A short story for All Saints Day
As the elevator door slid open I instinctively started to step off but quickly balked as I realized we were only at the second floor. I shuffled my forward step sideways and made room for a familiar faced man to sidle into place in the front of the full ride. He was with a woman whose face did not register in my memory.
The man and I had shared a knowing glance as we nearly collided during my premature move to exit. He now craned his neck up and over his shoulder to look at me as I greeted him, “Hello, It’s Wesley, right?”
“Yes, great memory,” he replied.
“I guess your Dad’s back, huh?” I asked with a sigh.
“Yes, we’re on the fifth floor,” he said as the elevator stopped at the third.
I slipped between Wesley and the door as he introduced me to the unknown woman, “This is my wife, Leslie.”
“Nice to meet you,” I waved as the doors began to close.
“Likewise,” she called through a cupped hand and the closing crack of doors.
“That felt good,” I thought to myself as I turned toward the many other doors of my third floor turf. I had remembered him and his father from very brief but meaningful encounter in room 3231, when his father, Peter Wang, had been in the hospital some months earlier for an infection. Wesley was quick to tell me about his father’s Methodist faith when we first met and I was quick to point out that Peter had given his son the name of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. I only spoke with Wesley for 10 minutes or so as we waited in the hallway for a doctor to arrive and give him an update on his dad’s condition. I met Peter briefly before we parted. I shook his hand and wished him well, but the doctor we had been waiting for was on my heels and he needed to examine his patient. I saw Peter again very briefly the next day with his wife who was not Wesley’s mother and who did not speak English. Wesley was not around but I saw him in the hall again before his Dad was discharged. That day, Peter was very kind and tired, resting and not up for an English conversation it seemed to me.
“God bless you.” I smiled as I left not long after I had arrived. I would not see him again until the day he died, the day I remembered Wesley, the day Wesley and his whole family remembered their husband, father and grandfather, as they sadly and sweetly let him slip away.
Late night call
The pager pulled me out of a shallow sleep. A couple of hours earlier, I had watched a young woman die from an illness that was actually called a “storm.” It felt like a storm to me too. Her family swirled in a cloud of anger, sorrow and silence that I could barely withstand. After escorting them out of the building and recording the ordeals of the evening in the chaplaincy log book I had collapsed in the Pastoral Care office’s recliner. I called the number on the pager that had woke me. A nurse from the 9th floor Neuro Intensive Care Unit had paged for the Wang family. They were asking for me. I stumbled into my clothes and headed for the elevators where Wesley and I had met earlier that day, actually it was now the day before.
When I arrived at the waiting room, I greeted the youngest generation of Wang progeny, two cousins, sons of two of Peter’s daughters. They each had an incredibly faithful young woman at their sides, especially because they were so young. Teenagers—20 at best, both with girlfriends at their sides in the middle of the night.
“What’s up guys?” I asked.
“Oh, our family from Maryland just got here and they’re in there with him now. I think they want you to go in.” Alex, the elder, answered.
“Oh, okay. I thought ya’ll were going home though. Aren’t you exhausted?” I looked around to all of them.
“Yeah, we are. But we’ll be alright. We just wanted to be here with him you know.” Alex said.
“You’re good kids.” I touch Alex on the shoulder. “I’m going to go in and see what’s up in there.”
Earlier in the evening I had been called to an emergency situation in the inpatient radiology suite on the third floor, they called it an RRT — Rapid Response Team. I was sad and a bit baffled by coincidence that it was Peter Wang whose son I had ran into on the elevator who was in respiratory distress. As I arrived there was debate between doctors about whether or not he needed to be intubated. It turned out that his respiratory distress was not as urgent as most RRTs. These were neurologists who were concerned about his neurological capacity to protect his airway.
“I think he’s DNI/DNR,” said a nurse.
“Are you serious?” asked one of the neurologists. “Where’s the family?”
Convinced to Operate
Before I really knew what was going on we were headed down the hallway to meet Rachel and Naomi, Peter’s daughters, in the waiting room. They were visibly upset already and the quick talking doctor’s words upset them further. We introduced ourselves and I sat next to Rachel in an available chair. The doctor stood and described the options in a manner that turned out to be nothing if not commendable. He was quick in an efficient way that left room for them to ask questions and understand what he had said. These women, however, were not slow to understand. They were very intelligent, they knew their dad well and they had resources at the ready to help them along.
I listened as they discussed. Peter’s brain was not draining properly and the resulting pressure was life threatening. To alleviate the pressure the neurosurgeons could put in a drain, but that would require that he be intubated. Rachel and Naomi were tearful as they heard the news. They wanted to honor their father’s wishes—he was 92 years old after all, but they were also hopeful that something could work. This something that the doctor offered was too good to refuse. They consulted by telephone with a brother, David, who lived in Maryland. He seemed to understand exactly what the doctor was saying and thought it was worth a shot. The doctor assured them that they could observe his improvement for 24 hours and if it wasn’t significant they could extubate him.
The doctor ran off to get the paperwork. Rachel was still on the phone with David. Rachel was on the phone with her husband upstairs in Peter’s room. Her husband simultaneously explained to Peter’s wife, Jun, what they were going to do. After Rachel hung up with David she was on the phone again to the same room instructing her son to bring Jun downstairs to be with Peter one more time before he was intubated in case it was their last time together. However, by the time we were headed to the elevators to meet the rest of the family outside the radiology suite we learned that Peter had been taken upstairs already. He would wait in his room on the fifth floor for a room to open up in the NICU and would not be intubated until he got there. I escorted them to the fifth floor and promised them I would see them on the ninth. I was headed there to see another man who was close to death. What a whirlwind!
Getting back to the body
I had seen them on the ninth floor as they waited for the procedure to be done. Wesley came to join his sisters. He brought his wife, who I met again. I met Naomi’s husband, Ming, Rachel’s husband, Larry, and all their kids, the cousins who would wait all night in that room with their courageous girlfriends. Most of them had gone home after the procedure was completed, but they were all back when I got to his room. Newly arrived were David, his wife Amy and their daughter, Chloe. I thought I was arriving to meet these Marylanders alone, but everyone, the whole family, was gathered in the room. I wasn’t sure what was going on. When Rachel saw me she made a smile that quickly faded. She began to cry again and she stepped toward me to tell me that that the procedure had not worked at all. The pressure was still increasing, so they were going to withdraw artificial life support.
They asked me to say a prayer. I had learned earlier that evening that Peter attended Arch Street United Methodist Church, a congregation that seemed formal to me, but probably just for its building and location in Center City. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to ceremony. Maybe I wanted to honor what I thought might have been Peter’s tradition, maybe, and probably more likely, I wanted to control the situation more than I had during the last death watch of that shift.
I started with Psalm 139. I gathered my thoughts as it loaded onto my phone then began deliberately, standing at the foot of the bed, Peter’s body feeling like my pulpit. “Ever since I met Peter a month or so ago I have heard about him as a man of great faith. He might enjoy some scripture and we can use this Psalm as a prayer for us too. It speaks of our inability to flee from God. I doubt that was something Peter wanted to do, probably the opposite. But even now, as he goes where we cannot follow him, the psalm promises that God is with him, and that we who are experiencing this darkness of death, can hope for God’s light in the midst of it.”
I read the psalm slowly and dramatically, leaving appropriate pauses and building crescendos. At the end it seemed to drag. I edited out the last part about retribution for the psalmist’s enemies, so it ended with “when I awake I am still with you.”
“And now I will add this prayer. Pray with me if you wish.”
I commended Peter to the Lord and expressed the Christian hope that he will be surrounded by God’s love and experience resurrection when the time came. I expressed the sadness I felt in the room in the language of the psalm—darkness. I asked that God make that darkness they were experiencing like the day. I asked for God’s light to shine. In my language I joined with them with that incredibly powerful word—“we”. “We are saddened.” “We hope.” “We will miss him”… It felt presumptuous and true.
After the prayer I opened it up to everyone, “Would anyone else like to say something?”
They were silent. I did not let it linger too long. I didn’t want them to feel like they had to say something. “That’s okay. There’s still plenty of time.”
They asked me what would happen next. They asked each other what they should do. I described their options. “Well, once they take the tube out we don’t know what will happen. He could hang on for a while.”
“Yeah, he’s a tough old bird,” said David. “He could go a longtime.”
“Yep and you can stay up and keep vigil and tell stories about him all night which would be beautiful, or you can say goodbye, go home and get some rest knowing that he’s resting here. But whatever you decide to do, as long as you’re here, I’ll be here with you.”
I stepped just outside the door and watch them begin to murmur and edge toward the door. Some of them thanked me. The Marylanders greeted me for the first time. The morphine arrived and there was a traffic jam between staff and family so the family decided to go to the waiting room until he was extubated. Jun was the last to leave the room, accompanied by Naomi, who was serving as her translator, aided by her China born husband Ming.
I gave them my false impression that it would be a little while until he was extubated. I thought the morphine always took a while to kick in before they could remove the breathing tube. But in Peter’s case there was little delay. After sitting in the waiting room for five to ten minutes, we were told that we could return.
Permission to laugh
After a long and I guess uncomfortable silence Rachel’s husband nervously laughed “This is normally a very gregarious bunch.”
I replied, “Laughter is not inappropriate. Funny stories are okay too. I think the honor him just the same, and I’m sure he will feel their warmth.”
This opened up the discussion. When we returned to the room the mood was grave. We stared at Peter’s gentle heaving chest for a moment or two until Rachel said that she liked my previous suggestion that others share something. Wesley spoke up and then Rachel, each of them aiming at eulogizing. Others, I think were inhibited by pressures to say the thing that seemed right. The permission I gave them helped them to be themselves. Stories started to fly.
“Dad loved to fish,” David explained. “We sort of figured it out together. It wasn’t like it was in his blood or something. He grew up in Shanghai, not some fishing village. I remember this one time we were up in the Adirondacks for a week. We had done a lot of fishing but not a lot of catching. Finally we went to this little local bait shop and learned about this particular bait that the fish in that lake liked. We got some and went out one last time on our last day up there. As soon as we got our lines down to 100 feet, because that’s where they told us to put them—way down there. All three of our poles bent right over. Wesley, you remember this?”
“How could I forget the 20 lb lake trout?!” Wesley joked.
“Yep, they were big, but as soon as Dad got his in the boat, he was scrambling frantically to get more bait on the hook and his line back in the water. He was so excited.”
“Granddad was the only one who would ever sing with me. I love to sing and whenever I broke out in song he would always join me, or make me sing a song that he knew and could sing along to. Who’s going to sing with me now?” Alex was on the far side of the bed smiling through some tears.
“He really was a musician,” Rachel chimed in. “He played the piano and the organ beautifully and he loved to sing. I remember Larry set up the recording studio for him one time and he had him double miced and everything and he sang a couple of hymns that Larry recorded.” Looking to me, “Larry’s a sound engineer.”
“And I played them back for him and he was like ‘who is that?’” Larry added. “‘That’s you’ I told him. ‘That’s me?’ he says. ‘Wow, I’m good!’”
Then Rachel came back in “No, I remember he said something like. ‘I knew I was good, but not that good!’”
They all laughed and Rachel sighed, “No, he wasn’t always the most modest man.”
Naomi then said, “He never stopped singing though. The women at the nursing home were always saying ‘Oooh I want to be with him today. He’s so happy. He’s always singing.’ Even after he lost most of his ability to speak these past few weeks he would still hum.”
“He was humming along to car commercials when he came over to watch football last month,” one of the cousins added.
“He did love football,” Wesley remembered. “Remember how he used to take us up on the roof to watch the Eagles games in Franklin Field?”
David nodded and smiled. Wesley continued, “I think he was still working on his Ph.D. when he discovered this. He got his Ph.D. at Penn and his lab was on 34th and Spruce. He would take us up on the roof and we’d go to this one corner and from up there—I don’t know how high it was—you could see like two thirds of the field. So we’d have a radio and we’d be able to see what was going on except for when the plays were all the way at the other end of the field. That was fun.”
“I don’t remember him ever taking me to the lab to watch football.” Naomi said, “But I do remember one time he took me there by accident. He had so many good ideas that sometimes he forgot some of the simpler things.”
“He was a sort of classic absent minded professor,” said Rachel.
“Yeah, ‘cause we were living in Upper Darby and he was supposed to take me to school and I must have been about six or seven. I was in the back seat just looking out the window and he was driving and driving and I didn’t realize what was happening until we got there—all the way down to Penn. And he parked the car and started to get out and I was like ‘Dad, I thought we were going to school.’” Naomi did her best imitation of her six year old self.
“And then he looked back and said ‘Oh my God!’ He had forgotten that I was back there.”
“You must have been pretty quiet!” I said and everyone laughed.
What I remember
I remember leaning my cheek against the cold metal door frame, my hands in my pockets, soaking in the stories. There were many more. For at least an hour the room filled with smiles and tears. It felt good. When the stories had wound down, Peter’s pulse was still beating strongly. They decided to go home and rest for a while. The Marylanders were welcomed into homes. News was exchanged. Hugs were given. Folks who had not seen each other for a while were reestablishing relationships and renewing their bonds. Death often brings families together and here was an example.
They were figuring out logistics as they filed out to the waiting room to collect their things. I wanted to be right behind them and I told them I would be, but by the time I had made my required note in the medical chart and spoken with Peter’s nurse they had already gone. I remember thinking in that moment, “So sad—I really liked them. I doubt if I’ll ever see them again.”
But many years later, I was on an elevator in another building downtown. A woman next to me kept looking at me askance out of the corner of her eye. I watched her in the shiny reflective doors but wasn’t sure what to make of it. The elevator emptied and she touched my forearm in the lobby saying “Excuse me. Your name isn’t Ben is it?”
I stopped and turned to her. “Yes.”
I’m sure I looked confused. She went on, “Oh, my God, I know this is probably so weird but I remember you!”
She extended her hand to me shifting her bag to her shoulder and a stack of folders to her left arm.
“I’m Chloe. You were the chaplain at the hospital when my Grandpa died.”
“Oh wow.” I said, befuddled.
“Yeah, I remember you. Thanks for being there.” She smiled. I smiled. “Well, I gotta get going.”
“It was nice to see you, Chloe. Before you go, tell me. What was your grandfather’s name?”
“Oh, Peter Wang.”
“Peter Wang” I repeated.
His name on my lips was a key that opened the door to his memory.
“I remember Peter.” I said.
“And I remember you.” She said.