Parked on a chair in the hospital lobby, I was beyond the reach of the wind’s icy fingers. I’d come for a routine test and stayed to make my grocery list in an attempt to delay meeting the arctic air that had blown in that morning. A family went about their work of decorating the hospital’s towering tree, their muffled voices blending with Christmas Muzak and the whir of the continually opening automatic sliding door. I knew these sounds. I knew that tree.
A year ago today our then-sixteen-year-old son woke me in the middle of the night asking if I had anything he could take for stomach pain. He’d been sick for two days and in my motherly wisdom, I told him that the pain and other symptoms were his body’s way of telling him that his stomach needed rest and that pain medication wasn’t restful. He went back to bed.
Three nights earlier when he joined us at the table straight from a deer hunting excursion, he left his food untouched on his plate and I knew he was sick. Up until the middle-of-the-night can-I-have-something-for-pain incident, it had seemed like a regular stomach bug. Morning’s light revealed sunken eyes and a weakened body, so I stationed him on the living room couch where I could watch him as we spent a long day waiting to see the doctor. He lay with his back to the room, motionless and coiled into the fetal position, refusing even tiny sips of water.
Our doctor’s uncharacteristically grave demeanor during the exam did little to alleviate the anxiety of the day. When he finally spoke, he said simply, “I didn’t expect him to be this sick.”
I’d known when we left the house that the clinic was just a detour on the road to the hospital. I’d known, but I hadn’t packed a thing. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Or denial.
As we drove to the hospital, I asked my son if he was afraid and I wondered if I was. He was relieved, happy to go to a place where people would have more to offer than back rubs and sips of water. The doctor had thrown out a few possibilities of what might be wrong. The list didn’t worry him, but it did me. Of the long string of words the doctor had rattled off, the one that registered was e.coli. It was enough.
My husband met us in parking lot and together we walked inside, past the tree which stood sentry, up the stairs, beyond the chapel and into the unexpectedly comforting world of beds and needles and flashing lights, of hushed voices and bells and loved ones with serious faces. Carpeted halls led to rooms where doctors talked diagnosis and hope, healing and death.
We spent three days and nights in the hospital’s sacred stillness, sleepy days and morphine-filled nights which reordered my priorities and focused my attention. All those Christmas tasks that were unfinished when we hit the hospital doors remained undone for the year. That snowstorm that I’d been keeping my eye on, like I do every potential big snow, came and went, without my attention and remarkable only in that it kept my parents and daughters snowbound.
By the time we learned that it was e. coli that had made him so sick, he was home. It was over, as quickly as it had begun.
What mattered a year ago is what mattered still as I sat in the hospital lobby wondering about my own test results and avoiding winter: family and friends, a competent doctor, and the presence of God.