This week I sit with my wife’s family in a hospital waiting room outside a Northern California Intensive Care Unit.
The room, furnished with padded chairs and carpeting, disperses our secrets into obscurity. Fully equipped with a 52” HD flat screen TV and high-speed Internet, designers thought of everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. No, actually, the room contains a sink too.
The room is well designed for waiting, but poorly designed for dispensing the gratifying answers we seek for the catastrophic stroke my mother-in-law has just suffered.
We are desperate for the doctors to tell us if her treatment is working. She is receiving the common clot-busting drug called tPA (Tissue plasminogen activator), but its use is experimental for the Hemorrhagic Stroke she’s sustained. The doctor explains that her treatment is beyond the normal standard of care, what hospital staff call “heroic efforts.”
Each day we enter the ICU on a quest for more answers. On one side of the unit sits a young neurologist injecting hope with every syringed infusion. Yet, behind his back, veteran nurses shake their heads while doctors sit dishonestly quiet.
Still, these herculean efforts give my father-in-law hope while we wonder if there is ever a time when we should ask: Is hope wrong? We don’t know.
In the hospital chapel, a family friend voices a conditional prayer in King James English. “Oh, Lord, we know that thou canst heal this woman if only we have faith.”
“If only… If only…” I mutter, feeling some shame in his conditional prayer. Other family members openly express their faith that the “friend” shouldn’t be allowed a second helping visit.
His visit leaves us asking each other, “What should we pray for?” Most everyone answers they are praying for a humane and painless end.
Adding more questions, we ask, “What would she want in this situation?” We aren’t all sure. Yet, most of us, when asked if we would want to be kept alive artificially, give the answer most people give — an unqualified no.
The question my Baptist Pastor father-in-law keeps repeating is the one he’s been asking God each morning for the past year as his wife of 56 years awakens from a torturous night with sciatic nerve pain: Why must God’s angel suffer so much?
We pepper the doctor with more interrogatives concerning my mother-in-law. Will this experimental procedure work for her? What will she look like? Will she know us? Will she be able to speak?
The doctor repeats his mantra, “We don’t know. We can’t know.”
His answers leave us nowhere. We feel nothing. We know nothing.
Nothing is a dark place. We feel like spelunkers, twisting ourselves into gyrations just for the hope that we might slip through this wormhole and emerge on the other end, finding light and breathable air.
Nothing is limbo. It’s an everlasting repetition, like two opposing mirrors in a fun house where you see yourself infinitely replicated. We see infinite repetition of the same answer — we don’t know.
There are many decisions in life, but the most difficult ones seem to come at the end of life. And there are none more dramatic than those we make in deciding just how our lives might end. So, at the end of day, we pray the words from Romans 5:5 “that this hope never disappoints,” but still we don’t know.