Reflections on One Night in the Hospital

A couple days ago I spent some time with my good friend Brad Duggan talking about how emotionally rich this journey with The Cancer has been.  The discussion spurred me to reflect back on one particularly memorable night in the hospital. I don’t recall exactly what night it was but I know it was before the surgery to remove Maggie’s tumors.

Maggie’s bed was one of those funny hospital beds that raises and lowers and bends in funny ways.  She was hooked up to all these machines that clicked, whirred and buzzed, each diligently performing its own special duty.  As a side-effect of all the pain-killers she was always uncomfortably hot so we kept the room just slightly above freezing.  And the record January cold and ice outside helped the AC do its job.

My el-cheap-o fold-up bed with its cold, plastic mattress crackled every time I moved. But, hey, at least I had my hospital-issue micro-thin cotton-fiber sheet to keep me warm.  My bed was much closer to the floor than Maggie’s so I slept with my bed pushed right up against hers with my arm resting on a pile of pillows so that I could keep my hand elevated onto Maggie’s bed, tucked partially underneath the small of her back.  Or, if I was lucky, I got to hold her hand.  It was, to say the least, uncomfortable.  Miserably uncomfortable.  But we were together.

Maggie was on a powerful painkilling med called dilaudid.  It worked well – she was never in any discomfort as far as I know.  But watching my wife come under the influence of such a strong narcotic was unnerving.  You know Maggie – animated, talkative, super-bright eyes and more alive than most.  Now imagine watching that same person, the love of your life, quickly transform like sick magic right before your eyes to someone who’s barely alive.  It’s like the life just gets sucked out of her and within two minutes she’s just laying there, barely breathing.  Just gone.

That long night I laid there wide awake watching the clock slowly wind its way toward the dawn.  I kept my hand on Maggie’s chest so I could follow its barely-perceptible up-down motion with each of her tiny breaths.  It was the only hint I had that she was still alive.  She was in a place far, far away.

Every tick of the clock gave my racing mind plenty of time for a lifetime of thoughts.  Each minute was emotion-filled and there were lots LOTS of tears.  Somewhere around 3AM as I laid there on my crinkly mattress, cold, bleary-eyed, with a stopped-up nose and my hand on her chest I lost control.  My dam finally burst.  My crying turned into muted, wracking sobs.  And I just couldn’t stop.

“Is this it?” I asked myself.  “Will she ever leave this hospital?  Is she going to die here tonight?  Or tomorrow?  How am I going to live on?”  The painful, endless questions screamed inside my skull.

Despite the noise from my gasping sobs, I heard a faint but familiar “Honey?”  It was almost a sigh but more like a faint whisper.  I had woken Maggie from her deep, deep, drug-induced sleep.  “Hey, baby,” I choked out, trying to sound upbeat.

“Honey?  Am I going to die?”

My heart stopped.

Nothing in my life could have prepared me for this moment.  The pressure in my chest should have split me wide open.  The burning on my face should have lit me on fire.  It’s as though all the gears in my head suddenly stripped and my motor just spun wildly uncontrolled.  The emotional pressure of every sad person in the whole wide world focused down onto my head for one endless instant.

This question is not one you’ll find referenced in any book.  There’s no entry in Dear Abby on how deal with this.  It’s not even a set of words I thought I’d ever hear placed together in a sentence, let alone from my wife.  And hopefully this is a question I never, ever, ever hear again.

I honestly don’t remember what I told her.  I’m certain it was something reassuring or maybe I even cracked a joke.  Who knows and, honestly, who cares.  I know she doesn’t remember and it doesn’t even matter.  But I remember how I felt.  That I’ll never forget.  The burning in my chest.  The buzzing in my head.  And I remember how alone I felt, like it was Maggie and me against the world.  Or… now… was it just me?

I honestly don’t remember anything else that night.

I write about that night not to wallow in self pity or to expose my misery to the world for attention or some sort of twisted admiration.  No, I want no part of any of that.  Instead, I re-hash that point in time for three reasons.  First, just by writing about this darkest hour I turn up the brightness just a little and make it not quite so impenetrable.

Second, and waaaaay more important, I never, ever want to forget that moment and how I felt.  In that moment I was the most angry, helpless, frightened, and alone I had ever been and, hopefully, will ever be.  But the amazing thing I’ve realized is that my fear, my helplessness was all based on “what might happen.” Yes, fiction!  It was all made up inside my mind!  None of it was real.  Yes, the circumstances that built up to that moment sucked.  But the part that drove me crazy wasn’t real.  It was just one scenario played out in my head.  And, as it turns out, absolutely none of it has proven to be true.

Third, and just as important, my fears were so powerful that they woke up my love from her deep, deep drug-induced sleep and even managed to stir up the same fears in her despite her near complete incapacitation.  Wow.  How truly amazing is that?

Human emotions are a powerful thing.  Couple that with the oh-so-human tendency to conjure worst-case scenarios and you create a decisive weapon against hope.  And the loss of hope is, almost by itself, deadly.  At minimum, a hopeless state is a miserable place to be.  Been there, done that.

But could the inverse also be true?  Is hope itself enough to keep you alive?  Can hope itself overcome insurmountable odds?  Gosh, I hope so.  I really, really hope so.

8 thoughts on “Reflections on One Night in the Hospital

  1. Chris,
    You have this amazing way of taking all of us there. For the last 6 months you’ve done that. It’s important for all of us who know and love you two, and anyone who reads your blogs. Hope is a decision. We all have hope and it’s powerful.

  2. My God. Wow. Chris, thank you for opening your heart and sharing this. There is such a lesson to be learned here for your works in this entry about how to LIVE life and understand that we always have “the now” and have to live in the moment, and in fiction. Thank you for this. Love you guys!

  3. wow, not really paying attention to my typing … I meant to write “…learned here is such a lesson to be learned here FROM your WORDS in this entry about….” I’ve not have enough coffee yet!

  4. SUFFEREING builds Character,
    CHARACTER builds Strength,
    STRENGTH builds Courage,
    COURAGE builds HOPE ….

    and, where there is HOPE …
    there is GOD !!! — Anonymous

    Chris, remember, you’re not alone!
    Take Care, Brenda Smith

  5. Nothing better than a good solid cry at the office on a monday. thanks for that recount chris, it was very powerfully written.

  6. Chris, you have been Maggie’s rock throught this cancer adventrue. I know what a gift you have been to each other lives and to mine. Know that everday I pray for God to grant Maggie a full recovery. Love you both! Denise

  7. Chris,
    I thank God for the love you have for Maggie.
    You do not know me, I do work at DADS and I know you mom in law. We have prayer meeting every Wednesdays here at work. Maggies’s complete healing is our prayer to HIM.

  8. Dear Chris,

    I just googled you from work, because I had only followed your website from home. I went way back to try to catch up on the weeks that have past since I last checked in. I wept as I read your “reflections on one night in the hospital.” I have been pretty stressed out lately, and suddenly realized that my stuff is oh sooo nothing to worry about. Thanks for sharing your experience with others. It really is a gift.

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