I sat down in the empty, glass-walled SICU room and tried to pray the best prayer of my life.
I prayed for Suzie and made my arguments that the children needed her. I pointed out how inadequate I was to the task of being both father and mother. I argued that I couldn’t go to work and leave the children for an eighteen-hour session without her. I prodded that Suzie was the one who listened to them so well and comforted them when they skinned a knee and pointed out things they were thinking that I didn’t notice.
I agreed that life has no guarantees. Horrible things had happened to others and we were nothing special in God’s world of people. But that didn’t mean I shouldn’t ask. Did I have enough faith to make such a request?
I pointed out to God that I knew that life wasn’t fair and that I understood that bad things happen to good people because bad things happen to everybody. But Suzie, I countered, had already been through so much and that this was beyond her share.
I tried to be grateful for every moment we had and thanked God for giving me such a love in my life that many people never saw. Then I tried not to sound greedy by asking that this unearned love continue.
I prayed for Dr. Rosenthal, that he would have skill and patience and that the nurses and anesthesiologist would be guided by God’s hand.
I made arguments that I would somehow be better, even though I had no idea how I could accomplish this miraculous transformation and I was sure God saw through it immediately. I only hoped he would have pity on my desperation.
I confessed that I did not deserve any miracles but that I fully believed that God could accomplish anything he wants and asked him for a miracle anyway. Because, well, we needed it.
After more than two weeks of such prayers, I became nakedly aware of my inadequacy. I was very close to looping around and starting to repeat myself. Jesus taught us not to repeat prayers like mantras with the idea that our efforts would persuade an unwilling God. The Father, he said, already knew what we needed and knew how to give good gifts to his children.
I should have faith.
But Jesus also said that persistent prayer and earnest knocking at the door would cause God to answer. Was there such a thing as too much prayer? It was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.
But before I started over, the door opened and a hesitant nurse reminded me that Dr. Rosenthal would not come back here. He would report to the surgical waiting room and that I would be much more comfortable there.
I looked through the glass wall and several nurses glanced away. I wasn’t supposed to be in the inner sanctum now. I wasn’t being kicked out but I wasn’t following the system that shielded them from agonizing relatives underfoot. Though it wasn’t said, I understood that this area was for patients, not the public, and certainly not for me.
I nodded and walked to the exit.
Suzie rolled through automatic doors which led to a hallway where the pastel blues and greens abruptly ended. The black and white color scheme could have been taken from a printed page or classic film noir. The destination was a large, white, rectangular room more than thirty feet long. There was space for half a dozen beds on each wall with connections for medical equipment and little else. There was no furniture because this was the surgical pre-op area. No one was staying.
Suzie’s bed was the only one in the room. Her entourage chose a wall to connect hoses and wires and then left her alone and feeling small in the expanse, like a boat in the fog. Quiet descended on the space. Soft murmurs came from a glass-walled office in the front of the room where a nurse kept watch. There was a walk-up desk with a whiteboard on the wall that contained one entry: Carolyn Ritchie, Suzie’s official first name used only by her father and total strangers.
The anesthesiologist came in and asked his extensive list of questions and cross-checks. Mrs. Ritchie, are you allergic to this long list? What surgeries have you had? The only one that made an impression was the legally-worded question that amounted to, do you understand that you might die today? Check.
But he was very nice about it.
In fact, everyone here was extremely nice and it mattered. The pre-op drugs kept her relaxed and feeling good. The professional routine was comforting. They had done this before. Brain surgery happens all the time.
Underneath it all, the truth of what was going to happen couldn’t be erased but they were doing everything they could to make it easy. They understood in a way that most people couldn’t. And that helped.
But she was alone now. Suzie had been first on the schedule but now she was last. There was no one else waiting in the pre-op area. It left time to think.
It was what, Saturday? Just over two weeks ago she was feeling fine. Life was good. Had it all happened that fast? It was hard to comprehend.
“Suzie?” a voice called. “What are you doing here?”
She looked over to see a familiar man in a white coat that was somehow out of place.
“Dr. Goodman? What are you . . . doing here?”
“Delivering a baby. There are no weekends for an OBGYN.” He smiled. “Now, what’s your story?”
“Craniotomy,” she answered.
“Hmm. How are you doing?”
He was concerned and was patient with the halting conversation. He stood and listened to the slow summary. There was so much she wanted to say, to thank him for raising the original question and scheduling the mammogram without asking, for saving her life. But, between the drugs and the brain problems, she couldn’t get it out.
His willingness to take time and listen made her feel much better. It kept her out of the dark places within her head. He finally wished her well and then went to enjoy what was left of his weekend. It was an unexpected encounter that buoyed her spirits.
After so long alone in such a cocooned space, the crowd in the SICU waiting area was overwhelming. I immediately ran into Larry McEwen, my Dad and Carl Marsh, the arranger from the session I’d walked out of the day before. Had it only been yesterday?
It was strange seeing these three men, from three separate parts of my life, having a conversation. They had never met before. The only thing they had in common was me. The schedule was so delayed, they must have been waiting for hours.
“I didn’t expect to see you,” I said to Dad. “I thought you would be home taking care of the kids.”
“Your mother has that covered,” he said. “I thought I could do more good here. But I did have one question.”
“Rebekah’s Christmas performance is tonight and she wants to go. Do you see anything wrong with that?”
“No, but I don’t have any way to take her,” I said.
“She’s already arranged a ride. One of her friends from church is picking her up. She really wants to go. Is it alright with you?”
It wasn’t a hard question. But it was just the type of question Suzie usually took care of with ease. An image of Rebekah’s face flashed across my mind and I imagined her pleading her case. We always made a point of supporting the kids’ plays and performances. And this one was special. Rebekah was playing a Christmas angel with adult actors this time. It was an important moment for a just-turned teenager.
“I can’t see why not,” I said and Dad went off to find a phone and tell her the news.
Carl Marsh’s presence was a real surprise. To say he was a successful and talented musician and arranger was an understatement. From programming rock and dance hits on an exotic Fairlight with racks of computer gear to conducting an orchestra piece he’d written, he always delivered finely crafted creativity. I was always a bit in awe and to find that he had taken the time to support me was amazing. I could, of course, find no words to express my gratitude.
“Carl, thank you so much for coming,” was all I could manage.
“I just thought I’d warn you,” Larry McEwen said. “There are a lot of people from your church in the surgical waiting area. I came over here because I didn’t want you to be surprised.”
“Okay, thanks” I was about to move from overwhelmed to an even bigger crowd. I had no idea what to say to these people but thinking about it wouldn’t help. I took a deep breath and we walked across the hall.
The door opened and Dr. Rosenthal walked in, dressed in full surgical vestments, including the infamous orange shoes. He had already been operating for hours. Suzie was acutely aware that this man was about to hold a scalpel to her brain and critically assessed him. But he showed no signs of fatigue
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m doing well,” she answered. “The question is, how are you doing?”
“Me?” he asked. “I’m doing great.” He seemed surprised it would even be a question, which is exactly how you want your brain surgeon to respond. He exuded energy and confidence.
“Good,” she said. “I wouldn’t want you taking a nap.” He grinned.
“This might be your favorite surgery,” he said. “Many of my patients feel that way. Recovery will certainly be easier than your last one.” No grim warnings of doom here. He was already talking about recovery.
“They’re closing now and will have to reset the O.R. It shouldn’t be long, now.” Suzie nodded sleepily.
“I’ll see you in there,” he said. And with that, he was gone.
No one else came in. Suzie was the last surgery of the day and they were shutting down for the weekend. She would never know what emergency had bumped her to the end of the line but her imagination invented desperate scenarios.
The silence settled on her like a blanket. The emptiness of the big room magnified her sense of isolation. Like empty seats in an auditorium seem haunted by the ghostly presence of the crowds that came before, the imagined presence of the patients who had waited and worried here was palpable. This room was built for crowds and action but it was as still as a graveyard.
A wave of loneliness washed over her. Here, floating on a sea of drugs in a room as white as summer clouds, she would have to face her fate alone. She closed her eyes, prayed an honest, simple prayer and drifted away into the hands of God.