I walked in the front door here at Extended Stay America last week, and did a double take. 

The motel manager was not behind the front desk. Instead he was on the other side of the lobby, on his knees, and giving a heavyset guy CPR. “Must be some sort of drill,” I thought to myself. “Maybe the manager can take a break and give me a new key. Won’t take but a few seconds.”

Once again, I had lost my card. I’m absent minded and may have gone through a full deck’s worth of keys since checking in last month. I was about to interrupt when I realized this was no drill. 

Instead, a man might have been dying right in front of me. He was bare-chested, pale and motionless as the manager, double palms down, methodically worked on his heart. 

But each stroke yielded no more than a lifeless flop from the unconscious man. 

“Something you need?” the manager asked me between thrusts. 

“It can wait,” I answered. “Looks like you’re busy.” 

“I already called 911,” he told me. “I’ll go outside and wait for them,” I said. 

Just as I cleared the door, I heard sirens. In seconds, a San Rafael fire truck pulled up. “The guy’s right inside,” I yelled, as the EMTs donned protective gear and grabbed equipment. 

Once inside, two of the paramedics went to work on the victim, and the third questioned the manager. 

He said he had been walking down the first-floor hallway when, from one of the rooms, he heard words that have now become part of America’s political parlance:

 “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” 

The guest’s door was ajar, and in the room was a 70-year-old man gasping from his wheelchair. The manager in an instant became a first-responder: He wheeled the stricken guest out to the lobby, took his shirt off, eased him to the floor, called 911, and commenced CPR.   

As the questioning continued, the San Rafael paramedics were trying to shock and ventilate the victim back to consciousness. I saw no signs of life. 

“He’s been staying with us for awhile,” the manager continued, supplying the man’s name and date of birth. “He checked in on Aug. 16. Seemed like a nice guy.” 

Seconds later, the interview ended. Another fire truck and two San Rafael Police patrol cars had arrived. The manager was behind the desk, making my new key as the paramedics continued their efforts just feet away. 

“Have you ever had to do CPR before?” I asked him.  “Yes,” the manager answered. “My last job was as a EMT.”  

The journalist in me emerged: “This could be a great story,” I thought. “Motel manager helps save guest’s life.” 

I thought about snapping a photo or two, then watching the drama unfold. But nobody likes gawkers, so I retired to my room. 

A half-hour later, I looked down the hall to the lobby and the EMT crew was still there. But before an hour had passed, almost all of the first responders had left. 

I walked over and glanced through a temporary curtain that shielded off half the lobby. All the life-saving equipment was gone, and two men were moving the victim’s lifeless body toward a gurney. 

He was dead. There was no heroic story here, just a life lost in an instant. 

I knew nothing about my fellow motel guest. But I did know this: 

He would never again see his wife, children, brothers or sisters. He had celebrated his last holiday and eaten his final meal. Never would he tell stories, write letters or join his buddies to watch ball games, swap jokes and shoot the breeze. Planned trips abroad and reunions with old friends would never happen. 

Over the decades, memories of this gentleman would fade. Beyond two generations, they would likely disappear. Such is the fragility, the transience of human life. 

And here I am, staying at the same motel for six weeks and receiving daily radiation treatments aimed at extending my own life by maybe a few years.

Maybe those treatments will work and maybe they won’t. Maybe I’ll live into my 90s and maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll die “peacefully and surrounded by my family,” as many obituaries recount. Or maybe I’ll be found gasping in a motel room with just minutes to live. 

Such are the thoughts that occur after seeing death firsthand. 

It is something we Americans do not often encounter. Deaths occur in hospitals, not motel lobbies. So, in the absence of regular evidence, our own mortality is something we do not often think about. 

Unless, of course, you happen to be 74 years old and undergoing cancer treatments amid a pandemic. 

The takeaway? 

See your wives, kids, brothers and sisters as often and as soon as the pandemic allows. Celebrate holidays and partake in feasts. Tell stories (and listen to them), write friends, swap jokes and enjoy ballgames. (Or enjoy them as much as you can when your team is blowing a must-win playoff game). Take your trips and enjoy those long-planned reunions as soon as you can. 

Because you never know when you might die in a motel lobby. 

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