on the street and no businesses open. Electricity was out almost everywhere, a result of downed trees and other damage throughout the area. Not knowing what else to do, we went to one of the hospitals for help.

I can’t remember how long we waited before anyone other than the desk clerk spoke to us about the problem; at least 30 minutes, I suspect. The nurse told us she’d see if they had any spare tanks they could swap for ours. I kept thinking, what will we do if they can’t help? Although I knew the answer; we’d have to bring him in and admit him. The hospital, at least, had emergency power, so they could generate oxygen.

After another 20 or 30 minutes, she came back with news: they had no tanks to spare. I wanted to cry. I think this was the point when Dad explained to the nurse what our alternatives were, and that she really did NOT want my fussy, demanding grandfather in their hospital. She said they would try to find an open medical store for us. Keep waiting.

Finally, she came back again. Their chaplain had driven the streets and found us a medical supply store that was open. She gave us directions and we headed back out.

I have never been happier to see an open store. They had no power, but they were doing business anyway. I loved these people.

They swapped our empty tanks for full ones, took my grandfather’s insurance information down, and helped us put the tanks in the car: enough nice, full tanks to get us through another day or two, hopefully until power was restored.

We got back to the hotel, tired but proud and relieved, and carried six big tanks down the hall to my grandfather’s room.

We were met with complaints that he wanted a hot meal: something he didn’t need and we couldn’t get. “Complaints” is actually a bit of an understatement. He insisted that we call the hospital to find out if they would give him a hot meal. We refused. We tried to explain to him what the situation was like out there: no power, emergency power only in the hospital. It took a five-minute argument to convince him to let it go. It was all I could do not to tell him to his face how utterly selfish I thought he was.

The next day, when power was restored, we went to the hotel’s restaurant to pick up dinner and bring it back to the rooms. There were two elderly women also waiting for food. They hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours.

I felt so bad for them, knowing we’d had food to spare — and I wanted to go back and tell my grandfather how lucky he was compared to these women. But I knew it wouldn’t do any good.

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