Christmas-time in the hospital gives you a vastly different perspective on the holidays. When you’re sitting at the bedside of a loved one, the twinkling LED lights, the holly decorations and songs about roasting chestnuts and Jack Front nipping at someone’s nose don’t produce the usual seasonal effect.
This is not to say that there was no effect at all. Christmas at the VA hospital was still Christmas. In fact, the Nativity celebration was clearer, even brighter, if only because of the setting — not despite it.
Maybe the truth of the Holy Day emerged all the more emphatically because it glowed in bold relief against the background of pain, distress, and the long, long wait of patients and the families who loved them.
In the space of a single day, when we were thinking about “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men,” we saw a sixty-ish RN -- surrounded by a late in-rush of emergency admissions and IV-buzzers, a code orange repeating on the hall speaker -- stop and set down a calm silence in the middle of the noise. With her dark practiced fingers, she gently caressed the fevered brow of a suffering ninety-ish veteran.
I shall always thank God for nurses. It was the nursing staff at the residential center that insisted on this admission, despite this particular veteran not wanting to be bothered. I trust their intuition, their devotion, their inherently Christian compassion. There is a lot of wisdom and love that goes unnoticed in places like this, and maybe it was for this reason that Providence planted us here this Christmas.
The following afternoon, into the room rolled John, his black leather driving gloves gripped tight around the chrome driving wheels of his wheelchair. John is a welcome neighbor at the residential center who also just got transferred to the hospital. He got his leg blown off by a mine in Viet Nam. He divides his time between volunteering at the vet’s home and actually staying there once in a while whenever the infection in his stump acts up. His rough humor is irrepressible and that is probably why he is the designated dealer at the VA poker club.
John is one of the main guys who helped my father-in-law make friends at the home. He lobbied the staff to get a better wheelchair for Henry: the first one, he said, looked like -- well, I won't say what he said. And here he is, now in the hospital room next door. “Boy, Hank, here we are,” he announced.
His wife, a Filipino nurse he met while on tour in Nam, entered the room and saw the Orthodox Study Bible Marsha was reading. “You a Bible person too? So am I!” she high-fived my wife, and told her how much she needed to pray whenever she was at the hospital sitting with her husband … and also, how much she needed to pray just being married to a guy like him.
We all understood, and John laughed too, proud of the fact.
A few hours later, out in the hall, a woman in her eighty’s passed by. She was pushing a bed that was half-propped up. On the bed was the slight huddled figure of her frail husband, whose pajamas loosely clung to his shrinking form. He wavered between sleep and fitful wakefulness while she pushed the bed around the circuit of the fourth floor. Pani Marsha heard, from staff, that she wanted to take her soulmate on a walk once in a while, just to give him a change of scenery.
So the staff relented and let her wheel him around like this. She did so every day. The change of scenery was only an exchange of the all-too-familiar pale walls of a hospital room for the hallway and the nurses’ desk. But it was enough.
You could call this a heartbreaking scene, and maybe it is, but it isn’t a bad one. As the wheels of the bed turned and the bed proceeded in a hush, the woman’s face bore an expression that was neither happy nor sad. Instead, on her brow was sketched a furrow of determination, and her eyes shone with a quiet tranquility, even serenity.
She, too, set down a hushed silence that drew a curtain of reverence around the slowly-moving bed. “Peace on Earth,” indeed. You could hear the Amen of heaven. The angels sing thus, in the VA, in the interstitial spaces.
This has been a long vigil for Hank. I don’t know why we wait so long in hospital rooms, and why some veterans pass from fever to sleep to flashes of lucidity mixed with concrete memory. I don’t know why this particular veteran, the last survivor of his crew, has never stopped fighting World War 2 every night in his dreams, re-living the very moment when machine gun fire sliced through the air deck of his B17 … a moment no human being should have ever lived once, much less over twenty-thousand times.
Every single veteran in this hospital has never gotten away from his fire-fight completely. World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, various engagements in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq all get played out in primitive memory on these floors. Whoever talks about the glory of war and making sand glow in the dark knows nothing of real soldiering. This, I hope, is something that war-planners will always take into account. There are too many young men and young women at this hospital. There are less and less old soldiers.
I will never understand these complexities: I trust an infinite Love to Personally comprehend, and resolve. I am deeply glad that the Absolute is Personal, and that my sublimity is beautiful. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done.
It is okay.
But I do understand the faces of other loved ones in the waiting rooms, by the bedsides — the other vigil-keepers, the other faces stretched between tears and fatigue and an occasional glint of comedy from a veteran who learned, the hard way, that a well-timed joke is a matter of survival.
I understand the deep mystery of prayer just a little bit more. We loved ones pray out loud once in a while. But the more important prayer is the single one that keeps on keeping on, that gleams out, once in a while, in the songs and the lights, and the season’s holly green.
Even when the green is gone now, and the flourescence still glows in the halls.
The nurses still bear the hands of Christ.