When the alarm went off, I woke with one thought – today is the day. The realization cut through the fog of sleep deprivation like a knife. I felt the miles between us and wanted out of that lonely bed. The house was quiet. The kids would sleep late after last night and I had no intention of waking them.
I scorched myself with a hot shower, got dressed and cranked up the coffee pot. A hot cup would make up for the cold bowl of cereal.
I had just enough time to grab the paper so I walked out into the crisp morning. The sun was slanting yellow beams through the massive water oaks in the backyard. I crunched the gravel drive and turned the corner of the house and almost plowed right into the bumper of a big, blue Chrysler.
I pulled up short and squinted through the glass to see Mom and Dad slumped in the front seat. For a second it looked like a crime scene until I realized they were sleeping. To make the eight hour trip from Mississippi, they must have driven all night! I couldn’t believe it. I tapped on the window.
“Mom, Dad? What are y’all doing here?” They woke up slowly. They must have been exhausted. “How long have you been here?” I laughed. They slowly climbed out of the car.
“Oh, not too long,” Dad said.
“Did you drive straight through? How did you stay awake?”
Mom walked around the car and hugged me. “Well, did you think we could sleep after hearing that news?” she asked. “We decided there was no use in waiting until morning. So, we packed up and headed out.”
“We drove until we got tired, then found a Waffle House, had some coffee and stretched,” Dad said. “It wasn’t bad, really.”
“Um hum.” I shook my head. “It must be forty degrees out here. Why didn’t you come in?”
“We knew you were asleep and we didn’t want to wake you,” Mom supplied.
“We were fine,” Dad defended. His back must have been killing him. I shook my head again and hugged them both.
There were no words to express how much it meant to me. Or how much it would mean for the kids to have them here. But if I’d thought of the words, they would have dismissed them. They had both starved during the Great Depression and become teenagers in WWII. They’d faced endless hardships and they were just doing what they always did. They showed up and went to work.
“Well, come on in now. The kids will be happy to see you.’ I looked back and forth between them. “I can’t believe you two. But, I’m glad you’re here.”
There was little traffic when I drove back to Summit Medical Center. I had the roads to myself. The sun glinted on the drifting Stones River as I drove over the bridge. Business and factory parking lots were empty. All of this was normal for a Saturday morning and usually, it would have felt peaceful. Today, it felt slightly ominous, like the calm before the storm.
Knowing the children were going to be spoiled and coddled in my absence took one worry off the stack. There’s love that says and love that does. But the kind of love that will sacrifice and endure hardship for you at a call is a breathtaking kind of beauty.
But there was no time to take it in. I was caught in the stream. The tension tightened as I drove closer. All night my imagination had invented tragedies that had happened while I wasn’t there. Would anyone watch out for her as closely as I would? I had been the only one who thought something was wrong. What would I find?
I was being ridiculous. Why did my imagination always fill in the gaps with the worst case scenario? I knew dedicated professionals watched her every move with cutting edge technology. I knew there was no safer place for Suzie than a bed in SICU. I shook it off in the parking lot.
There are enough problems already, Dennis. Don’t invent more. Face the day you have.
The waiting room was full and restless when I arrived. I went to the desk and introduced myself to the morning staff.
“Hello, I’m Dennis Ritchie, Suzie Ritchie’s husband. She’s supposed to have a craniotomy this morning.”
“Yes, Mr. Ritchie. Come right back.”
She pushed a button and a buzzer sounded. I felt every eye in the room on me as I walked toward the locked doors before visiting hours. They all wanted through those dreaded doors. “What special horror allowed you to get through?” said my imagination. I was turning into a head case. I told my imagination to mind its own business. I was here for Suzie.
The muted pastels were more brightly lit. There was a full staff bustling. I tried to look away from the glass-enclosed patients and saw Suzie on the far side of the room. When I pushed her door open, she gave a sleepy smile.
“Good morning. How do you feel?”
“Better. I can talk . . . A little better.” The speed was about what it had been last night.
“I can tell. How did they treat you in here?”
“They were . . . really nice. You just . . . missed Dr. Rosenthal,” she said.
“On no. What did he say? Are they taking you back soon?” I forced myself to slow down.
“No,” she shook her head. “They had an . . .” A nurse walked through the door.
“Good morning, Mr. Ritchie,” she said.
“Accident,” Suzie finished. These pauses were still longer than I wanted to accept.
“Yes,” the nurse said. “Dr. Rosenthal just left. O.R. had an emergency that filled the operating rooms. Your wife has been pushed back.” She turned to her patient to do the routine.
That explained the crowd outside, all anxiously waiting for word. On the short drive from home, I’d re-entered a world of life and death decisions that I didn’t know existed not long ago. A place where brain tumors are second class emergencies. I’d driven past the hospital daily with never a clue as to what went on inside.
I sat down in a cold chair and tried to stay out of the way. Suzie caught my eye and gave a half-smile as the nurse did her job. The smell of coffee whispered my name.
At home, Dad was beginning to nod off. Driving all night was finally taking its toll. Sitting still on the couch and reading stories had him rubbing his head and yawning. Then he realized the solution to his problem was less than ten minutes away.
“Billy, would you like to take a ride to Waffle House with me?” he said.
“Yay!” was the answer, and off they went, leaving the occupied sisters behind. For Billy, guy time alone with Grandaddy was as good as it got. We rarely went to Waffle house but it was one of Dad’s favorite spots. The smells reminded him of the small diners of his youth where people knew your name and no one asked if you wanted coffee. It was understood.
Billy asked questions. He listened to stories. He learned the art of the waffle. The question came out of the blue.
“Granddaddy, is my Mommy going to die?” Billy said.
It caught Dad up short. Children are so direct and honest it’s brutal. But those wide eyes needed an answer. And it needed to be true.
“Well, Billy, I don’t know. How about we pray about it?”
“Okay,” he answered. And at the Formica table with hash browns sizzling on the grill, they both bowed their heads and asked God to save his Mommy.
If the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much, Dad thought, what power is held in the innocent heart of a child?
The nurse’s station coffee was strong and hot but it added an edge to the butterflies in my stomach. I was waiting for it to cool when a nurse delivered the first round of pre-surgery medication. The countdown had begun.
“This will help you relax,” the nurse said. She watched until Suzie obeyed her instructions, as if people regularly turn down drugs before surgery. But we were all part of a system that must be honored. This had all been done before. I took what comfort I could in it. When the nurse left, she dimmed the lights, out of concern or because of some checklist.
I caught Suzie up on the kids and my folks at home. I knew they were on her mind so I tried to recall every detail to pass the time. Soon I heard regular breathing and her eyes were closed. Most of my stories have that effect on her without the benefit of drugs. I sat alone in the muted light, praying and worrying in alternating cycles. I thought about what was about to happen to the woman I love until I had to pray again. It made time crawl but I couldn’t stop.
I was so focused internally, I didn’t notice the line of somber men in dark suits, moving like pallbearers through the happy pastels of SICU. I assumed a nurse was opening the door until I heard the voice.
“Hey, Brother.” If not for the voice, I wouldn’t have recognized Larry McEwen in his official pastoral role. Outside of a pulpit, he was always dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt but now wore a dark suit and tie.
“Would you mind if we came and prayed with you?”
“Hi, Larry! Of course not.” I returned his bear hug. Behind him was the senior pastor at Two Rivers Baptist Church, Dr. Jerry Sutton. He was followed by Richard Gay, Seaton Tomyn, and a stranger introduced as a visiting evangelist. It was a lot of preachers in a tiny room.
“We were just coming back from the airport,” said Bro. Jerry, “and we thought we’d stop by for prayer, if we could?”
“Please and thank you all for coming,” I said. Like it was a social event. Like I had ever seen this many preachers in one place. But I had been praying on fumes for an hour. We needed all the help we could get. “Let me wake Suzie up.” I ignored their protests and called her name.
Suzie felt a hand gently shaking her arm. A voice called and she pried open heavy eyelids, expecting another nurse or technician out for blood. As dark shadows merged into focus, she was surprised to find five tall men in dark suits, crowded shoulder to shoulder, looming over the foot of her bed. A startling wall of staring men in her face. The five preachers of the apocalypse.
This can’t be good, she thought.
She recognized Dr. Sutton, the senior pastor at our church, tall, brown hair graying at the sides, chiseled chin, immaculate in conservative blue pinstripes, white shirt, and red tie. We usually saw him from pulpit distance. She felt exposed beneath the thin sheets and breezy gown, hair unbrushed, makeup-free under fluorescent lighting.
“Hello,” she managed and laughed to cover her embarrassment. Her laughter was surprisingly unaffected and melodious.
“Hi, Suzie.” It was the familiar voice of Larry McEwen, smiling on the far right. “We’re sorry to bother you but we just wanted to pray with you before your surgery – if you don’t mind.” Always polite, he continued smiling.
“Sure,” is all she managed to speak, though her smile never flagged. I must be a whole lot sicker than I imagined, she thought. This looks like my funeral.
The prayers began, feeling like last rites. She closed her eyes, unsuccessfully tried to fight off drug-induced sleep and drifted away.