“Are you Angela, the wife of Tyrone Simmons?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she said, voice rising, searing the phone in my ear. “Yes, chaplain, why?”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but your husband Tyrone is here at the hospital.”
I hate this part. I’ve made this call so many times. “Are you able to be here? Will you be with anyone? I’m not sure yet, the doctor can tell you. The doctor can answer that. The doctor will update you. Please drive safely. The doctor will know.”
Angela’s husband Tyrone had been driving to work and he was hit by a truck. Most likely died instantly. He probably never knew.
I had found Angela’s number by going through her husband’s wallet. It’s a crazy thing, to look inside the wallet of a dead man. You learn a lot from a person’s valuables. With disposable gloves, I had laid out Tyrone’s belongings on a sheet of paper, each item caked in blood. It’s a clinical process. I feel terrible every time.
The phone number wasn’t written on anything: I had to play detective for a while. This is one of the chaplain’s tasks, to find next-of-kin, to look through every piece of the deceased’s belongings until we had a lead. I chase stories, and underneath them are more stories.
In Tyrone’s wallet, I had found his insurance card, his janitor’s badge, the card of a strip club, a frozen yogurt punch card with two punches (six more for a free cup), two appointment cards for a clinic (one had a date from two weeks ago, the other was set for next month), and on a scrap of napkin, the number of a real estate agent named Carol. I called Carol, who hung up on me immediately, and I called the insurance company, who bounced me to four other people. I relayed some of the situation to Marcie, a customer rep, and after a breath, she said, “No thanks, bye.” I called the frozen yogurt shop, who happened to know Tyrone as a regular, so the froyo employee cautiously texted Tyrone’s son to ask for his mom’s number, and thirty seconds later, I got it.
It’s always like that. I try everything, and occasionally I get lucky.
Before I made the call, I had removed the business card of the strip club out of Tyrone’s wallet. I tossed it in the trash with the gloves. Of course, this feels disingenuous, completely wrong—who am I to play God with memory? But I couldn’t bear the thought of it being found.
Mrs. Simmons enters the ER with her son Michael, a freshman in college. I see them before they see me; the security guard brings them to a private waiting room. They still don’t know what’s happened; we always tell them face to face. It’s so strange, to hold the worst news in the world before someone, like I’m holding a box into the abyss and pushing them in.
I find the doctor. She hates this part, too. I can see by the look in her face that this isn’t the first time she’s had to do this. We walk to the waiting room. A long, long walk.
“Mrs. Simmons,” the doctor says as she enters, and Mrs. Simmons says, “Angie is okay by me, doctor.” Angie smiles, belied by the tears already streaming.
“Angie,” the doctor says, “your husband Tyrone is in the back. He was brought here with no pulse after a car accident. We tried to resuscitate him, but no matter what we tried, it didn’t work. I’m sorry.”
Angie and Michael fall into a heap. The doctor answers their questions about what had happened; I answer their questions about what happens next.
“Can I see him?” Angie asks.
I take Angie and Michael to the back, like I have many times now, through the maze of the trauma bay, past groaning and grieving patients and their families, through one long final hallway that mother and son will want to forget and want to remember, the last hallway they’ll know before seeing husband and father on a table of stilled dreams.
We enter the back where there are seven rooms for emergency procedures. Tyrone is in room six. He’s been zipped up in a bag. Normally the bag is already unzipped, and I’m a little angry that I have do this in front of the family.
“Is that … that’s him in there?” Michael asks. I nod yes, and I unzip the bag as gently as possible.
And there’s Tyrone, pieces of medical equipment still sticking out of his mouth at skewed angles, a crease on the side of his head.
Angie leans over her husband. “Oh, Jesus,” she says, shaking. “Oh, Jesus.” Michael looks away.
Angie puts a hand on her husband’s chest. “Oh, Jesus. Oh, no, Tyrone.” Michael stands to hold his mother. And there Angie falls over her husband and says all the things we want to say, the things that mean so much: “I’m sorry, baby, I should’ve said I love you today, I should’ve heard you, I wish I knew, baby, I didn’t know, I thought we could.”
In a whisper, Michael starts singing over his father. I attempt to give them privacy, but Michael calls me over.
“Chaplain,” he says, “can you hang out here for a bit? We’re alone here in this hospital except for you.”
I place my hands softly on Angie and Michael as they weep and sing.
They sing parts of hymns, rocking back and forth, shaking their heads, touching Tyrone. Ten minutes pass. It feels much shorter. Angie finally leans back and puts a hand on her husband’s cheek. “I’ll see you again, baby. By God, I’ll see you again. I know, Jesus, I’ll see you again. I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry.”
We walk back to the waiting room. We sit in silence for a while.
Then I ask, “What kind of person was Tyrone like?”
“Oh goodness” Angie says, smiling, “a hard worker. Loved us, loved us, laughed so much. He didn’t like his work—he was a private garbage collector. Rich folks, country clubs, pet hotels, even strip clubs. But that was the food in our stomachs. That was his love for us.”
That explains it. The card in his wallet. Always a story beneath the story.
“I’m sorry,” I blurt out. “I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she says. “Can you stay, chaplain? To pray with us?”
I do. I pray and I pray and I pray.
I am the call that no one wants. I try to be the voice that someone needs.
[Names and details have been altered for privacy.]