A small stream of light struggles to break through a crack between the window blinds in the darkened room. The persistent beep from the nearby machine hums. It is annoying, as it reminds me I am in the ICU. It is the place where the “really sick” go.
I have always had great respect for people who work in hospitals. How do they function in an environment where suffering and death are common day after day? It is a sterile and complicated place with equipment, tubes, and bags.
The long barren corridors remind me of sickness and death, depression and discouragement, hopelessness and fear. I do not like these dungeons, I never have. I’ve entered them, but always feared them.
I remember when I was fifteen. I can hear the clip clop of my shoes on the grey, shiny floor of the hospital. The sound is all that is heard amidst the awkward silence. That silence would often be broken, by a family joke that prevented us from dealing with the depth of despair we felt as we entered the room.
The cold, sterile room held a giant electric bed and various irritating machines that made beeping noises. The smell of bleach and sickness intertwined. It felt like I was on a different planet than my usual carefree days filled friends and dreams. In the crisp white sheets lay my father. He had a persistent cough, so deep that it sounded like he might cough a lung up out of his chest. That same cough continued at home, and kept me up at night, for six slow, agonizing weeks to his end.
I hated that hospital room. It was a disruption that showed up and altered everything in this high school girl’s life. I wanted to escape that place as quickly as possible and never enter a hospital again.
The gentle footsteps of a nurse lure me back from thirty years ago to the present. As I sit today, in what looks like the same room, I realize the old room in many ways never left me.
It is 8:30 in the morning and the nurse brings a sense of calm as she walks into the room for the morning routine. She sets a meal on the cart next to the bed. I enjoy the smell of the breakfast and can almost taste the nourishment. She turns to a computer near the grey wall, she asks a few questions, and then dispenses some life giving drugs. She asks, “May I open the shades?…Would you like some more light in here?” “Please” we answer with yearning, as she releases the light into the room. I breathe easier.
My friend, the one in the big electric bed, has just woken up looking weathered. Despite her years of battle and consuming cough she is strong and elegant.
Somehow she carries a peace in her heart that cannot be denied.
I notice that she still wears pearls in her ears and smile.
She seems a bit disoriented as she asks the kind nurse, “Would you please get me some eye drops? I can’t see.” The nurse hurries over to tend to my friend. “Of course I can help.” She says. As she prepares to dispense the soothing liquid drops, she says, “Look to the heavens.” Her words comfort my thoughts. I close my eyes and I breathe them in. The words penetrate my soul and I pause to receive them, “Look to the heavens, Maryhelen.”
In an instant, it all makes sense. I have come a long way since the hospital room of thirty years ago. At different points in my journey over the last decade, I have worked to enter the pain of that season. I have not stayed silent or pushed the torment away with a joke or platitude. I have named the pain, suffering and many things that were lost during that time. I have shed piles of tears that should have been seen and felt as a young teen. As I have courageously engaged the desolation that the room held, a sliver of light has broke through the window blinds.
I am no longer afraid of hospital rooms, they are not as dark as they seemed. Here I sit in the ICU with the nurse who brings light and life, and my beautiful friend who continues to suffer gracefully while still wearing pearls.
There is a reason I am able to return to the hospital room and not be overwhelmed by despair: I now sense the light and look to the heavens.
Maryhelen Martens is a lover of whimsy and play, beauty and depth, all of which she experiences in her relationships. She finds life in authentic conversation, walking alongside others and ultimately Jesus – who has been so kind. Each day, she draws from a larger bowl of grace for herself and others. A mom of three,she currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her youngest daughter who is about to leave the nest, and Keith, her husband and co-laborer of 28 years.