I did not want to return there. When I visited him in the hospital last week, it did not go well. Ravaged by the late stages of a slow-developing cancer, he sat in the semi-darkened room, his world shrunken to now contain only a single entity—pain. The nurse moved his wheel chair slightly in order to reach his shunt, but didn’t clear the corner. The chair’s wheel gently bumped against the wall. He screamed in agony. “No! No! No!” he pled. The “Aaaaaaaah!” was not a word or a thought but an involuntary animal cry, stopping my movement, even my breath.
We’d had meaningful visits before, during his hospital stays through the past year plus. We’d joke a bit, offering a brief distraction from the small room that had become his world. He’d ask the nurses to leave, and then talk to me about his living—he wanted as much more time as therapies would provide—and his dying. He wasn’t afraid of dying, he said, just sad about leaving so much he loved.
As I sat down he looked at me, his gaze both intense and preoccupied. I started the familiar pattern with a light comment. No response. He just looked into my eyes. I read the Bible verse that had been used in worship that morning. Isaiah 58:12. “The Eternal One will never leave you; He will lead you in the way that you should go. When you feel dried up and worthless, God will nourish you and give you strength. And you will grow like a garden lovingly tended; you will be like a spring whose water never runs out.” (The Voice translation) He just looked into my eyes. “Nice,” he whispered. One word.
Why had I returned? I knew from our last visit that I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t change the outcome, couldn’t touch the pain, couldn’t help it make sense. Whatever he wanted from me, I certainly wasn’t giving it.
His arms jolted as though he’d touched a hot electric wire. He arched his back. The spasms were beginning again. “Just breathe, just breathe,” he chanted. I reached out and grasped his finger. (His hands were in fists, with his index finger pointing like a gun barrel, or signaling the number one, or just pointing at me.) His finger curled fiercely around mine. We sat in silence as the waves assaulted him like an incoming tide.
Helpless. Useless. Impotent. Incompetent. He didn’t need me; he needed the strongest pain meds in the entire hospital, in every combination. I said a prayer. We sat again in silence. Why had I come there?
As I rose to leave and took a step towards the door, he told me why.
“I love you, Dave.”