I unexpectedly found myself in a hospital emergency room last Wednesday. Of course, just about everyone who finds themselves in an emergency room does so unexpectedly since it’s not the type of event that typically makes it into your dayrunner. (“You want to get together at 10:00? Sorry, that’s no good for me – I’m down for cardiac arrest then. What does the following week look like for you?”)
In this instance, however, the element of surprise was not as great since the ER staff was focusing on my father, who was already scheduled for heart surgery later in the week. I had arrived at my parents’ home the night before in anticipation of the surgery, so I was there in the morning when my dad woke up feeling very weak and couldn’t catch his breath – the result of what would turn out to be fluid building up in his chest due to his failing aortic valve. My mother had called the EMTs and he was taken to the regional hospital nearby where his immediate symptoms were quickly brought under control by the ER team and we all began breathing easier.
The shock was greater for two other families who were also gathering in the ER that morning. One was the family of an older man brought in as a result of a stroke, and the second was the family of a teenaged young man who’s truck had crashed into a tree.
The “children” of the stroke victim were all adults and I imagined that their expressions suggested they knew something like this was going to happen eventually but they would have been happy for it not to have been today. Having been through strokes in our own family I knew what was still in store for them and wondered if they had an inkling yet of the nature of the life changing experience that had just introduced itself to their family.
For the family of the young man the shock was even greater and ultimately more complete as he was soon pronounced dead.
From the relative comfort of my family’s situation I still had cause to ponder the seeming randomness of three lives and three families coming together at that time – all within 50 feet of each other but each in our own world as three destinies were parceled out: you live, you die, you limp.
The doctors decided to move my dad a day early to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis where his surgery was to take place. My mother and I went back to the house to get my things and pack what she’d need. My folks live in the same small rural Missouri town where they grew up and where they are still surrounded by family and many older friends with whom they have many shared experiences. On the way to the hospital we stopped to top off the gas tank and while at the gas station my mom saw some friends, one of whom had already had the same surgery my dad was having. Mom filled them in on the change in plans and as the group was standing together I saw what I took as a look of knowing pass between them that I chalked up to the shared procedure.
On the day of the surgery I saw the same look of knowing on the faces of my dad’s older brothers, his sister and sister-in-law as they arrived in the waiting room and greeted my mother. The words they used were appropriate, but the looks they gave her – and the look she returned – were so meaningful and even tangible that I knew that was were the real communication was taking place. Since his brothers had had heart attacks and by-pass operations I at first attributed the look to that experience, yet I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
I thought about it as we waited and then a deeper understanding came to me. The knowing did come from shared experience, but it wasn’t the experience of the surgery itself. It was the bond of a generation that had been young together, raised their families at the same time (often in what must have looked like a large, rolling pile of kids), sent the kids off and simply went on getting older. It was a knowing that acknowledged this wasn’t the first hospital waiting room they had gathered in, and that it wasn’t going to be the last. Only today’s outcome was unknown.
They and their friends have gone on to a time in their lives still largely alien to me and my generation. As I’ve grown older I’ve lived the things they’ve lived and come to understand the things I didn’t grasp when I was younger, but perhaps I thought that as an adult I had come to know it all. They each, however, have buried at least one parent, have marked the illnesses and passing of friends and family, felt the stiffness in their own bones. They move slower now, but what was the point of hurrying in the first place?
I suppose it is my own self-centeredness that causes me to think my parents belong to me, overlooking that they had their own brothers and sisters before I was born, and see more of their siblings now than they do their own kids, with two-thirds of us scattered across the country. Theirs is a shared history before and after my generation, with all the hopes and fears, ups and downs, affection and annoyances common to us all, and a shared experience of aging who’s only consolation may be that you don’t have to do it alone.
We waited, prompting our uncles for the old stories from their growing up that we in turn had grown up hearing, listening again to the tales of the tricks played on their little brother and the times where they probably should have died many times over.
On schedule the surgeon came out and called my mother, brother, sister, sister-in-law and I to one side and gave us the news that the operation had gone perfectly. I turned to give the thumbs up to the rest of the family when the relief crashed over us like a wave, making me weak in the knees. Our small group huddled together, shaking, almost as if we had received the worst possible news instead of the best. The rest of the family gathered around, touching us and offering congratulations and then withdrawing, knowing we’d need some time to ourselves – and now that I think about it, probably needing some time themselves. They, too, had survived and were moving on, still ahead.
But I know things now that I didn’t know before.