Hospital morality plays

In November I had an overnight hospital stay (I’m fine, nothing serious, thanks for asking.) By evening visiting hours, my light was already dimmed for the night, my curtain partially drawn. After a very early surgery that morning, I was ready for sleep. But instead, inescapably, I was front row centre to a discomfiting succession of spectacles. And an applause-worthy finale!

The patient in the bed across from me was a little old lady with curly gray hair. She’d had a stroke. Intermittent phlegmy coughing wracked her petite frame.

I couldn’t quite see the patient in the other bed. I gathered she’d had a hip replacement. She dropped her phone on the floor. Groaning and muttering, she rang the bell. She interrogated the nurse irritably about her medications. Could the drugs have caused tremors in her hands, she wondered? Her hands didn’t feel quite right. In a grating tone, she registered a list of other complaints.

Two women and a girl came to visit the little old lady. One, her daughter, also frail and elderly, sat quietly holding her hand. Because of the room’s cramped layout, the other two, her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, had to sit quite close to me. They didn’t glance in my direction. The daughter-in-law began to describe her day’s activities. Loudly. She was some distance away from her mother-in-law, after all (grin). She followed up with a rundown on the problems she was having with her legs and how doctors couldn’t seem do much for her. The granddaughter tossed a stuffed toy listlessly, responding to her mom occasionally in monosyllables.

They departed just as the other woman’s family arrived. Two daughters and a grandson stood by her bed. I could see them clearly, their backs to the little old lady. Crabby patient abraded them about her frustrations. Then followed a rambling, rancorous discussion about who was going to care for her when she was discharged. Names and schedules were proposed and rejected. The grandson jerked his head sideways every few seconds to clear his long bangs from his eyes.

In the midst of this, a pastoral visitor arrived for the little old lady. Here nestles the leitmotif. The other visitors never lowered their voices, moved aside or drew a curtain. Not even the slightest nod acknowledging that someone else had entered the ward.

The sweet aroma of Christ

The pastoral visitor had shoulder-length blond hair. She sat close to the little old lady, patting her arm, speaking distinctly and warmly. I didn’t catch it all, snatches of sympathy and assurances. Having prayed so often for others, her church was, in turn, praying for her. Then the visitor pulled out a Bible and read Psalm 91. Without a trace of annoyance about the commotion on the other side of her friend’s bed.

Yes, let me remind you that not two feet away, four raucous individuals are still wrangling. Well, three, actually, since the grandson wasn’t contributing much. The pastoral visitor’s tone was lilting, mesmerizing. She summarized the psalm briefly, applying the verses about God’s brooding love and protective feathers to her listener. When the little old lady needed to cough, the pastoral visitor waited patiently. Then she sang all four verses of “Amazing Grace.” Twice.

By this point I’m spellbound by her unwavering poise. Like a gentle angel, she bowed her head over the little old lady and said a prayer. The light above the bed illumined their blond and gray crowns.

As she was leaving, the pastoral visitor caught my eye. She smiled. I smiled back. “Preach it, sister,” I said, saluting her. She halted at the foot of my bed and asked if I wanted her to read Psalm 91 over me. “No, thanks,” I said. “I heard most of it.”

There’s a treasure trove of lessons here, some entertaining, some just sad. But this woman’s single-minded devotion to her task stands out. She would not return rudeness for rudeness. She would not be sidetracked from dispensing the love she came to share. Her resolution was nothing less than the sweet aroma of Christ, immortal, invisible, refreshing that hospital room, dispelling principalities and powers.

It’s still lifting me up, teaching me. In how many situations wouldn’t it be more judicious to ignore the offensive, the acrimonious, the cynical, and instead simply and faithfully commit to whatever good and loving task my Lord puts before me? Increase my wisdom, Lord. Increase my resolve.


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