Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities are altered for privacy. All the writings are here.
The doctor tells him in one long breath, “Your wife didn’t make it, she’s dead.”
Just like that. Irrevocable, irreversible change. I’ve seen this so many times now, the air suddenly pulled out of the room, a drawstring closed shut around the stomach, doubling over, the floor opened up and the house caving in.
“Can I … can I see her?” he asks the doctor.
The doctor points at me and tells Michael that I can take him back. The doctor leaves, and Michael says, “I can’t yet. Can you wait, chaplain?” I nod, and after some silence, I ask him, “What was your wife like?” and Michael talks for forty-five minutes, starting from their first date, down to the very second that his wife’s eyes went blank and she began seizing and ended up here.
I’m in another room, with a father of two, Felipe, whose wife Melinda is dying of cancer. She’s in her thirties. She fought for three months but that was all the fight in her; she might have a few more days. Felipe is asking if his wife can travel, so she can die with her family in Guatemala. The kids are too young to fully comprehend, but they know something is wrong, and they blink slowly at their mother, who is all lines across greenish skin, clutching a rosary and begging God to see her parents one more time.
“Can I see them?” she asks the doctor.
Another room, with a man named Sam who has just lost his wife and kids in a car accident. Drunk driver, at a stop sign, in the middle of the day. Sam was at home cooking; his wife was picking up their two daughters from school; the car had flipped over twice. The drunk driver is dead; Sam doesn’t even have the option to be angry. Sam was hospitalized because when he heard the news, he instantly had a heart attack. He keeps weeping, panicked breaths, asking to hold my hand because he doesn’t know how he can live through this. He hasn’t seen the bodies of his wife and daughters yet.
“Can I see them?” he asks me.
Another room, and a nurse is on top of a patient, Maria, doing chest compressions, asking another nurse to take over. Maria has been coding for over two hours. The doctor was able to chemically induce her back to a pulse, but the chemicals and compressions have stopped working. The entire family is in the room: Maria’s husband, Ryan, their two sons and a daughter, and Maria’s brother and sister. Ryan wants the staff to keep working; he doesn’t want to say it’s over; and really, could you? Could I? There are so many stories of last-minute miracles and all those Hollywood scenes of people gasping back to life. Ryan tells me that he and Maria had planned a vacation to Greenland, a tour package and everything, and it was their first vacation in six years. Maria is pronounced dead at 2:32 pm. The nurse asks us to leave for a moment so they can take apart the room, and then the family can properly say goodbye. I sit in a private waiting room with the family, each minute too long, as they weep and share stories about Maria and ask me to pray for her soul.
“Can I see her now?” the husband asks me after we pray.
Another room, and the doctor tells the husband Terry that his wife Shannon has died. Terry asks, “Can I see her?” and I escort Terry back to the Trauma Bay, where his wife had suffered a massive heart attack. We walk in and Sherry is still attached to some equipment, an obsolete tangle of wires, a white sheet drawn to her chin. Terry leans over on his wife, suddenly sobbing and sobbing, grabbing her shirt, kissing her forehead, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. I could’ve been better. What am I going to do without you now? What am I without you?” And I weep with him, and after a few moments I step out of the room to give him space, but I can still hear him in there, pouring out all his regrets, how much he took her for granted and how they should’ve traveled more and laughed more and fought less and got off their dang phones and taken more walks and how he was so bad at following up on things and, “I should’ve kissed you this morning” and “I had so much more to say” and “You were everything that was good about me.”
He steps out of the room, turns around, and whispers goodbye to his wife. He turns to me. “Okay, chaplain. I’ve told her what I wanted to say.”
We walk back to the waiting room, back to the place where his life was cut in half. Terry tells me, “I’m not doing this again. Why even love somebody, and you know that one of you have to see each other like this? I mean, is it really worth it?”
And I wanted to say yes, because life cannot be life without risk—yet that risk is so scary and brutal and unfair sometimes, and loving someone that much always has a clock, an hourglass, a waiting room, and the moment you choose to say hello is also when you choose to say goodbye. But I’d like to think that saying hello is better, and it’s what makes everything that is good about us.
“Yes,” I tell him. “I think so. I hope so.”
Terry grabs my shoulder. “I see your ring. Go home tonight and kiss your wife. I’m begging you, go kiss her and hold her and tell her everything. You hear me? Go make it weird. And tell her hello for me.”
That night, I get home and pull off my tie and fall into a chair and weep. I pray for those five husbands. I pray for their children. I think about the river of memories cut short, and if we ever really get enough time. My wife walks in like she does, not turning on a light, knowing when I have a hard day, and we hold hands across the table, and she gives me room to grieve.
After a while, I look up, and even in the dark, I can see her. I’m so glad to see her. I do my best to smile, and I tell her, “Hello, babe. Thank you, for everything.”