The weekdays and nights in the ICU waiting room were lonely. Only one or two people of a family sat in quiet reflection while the rest of their kin took a break to go home to rest and shower or to go back to work.
Night brought complete tranquility, except for the code blues that sent doctors into the room to awaken family members. Those waiting room visitors struggled up from their curled embryonic positions in chairs and were ushered into the smaller room across the hall. After the chaplain arrived, they would emerge sobbing.
But Friday night was different.
A Time to Bond
Instead of somber reflection, families laughed, ate and told stories. Children arrived. It was like a party, an outlandish reunion of many families in a single room, united by dire tragedy. On Friday night, we were winding down from the stresses of the week, the stresses of illness. People smiled and hugged while waiting their turn to see their sick loved one.
My two sisters, brother-in-law and two of my nephews were part of our unit. Helpless to do anything for my mother, who had suffered a severe heart attack on Wednesday, we indulged in a party platter of hot chicken wings, fried potatoes and mozzarella sticks from a nearby restaurant and traded memories.
Recalling the first time her husband met mother, our oldest sister said: “Steve was trying to catch the dog and came around the corner and slipped on the wet grass she had just watered and landed right at her feet.”
Mom was obviously not impressed. “Are you sure this is the right guy for you?” Mom later asked her.
We all laughed, thinking about Steve’s over 200-pound, 6-foot-plus frame landing at the foot of our 95-pound mother and offering his hand saying, “Nice to meet you.”
No First Names
We told stories like that while we ate, looking for humor where we could find it. I looked up and saw one of the Johnsons smiling at our stories. We became familiar with Mrs. Johnson, a woman in her 60s, and her sons. The elder Mr. Johnson had survived bypass surgery the day before.
For those of us in the ICU waiting room, our identity was our loved one’s surname.
When one of the two outside lines would ring and someone would answer, the person answering would call out the family the caller was trying to locate.
The Johnsons weren’t the only ones we became familiar with. Some families stayed a day, others two or more. “Movin’ on up?” we would ask, as patients on the first floor ICU were moved to specialized care units on different floors.
A Familiar Face
That Friday morning, an older man shuffled into the waiting room using a cane. His face was drawn and he barely looked up as he made it to a chair to rest. I wondered if his exhaustion was mental, physical or both.
I felt the pain on his face. The man looked familiar and I placed him somewhere in the memory of my youth.
“Excuse, me,” I said. “Did you teach high school?” I asked, as I moved to sit next to him. His face brightened. “Yes,” he said.
“Mr. Martin.” We said his name at the same time.
“I’ve been coming here every day for the past 29 days now,” he said slowly, looking down at his liver-spotted hands. “My wife is being transferred to a long-term care facility tomorrow. Flu. I got it and then she did. I was able to shake it, but we don’t think she’ll pull through.”
He gave her room number and I realized she was the woman in the ICU room next to my mother. Mrs. Martin was on a respirator and appeared to be comatose.
My mind took me back to sophomore biology. Mr. Martin was never the cool teacher. He always moved a bit slowly and seemed an easy target. His demeanor must have made us think he was slow-witted as well. But he was smarter than we all realized, even once leaving a bogus test key to see who would try to cheat.
Endings and Beginnings
I suddenly wanted to go back in time, for Mr. and Mrs. Martin, for my mother and for myself. But like a long summer day riding a rollercoaster at an amusement park, we have the memories of the ups and downs, but we can never get the day back.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll be thinking of you both.” Mr. Martin nodded, smiled and gathered his strength to stand. I watched as he moved slowly and deliberately down the hallway.
I hoped Mr. Martin would return that evening so I could ask him to join our family. My sisters also had him as a teacher and I hoped he could forget some of his burdens by sharing some of his stories of teaching. But I never saw him again.
The next morning, I noticed that a cleaning lady mopping the floor was the only person remaining in Mrs. Martin’s room. Mrs. Martin had moved on to the nursing home. As I turned to walk down the hall, Rock a Bye Baby played over the intercom, a tradition when a baby entered the world at the hospital and a reminder that new life is ever present, even at the saddest of times.
Later that weekend, my mother “moved on up.” As I was leaving a visit with my mom in the cardiac unit the next Friday night, I felt a little lonely for the Friday night waiting room reunion and poked my head into the ICU waiting room. There was a sea of new and unfamiliar faces who quickly turned away when they realized I was not anyone they knew or anyone who could bring them good news.
Then I saw Mr. Johnson’s eldest son, from the family we met the previous week in the ICU. He smiled and waved.
“How is your dad?” I asked, sitting beside him, feeling almost like an intruder in the waiting room that just the week before had been our respite. I had run into Mrs. Johnson earlier in the week and learned her husband had suffered a setback.
“Stable,” he replied. “And your mom?”
“She’s leaving in the morning,” I said, feeling a little guilty at my bubbly reaction.
He beamed, happy for her progress. I felt the genuine warmth of friendship as we shook hands and wished each other’s family well. We didn’t even know each other’s first names, but our lives connected through our shared distress and those family stories we told.
As I bid him farewell and left the ICU waiting room for the last time, I heard an unfamiliar voice say, “And that’s how me and your granddad met…” The group surrounding an older woman erupted in laughter.
It was another reunion on another Friday night.
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