Fifty years prior, his WWII daily K-Rations had included just enough unfiltered Camel cigarettes to start a life-ending habit that would eventually rob us of our newly sober father.
None of his children were with my father when he died. Earlier that same day, Mom had assured me that, although he was in an oxygen tent and probably wouldn’t come home from the hospital, death wasn’t imminent. . I should start looking at plane tickets and adjust my schedule accordingly for probably the next week.
I was in surgery just a few hours later when the call came; my back slid along the wall and I wilted to the floor as the news was relayed to me.
I vowed to drop what I was doing if I ever received such foreboding news about Mom. And I was with her, but only because I took seriously the news that she had stomach pains and was in the hospital for observation.
I tried not to let her see my gasp of horror when I entered the room and saw her in that hospital bed. Who was this old person, with her hair flattened and unkempt, looking so feeble and weak? This face glowed and smiled as she looked up to see who was clenching her hand and leaning down to kiss her.
Only then did it really hit me, and I was absolutely terrified. My beautiful mother was, for the first time, very mortal. Until that moment, when I thought of her, she was 48. I have no idea why that age, but I remember her being that age, and regardless of how many decades passed; that was the image I conjured up in my mind when I thought of her, spoke with her on the phone, or saw her handwriting.
That day is mainly a blur. A surreal experience where nothing made sense. A Chagall or Dali painting where something, or everything, was out of place. I had spoken to my mother the day before. She was 83, but the picture of health: vivacious, bubbly, energetic, the quintessential do-gooder volunteer.
She was supposed to live for another 20 years; in fact had I built an extra ground-floor bedroom with a walk-in shower for her to finally retire to, when she decided to join us in Florida!
Mom had hosted a dinner party that night in her home, cooking and serving to 10 of her close friends. When everyone was leaving, she remarked that she had a bit of a stomach ache and so didn’t want anyone to stay to help clean up, she’d just do it in the morning, because she felt like she wanted to go to bed. She had not been sick a day before this.
Who was this person in this hospital bed, writhing in abdominal pain? As the sole medical professional in the family, I would take upon myself responsibility for her proper treatment, “Where is her medical record? What have you found, and what tests have you performed?” The staff smiled at me sympathetically, and condescendingly assured me that everything possible was being done. I would certainly be allowed to look at the medical chart, if the doctor approved it.
The problem was that there was no doctor. Her primary care physician sent her here in the middle of the night. The admitting doctor then turned over her care to the “hospitalist,” what-ever the hell kind of doctor that is. I certainly wasn’t impressed with him, or the system at St Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, where Mom had been taken. I’d now been there for over 6 hours and no doctor had even walked in the room to examine her. I was “assured” that he had been by once and “saw” her, and was well aware of what was going on, because he had been on the phone with the nursing staff several times over the course of the day. Finally, after my constant harassment, the nurse winked and told me he had consented to my looking at the chart, and that she’d be glad to “explain things to me.”
As we walked to the head nurse’s station she asked me a question that will forever haunt me, “You must take comfort that your mother is at least resting comfortably now, has this been an extended illness?” When I told her, “NO! She hosted a dinner party just 9 hours ago, and hasn’t been sick at all,” she turned quickly towards me, and almost shouted, “REALLY?”
The medical record was astonishing. The complete and total lack of any semblance of a medical workup was puzzling. I remarked outloud, “She presented for stomach cramps and nausea, where are the blood profile results? Why have a CT, or even a simple radiograph (X-Ray) not been taken? The incredulous look from the nurse also haunts me. “Because, Mr. Klein,” the nurse now speaking matter-of-factly, she has a DNR request on her chart and on her wrist band.”
“Nurse, actually, I’m Doctor Klein, and I demand that you call the physician immediately. DNR means (or so I naively thought) ‘Do Not Resuscitate,’ NOT “DO NOT TRY!”
“How can you possibly make a decision regarding whether or not to treat something, if you don’t even make a minimal attempt to diagnose?” I pleaded on the phone with “the hospitalist” (again, whatever the hell that is). His condescending words also continue to haunt me, “Well what would you like me to do, doctor?”
I’ll leave this alone for now. DNR is a blog posting all by itself.
Although Mom didn’t hang on for all of her children to kiss her goodbye, she did get to hear their voices on the phone. She was fading in and out of our presence, and so we called two others, who were rushing to be with her. Tears dripped from our eyes and off of our cheeks as this seemingly unconscious vessel opened her eyes and smiled when she heard their voices. Her limp hand clenched mine firmly as my siblings told her how much they love her, and – goodbye.
I never got the time to grieve into closure. I had lots of “moments,” holding my wife and children, as we wept together. But mainly there was rage at this poor excuse for a hospital, and my own guilt. Lots of guilt (probably more of that Catholic thing that seems to be a theme in my life), because I was the only one there with the medical knowledge to understand what was happening, and what was not happening. And yet I did not stomp my feet, make a scene, and scream at the top of my lungs until a real doctor showed up. (Clearly I realize a hospitalist is a licensed physician, my point being the system in this hospital, perhaps the entire state, is dysfunctional and absurd).
And then the unthinkable happened. Much like a woman who later gets cancer in a second breast, a man who survives chemo only to die in an accident, or an amputee to later discover metastases.
The Christian band Casting Crowns seemed to feel our pain in Praise You in this Storm,
I was sure by now
God, You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining
and Natalie Grant also knows a continued hurt with Our Hope Endures
You would think only so much can go wrong
Calamity only strikes once
And you assume this one has suffered her share
Life will be kinder from here
Oh, but sometimes the sun stays hidden for years
Sometimes the sky rains night after night
When will it clear?
Just a few months later, in the middle of the night, we received the second call. Our beautiful, wonderful Cullen had been in an accident.
Clearly, there are some things we just aren’t supposed to understand. I don’t understand.
As unfair as it seems at the time, life does go on, and others are allowed to continue on “as if nothing happened.” We live our own lives, we walk our own Camino, even when we travel with others.
I wrote this post last year, but could never bring myself to hit the “publish” button. It just didn’t feel right yet. Things were too raw. Those of you who have lost parents, siblings, or the unthinkable loss of a child know all too well these emotions.
Recently, I participated in training seminars focusing on end of life, grief and bereavement, and some concepts regarding how best to support those “left behind.” The only thing that seems to consistently help is our “being present” when others are suffering from loss. There are no correct words that always apply; in fact most of the cliche’s that are said are absurd and (however well-meaning) actually deepen the hurt. But at least these people tried. So many people pull back from those they care about, because they don’t have something profound or healing to say. And so they say nothing. They disappear. They do nothing. And that is the most hurtful of all.
Some of who I considered my closest friends haven’t spoken to me since my son’s accident. And yet two acquaintances, whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades, reached out to me after Cullen’s accident, because they too had lost a child. Their kindness will never be forgotten.
Being present means you know they are hurting. Since they are loved and special to us, we hurt with them. Just sitting together, hugging, and crying. You are let in not because of who you are, but because who you are is formed by your history with the hurting, and your personal knowledge of loss. Empathy. It’s not something you read about, or something you do. It’s who you are.
Its the age old question. Its that which shakes our faith to its very core. Why must we hurt? Why does tragedy happen to good people? Hurt is the price we pay for our love. We truly wouldn’t know light without darkness for comparison. Warmth without the chill of loneliness. Compassion without our own hurt.
Rather, embrace your pain. For this pain exists precisely because you feel. You have not loved and lost, you have gained so much because you have loved, and have been loved. To feel is a chance to live, and a chance to love.
Reach out to those whom you love, especially when they are hurting. And not just when they’re hurting, and not just to those you love.
“You don’t choose a life, you live one.”