Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Hospital

Some places seem built to house stories and emotion. Like airports, churches, and bars. School classrooms for sure. Neighborhoods where kids play and tease and grow into the adults they become. Tree houses. Beaches.

And hospitals. I have spent time in these. Not considerable time, but important time. My father’s own death in 1989 was in a hospital room. He was surrounded by my mom, and siblings and the caring nursing staff. The very last time I saw my dad was in that hospital room. Tears, sadness, worry about our mom, loneliness.

Another time, many years later, was when my mom had made up her mind that she would have just one more blood transfusion, just one more burst of energy to get her from her home in western North Carolina to New Mexico and my sister Ruthie and her final days.

And during that stay when my mom was saying goodbye to her home, her friends, her belongings, her life – Heidi and our sons said their last goodbyes to my mom.  Some dear friends who hadn’t said goodbye yet, happened upon us while we were waiting for that blood transfusion. They invited more dear friends to come. There was a brief, spontaneous send-off party while my mom was sitting in a fairly comfortable lay-back chair receiving her last pint of blood; her last pint of life. It was a sad parting with many farewells as well as tears of joy at having known each other; at having shared life paths for a little while.  No one lied and said, “You’ll get better,” or, “You’ll be back,” or, “You can beat this.” I appreciated their honesty. They all had too much integrity for that. Their friendships were deep and honest. They all knew that their farewells were final. I felt humbled to be there in that little group of best friends.

Heidi’s brain tumor, three years ago, a life affirming event – where my love for this good woman grew beyond any bounds I’d known. Where, at Johns Hopkins, on a single elevator trip, I shared the good news of a young dad who found out that his child would be all right.  I also shared moments with a woman who just received the news that her husband did not have much time left.

Heidi’s mom died in a hospital room just over a year ago, with her loving husband of close to 60 years, her kids, grandkids, all holding hands and wiping eyes, and singing hymns – singing her home.  It was a privilege to be there for her final hours.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, Heidi once again, had serious surgery. We were in the hospital for four days. Those four days sort of took on a feeling that went way beyond the actual time we spent there. Even from this distance. It's only been two weeks since we left the hospital and it already seems like it was part of a much longer dream.

Calling friends and family with the good news that everything would be fine. That, true to form, Heidi is strong and beautiful and recovering even faster than even her doc thought was possible. That time we spent in the hospital was almost pure emotion.

I did a lot of running around while Heidi was in the hospital bed. Out of the room to make calls while Heidi snoozed, down to the cafeteria for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee. Down the road for a chocolate shake when Heidi felt like her stomach could handle it.

During those comings and goings there were so many emotional scenes playing out in front of me. One gray haired, stubble faced man, with his door constantly open, never had a single visitor. He was there when we arrived, and still there recovering from some kind of surgery when we left. He always seemed so sad, so miserable, so alone.


In the room next to ours there was an Indian man – or rather his whole family.  His wife and children and grandchildren were constantly coming and going. The patient’s wife and grandson were often riding the elevators up and down playfully passing the time. She was so beautiful with her rich brown skin, her silver white hair and her sari. She had that beautiful red mark on her forehead – a bindi.  Her little grandson, or it may have been her great-grandson, laughed that joyful, holy, toddler laugh every time the elevator descended.

Once, quite late at night, maybe 2 AM, I went out to seek a nurse because Heidi’s IV bag had emptied and the machine was beeping out its little alarm. While I was out in the hallway, I noticed a woman, probably in her 80’s, wandering alone wheeling the IV set-up next to her. Later, when I went to get some ice water, I saw the same gray haired woman walking slowly with a young nurse’s aide. Gray hair could easily have been four times the age of the young woman with the high blond ponytail. They were speaking together, leaning into each other, talking quietly, seriously. They walked arm in arm.

Maybe an hour later I walked by the old one’s room and she was lying down, IV pole on the far side of the bed, the young blondie on the near side. Old one was crying. Not loudly or theatrically, but softly. I could see her chest and shoulders heaving. That young one held her hands and had her pretty face right next to old one’s face. She was whispering something I couldn’t hear. Soft. Purposeful. Gentle.

I was so moved. While I couldn’t hear the words exchanged, I could feel the caring and heartfelt emotions. That young woman, working that late shift, in the middle of that dark night, was a lifeline for the old one. I could feel the intimacy and intensity of those moments. Something special passed between them. Something sacred.

That young woman and I crossed paths the next day in that same hall while I was on some errand. I tried not to seem too weird, but I wanted to talk to her, to let her know that I had seen her tenderness. TAYLOR, her nametag read. “It was so beautiful what you did last night,” I said. “That woman needed someone. You were there for her. I don’t know you, Taylor,” I stammered, “but you were made for this work.”

Tears filled her bright blue eyes. “She just found out that she has terminal cancer,” she whispered in response to my awkward compliment. “We walked around for while. When I finally got her to lay down I prayed with her.”

Taylor was the one to wheel us down to the bottom floor and the waiting van when Heidi was discharged. I am glad that she saw us off. She told us that she had been the primary caregiver for her own grandmother as she lay dying of cancer.

I am so in awe of that young woman. That kid, who is so wise, so nurturing, so pure in spirit.

It’s interesting and exciting when lessons of the power of life and love unfold before us. It probably happens all the time. But I am grateful that my eyes were open that dark, late, December night, when those two people came together and that child (just months out of high school) demonstrated such loving compassion for someone she had just met.

I pray that when I grow up I can be just like her.


The Dashboard Poet said...

Tim, your words are powerful. Full of meaning. I was a hospital chaplain for 5 years, many years ago. You captured the melancholy, passion, transitions and miracle that line the corridors and dwell in the rooms of patients. I did not know about Heidi. I am so glad all is well, and will pray they continue to be so. Your words are masterful...and by "masterful," I mean "Full of the Master." Thank you for this post. It returned many memories; not all pleasant, but all full of grace.

Ruth Anne O'Keefe said...

You teach me things about hospitals. Funny, since I worked in hospitals my entire adult life. Thanks.

Nic E said...

Hello Tim,

Long time no write. I'm so sorry to hear that Heidi had to go back to hospital. I hope she is doing okay now.

Wishing you both a happy and healthy 2016.

Nic :)

Tim O'Keefe said...

HEY NIC! So glad that you stopped by. I have been waiting for you to post something, a song, anything. I checked your blog and I need an invitation to view it (or something like that). I'd love to be invited. I might have had your email at some time but darned if I can find it. timtokeefe@aol.com I don't know how to get invited, but I'd love to see, hear what you are up to.

All the best! Tim

PS - I can't post a comment on Richard's blog anymore either. The comment thingy has been "disabled". Tell him for me that I never miss looking at his beautiful photos and I feel like I know that beach. I love it in any light.