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The flickering and hum of the fluorescent lights told Jerome that he was in a hospital waiting room; to him the feeling was all too familiar.
Jerome had spent his entire adult life in a hospital as one of its leading doctors. He graduated from John Hopkins University in Baltimore Maryland in 1973. He then went on to become a cancer specialist, dedicating his career to its research. Traveling around the world, he promoted people’s awareness of this horrible disease. Jerome had treated a spectrum of age groups, genders and ethnicities, with a wide range of cancers. He had been there when his patients had survived, and had witnessed the ones who were not so lucky. He knew all to well the look of pain wrenched faces on the family members and friends to whom he had delivered the devastating news that there was no hope. He had been on that side, and knew it very well. Learning how to hold back his emotions, yet still being very compassionate and sympathetic. Though, he never got used to the pain, and never was hardened to the many tears of the mother, father, child, brother, sister or friend. For Jerome, that was the hardest part of his job, there never seemed to be a right way to tell a family that there will be one less seat needed at dinner.
Though in 2007, he got a taste of what it was to be the on the other side of that spectrum. He was the person receiving the horrible news about his wife, April. For 47 years his idyllic life with April had swept him into complacency until the day of her heart wrenching diagnosis of cancer. He had spent countless hours sitting in a hospital room waiting for his wife’s recovery but, 18 months later, she was gone. Those were the longest and ironically the shortest 18 months of his life. The wishing and waiting for a swift recovery, but it never came. Jerome retired and thought if he never stepped into a hospital again, it would be too soon.
Sadly, 3 years later, here he was again…same hospital, same cookie-cutter hallways, same waiting rooms, and, predictably, the same sounds and smells of April’s passing.
He sat there with the same light and the hum, but this time he was waiting to see his daughter, Elaine. Her daughter, his grand daughter, Marie, just 14, was not doing well. She was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia and her chances did not look good.
It didn’t matter what floor he was on; the 2nd was the same as the 5th where April had died. They all had the same lights, wall decorations, fixtures and furniture. Only the colors changed slightly, as if standing on one rainbow band and jumping to the next where the sameness was only changed by the new hue: ‘baby blue’ proudly blended into ‘medical mauve’. Again, Jerome noticed how the artwork cheerfully suggested better times and thoughts rendered by the “Hospital Anonymous.” “Sure would like to meet these people…..” he muttered, “Have they even put a foot into one of these rooms?”
The brochures reminded him of being in the dentist’s office. Dr. Williams proudly displayed his about root canals, dentures, crowns, and Jerome’s favorite: oral piercing. The pictures of the people in the brochures seemed extra happy and so glad to be having dental work….something like “the joys of root canals”.
His career was spent looking at a hospital from a doctor’s angle. Now, for the second time, he saw it from the perspective of the family member in the waiting room with nothing but time. He felt what it was like to have his heart jump every time a doctor walked through the swinging doors, wanting to know everything, but this time not getting that luxury. His thoughts drifted from the hospital, back to Marie.
She was going into the 10th grade, a sophomore in high school, and Jerome couldn’t believe how fast she had grown. Very tall, and regal, he always knew her to be a colorful young lady, daily wearing a smile and always willing to give a hug and kiss. She had a sweet disposition; and was always giving, putting others before herself. She grew up most of her life an only child, and then about 2 years ago her mother had an unexpected pregnancy and had Matt. Marie already 12 at that time couldn’t have been more excited with this new blessing. She was ready to be a sister, and to teach that little boy all the wisdom of her 12 years. She had always cared about others more than herself, and she especially cared for her grandfather.
The doctors discovered Marie’s cancer one year ago, and were optimistic because of how soon they had caught it. She had undergone multiple radiation and chemo-therapy sessions and things were looking positive for her recovery, until about one week ago. She had gotten the lead in her school play, and the doctors adamantly advised against it due to the extra stress it would put on her body.
It was the opening night of the production, Jerome and all of Marie’s family were there. She was so amazing on that stage and about half way through, Marie collapsed and everything went silent. She was admitted into the hospital that night, and the next morning she got a visit from her doctor. “The cancer has spread through your body. Your organs are shutting down”.
Jerome’s thoughts were interrupted by a voice coming from the hospital loud speaker. “Dr. David, telephone please, Dr David…” and he looked up to see Elaine coming toward him. Lately her eyes had been a constant color of red, sorrow at the surface, but she was trying to keep her composure while tears would pass over her like clouds. Jerome felt her pain, as a father would, and could not hold back some of his own tears as they embraced and made some effort at comforting each other.
Elaine composed herself enough to say, “She’s not doing well. They have an experimental drug they are going to use, but her chances look really bad”. She broke into tears and hugged her father. He held onto her, feeling her pain, and deeply experiencing his own. After some time he moved her back enough to look into her eyes; he stared at her intently and said,” I will try to make things ok. I know that seems pointless now, but I will find something”. Jerome insisted Elaine get some air, food and rest. He offered to stay the night at the hospital with Marie, and hesitantly, with much persuasion from Jerome, Elaine headed home for the night, and Jerome was left standing alone. He felt his life was moving in slow motion, doctors and nurses running around him as if he was invisible. Jerome was left alone with the hospital’s “comforting” smell of chemicals, “great” wall décor….and his thoughts.
Jerome was remembering the times when Marie had visited him in his garden; involuntarily a smile emerged onto his face. Marie would show up when Jerome felt the loneliest, consumed in the work of his garden, trying to fill the emptiness in his heart from losing his wife just months earlier. Marie looked much like her grandmother and seeing her face was like a breath of happiness for Jerome. He cherished those moments with her, to teach, give and also let her give to him. She was young, and vibrant, just yearning to pull from all the wisdom she admired so much in her grandfather. They shared the same love for the planet, believing that the generations must work to make it a better place for the future, to leave this world in better shape then when we got here. She would ask many questions, and would tell him, much to his approval, “I am going to make a difference in this world”. She had dreams and goals beyond her years and Jerome just couldn’t wait to teach her all that he knew.
All of Jerome’s life he had focused on making sure the choices he made would ensure Marie a bright future, denying himself the “luxuries” of retired life so as to focus on her immediate and ongoing future on this planet. He had numerous conversations with his retired “buddies” as to why: “no”, he cannot go on that cruise, or why he won’t splurge and get that new flat screen for his house. Though his life did feel empty and lonely without his wife by his side, he focused that energy on creating a better earth for his young grandchildren. Jerome would focus his whole being on conserving. He was fruitful and frugal with the money he had. He worked the land growing beautiful vegetation and food, appreciating life’s little wonders, one of them being his granddaughter, Marie.
She was a light in a difficult time in his life, and they grew closer and closer each day they spent together, but now he felt that light slowly fading to a flicker. Jerome was growing though, in the knowledge of what it felt like to see his loved ones suffer. As far as he knew, the hope of a “life saving miracle” at this point was like waiting for snow in the heat of summer. He was a scientist, a realist, and had experienced far too much tragedy to now start believing in miracles.
The circumstances around him reminded him of being in a nightmare, one where you want desperately to run away, but your lead feet just won’t move, you want to scream out, but no noise will escape your lips. He wanted to help his granddaughter, but was ultimately so powerless to the circumstances around him. Feeling overwhelmed, Jerome decided to find a quiet place to lay his head for just a moment, thinking to himself, “I would give anything for Marie to be healthy again, without hesitation; I would give up my life, so she could have hers.” With that thought running through his mind, he drifted into as comfortable a sleep as one could get in a hospital. He hardly dreamt anymore, at least not of anything besides his late wife, but this time he had a dream that would change his life and those around him forever.
It was just he, and his granddaughter, alone in her room, in an empty hospital, so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Pale was the color of the walls, giving Jerome the feeling of death lurking. He could feel no warmth. The beeping of the machines and the shallow sound of Marie’s breathing was all he could hear. She was struggling for life, fighting for every breath. It hurt him to see her like this. This was a place he desperately wanted to run away from, to hide, to pretend it didn’t exist, but the painful reality was, it did. His beautiful, young granddaughter was dying, and in his opinion, way before her time. “This should be me”, he said to her, “That’s the way it should be: the old leaving room for the young. We do our part in this world, and leave it a better place for our future generations. You are the hope of this world”. Jerome felt anger running through his body, an emotion he had pushed down inside since his wife passed, was now so present. This wasn’t right. Jerome yelled, “THIS IS NOT THE WAY IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE”! The sound echoed through the empty, pale, cold hospital….
The flickering and familiar hum of the hospital lights woke Jerome from what felt like a sleep that lasted forever. Slowly opening his eyes, blink after blink, still a little blurry, he tried to refocus his vision on where he was. Where was he? He had remembered falling asleep, but in the waiting room. Now he had awakened to find himself in one of the hospital beds, dressed in a gown. Trying to get up, he realized his body was connected to many different machines, and he couldn’t just get up and walk out. “What is happening?!” he yelled. He opened his mouth to shout again, but in rushed Elaine and Marie. What a sight! Jerome thought to himself. He saw Marie glowing, healthy and at once forgot about the strangeness of his location. She looked so beautiful, so lively and young. Again a healthy granddaughter, she beamed in his midst. She ran too him, leaping to embrace him. As he smelled her sweet aroma, a small tear emerged from his eye, and he couldn’t help but think, “This is how it is supposed to be”. All the anger and sadness he felt was gone. He had no need to ask any questions because he knew now exactly where he was, and it felt right.
No one remembered when Marie had cancer, as if that place and time was wiped off the face of the earth. But he knew. He remembered that horrible time, and how powerless he felt. But ironically, now, more physically powerless than ever, he being the one bed ridden and dying. He felt like he could move mountains.