April 7, 2014

Searching the Obvious

Hospital chaplains have many talents. Some have the gift of words, and when they pray, there is no doubt the prayer runs through the hospital rooms, through cement walls and steel rafters, and makes it all the way to heaven. Some hospital chaplains, like me, have a talent to help prepare patients for the “what if” scenario. But sometimes we still get it wrong.

* * *

My cell phone rings just as my garage door is closing. It’s 3:00 on a Friday afternoon.My friend Valerie is calling from the hospital. She needs someone who can help with a advance medical directive. The surgery is soon, and she needs help. I grab the backpack containing my Bible and everything I need for a sudden “on call” emergency, open the garage door, start the car, and drive to the hospital. Who has surgery on Friday evenings?

On the fifth floor of the hospital Valerie greets me at the elevators. She fills me in on the details: husband and wife team, positive attitude, children not yet arrived. Valerie leaves me outside the closed door with papers in hand. I say a prayer at the door, asking for the Holy Spirit to be with me. I need peace, grace, and inspiration.

As I open the door I suddenly stop. An older woman lies on the hospital bed laughing at something her husband has said. He sits close by rubbing her feet. This is not a sad visit at all! The woman waves me closer. I introduce myself, and the husband quickly gets me a chair.

For the next half hour I meet with them. Her name is Venicia, and she has been married to John for 45 years. She has a brain tumor, but complex health issues might render tonight’s surgery unsuccessful. I watch them both. They are ready for this. No tears. I pull out my advance directive paperwork. Time to begin.

“We don’t need those, honey,” says Venicia, holding John’s hand. “We have everything we need for the ‘what if’ scenario: power of attorney, advance medical directive, etc. That’s not why we called you.”

John and Venicia have two sons, Aaron and James. Venicia wants to write an advance medical directive for them. Why? Her sons are estranged. They no longer attend church, they do not come to weekend dinners, and they do not gather for holidays. Venicia has decided that she wants a legal document that will make them reflect, reconnect, go back to church with their families. An advance medical directive seems the best idea for this.

“It’s a legal document, right?” she says. “They need to hear me one last time.”

A legal document, except this one is different. Venicia wants them to go back to church, visit their father, share their families. I open my backpack and take out my notepad with light-blue paper. I have an idea.

* * *

One hour later nurses come to take Venicia to surgery. We pray together. I watch as Venicia and John kiss goodbye and hear her whisper, “They were the best 45 years of my life.”

I walk behind John as he follows Venicia to the doors marked “Surgery,” then take him to the family room, where Aaron and James join us. Now we wait.

As I bring water bottles into the family room, the phone rings. It’s Valerie. As I step out of the room I see the surgeon walking down the hall with Valerie. He shakes his head no. One more guest heads our way: the notary public. Before the doctor speaks to the family, Aaron and James will have to provide proper identification to receive the last letter their mother wrote to them, each in an envelope aptly titled: What If . . .

No advance medical directive. Simply words of love.

We enter the family room, and with the backdrop of the notary public’s conversations with Aaron and James, my eyes are the ones with tears. The notary is quick, and I open the door for the doctor to come in, and then quietly melt against the wall to let all the emotions that are coming find space in this room. There are tears, hugs, and kind words. Venicia would be happy.