A Night at the Hospital

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It was a little before ten o’clock when I pulled into the parking lot of our hospital. I parked near the emergency entrance, as had been recommended, based on the fact that it was the best (read: only) lit door at that time of night.

In the parking lot, there were two policemen standing stalwartly by and trying to keep the arguments of a couple families from escalating into a physical altercation. I never heard what they were arguing about, but I saw a couple of the people calmly walking the halls of the hospital later so I guess the fracas never culminated in weaponry.

I got turned around in the hospital, which isn’t unusual for me—but it should be, as our hospital isn’t all that big. I’ll blame it on the fact that the hospice suite was already occupied so the guy I was going to see had been placed in another room. The reality is that I just assumed I knew where I was going and didn’t read the signs.

I asked a nurse who showed me more respect than I felt like my Hospice badge (or I) deserved where room 115 was and she graciously took me there. Inside, I found a stately looking woman who didn’t appear to be old enough to be going what she was going through sitting in a chair near the door. I thought she was a volunteer I was relieving, but it turned out she was the wife of the patient.

Someone had told her I was coming, apparently, because she asked, “Mister White?” before she even glanced at my badge. I said that was me and she began gathering her things. She told me who she was, that her husband was sleeping well, and pointed to where her phone number had been taped to the door. I offered to walk her to her car as it was dark outside, and she took me up on the offer. We didn’t say anything else until I opened her car door and thanked me for coming.

What do you say to a man who has come to watch your life’s partner in his death bed? She knew I was there to give her some rest, so she could go home and take a shower and maybe sleep or just get the bedroom ready for the daughter who was coming the next day. She knew her husband would never know I was there. If all went “well” he wouldn’t acknowledge the other two volunteers who were going to take a shift of sitting. And then she would come back in the morning, probably not refreshed but maybe a little less exhausted, and wait for what seemed inevitable.

No one expects the man to live much longer. In fact, no one really expects him to ever wake up again. But when you’ve spent the better part of your life (meaning “better” in every possible sense) with someone, you can’t bear to think of them laying alone in a hospital bed, even if you know they’ll never realize their aloneness.

My “job” as the hospice volunteer is to sit there. Just to be there.

It’s easy and hard all at the same time. On the one hand, I can just do what my job description implies and … sit. I can bring a book—such as the positively vile novel by Johnstone I read in its entirety last night—or I could do Soduku (if I could answer the two basic questions of Soduku: how and why?). I brought my art box with the thought of drawing, but while the light was sufficient for reading it wasn’t for seeing blue pencil on white card stick.

See, I’m having a hard time with this whole hospice volunteer thing from the beginning. I’ve dealt with death before, and I know it’s as natural a part of living as breathing, but it’s still hard for me to get my mind around the idea that everyone I meet in this “business” is not just dying like the rest of us, but dying imminently.

So I sit in a room that would be dark if not for the light from the hall and listen to the sounds of a fellow soul who’s getting near the end. Sometimes he’d snore—what I came to think of as a “good, healthy snore”—for as many as five minutes at a stretch. Then he might cough or snort or make sounds like he was gargling. Periodically, he’d make sounds that sounded like they might have been words. Most of the time, by the time I even looked up he was back to snoring.

A man is laying there dying—maybe tonight, maybe next week—and the only thing I can do is pray. So I pray for him and his wife I just met and the kids I think I heard were coming in soon. But I stop after a while because I don’t know them and I don’t know him and I don’t know his wife or anything about this whole situation except that here’s a guy who’s dying.

My brain starts to struggle with my soul. If I can just keep him at the edge of my thoughts, he’ll stay nothing more than a rather strange spectacle. A snoring, gurgling, non-articulate occasional speaker covered with sheets and blankets. And when I look over there, most of the time, he just looks like a stranger asleep.

The struggle comes from not being able to sit in a room while someone dies, knowing you can’t do anything about it or for him, and wondering. Wondering how many children he has, how long he and his wife have been married, what he did for a living. Why is he lying here and not in Amarillo or Dallas or Timbuktu?

He’s not as old as some I have seen in this line, so he might not have seen action in WWII. Was he in Korea? For all I know he might have been a pacifist, or maybe he was in that group (like my father) who graduated High School just in time for the war to be over and tried to join up but couldn’t because the Army already had several million men they were trying to muster out and really didn’t need any newbies. Who, by the time Korea came up, had college educations and wives and kids and so got awkwardly sandwiched between two generations where everyone served.

I wonder if he ever hit a homerun in a softball game. I wonder if he ever served on a school board or was a deacon for his church. I wonder if he ever fixed up a classic car or worked a night shift or had a favorite restaurant.

But there’s no one to ask and it’s a lot easier to just dig into my putrid book because to open myself up to this person as a person is a prospect fraught with peril. Barring a miracle, I’ll never get to speak to him. And soon he’ll be gone. Even if I learn wonderful things about him from family and friends, I will soon be attending his funeral. I might even be asked to speak at his funeral.

Right now, though, I don’t even know what he’s dying from. And honestly, I can’t decide if I want to find out.