My mother was moved to a regular hospital room today. This is good news, after her spending four days in cardiac intensive care instead of the usual day-and-a-half. She is still very weak, and groggy from pain meds, and can't really keep up a conversation for more than about a quarter-hour; but today she seemed to finally be cognizant of her surroundings and her operation, and kept saying, "A triple bypass? I can't believe this happened to me." I've been telling her that we're very fortunate that we went to the emergency room when we did, not knowing how sick she really was; that this was really the best outcome considering a lot of not-very-good alternatives.
It's funny; in my day job, which involves outreach on behalf of an aging services agency, I spend a lot of time encouraging caregivers of seniors to develop a "care team" of people they can turn to for support. Little did I know, just a week ago today, that I'd be the one needing a care team. Many thanks to all of you who are team members helping on the spiritual front; your prayers are appreciated. And -- maybe this is just me, but I think there's a reason why, no matter how weak and sleepy Mom is, her vital signs are very strong and the physical aspects of her surgery are progressing on schedule.
Needless to say, I've spent a lot of time this past week sitting in a waiting room. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, this has the effect of concentrating the mind powerfully, although perhaps not on the situation that's brought one to the hospital in the first place; I was telling a friend that I think we loved ones go through a kind of anesthesia during health crises like this that keep us from dwelling on the gravity of our loved one's condition until we're too mentally and emotionally paralyzed to function. So we think and do other things -- things that disinterested people might find odd, in the circumstances. But it gets us from Task A to B to C, which is where our loved ones need us to be.
Anyhow -- some random thoughts while sitting in a waiting room:
When I started feeling too sorry for myself, I'd look around at the other families clustered in various areas. One family was pretty much camped out on a group of sofas they'd moved together; they were there on Thursday morning, and they were there yesterday afternoon. Today they weren't. I thought I overheard a comment about "my father dying," so I suspect it was a gathering of the clan for that sad time, although there wasn't a lot of crying or sadness in the family...perhaps it had been expected. But there was that family. There was the elderly woman there for her husband; I heard her tell a hospital staffer that they had seven children, but all seven lived far away, so it was just her, waiting. There was the family ushered into the consultation room, off to the side of the waiting room; I watched them entering with some trepidation, and watched them leave a few minutes later, all smiles. That was good. This is actually the hospital where my father died, of a burst aneurysm, many years ago -- I remember that moment where the surgeon appeared with a grim look on his face; that's when you really don't want to go into the consultation room with him. But -- sitting in a large metropolitan hospital like this, watching the various dramas enfolding around me -- like the song says, every picture tells a story, don't it.
Here's irony for you: This hospital is considered one of the best in the state for cardiac surgery. It contains a separate cardiac care outpatient clinic. But when you walk into the cafeteria, one whole side of the place is like a shrine to fried food -- rows of onion rings and french fries and battered fish filets and deep-fried everything else. Over on the entree side, there's exactly one "healthy" choice, and more cheesy, fatty, cholesterol-laden stuff; the other healthy options are the salad bar or the premade salads and sandwiches. I found it interesting that the staff seemed to choose the healthy vittles, while the visitors went after the deep-fried cheesy cauliflower, et al. Maybe it's because of what the staff sees all day.
I seem to recall that this hospital once had Lutheran roots; at some point it merged with the city hospital, but it maintains a "faith-based" feel, with crosses in the hallways and a very nice chapel off the end of the waiting room -- a kind of beautifully stark, Danish-modern design, except for an evocative sculpture of Christ cradling a sick person in his arms up above the altar. In the almost-week that I've been hanging out in the waiting room, I have seen exactly one other person, besides myself, enter the chapel. I went inside and said the Noonday Prayer Friday, after the surgeon came down and told me that everything went fine. I was glad it was there.
The Cardiac Care Unit has hospital chaplains bring family members up to the CICU for the first visit. I was wondering about this -- it's not standard for other surgeries -- but it's because of the gravity of the operations, and because the patients look terrible -- it can be a shock for the unprepared. The chaplains sit down with you beforehand and give you a very detailed description of what you can expect to see and hear as you go up to the recovery area. I had one chaplain prep me and another take me to CICU; the one who went with me said, "Sometimes the visitors pass out up there -- usually the men." Fortunately for her and the rest of the staff, I remained upright and conscious.
My pastor -- who, by the way, both by himself and then later with his wife, sat with me for several hours on Friday; they are the best -- passed along a great line: We were talking about Mom's recovery, and I was expressing my anxiety about how we were going to engineer her care at home, and he quoted a friend of his as telling him once, "We all spend an awful lot of time and energy clearing away the wreckage of the future."
Surprisingly -- or maybe not, because there's so much waiting going on in a waiting room that you have to do something with your brain to keep it from imploding -- I read three books in the past week. And I retained so much from all of them -- unlike my usual distracted, multitasking way of reading books. I read Joan Chittister's Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, a very good book about incorporating Benedictine spirituality into one's daily life; I read Marva Dawn's Unfettered Hope, about living joyfully and counterculturally as a follower of Christ in an alien culture; and I read (don't all start laughing at once)Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. The first two books dovetailed so perfectly together it was almost as if the two authors had collaborated with one another; I really felt God's "Listen up!" in stereo. The last book -- well, I had expected the author to be a scary, anal-retentive Martha Stewart clone, but she wasn't half bad, even though she is a lawyer by trade and includes a scary chapter on homeowner liability that will make you never want to have anyone else set foot on your property ever again. (Especially if you have a neurotic old dog who's been known to clamp his mostly toothless but still pain-inflicting jaws onto the calves of persons he does not happen to like.) And she also included instructions on how to iron sheets, although she noted that she was doing this mostly as a hat tip to the good old days and not because she actually expects her readers to iron sheets. And I learned stuff. Did you know that banana oil removes Wite-Out stains from clothing? Except that I'm not quite sure what banana oil is. Oh, well.
Finally, a sign at a gas station next to the exit I take to get onto the freeway: "WORLD'S SECOND LARGEST SELECTION OF JERKY." (For my international readers, jerky is dried, smoked, extremely chewy meat of various kinds -- beef, turkey, venison, bison -- these days often specially flavored in various ways; Cajun, teriaki and so forth.) Honesty in advertising -- you've got to love it.
It feels good to be back talking to people not wearing scrubs and disposable slippers. Thanks again, everyone.