When I think of hospitals, I usually think of broken bones or mild concussions, ice skating accidents and bumps from falls of a bicycle. Most of the time, the hospital is where we go to get fixed up. But hospitals are strange places, where death is just as familiar as life, and no matter how hard the doctors and nurses fight, sometimes a life just slips away.
The small town hospital where my mother went for a scheduled surgery last week is a busy and bustling place during the weekdays. It’s full of action with everything from minor emergencies to nutrition classes, and a parking lot full of visitors vehicles. But on the weekend, the places falls all but silent. Only a skeleton crew stays on to manage those things which can’t wait for Monday. The doctors’ offices are closed, and even the emergency room and the birthing center get just a trickle of visitors.
It was during those quiet days of the weekend that I had time to sit in the hospital and think about the energy of that place. I realized that I mostly shut it out, not wanting to know or think about what goes on in there. But even in a sleepy hospital in a small town surrounded by wheat and lentil fields, there is the frenetic energy of life and death and scary moments that change people forever.
There are spirits there who aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. Some of their bodies are in a room, hooked up to machines and IV’s, maybe with a cadre of medical professionals around them or maybe alone in the near silence, just the beep of a monitor to keep them company. Others watched their bodies leave the hospital, but haven’t yet made peace with the idea that there’s nothing left to fight for. Survival is over now, but they seem to think that if they just try a little harder, they might change that. One spirit in that place, it may have been a dead person or it may have been an accumulation of energy that merged into a single force, watched over it all with a bit of amusement. “This is what happens here,” it said with a bit of a shrug.
On Friday morning, my mother’s nurse tried to reach me by phone, but I never got the call. My mother called twice. In her second voicemail she sounded tiny and pathetic, “Come to the hospital, please. I have to go back in for another surgery.” Six calls all together, but not a single one registered on my phone. This is the danger of trusting modern technology. My mother’s apartment is in a cell phone reception shadow, and unless you stand at just the right place, there’s no service at all. Just as I was about to leave the house to go visit my mom, a friend showed up at the door to tell me that I needed to call the hospital. They didn’t know what was happening, but it sounded like I needed to get over there right away.
I was told later that at that point they hadn’t thought she was going to make it.
I hopped in the car and drove the twenty minutes on the rural highway to the little community hospital. As I drove, I spoke to my mom out loud. “What’s going on? Did you decide you didn’t want to stick around any more? Yeah, I know, there’s a lot of bad stuff coming down the line. Things are getting more difficult, and the world is changing in ways you don’t like. But you’ve been doing so much good work these last few years. And I know how much you’ve been enjoying yourself. The people in your town are really glad to have you there, and they need you. I sure can’t drive all the old people in town to the grocery store and their doctor’s appointments! I’ve been doing it while you are in there, and it’s EXHAUSTING!”
There was a moment on the drive when I knew she was going to stay with us for a while longer. It was as if she’d heard every word. I could see her clearly in the darkness of my own mind as she nodded and said, “Yeah, I guess I’ll stay.”
I walked to the nurses’ station where my mother’s room had been before, and I was escorted quickly to the ICU waiting room. The nurse said that she’d just heard from the surgery that things were going better. They’d thought they were going to lose her, but the bleeding was under control and she was doing much better now.
A chaplain came by to talk to me, “There’s almost never anyone in here,” she told me. I’m not sure which of us received ministerial care in the hour that proceeded, but she did take notes.
A day later and my mom was back to flirting with young male nursing assistants and generally being her gregarious self. She complained about the cords and IV’s she was attached to, and hated having to get help to walk to the bathroom. But she was fine.
A spirit sat in the room with her and watched. It had seen many patients in that room before. Sometimes people do get to choose to live. Sometimes they escape their broken bodies just when their friends have gone to the cafeteria for a break. Sometimes a person has just got to go whether they like it or not. My mom may have been one of the more amusing visitors it had seen in a while.