Emotions are ruthless. They can take you from strong and brave to hollow doubting in a moment. You can tell yourself they are only feelings, that they don’t change anything, that they don’t matter. But you still have to deal with them like a fast shot to the gut. You are staggered. You just have to remember one thing.
As I stood in the empty room waiting for the wave to wash over me, my brain stuttered back to life with questions and accusations. It blamed me for letting down the kind people who had come to support us. My conscience rebuked me for letting Suzie down.
Where had everyone gone? Whatever the reason, my mind was certain I was at fault. But that made no sense. I just needed some food. They had come to help. They wouldn’t blame me for that, would they?
The wave passed. Nothing had changed. The room was still empty.
It was after five, my mind said. They had to go home to eat, too, I rationalized. The Christmas musical was tonight and they would need to get ready. It was late for people who needed to get up in the morning.
But, no matter how I reasoned, the simple truth remained. They left because there was no one there to encourage.
I would try to apologize later and make it right. I had to let them know how much it meant for them to take the time to come. How, exactly, I didn’t have a clue and I didn’t have the energy to figure it out. There were more urgent matters.
I found a seat in a far corner against the wall. Somehow, it felt less empty than the middle of the room. I decided to use the time to pray. Just because it was the only thing I could do didn’t mean it was powerless.
The McGavock Pike exit was the gateway to Christmas central and traffic was backed up well into Briley Parkway. On one side of the busy highway the Opryland Hotel was bedecked with millions of lights and the Cascades Christmas decorations made it a weekend destination for families all over the city.
On the other side of the highway, Two Rivers Baptist Church was preparing for the second night of their annual Christmas musical extravaganza entitled Christmas In Nashville. The resulting traffic jam was causing delays.
The choir room was full to overflowing with people dressed in tuxes and gowns and costumes. The adult choir and youth choirs were crowded in a space meant for one. The set was decorated with softly-lit snow and trees. Outside a horse stamped impatiently, jingling harness bells hitched to a sleigh. A full orchestra was seated and ready to begin the overture. The production staff required eleven people just to keep things organized with lights and sound.
Standing in line in a hallway, Rebekah was overwhelmed with details. She had missed the first performance when her mother went to the hospital and was playing catch up. As part of the opening processional, she held a large banner on a pole, her first job of the night. Then she would join the youth choir for a song and then a costume change for her final part. But the line never moved.
The problem was that the traffic was so jammed the audience couldn’t get there. The responsibility for this chaos fell to the young interim worship leader, Travis Cottrell. The word was that the delay was up to fifteen minutes, which was a long time to hold up the production. He finally made the call.
“Okay everyone, we’re just going to have to wait fifteen minutes for people to get here because of traffic. But while we’re waiting I think we should take the time to pray for one of our youth choir members and her family. Rebekah Ritchie’s mother is in the hospital having brain surgery as we speak. Could we pray?”
Actors and angels, Santa Claus and elves, soloists and choir members paused, bowed their heads and began to pray.
Grandmama, as the kids called her, cleaned up the kitchen after supper. She hadn’t had to cook. Carl Marsh had brought by a casserole and several neighbors had added tempting treats to the table.
Granddaddy sat on the couch between Billy and Sandy reading cartoons in exaggerated character voices. He was an old hand and had been doing this since his own kids were small. Reading the funny papers, he called it.
“Say, you look like you want to go jogging this morning, Garfield”
“You are wrong, sweat sock breath,” he read in Garfield’s voice. Billy giggled.
They took their job of distracting the kids seriously. They had both faced hard times and knew the power of humor to turn tragedy into an adventure. By the family stories told around the table during holidays, you’d have thought the great depression and a world war were fun places to grow up.
Growing up with little but their imaginations had kept them sharp. Growing up in troubled times had taught them the value of pulling together. No matter what trouble came, you could be sure they would be there doing all they could.
But they prayed this trouble would pass them by.
I don’t know how long you can pray but I found my limit that night. I had no more words. I’d said all I had. It seemed like an insult to keep going. If I didn’t believe God had heard me by now, why was I praying?
Did I have faith? That was the question. Not words.
Faith is not a feeling. It’s not an argument. It’s trusting God. And there in the quiet, empty room, I trusted Suzie into God’s hands. I trusted that He loved her no matter what happened. That He knew what was needed though I didn’t have a clue.
And so I waited. The silence became my prayer. A symbol of my belief as solid as any altar.
Sometime in that silent night the door opened. I looked up to see a lady best described as both little and old walk hesitantly in and sit nearby. I wasn’t really in a mood for company but I nodded and she nodded back.
She was the living picture of worry. Pain creased the corners of her eyes. She reminded me of a smaller version of my grandmother. I guessed her to be in her late seventies.
She was dressed in layers carrying a long overcoat. She wore a sweater over a plain cotton dress that went below her knees, white stockings, sensible shoes. Her white hair was pinned in a bun. She carried herself with dignity.
And she was as alone as me. She had naturally gravitated nearby to fend off the loneliness of the big room. I wondered what terrible thing had brought her to this room so late on a Saturday night.
She pulled her sweater closer around her and rubbed her hands together. She offered a half-smile. It seemed wrong not to speak.
“They keep these places so cold, don’t they,” I said.
“Yes and it’s gotten colder outside since the sun went down. And the wind, oh.” She shivered.
“ I haven’t been out since this morning but it does blow up on this hill”
“That’s a long time. Who are you waiting on, if you don’t mind me asking?” It was the question we were both wondering and it didn’t seem intrusive.
“My wife. Her operation started late because they were backed up in surgery.”
“My husband had a sudden attack of appendicitis. He was in such pain, we had to call an ambulance,” she said.
The mind is a devious, selfish thing that generates random thoughts like Hoover Dam spits out electricity. I was shocked when the thought appeared. Well, my wife’s having brain surgery, it said. As if this was a competition. Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut. I tried to keep an empathetic face but it didn’t matter. She was staring at the floor like it was miles away.
“I know it’s seems like something a child should have but at his age it’s very serious. I shouldn’t worry but I can’t help it.” She wiped a tear away. Her honesty took my breath.
“It’s only natural,” I said, struggling for something more. “We’ve been here for several weeks and the doctors and staff are great. He’s in good hands.” It was what I was telling myself.
“Thank you,” she said. I wished there was something more I could say.
“I’ll say a prayer for your husband,” I offered. She looked up and caught my eye for a moment, then nodded.
“And I’ll say a prayer for your wife,” she said. We sat in silence for a moment.
“There’s hot coffee over there but I don’t know how fresh it is.”
“Well,” she said. “I’ll make us a fresh pot.” She got up like she was glad to have something to do. Action is often the best medicine. Then she stopped and looked at me hesitantly. “Would you please watch my purse?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” I nodded and she walked away without looking back.
Rebekah eased forward down the dim, slanted platform on her knees. She had never been afraid of heights but the platform angle was worrisome. The area high above the choir loft behind the rear-projection screen had been converted into a make-shift stage for the angels. It was tilted forward to improve the audience’s sight-line.
Rebekah was at the very front and had a God’s-eye view of the stage, orchestra and audience all the way to the balcony. She arranged her white, flowing gown with long, trailing sleeves and waited in the darkness as Travis began his solo.
“Oh holy night. The stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.”
As they approached the chorus the orchestra swelled to a crescendo and the choir joined in full voice. The spotlight blazed, blinding the angels to the scene below as they raised their arms.
“Fall on your knees. Oh hear the angel voices!”
Even as emotions rose, Rebekah was sharply aware that the one person she wanted to share this moment with the most was lying in a hospital not far away.
Classical music played its energizing magic across the operating room. The orange shoes didn’t look out of place in a sterile environment where everything was focused on Dr. Rosenthal’s comfort. It was not indulgent to minimize distractions when half of the job was standing all day long and occasionally far into the night.
It was the other half of his job that demanded his focus now. The tumor was pressed deeply into Broca’s Area where speech syntax was coordinated. The massive surface area of the wrinkled cerebral cortex was under pressure by the tumor. As he cut, the brain expanded to fill the space, complicating the task.
But he was hopeful. Detail and persistence were his gifts. He would get there. But how the brain tissue would react to such stress was beyond his ability to predict.
Love makes you focus on the troubles of the ones you love. It seems right. Like you can somehow take their burden away. Like worry gives you the power to protect them from the pain of life.
You lose sight of others, not out of lack of concern, but simply because you can’t look away. It’s easy to forget that everyone has troubles.
Until you’re sitting in an empty room with a woman just like yourself. Then, it’s hard to ignore.
It was surprising to realize that my worst imaginings weren’t all that special. She felt no less pain than me. Together, we were just as alone. We were equally beyond the pale. Unlikely compadres in this unexplored territory where everyone eventually comes.
We had arrived at this lonely outpost at the same time. Neither of us knew where we would head from here. But the options were clear, the consequences obvious.
No words were needed. Neither was under the impression there was anything we could do to help. The only choice that remained was how we would face it.
She chose well. She was steadfast and patient. She was kind and polite. It was an impressive display that earned my respect. When the doctor came they moved away and talked in hushed tones. She nodded then came my way.
“They’re moving him to a room,” she said with a sigh of relief. “I hope your wife’s surgery goes well.”
“Thank you. May your husband have a speedy recovery,” I said. She nodded and almost smiled. And then I was alone.
Most of the public parts of the hospital had long closed down for the night. The silence of the empty floor settled in on me. The pull of emotions was taking it’s toll. Not even a cup of coffee seemed interesting. I decided it was the perfect time to pray once more. The loneliness lifted as I began.
“Father, please be with Suzie . . .”
I saw Dr. Rosenthal walking down the hallway through the glass wall on the public side in bright orange foam slippers. It was the first time I had ever seen Crocks. I stood and met him at the door. He carefully shook my hand.
“Mr. Ritchie, the surgery went well. Your wife is awake, stable and talking in recovery.”
“It will take awhile before they more her back into the SICU where you can see her.”
“Okay,” I said, looking for more information.
“It was a very large tumor. Much larger than expected. Your wife is fortunate that it was in the dural sinus of the periosteal layer dura mater.”
“I’m sorry,” I stopped him. “What’s that?”
“Simply put, there are protective layers between the bone of the cranium and the cerebral cortex, or the wrinkly grey matter of the brain: the periostial dura mater, the endosteal dura mater, the meningeal dura mater, the arachnoid mater and the pia mater. There are sinuses between the priostial and endosteal layers of the dura mater. The tumor started in one of these sinuses and, as it grew, it pushed these layers into the wrinkles of the cerebral cortex but it did not metastasize into the brain itself.”
“So, it grew between the skull and the brain and pushed these layers and the brain aside?”
“Basically. So, I had to go into these wrinkles and carefully remove the tumor. I believe I got 99% of it. She should be back in SICU in about an hour and you can see her.”
“The concern we have now is brain swelling, given the extensive nature of the surgery. I placed a pressure monitor in her skull to track the pressure. Just to warn you before you see her, it is a tube sticking out of her head.”
“Alright.” I took a deep breath.
“It looks worse than it is and we will remove it as soon as we are sure there is no swelling. Overall she’s doing great. She was able to do tongue twisters in recovery.” He was elated.
“Remember, we were most concerned about operating near the speech center and to test her ability I had her repeat tongue twisters for me like ‘Around the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.’ She passed with flying colors.”
“Thank you, Dr. Rosenthal. Thank you so much!”
“You can wait here and a nurse will come and get you when she’s settled.”
“Okay. Thank you again so much for everything you’ve done. But . . .”
“What about the remaining one percent? What if it grows back?”
“Well, we’ll just have to go back and take it out again,” he said. He smiled as if it was the simplest answer ever. He strolled away in his orange shoes and I continued thanking him profusely until he was out of sight.