What happened in the ICU

Published 10:45 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2019

You never know what a day will hold. At 8 in the morning on what would be one of the most significant days of my life a thought crossed my mind. Hospital visit. Yeah, there’d be time for a quick one right before I picked up the grand-darlings at Chick-fil-A, just after we took Daughter No. 2’s failing phone by the AT&T store.

The phone bit took longer than I anticipated. Visiting hour in the third-floor critical care unit waits for no one, though, so I booked it up the stairwell and across the street. I had wanted to see Mr. B for nearly two weeks. Now was my chance.

Interesting word, chance. When I use it, I’m thinking opportunity, not luck or random fate. I lean more on the word “providential” to describe the circumstances of this life, even the hard ones, like when at 12:15 I rounded the corner by the nurses’ station and met the sound of labored breathing — the rattling, chest-heaving kind — echoing clear down the hall. It was coming from Room 11.

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I didn’t know what to make of it. The latest round of texts had been hopeful — off the ventilator, surprising the doctors, showing signs of improvement. Mr. B even called the preacher before last Sunday’s service.

But there had been a turn, according to my fellow church member standing on the other side of the bed. He was wearing a uniform and the raw emotions of a recent year-long deployment. Choking back tears, he told me that upon his arrival the nurse had given him a hard imperative: Tell family they better come now.

So he did, and the soldier and I stood surprised and shaken by providence in an ICU room there at University Hospital, a sprawling complex filled with the state’s brightest and best medical teams, none of whom could help Mr. B now.

The soldier said he would not leave him to die alone, and I knew I couldn’t either. This was Mr. B, a man whose hand had shook mine for six years’ worth of Sundays. He was our church’s main door greeter, cookie buyer and grandchild bringer. He was the kind of guy who took the trash to the dumpster and came early on Sundays to sweep the porch. He was a man who prayed long for lost family members (naming them all) every Wednesday night. And he was only 64.

In our sanitized world, death is usually tucked away, denied. But there is no refuting the reality of mortality as a physical body shuts down. The sight and sounds of it moved the soldier to pray out loud about an incorruptible body and a finished fight with sin. It moved me to sing hymns down close to Mr. B’s ear. And while the value of smart phones can be debated, they certainly come in handy when you stumble over the words of Psalm 23 and every other verse about heaven you’ve ever sought to memorize.

The nurse kept looking at the monitors. The soldier did, too. He obviously knew something about pulse rates and oxygen numbers that I did not. That’s when he held Mr. B’s hand and told him there’s a mansion prepared for him.

I bent down and spoke of relations: You have been a good son. (His mother lives in Baton Rouge.) You have been a faithful father. (There are three sons).

One arrived about then and was ushered to a room to speak privately with the doctor. We were left to hold vigil as the time between breaths lengthened, and it was then that I thought of Oswald Chambers, the man who wrote My Utmost for His Highest, that classic devotional work that warms so many book shelves. I thought of the four-word cable Chambers’ wife sent after her young husband’s emergency appendectomy went bad: Oswald in His Presence.

In His Presence. That’s the last thing I told our friend, just before he left this old world behind and as the song says, flew away.

For a while there was a holy hush in that room, like a radio broadcast with unexpected seconds of silence. Then the soldier announced, “He’s gone,” and we could suddenly breathe again. I found my way into the hall where I sat in the floor next to a medicine cart, covered my face with my jacket, and let it all out in racking waves. The nurse kindly brought me a box of tissues and left me alone.

Meanwhile, I heard the soldier remind the son that Feb. 12 came as no surprise to God. (He believes in the providence thing, too.) And a half-hour later I was at Chick-fil-A, obtaining possession of two very alive grand-darlings who knew nothing of what I’d experienced. Life’s demands always force us to focus on the present, don’t they?

But I have to tell you, these days I can hardly bear to look at the pew where Mr. B always sat. 

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.