I am praying as I follow the ambulance down I-95 to Crozer Chester Medical Center. It is a trip I have made before and while my heart no longer threatens to thump out of my chest as I drive, I am not looking forward to the wait time as Ron is admitted to the Emergency Room. I have already called Bonnie, faithful daughter, and she will meet me there as soon as she can. But I will sit alone with my thoughts and “What if’s” for a while before she arrives. I have thrown my go-bag together with a book, my journal, and a knitting project. I will try to keep obsessive thoughts about what and how and why at bay.
It is not difficult to find a spot in the parking lot and I calmly walk down one flight to the corridor that leads to the Emergency Room. I give my name at the desk, even though I know it will be a while before I can see Ron, and I take my seat and pull out my journal. My journal has seen me through fifteen years of hospital runs and I know it will not fail me now. In fact, it is my journals that offered seed for my soon-to-be-published book, Crazy: Diary of the Well Spouse. But I long for some human companionship and a chance to piece together my thoughts.
I am not really eavesdropping, but in the seating section next to me I can hear three women talking. They appear to be mother, daughter, and granddaughter and I gather that they are here because the father has fallen. The older woman seems calm enough, but I recognize the clenched fists of the carefully controlled anguish. I am thinking of approaching the group when the two younger women hug the older one and depart on errands. The one left sits and looks dejectedly around the room. I make eye contact with her. I smile.
Up until fifteen years ago, I thought of myself as a shy person. But hospital waiting rooms can change one’s character and today I think nothing of rising from my seat and introducing myself to this fellow waiter.
“You can tell me to go away if you want, “ I say, “and I will go back to my seat”—I gesture at the chair where my go-bag sits—“but I overheard a little of your conversation and it seems that you and are on similar journeys tonight. Perhaps we could sit together and talk while we wait.” The woman smiles and says, “Of course.”
So I sit, and we talk. My new companion, Phyllis, has been taking care of her husband for 27 years now. I gasp when she says it. “I hoped it would end sometime,” I say. “It’s been fifteen years for us.” She gives me a sad smile and pats my hand. “It never ends, dear.”
Frank, her husband, has had several heart attacks and is in the early stages of dementia. He fell today and since he has multiple problems, she called 911 and had him brought in. I tell her about Ron’s ages ago car accident and the events with heart and medications and depression that brought us to the ER this evening. She is sympathetic and empathizes; we well spouses understand each other.
“If this is all so difficult,” I venture, “and there is no end in sight, why do we stay?”
She looks down for a moment and twists her wedding ring. “We stay,” she says, “because the vows meant something to us. We stay because we remember what they were and what we hope they will be again.”
There it is once more, that word “hope”, the tenacious word that often keeps me hanging onto the branch of the wind-torn tree. My companion and I speak of our faith in God, of the support of our respective churches, of the energy required—and supplied by our maker—to continue to be care-givers to our husbands.
My daughter and hers enter the room almost simultaneously and Phyllis and I move to our respective family groups. Now and then, we look up and catch each other’s eye. Phyllis’ family is called to go back first and before she moves through the metal detector, I give her an impulsive hug. “Good luck,” I say. “I will pray for you.”
She squeezes me back. “And I you,” she says.
It will be another hour before our family name is called, and even more time will elapse before we find that Ron has overdosed on his heart medications, that his urinary tract infection has altered his sense of right, that his pacemaker has kept him alive. Bonnie and I talk and make phone calls and send texts and pray.
I pray for Phyllis, fellow care-giver and well-spouse.
And I twist my own wedding ring on my hand, a ring that has seen more worse than better, more downs than ups, more poorer than richer. But the vows, as Phyllis has so astutely pointed out, mean something. For now, I stay.