Monday, August 15, 2005

SICK BAY (pt ii)

She has no arms, and she has no legs. It’s an awful, awful story.

26, married, just had a new baby. Walking through her backyard in California one day and steps on a rusty, sharp piece of metal. Does bad things to her foot. Does worse things to her blood, which becomes infected. She goes to see the doctor; the doctor says to go to the hospital. She gets worse, then she gets a lot worse. In the end she gets a severe blood infection, which necessitates amputating all four of her limbs—the arms just below the elbow, both legs just above the knees. She’s in Chicago for a tour of duty at our rehab hospital, which has the rep of being the best in the country.

It’s so awful you can’t really take it in. I had a conversation with her nurse one day in the hallway, and I struggled to find the words to describe it: “I can’t believe it….my jaw just hits the floor. I don’t know how she’s finding….I mean, I don’t know how she gets up in the morning.” Her flinty reply: “I’d rather be dead.”

She’s focused on her kids right now. It’s something you see in the hospital: how strong the parenting instinct is, how often people cling to life for the sake of their children. Whatever grief or despair or shock or rage or bewilderment troubles this patient’s spirit, she’s pushed it away to the far recesses, locked it in some closet somewhere to be visited at a time when her 7-year old and her 4-month old aren’t living with their grandparents in Fresno. Some time when their mother can actually mother them.

I admire her. But here, again, the stunning reality of what’s happened to her. How can she mother now? Imagine it. How do you breast-feed your child with no hands? How do you diaper, dress, groom, bathe, cook? How do you run your hands through their hair, whisper reassurances in their ears when they skin their knees or fall off their bikes? How do you pick them up from school? Sign their report cards? Spank them?

She has to learn how to do everything again. She might as well be an infant. The formidable people at the rehab hospital will do their best—and their best, I know, is damn good. But from now on, she and her family bear two burdens: first, the burden of the simple awfulness of what has happened to her. Second, the burden of trying to learn to live with no limbs.

Her husband is around all the time. I wonder why at first and then realize it’s because he has to do absolutely everything for her. Her turns her to face me when I come in the room. He’s probably the one who’s shaving her armpits or shampooing her delicate hair. He’s doing it all. It’s too big. It’s too big. I keep slipping—I try my best, but I can’t help it. I talk about ‘getting a foot in the door.’ I offer to bring her and her husband some cards to pass the time. I bring her a Bible and then wonder how she’ll read it to herself.

She’s got a beautiful face, and I imagine she must have been quite a catch back in the day. But now she’s not the woman her husband married. Nobody’s wants to ask the $64,000 question—can they still have sex, and is he still attracted to her enough to do so?—but it’s in the air.

I keep looking at her husband and wondering: OK, what are you thinking, buddy?

I keep looking at her husband. Big, beefy guy. His UNLV t-shirt and jocky demeanor give me the impression of a guy who’s spent some quality time standing around a keg. His wife welcomes me, prays with me. He’s a bit more standoffish; sometimes he prays, sometimes he watches ESPN, sometimes he naps. At first I’m a tiny bit off-put. But after a couple days of his quiet presence, I start to warm up to him. He might be a bit sullen or out of it, but dammit, he’s here.

I read an interview—it was with Morton Kondracke, of all people, and whatever you think of his politics it's a great read-—where he discussed how husbands respond when their wives are diagnosed with Parkinson's. Once it becomes clear that at some point down the road—decades hopefully, years possibly—that their wife will no longer be able to care for herself or perform ordinary daily activities, a huge proportion of them split. Half, to be exact. Just left their wives. Said “screw this, this wasn’t what I signed on for.” 50%? It's a number high enough to make you believe in original sin.

Is some part of him, way down deep or right under the surface, thinking: I cannot do this. I cannot do this. I want to find some way to find out what he’s feeling and give him a big hug and tell him how awful this is and that God’s going to help them both get through this and help him do the right thing. But there’s no access point, no way to get in touch with that side of him. Maybe he’s a stand-up guy, and those feelings aren’t there at all. Or maybe they are—the flip-side of what his wife is going through—and he simply can’t spend any time with them yet, because his wife needs to be turned, or helped to go to the bathroom, or to sign her own name.

I don’t know how to pray with them. One of my fellow chaplains—a man who never wants for a long, lengthy, beautiful prayer—went to go see her the other day and was stunned into silence. He stood there, dumbfounded, for a long while before he could think of what to pray. Which is probably for the best—better to bow in reverence before the awfulness of this, the awe-fullness of this, than to fill a holy and redemptive silence with shallow words, easy words, dumb words. They don’t need those, and they don’t have time for those.

So I don’t lift up the grief, I don’t lift up the healing. I don’t say, “Dear God, show us how to go on in the face of something this horrible.” Those feelings are either on hold for a while, or I don’t get to see them—and in either case I understand. Instead we pray for the small things: that she’d get her heart murmur taken care of so she can go back to the rehab hospital. That her pain would go away. That she’d complete her rehab tour of duty in time to go back with her husband to California by the end of this month like she’d planned. That their children would be alright. I give them a Bible and tell them I’ll see them tomorrow.

She is wearing her wedding ring, on a chain, around her neck. I am praying for them.

9 Comments:

Blogger shrinklet said...

spammers aside, this is a moving entry.

8:36 PM  
Blogger Dan Morehead said...

What exactly will we be celebrating when we celebrate the end of your summer CPE stay?

After pondering that, I have a few ideas.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Dan Morehead said...

Further medical reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/16/health/16dignity.html?ei=5094&en=eb7a3883c2c05e8e&hp=&ex=1124251200&partner=homepage&pagewanted=all

Enjoy.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

One question - will she get artificial limbs? That might help with getting her back to normal, wouldn't it?

Great thoughts - thanks for sharing...

9:19 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Actually, it's Hannah (not Matt) who just posted the last comment... (I don't have/need a blogger account so I use Matt's sometimes... Hope that's OK)

9:20 AM  
Blogger Captain said...

Hannah,

Yes, she'll definitely get artificial limbs. And she'll probably be able to do a great deal for herself, if she's tough and determined. I think my point was that even learning to do all that stuff is a damn tough road for her at this point: re-learning how to walk, learning how to brush your teeth with a prosthetic hand, etc., etc. It's quite a challenge, though one I earnestly pray and hope she's up to.

Dan,

Thanks for the link. That's a good article.


Dave

9:06 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

This moved me to tears. It is one of those things that really begs the question, "Why would God allow someone to experience this kind of hell?" Although I have no answer to that question, I will keep this family in prayer.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Luke said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:58 PM  
Blogger Luke said...

Hold your hand in front of your face so that all you can see is your hand.

This is your life on Earth. Maybe 50 years. Maybe 90. Who knows? But your hand represents the entirety of your life.

No doubt, it will be filled with pain. In some cases, it will be nothing but pain. Children are born into the sex trade. Mothers see their babies murdered before their eyes. Atrocity after atrocity can add up to make this life into one hellish existence.

But wait.

Start to pull your hand away from your face.

Slowly.

Slower.

As you do this, you are adding one year of eternity to the back end of this life.

One more.

Another.

Another.

As you continue to do this, your life on Earth gets smaller. It shrinks. Like your hand, it draws further and further away from your eyes.

If the length of your arms were not a factor, your hand would eventually disappear. You would not see it anymore.

Mathematically speaking... it will someday be as though your Earthly life had never even happened. Quite literally, it will be like one of a million blinks of the eye... insignificant in the grand scheme... and someday... perhaps forgotten.

If our eternity is to be filled with perfect Love and Acceptance from a Father who adores His children... then this life might only be a means for better understanding the value of that Love.

In defense of a loving Father, and with great certainty that my words will be taken as trite and insensitive when held against this woman's unbelievable misfortune, I simply must say...

This too shall pass.

She will know God's love better than the athlete who was able to win everything. More than some, she will better appreciate the time when her grasp is full of her children once more. She has been positioned to experience unconditional Love like few others ever will.

I wish that no man, woman, or child would have to endure the excruciating torment of a life filled with pain. I truly feel sorrow for this wonderful daughter of God. Her story pains me. At the same time, I realize that perspective is everything. We see so little now. In the end, this life (her life... my life... your life) will be as blink. As though it almost didn't even happen.

Do I personally tend to every single blink of my child's eye? No. When they get a piece of crud in their eye and begin to cry, am I throwing them to the ground and screaming as I struggle to remove the speck? No. I scoop them up and cradle them. I tell them it will pass. Eyes are just that way. They're made that way.

More than anything, I felt compelled to defend my Daddy. Despite our worst, He will do His best. Nothing is finished yet. We are impatient. In His time, all will be made whole... right... new.

I have no words for this woman and her family. I am speechless. But It pains me to hear people wonder why God would... [fill in the blank].

Our Daddy is perfect.
It is we who lack perspective.

Thankfully, He is more patient than we are.

11:59 PM  

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