When the phone rings at 2:30 a.m. there is no doubt there is trouble. That is, trouble beyond the groping for the phone in the dark when you are groggy and discombobulated. Listening to a strange and distant voice explaining medical procedure while forcing weary eyes open into the darkness is strangely dreamlike. Rolling back into bed, knowing you should get up and move toward clothes and car seems impossible and the chaffing of guilt mingles with the silky smooth beckoning of the soft pillow which is still warm from your leaving it only a few moments before.
As I slipped back into dreamland I remember thinking, “He will waken me if he decides we have to go tonight. Otherwise we will go early in the morning.”
We did go early in the morning after a few phone calls and enough coffee to open our eyes for the journey.
I remember these journeys from years ago when my own mother was dying in a hospital. Each trip down the road is one which is filled with fear and confusion. There is a part of us, as children, that wants our parents to live forever. There is another part, when seeing them suffer, that wishes they could slip away quietly in their sleep and that neither they nor us would have to endure the pain and passion of these last days.
We knew where we were going this time. We’ve made the trip so many times these past few days that the road and the doors have become normal in our lives. The hospital is no longer a maze. We know which turn to take and we are even becoming acquainted with the nursing staff, nodding in recognition in hallways and elevators.
Our eyes are filled with strange sights though, on our first trip through the step down unit. We walk as if we know where we are going, but in fact we are searching for a face which looks as if it might direct us to the right stall in this hallway of pain.
At last we find her. The woman who only a few weeks ago seemed strong and able was almost lost in the sheets and pillows, plastic tubes and monitors. The frail figure could not even open eyes to greet. Breath was laboured and the numbers I understood well enough to tell me a story I didn’t not want to read. The overwhelming odours of bodily fluids mixed with disinfectant hung in the air like smog on a windless day.
These are the days we dread though they are treasures because we see small victories and stretch toward any hope we can find. Our appreciation for the little smile and the reaching of feeble fingers burns into our memories with searing heat because we are so dreadfully aware they could be the last.
We do not want to stay. We do not want to leave. We are afraid of another call. We watch the chest rise and fall, fearing it may not rise again.
The crisis passes. Procedures and doctors and teams are on hand, working around the clock to return life to the dying. They borrow time at a high cost but they do it well with kindness and compassion. They are discreet and consider carefully the dignity of the people they serve. They speak softly to patients and families. They make every movement count.
We are home again. We wonder if the phone might ring again in the night or if the mending will continue and we will be able to celebrate one more special day, or share another family event together.
The days are shorter but they will be held more tightly and tenderly because of this day.