“We’re all just walking each other home.” —Ram Das
On Friday night, my dear friend Sandy and I went out to dinner and a movie (Lady Bird). Later, we drove over to the local hospital. Sandy was concerned about a family friend of hers who had been sent to the Emergency Room earlier in the day, especially since the friend has Alzheimer’s disease, and might not be able to communicate her needs. Sandy and I have some shared history with that particular history, so we wondered allowed if it would be wise for us to go together.
Years ago, we went to check in on Sandy’s mother who had been taken to the ER earlier in the day. Within an hour or so of our time with her, she passed away in our presence. The experience had such an impact on my mindset and on my friendship with Sandy, that 15 years later, I arranged for Sandy to be with me when Vernon breathed last. These are moments that change a mortal forever.
We walked through the ER lobby, which really feels more like a TV set than a real hospital somehow. We found our friend had been admitted earlier, and we were free to visit her. As we walked through the long corridor to the main part of the hospital, both of us commented on how strange it was to be there again. She recalled to me the nights that her own husband had been rushed in for some complication of his cancer, the memories suddenly vivid again, many years after his death. I recalled the last time I had been in that hallway, walking through with my dad to find Vernon after his terrible accident. A chaplain had met us at the door, guiding us into increasingly quiet rooms, each with heavier air than the last until we saw him on the table, covered in blood. These are the memories that had been waiting for our return. Its as if they were stuck to the walls, the place with trauma changed us at a cellular level.
But the memories didn’t upset us. These things happened a long time ago, and we could reflect on that. We were able to walk through this haunted hallway and say, “Yes, I know this place deep in my body; part of me is at home here. This place, in some ways, made me who I am today. It doesn’t frighten me anymore.” We were able to walk the corridor of traumatic memories and smile at one another. Though we have experienced a lot of death together, we’ve also learned to walk near it. Our being here together made it a beautiful thing, rather than tragic. It felt more like a toast to our long friendship, and what we’ve endured side by side, rather than any kind of grief. We are traveling companions.
It was late, and the hospital floors were quiet. A giant Christmas tree was being put up and trimmed. What a comforting treat the visiting families would find in the morning. The charge nurse at the desk looked familiar. Was she one of the nurses who had tended Vernon? No, it was my cousin’s wife, but her hair was different, after growing back after chemo. We don’t know each other well, but I’ve always clicked with her when we see each other. In fact, years ago, when Vernon was sleeping in the ICU, she’d left me a note in the room, offering to bring my a coffee if ever I was around on the late shift (I never was, but I loved her thoughtfulness.) More memories. She was able to give Sandy some loose information and we went in to see our friend.
There we found her, peaceful in the bed. It was comforting to see that there was a hospital volunteer sitter in there with her, and that she hadn’t been alone the whole time. Sandy prayed a peaceful blessing over her and she responded with a word of clarity. We were also able to connect a little with the sitter, who told us that the reason she does this work is because her own son had died of cancer in his twenties three years ago, and this is her way of serving others in his honor. “I never want anyone to have to be alone,” she said. Isn’t it fascinating and wonderful how those who have experienced loss and death are able to be there for others who may be be alone and afraid at the threat of those things. Hospitals are filled with the threat of loss and death. But they are also filled with grace, surprises, history, and love. They are filled with all of humanity, at any given moment. And many of these people are going to leave changed forever.
Update: our friend was released Saturday evening, reportedly looking and acting better than she has in weeks. Her life is extended…as is hope.