We all need a reason to believe. A reason–something irrational and inspiring, something we can hold to keep us strong and brave–despite the darkness that clings and the fear that threatens us.
When we have nothing else, we have a reason to believe.
On the third day of watching and waiting for the roller coaster of our lives to stop, our reason to believe was the simple fact that Dad was still alive. It was all we could count on. He had reached a plateau–gradually taking a step toward recovery and then–just as gradually–slipping back again. Back and forward. Up and down. One step up, one step back. It was driving all of us crazy. We were anxious to move away from the life threatening stigma of the CCU, anxious to be able to tell ourselves that Dad was out of the worst kind of trouble. Anxious to relax. Of course, Rau did not agree with this line of reasoning, and was constantly harping on us to realize that Dad was never going to be out of trouble. The family–or whoever happened to be at the hospital at the time–would meet with Rau every morning. We’d spend the time looking forward–to what had to be done–while Rau would struggle to keep us in the here and now.
“Yes, your father has improved, but there is still a long way to go,” Rau would tell us. “Even if–even if he makes it to the Oncology department and we’re successful in putting the Leukemia into remission, there’s still a chance that it could come back at anytime, and you’d be right back here again, with no better chance
than you have now.”
“When would we be able to consider him in the clear?” I asked Rau.
“At least five years, if there’s no recurrence. Right now, the important thing is to get Rich into the Oncology department–we can’t really do anything until he’s strong enough to move upstairs.” Rau was, as always, serious. The importance he placed on getting Dad out of the CCU and into the Oncology unit was underscored by the amount of time he spent in the CCU, pestering nurses and trying to find out how quickly he could be released.
Like it did any good–unfortunately, it was up to Dad, and he wasn’t improving quickly enough to suit Rau.
We had all fallen into our patterns of watch and wait. Carole suggested we take turns going up to see Dad–it was too much for him to have to put up with more than one or two people at a time. So when it was my turn to wait, I took to wandering around the hospital, snooping in doorways and discovering where everything was located. I didn’t know what it was I was looking for–I was, as the saying goes, just looking.
What I found was a dark little room next to the main entrance of the hospital, a room I had passed a million times over the past three days, but had not noticed. Perhaps it had just opened–when I walked toward the door to see what the room was used for, I dawned on me that this place was never closed.
It was a chapel. The room–and it really wasn’t much more than a large bedroom–was dominated by a huge white pine cross on the far right wall, just above the worship table, two bunches of candles and a small, makeshift lectern. Facing the crucifix were three hard back pews so close to the altar you had to crane your neck up to see the inscription at the top of the cross.
The room was illuminated by the faint glow of candles, one group to each side of the pews. They were prayer candles–people would go over, say a pray for a loved one, drop a dollar in a mini mailbox and light a candle as a petition to God.
God was supposed to keep track of who lit candles. I thought it much more likely that God paid attention to the old, tattered book sitting on a stand at the edge of the entrance door. It was a thick log book, encased in a black cover–and the pages inside held the hopes and prayers of people searching for God’s help in the deepest moments of despair.
Here, scrawled on these pages, were the thoughts of desperate people searching for a way to believe everything was going to work out. On the smudged papers, fathers and mothers, children and grandchildren, wrote their innermost prayers down for the world to witness–and God to heed.
It was a collection of mankind’s most beautiful thoughts.
I spent an hour going through that book, and when I returned to the CCU, I did so refreshed and optimistic.
No sooner had I arrived that I needed to use every bit of that optimism. Dad had decided to fall off the plateau, and was spiraling back into a comatose state. We had all been so intent on his temperature that we had forgotten about his heart and blood pressure, a chronic health concern he had managed to keep under control over the years, thanks to Mom’s constant harping about the right foods to eat.
We didn’t thing anything else could go wrong.
How wrong we were. His nurses had told us what had to happen for us to get him back–lick the temperature, get rid of the infection and move him up to the Oncology department for Leukemia treatment. So that’s what we locked in on. Beating a stroke wasn’t part of the deal.
One minute everything was chugging along on an even keel, and the next thing everything is haywire. It’s ironic–these are the times when you look for a doctor the most, for an order or procedure, a wave of the hand and a rapid-fire set of instructions that will save the day. And it’s during these moments that doctors can do nothing. It’s shrug-your-shoulders-time and pray to God in the critical care unit.
Which is exactly what I did–without the shrug.
It’s a terrible irony: So close to heaven, yet for some reason, most people don’t think of God as an ally when it comes to saving lives. Perhaps it’s because it smacks of desperation. Or maybe because most of us are too guilty from our inattentiveness to our beliefs and the other things faithful people do. Why would God listen to us when we don’t listen to him? I had to give it a try. We should have all been in that little chapel from the start, creating hope when there was still hope to build from. Instead I went down when there was no hope left at all.
“Don’t be gone long, Brian,” Mom said. “We might have to get a hold of you pretty quickly.”
“I’ll just be downstairs. If something happens, send someone for me, okay?”
I got into the elevator and willed it down. The moment it landed I slipped between the doors, pushed my way through the waiting crowd and flew through the hospital waiting room. In a minute I was there and on my own with God. And I got angry. I demanded to know why in the world he was allowing this to happen. What the hell was going on, anyway? We had always been a good family–why us? Perhaps there was a greater plan. So I figured that I either had to wake him up, tell him we passed the test or try to talk him out of it.
I did it the only way I knew how, from the years of CCD. On my knees with a rosary in my hands. It seemed like the most powerful thing to do. So I knelt there and I meditated, forming each word slowly in my mouth and thinking of its meaning. Indeed, prayer does not accurately describe the intensity of it; only deep meditation, saying the mantra that is the Catholic prayer system as the platform to reach out and connect with a higher being. A small hand, a frail whisper reaching out to the giver of life, begging for a reprieve. I will never know if it worked. I will never know if it had anything to do with it.
But to my dying day I will believe it worked.
I felt the miracle in my brother-in-law’s hand as he put in on my shoulder. A reason to believe expressed in a gesture, in a heartfelt prayer and a hand on the shoulder. From there on, I had every faith he would make it. I knew–because God had heard me, and had responded. It was only a matter of time, a matter of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, so we threw ourselves into his recovery. The surprise of doctors and nurses throughout the Critical Care Unit over his turnaround was testament enough–it was not only a surprise, but the fact that his recovery was now going on at a rapid pace was even more shocking. Every morning saw a new conquest, another step in the general direction toward our ultimate goal–the Oncology Department. that was the key we all clung to.
“If we can only get him healthy enough to start treatment, then half the battle is won,” I said to Carole and Mom outside the cafeteria. “I know he can lick this thing if he can only get out of critical care and start on the chemo.”
“Well, Dr. Rau was pretty optimistic about moving him this week. If all goes well, maybe he will,” Mom replied.
“Oh, that’s a big step for Mr. Happy, being so upbeat and all,” Carole said. “I bet he still cautions about his chances of making a full recovery.”
We couldn’t help it. His fighting spirit was coming back. We were very careful not to show our optimism to the doctors and nurses that seemed to check and cluck over him with increased importance and irritableness.
You know you’re recovering when you get the cranky nurse.
The hardest part of it was the pride. Recovery isn’t easy when you’re a proud man struggling against a very humbling disease. Every day Dad fights something he cannot see or feel–yet still he fights a war in which the odds are long against him; and he is beginning to win a battle here and there. But he is old; the virus is young and strong; he is tired, the virus is well-rested after many years living dormant inside his body. It has taken everything he has ever been proud of away. The master cabinetmaker can no longer pick up a pencil, the amateur orator can no longer speak above a whisper. The man who has filled his life with things to do and make and fix and build, a man who takes life by the shoulders and shakes it vigorously can only lie in a bed as his family moves his limbs for him.
Back and forth. There you go, Dad, back and forth, keep those legs strong.
My father is a healthy, swarthy old stoat who never needed any help; today, the virus had made it so he can no longer pick up a fork and feed himself. It takes away the ability and durability of the mind, and turns people strong and quick into simple and childlike. It has put its finger on every part of him it can reach, every limb, every blood vessel, every head and nail.
But it cannot touch his spirit.
That is what we hold on to, because that is what is giving us our little victories. We now know that it cannot touch his spirit, and that is the thought we take home with us at night so we can sleep and to work with us in the day so we will not go insane. Our job is to keep that spirit strong. Whenever he is awake, someone is there, sitting beside him. When he fell asleep, someone is there to make sure he received the proper care. We speak to him. We yell at him. We assist with his therapy, coaching and helping him learn the most simple things, all over again. Sit up. Move your legs. Feed yourself.
When he did that it was a huge victory.
As the news trickled in with every passing doctor’s appointment, the hope we used to prop up the reason to believe he could make it grew stronger; we could see it in his eyes and in our own reflection. That image was different than what we were used to; seeing your father, the strong man of the family, the rock, torn down and reduced to a child is an eye-opening experience.
It changes you, makes alterations that go beyond recognition. It makes you cynical and angry, mean-spirited and tough. It makes you put childish things aside and fight harder and meaner than ever before.
It was the only choice we had, the only reason we had to believe.