My step-mother-in-law, Sue, is a nurse. Not a floor nurse, but someone who works with cardiac cases to determine and support best practices for the hospital… if I’m explaining that right.
In any case, she noticed when her husband was starting to get pale while working out. She pushed him to get a stress test. And her colleagues saw that the test was abnormal and scheduled the heart cath on Thursday morning that led to an urgent need for open heart surgery.
Bill hasn’t had any symptoms of heart disease that he (and we) weren’t explaining away. He didn’t have a heart attack or even a severe episode of anything that would have pushed him to get the tests done. As I talked with him on Friday, he was fully aware that either of the two 90% blockages could have closed at anytime and he would have been gone.
Today, he is on the other side of a triple bypass, he is doing excellent, and everything went as good as expected.
It is weird to be on the family side of a hospital visit when I have been there so many times as a pastor and as a chaplain in Clinical Pastoral Education. I know the right things to say, but also the things not to say… the times to just keep my mouth shut. I’m okay with simply being there, not saying anything, and know that presence is a gift.
And yet, I also have a very different relationship with these guys. We share meals. We exchange gifts. We boat on the weekends in the summer and play cards and laugh and drink together and make inappropriate jokes. I’m rarely wearing my “pastor hat” with the family… I can be myself. Figuring out how to be in a familiar place with very familiar people and in a very different role was hard. I brought along a deck of cards, stuffed some snacks in my bag, and prepared to settle in and “be present” for the long haul. It was easy before surgery while we waited. Bill kicked my butt in cribbage and I made sure Sue got some decent food and I felt like I could wear both my daughter-in-law hat and pastor hat at the same time.
But last night in the ICU, with my husband and brother-in-law, we were all in a different place. It is hard seeing someone you love in pain… even if we knew it was healing pain. We started trying to crack the jokes and little playful verbal jabs we are used to and Bill tried to send them back in return… but it quickly stopped. It wasn’t that we felt awkward – it was that the laughing brought pain, so the very thing we knew how to do, the way that we as kids (and daughter-in-law) knew how to relate, was physically painful. So we stood there, by the bed, talking quietly, listening to Bill’s gruff voice (from the breathing tube), and simply being present…
A week or two ago, I shared in worship at the Conference Center and our preacher reminded us the story of the Grinch who stole Christmas. The grinch’s heart was two times to small. And he didn’t want Christmas to happen at all. Everything he could think of, he did, to ruin that day. But what the grinch didn’t realize is that it’s not the glitter and presents and food that makes Christmas what it is – it is simply the spirit of the people.
In many ways, this is a really awful time of year for this to have happened. One family member joked in response “does this mean Bill’s not bringing the turkey for our Christmas Day meal?” My neice thinks it is just so sad that “Bumpa” will be in the hospital on Christmas Day. And even at the hospital, you can see how the surgeries slow down and the beds empty because people do not way to be away from their families if they don’t have to for Christmas. And it kind of feels like the Grinch stole Christmas.
But on the other hand, we can only be grateful. Grateful he has good care. Grateful they caught it in time. Grateful that we can still spend time with one another and especially with him.
Instead of stressing about who is bringing what to the table and if we got enough gifts or the right gifts, Christmas will be different for all of us this year. The priorities change. We are growing as people and in relationship to one another. And maybe like the Grinch, all of our hearts will be bigger and better this year.