Friday, March 19, 2010

The Waiting Room

A minute is a minute is a minute. An hour is an hour is an hour. A day is a day is a day. Time inexorably moves forward marking the moments of our lives with a certitude and exactness that nothing else can touch. Each second is exactly one second. Each hour is exactly one hour. However, these measures of time seem to pass by with bewildering sluggishness when spent in the waiting room of a hospital.

Those of you who read these scribblings of mine know from the previous blog that my father-in-law, Lloyd Smith, has recently undergone a test of supreme courage due to serious health issues. He emerged from six bypass surgery successfully and appeared to be on the road to recovery when, quite unexpectedly, he experienced heart arrhythmia in which his heart came to a complete stop. Thanks to a quick acting, persistent nurse, he was revived and rushed back to the cardiac care unit. He now is gravely ill and the future is quite unsure.

As this alarming and sad event unfolded, members of his beloved family have gathered in the waiting room of the cardiac care unit fearful of what announcement may come from the unit located on the floor above. Everyone is acutely aware of the gravity of the situation. There is no hiding the fact that the beloved patriarch of the family is in the fight of his life.

The waiting room is a story of just that, waiting. Seconds pass by with the speed of an hour. Minutes never seem to pass and hours come and go with the rapidity of a year. Each family member lives for the moment when they are able to go upstairs for a visit. And for each member, this visit represents a moment of supreme courage.

Once on the cardiac ICU you walk down a pristine hallway. On any given day there might be a gurney up against one wall with some other high-tech equipment opposite against the other wall. You round the corner knowing full well that if you had taken a left turn you would be brought into the operating suites. There is a certain tension as you walk onto the unit. Nearly every room has a patient whose life is being supported in that moment by an array of machines and equipment that put the Star Ship Enterprise to shame. Each patient is assigned a nurse for that shift and it is their responsibility to see to the well-being of the entire patient.

As you near Lloyd's room, you find your heart beating a little faster in anticipation of what you are about to see. Lloyd's life is now surrounded with a dizzying number of mechanical devices pumping life-sustaining chemicals into his body and removing toxic fluids from various parts of his anatomy. Here is the one place where I have found courage.

Each person reacts differently to the scene before them. A ventilator monitors his oxygen intake always at the ready to take over for his breathing. A tiny exterior pace maker exacts a tiny electrical shock to his ailing heart with impressive precision in an effort to maintain his blood pressure at an acceptable level. A robust man all of his life, he now appears weak and helpless as a newborn kitten. His eyes are shut and his chest rises and falls with each breath taken. For all who enter the room at this moment, it is a shock and can even be devastating.

We like to remember people as they were in good times. It is only human. For his children, my brothers and sisters-in-law, this must take a monumental amount of courage. How devastating it is for them to see this man they have always called "dad" lying helplessly in a bed with numerous tubes and monitors measuring his metabolic responses each second.

Here is the man who delighted in camping trips. A man who loved to fish and build bonfires regardless of the season of the year. Here is the man who worked countless hours and every shift imaginable so that his children could have every opportunity that he missed out on. Here is the man whose tenderness could take care of every childhood hurt and whose arms, when wrapped around their tiny bodies, made them feel that nothing could ever harm them. Here is the man who encouraged, nurtured, and loved them with untold passion.

In these past few days I have seen these adult children as well as the grand-children and other family members pause at his bedside, gazing lovingly at the deceptively peaceful countenance. They are all frightened even though some do not show it. They cling to the moments with him in a failed attempt to slow time down for that time they have with him. Each knows that this visit could be their last and yet no one wants to think of that for the pain.

The remarkable thing is the way that they have supported one another. They gather in the hospital cafeteria for a bite to eat, often telling stories of their dad from days gone by. Seldom is there any sadness on the surface as the stories unfold. Yet, their eyes betray them. They aren't as bright as they were a couple of weeks ago when all of this had yet to happen. There is always a certain type of distant in their gaze as though they are trying to envision a world without their father. Still, the stories continue punctuated with laughter that leads to another story.

I have seen them pause in prayer, acknowledging the role of the Author of Life in all of this. Their faith in God is strong and remarkable and is really the underlying glue that holds them together. Their parents saw to it that they have a deep and firm faith in a loving Father who, even in the most difficult of times, is there for them. It is a faith that has seen them time and again through various crises of this family's life.

It has been my privilege to be a part of this and to learn from their courage and hope. All know the possible outcome of these moments. They understand that any hour might be the last hour their father has on this earth. Yet, they face the inevitable moment with a sense of peace and dignity. They greet other families who are experiencing similar trying times with true concern and outreach for them. They smile and laugh through tears both seen and unseen. They are wonderful examples to the younger generations of the family of what it is like to come to this point in life when the impending loss of a loved one looms. That is not to say that Lloyd Smith is going to die soon. He may make a recovery and go on to enjoy another several years. But it is to say that should death come, his children will carry on his legacy of dignity and grace implanted in them by this man with a near infinite capacity to love his family!