I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about things that are beyond our control.
Last Thursday night, about an hour after I had fallen into a sound sleep, I roused slightly to hear a beep that reminded me of the battery on a smoke detector. I listened again and realized it was the nearest phone in the house, a cordless probably in need of a new battery. It stopped ringing, and then I heard my cell phone ring out loud and clear with its hopped-up version of Clair de Lune. I hurried down the stairs, my heart racing as it will when we wonder what bad news might be trying to reach us, but I realized as I got closer that it was probably the switchboard at Vacationland Medical Center, looking for a chaplain.
For almost four years now, I’ve been one of thirty or so local pastors and trained lay people who give their time as overnight and weekend chaplains at the hospital. And for the past two years, I have also been on the back-up list. When the chaplain on duty cannot be reached because her cell phone is out of range or his phone batteries are as bad as mine were the other night, I am one of three people who are called to respond in his or her place.
Now I know these calls can come at any time, but in reality, they happen rarely. On the nights when I am really on call, I have clothes laid out and a phone near the bed, and I prepare to sleep and to be awakened in one smooth motion. But this particular night, things were beyond my control. Someone’s phones didn’t work, or were not heard, and someone at the hospital used the wrong memo and reached people no longer on the back-up list. And I found clothes and drove a little sleepily to meet a family in the middle of a great loss.
A husband and father had not done well in surgery, you see, despite a good prognosis. When it was time to take him off the bypass machine, his heart never went back to work. Machines had operated for him all day and into the night, but it was clear to the medical staff that this was not going to make him well or even keep him alive. A wife of almost fifty years, who must have been a child bride, tried to assimilate a day of shocks, tried to have hope, tried to be sensible, tried to pray.
Some things are beyond our control.
I have been at many deathbeds as a chaplain, but this one existed in a limbo I found almost unbearable. The body lying before us had “life” only in the most mechanical sense.
I remembered my mother’s hand, as she lay on a rented hospital bed in her dining room, no longer living. The hand was heavy, edematous. It was lifeless. The hand I touched was a dead hand, and I could not hold it. I felt ashamed, but I dropped it.
This man’s hand, too, was lifeless. I listened to the doctor trying to gently explain the situation. I asked a question that helped the wife understand that even the machines could not keep him in a condition of life. The doctor was so kind, and he did not say, your husband is dead now. But I knew he was. I knew it from his hand.
When you stand at such a bedside, how do you pray? This life was beyond our control. We could ask only for Godspeed on the journey.
I drove home sadly, sat awake until the middle of the night. When I crawled into bed, I touched my husband and said, “Promise me you will never die!” He woke up enough to hold me, and I finally fell asleep, mortal as I have ever been.