Can you bear with me through this just a little longer? I struggle to write about the days I’m sharing with you and yet I also struggle when I don’t write. There is pain here but there is also beauty, there is suffering but there is also redemption. Sometimes I ask myself why I am writing this, is it my own selfish need to get it out, see it on paper? It feels raw, naked to share this and yet I feel like it needs to be shared. Because although this is just one story, it is part of a greater need that is important to think about, important to share. Right now, there is someone with a need this great in your community. Right now, there are children whose parents cannot care for them, whether it is due to a tragic crisis like this one or a different, equally desperate need. I want to share it because we, who are blessed with our health, our financial situations, our homes, our stable families, the support of our church families…we are the ones who can offer our hearts and homes to those who are struggling. Through foster care, through adoption, through giving to others who support the care of orphans and families in need. I want to share this in hopes that in reading it, the need will become more real…and the call to action more audible.
For some reason, it is raining. I can’t seem to make it feel like Christmas Eve, with the rain drumming down and melting the snow that crusts the corners of the yard. It is Christmas Eve, and the rain is falling and I am tugging a shirt over Toddler’s head, snapping grippers on Baby’s onesie, pulling tiny shoes over feet too small to stand. I comb their hair, close my eyes to inhale the smell of fresh baby shampoo. My three children stand and watch, quietly. They are not dressed up, they will be staying here with their father and doing Christmas-Eve things. They will light the fire, play cards on the floor in the spot of warmth it creates. They will listen to Christmas music and wrap gifts, sip cocoa stirred with candy canes.
The babies and I, we are going to say goodbye to their father.
I load them in the car, speak silly words that amount to nothing as I snap Toddler in the car seat, secure Baby next to him. There will be a photographer there, one who specializes in photographing families who are losing a member to cancer. I cannot imagine doing such a job, and yet I see what a blessing it will be. A part of me cries out to God against the fact that there even is such a job. Rails against reality of this. Why do cancer photographers have to be necessary? It is a dead-end question that does nothing to help the situation.
We drive across town, the three of us. The rain drizzles down, gray against gray, as I pass through the tall buildings of down-town. Lining the streets are the Christmas lights…Oh, the lights! They glow against the rain and look out of place here, this day does not seem to warrant Christmas lights and yet there they are, silently glowing. Lighting our way.
I pull in front of the run-down building that holds her apartment. I let the motor run a moment, let the shush and whoosh of the heater warm me through. Baby is asleep in his car seat, toddler is quiet. The rain still falls. I turn off the engine, take a breath. In front of the apartments, a white home-health care van is parked. I wonder, abstractly, what it is they provide for this? What accouterments do the last days of life entail? I don’t know what I will find inside. I don’t want to think about this, I don’t want this to be the way it is, I don’t want this Christmas Eve to be the last one for anybody’s family. I am not strong. I am not good in these situations, I don’t know what to do or to say and I fear that the discomfort and sense of I’ve ineptitude I’ve always felt around people will seize me in this situation, make me silent, strike me dumb.
What on earth do you say at such a time?
I pray in the car, pray for whatever it takes. I don’t even have words for it, I just ask for whatever it is that I need. I pray for their mother, because I can’t even imagine the strength it is taking her just to draw a breath today, just to draw a breath in the room where her husband is dying. I close my eyes, breathe in. There is something I can’t identify that moves me forward, a strength good enough for this moment (and, please God, for the next) that takes me out of the car, moves me where I need to go. I take out Toddler, kiss his warm forehead. I pull Baby’s carseat out of the back and walk across the street, past the white van. I am selfish, I admit, even at a time like this. As I pass, I pray that there will never be a white van like this one in front of our house.
I knock, softly, on the door. Inside, a small crowd of people are standing. Hushed, too quiet. There is the home health care nurse, who murmurs a few things, a few instructions, saying again and again…when you need us, call us. We will be here right away. Anything at all, you just call us. She nods and nods, smiles a little but not too much. She has been in many rooms like this before.
Toddler bounces from lap to lap, does not seem to be phased by the hospital bed or medical equipment in the living room. In his short lifetime, it’s become natural to him. He is blissfully unaware, and we are all struck by a fact that is both comforting and heartbreaking: He will not remember this, and, he will not remember this. The man who lies on the hospital bed, each breath sounding like cloth being ripped a bit at a time, this man who not too long ago was strong and cared for his boys with the hands that now lay so still…he will be a memory to be passed down second-hand, though photos and stories and memorabilia. There really is no good outcome here, when you think about it. Is it grief or second-hand memories that is the lesser of two evils?
The photographers arrive. There is posing, Baby placed in the crook of his father’s arm, tiny pink hand in stark relief against the white of flesh, the black of tattoo. I help hold his father’s arm in place, feel the weight of it, how cold, how heavy. There are a lot of pictures taken. There are tears. I place my hands on his head, pray. The photographers are packing up, they are practiced yet compassionate in their hushed tones, their heartfelt condolences. The afternoon passes quickly, and then again I feel like years have passed. Someone puts a cd of Christian music on the stereo. I hug their mother, hold her. I hug the babies’ grandfather, am cut to the heart when he breaks down in my arms. They asked me where I am going…I had to tell them, I am going to watch my son die. No one should ever have to say this, no one.