What can I say? It was the middle of the night and we’d gotten restless. It was our eighth day in that smelly, joy-forsaken place, and we were on the prowl, like teenagers with nothing better to do. Okay, “on the prowl” is a bit of an over-statement, as would be “walk” or even “stroll.” Let’s just say we—shuffled, or he shuffled, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, and I moved my strong healthy legs in slow motion, matching his labored gait. I nodded my encouragement when I’d catch his golden eyes making a sideways glance. He’d sweat and shrug and concentrate in order to keep his well-earned, forward momentum. Carmella, the night nurse, had covertly given us directions, whispering behind her hand, like she was telling us where we could score some illegal, mind altering substance—like he didn’t have access to enough already—from her no less! So, we descended in the elevator from the fourth floor to the second, and emerged outside the entrance to the hospital’s chapel.
The modern chapel’s dim interior was lit in those early morning hours from the ambient light filtering in from the hallway, and from the gray night sky filtering through the foliage of the Lynn Griffith Memorial Garden, and from a skylight on the high ceiling. As we entered, we heard the trickling water of a fountain, which cascaded gently through the spaces between the rounded rocks, which were covered with ferns, whose hairy roots clung to the gray smooth surfaces like fingers. I ran my index finger along the roots. They were surprisingly course, stout and sturdy. Dry moss and some deep green foliage with spade-shaped leaves, nestled in rock crevices, their green-ness smooth to my touch. I glanced over to him.
“All these days and nights at St. Charles and I’ve never stopped in this place.”
“It smells like life in here.” I nodded in agreement and breathed in the damp smell.
“This is like another world…” I added, “So full of life, compared to the death and sickness that surrounds the place on every side.” I watched him drag the three-foot tall stainless and green oxygen tank, cradled and strapped into a compact wheeled dolly, made of metal tubing and fitted with a black plastic handle. He laid it down like a baby and noticed me watching.
“My link to life here,” he said as he patted the cylinder. I nodded as he adjusted the clear hose of the cannula, running under his nose and around his ears, then removed it and blew his nose into a tissue in his pocket. He smiled when I noticed the dark stain that was apparent even in the dim light.
“All that O₂ blowing up my nose dries out my sinuses.”
“Crap, boy.” I shook my head.
“I know. Right?” he shrugged lightly at the fear I was trying to keep out of my eyes. I watched him tentatively sink onto his knees and close his eyes. As I watched his lips move in a silent prayer, tears burned behind my eyes. I lowered myself onto the slate tile surrounding the fountain. I imagined my yoga practice as I reclined into Sivasana, aka “corpse pose.”
How many people come into this place, to pray, to meditate or just find a quiet moment in the midst of their own private storm of worry? St. Charles is a Catholic hospital, but all of us certainly aren’t Catholic, or even religious—maybe not even spiritual. I wondered that night what kind of prayers, pleas and plans had been spoken beside that fountain, through the years.
I let my eyes open in the dim light of the chapel. Above me there was a tremendous octagonal skylight, divided with steel structures. Its glass panes both reflected light from the room, and gave an obscured view into the dark sky above. Where all the steel and glass converge hung a linear, stained glass sculpture, and from the sculpture, attached with an s-loop—a constant burning oil lamp. What was the intended meaning? Constant: The presence of the Divine? Possibly the circle of life? Maybe the goodness of love? I bet the designers never had this in mind: The constancy of human doubt each of us carry about our own sufficiency?
Am I enough for this? That’s what I wondered in the middle of the night, my body supine on the hard slate floor of the chapel. I wondered how much would be asked of me, as I helped this man on his road to wellness. I wondered how well I really knew him.
Earlier in the day I had sat at the edge of his plastic covered, adjustable hospital bed with my hand curled around his blanket-covered calf. We were going over the options—places for him to heal after the hospital ordeal. The question rose in his eyes, and though I knew what he was asking, I let him speak the actual words.
“Can I come heal at your house?” At least by then he was out of the derriere-revealing-tie-at-the-back, cotton hospital gown. He wore the dignity of his own clothes. I looked back and forth between his golden eyes—searching. Did he really know what he was asking?
“Okay,” I whispered slowly, tentatively—an act of faith; an act of love and friendship; …an act which no matter how long I pondered, I could not know the outcome. I had no idea if our budding romance, our on-again, off-again soulful connection could survive every day intimacy, or move forward afterwards. I didn’t know what I might find out about him, though I did have an inkling. I knew however, that I WAS going to make a place for him to get well—both in my home and in my heart—regardless of the romantic outcome, or what else he brought along with him.
The second time I visited the chapel, he’d been healing in my house (and in my bed) just a couple of weeks. That particular warm Sunday in September, I’d left him and his teen-aged daughters fashioning some breakfast that didn’t require the stove’s natural gas flame—so they wouldn’t blow the place up with the volatile concentrated oxygen he constantly breathed. After I parked my car at the hospital, I jogged through the parking lot and waved at the greeter who sat at the front desk, who simply nodded as I breezed by. I then bounded up the stairs from the hospital’s open, atrium area to the second floor where the chapel was always open. I plopped my backside into an upholstered chair under the skylight. (Being the middle of the day, I chose not lay on the floor.) I sat for a moment with my books and laptop stacked on my thighs, and absorbed the chapel in the light of day. I looked up past the oil lamp and stained glass sculpture, through the steel and glass—into the clear blue sky. What a couple of weeks this has been, I sighed.
A Hispanic woman and her three young children walked in. When she saw me, she shush-ed her little tribe, then led them to the alter area—a thick rectangular, white marble slab about waist high, that in the bright light, I could imagine small animal sacrifices being performed on. She caressed the marble surface, then pointed to the hairy fern roots, foliage and round rocks. A pony-tailed, dark-skinned girl ran her finger along a burry root then giggled and brought her hand to her mouth.
Later, a wounded, white-haired man in a neck brace and a tie-at-the-back gown wandered through the chapel. He was on the arm of a young beautiful woman, and he leaned into the woman, wondering if he should be out in public.
“I might be frightening to young children,” he whispered to the young woman. She gently patted his arm.
“You aren’t frightening,” she smiled and rolled her eyes, then added, “Besides, there are no children here to frighten.” The wounded man smiled and nodded at her comment, then resumed his slow shuffle through the room and out the swinging metal doors, into the garden and the warm autumn sun.
The chapel emptied and as I rose and I moved closer to the water, I noticed a guest book. I wondered: Who has been here since we ambled in, that last night he spent in the hospital? I opened it and flipped through its pages, reading through pleading, block-printed entries, neat cursive narratives, and then scrawled single sentence statements—each dated and written with a different color ink.
I dug through my pack and found a pen. I wrote about our own rocky path—from his critical illness to his current improved health. I imagined what life has looked like since that last night in the chapel. It looked like creating a partnership, with love and intimacy and shared responsibility. It has looked like his oxygen rich healing; his ever-deeper lung expanding breathing; and our long walks around the neighborhood. It has looked like cooking and doing dishes and scrubbing toilets and making a cozy family space for us and our daughters—his two, my one. Then, surrender—my giving in the next moment, and the next. Then maybe, possibly entertaining the idea that I may be enough, no matter what the outcome.
After writing and pondering all the ways my life had changed, I sat and I did what many come to do in the chapel: I prayed. I spoke softly both my brave and enlightened prayers and my very human uncertainties.
“I breathe in the vibration of life; the gift of our love; the presence of Creation—and all the ways I fear I’m not enough… I do feel the solid ground beneath me, and I breathe deeply all the way into the stratosphere—for you and your healing lungs (I spoke to my lover); for me and for all of us—that we may each know that yes, we exist as a mere speck in space, a tiny blip in time—yet somehow we are also more than enough, that the doubts and the love collide into some beautiful combination and that in spite of ourselves: We DO make a difference.”
I sat a while longer. I watched souls wander in, then wander out, and as I did, I wondered about their stories. Were they going to heal and spend a little longer in this world? Would they leave this existence sooner, rather than later?
By the time I headed towards the chapel the third time, the days had become brief and cold; the deciduous leaves yellow-brown and blowing in the street and tumbling around the hospital’s parking lot. I ponderously ambled through the lobby without speaking to the attendant, and I slowly climbed the stairs. By the time I got into the chapel’s chamber, the burden of my pack dug into my shoulders and my feet ached. I slid my pack onto the carpet, kicked off my shoes and knelt on the tile—just like he had a few months prior. Yet, this time I had no enlightened prayers. There was no hope that somehow I might be enough—because there’s no being enough for some situations.
There on my knees I pictured what waited for me at home. The cannula and clear hose sat coiled and useless on top of the four-wheeled oxygen concentrator, the technician had pushed across my wood floors months prior. (I imagined at the time, the noisy apparatus looked like R2D2 of the seventies film Star Wars.) My master closet still housed the green and stainless oxygen tanks, where they seemed huddled together like soldiers trying to stay warm, on a day as cold as that day. There were boxes of Albuterol nebulizing fluid, stacked neatly next to a pile of hospital discharge papers. There were empty script bottles of Lorazepam anti-anxiety medication, Prednisone steroid, and empty red bottles of codeine cough syrup—all in crumpled white pharmacy bags. His clothes still hung in my closet. The bed empty for days—was cold as stone.
Was I enough? Some days I think so. I used to profess a certain personal truth: No act of love is ever wasted. As my knees ached on the slate tile, I brought my mind back into the chapel. The trickle of the fountain found its way into my ears. The smell of wet green foliage filled my nose with its life, and when I opened my eyes and lifted my head, I gazed at the constant burning oil lamp. Okay…I nodded, sighed, then stood and gathered up my pack, which was not as heavy as I remembered. I slipped into my snazzy German Mary-Jane shoes, which I thought would change my life when I bought them, and I started for the door. Before I walked across the threshold, I looked up and caught the eye of a vibrant, handsome, white-haired man on the arm of a young beautiful woman—who winked at me as he walked by. I glanced back, thinking: He looks very familiar.
As I made my way out to my car, the wind whipped my long, dark hair across my face, and in spite of it all, I smiled… and—I refused to regret. Not one single decision. Not a single exhausted moment. Not a single caress.