People often say they hate hospitals.
People who walk these hallways find a room. Inside that room is a loved one who is suffering. Inside that room is a loved one who may have been a strong tower of reliability and dependability. Now they are broken, vulnerable, and in need of care. These are rooms where loved ones can slip away. It is an element of humanity that can be bitter, desolate, and severely humbling. Yet, there are moments in these quiet, sterile rooms where a human being comes to stay that conquers the darkness of loss with the glory of all of life.
A polite elderly woman named Helen was admitted to our care. She had become increasingly confused, suffered a fall, and due to advanced age and osteoporosis (softening of the bones), she fractured sections of her femur and pelvis.
According to her history, she had three loves in life. One was her life-long husband, Hank, who had recently passed away. The second was her daughter, Violet. The third was her independence. These loves were braided together by a deep Catholic faith.
She was not a wealthy woman. She had never traveled to exotic places. But every day, she made a point of doing, experiencing, or attempting something new. Her daughter described one of these instances.
“I still remember the day I found her at the kitchen table with a brand new lap-top computer. She hadn't said a word about wanting a computer prior to this. She was 70 years old. It was a total shock to me. Boxes, styrofoam, cords, and plastic were all over the floor. I asked her what she was doing. She looked at me, her eyes gigantic and blinking behind her magnified glasses. She said, 'I'm surfing the web.' as if it was the most normal thing in the world. She started sending me a daily email. One day I stopped by to give her a ride to Mass. She said, 'You're an hour early. Mass was changed from eight o'clock to nine o'clock today. Didn't you get my email?' I adored her.”
Helen adored her daughter. She insisted that a myriad of family photos be posted around her hospital room. Her daughter was the most frequent topic of conversation as the nursing assistants performed hygiene or changed her bedsheets. The physical therapist and nurses also got a daily dose of The Violet Times. Although we frequently had to orient Helen to where she was and why she was there, her long-term memory was strong and family was number one on her priority list.
By the time Violet arrived at the hospital, we all felt like we knew her. People she had never met recognized her suddenly saying “You must be Violet.” She politely responded and said, “You must've talked with my mother.”
Helen developed an infection not long after one of her many surgeries, and her confusion worsened. The doctors were concerned. Violet started spending more and more time at the hospital. She stayed late into the night, and slept on a fold-out chair in the room with her mother.
One evening as I came on shift, I received a report that Helen no longer recognized Violet. Her medication pass had become contentious. After a difficult conversation, Violet and I were able to orient Helen long enough to convince her to take her medication. Violet looked exhausted in the dark room that glowed and hummed with the lights and mechanisms of various medical pumps and equipment.
A few hours later I stood outside the room at a computer console, catching up on my paperwork and double-checking all my administered medications. I glanced at the clock which read 2 AM and was wondering if I would be able to get a lunch break when I heard Helen speak.
“Hello, sweetheart,” she said, suddenly lucid.
“Hello, mother,” Violet said, forcing herself awake. She leaned toward Helen and smoothed her hair.
“What are we doing here, sweetheart?”
“Mother, you had a fall. We're in the hospital. We're making you better.”
“Yes,” she said simply. “Violet?”
“I loved every day that I had with you. I loved you before I knew you, and I will always love you. You are my miracle. You are my finest creation. I made you. Hank and I, we made you.” She reached up and tapped her daughter's nose. “I made you.”
Violet began to sob. Helen smoothed her hair.
“I took care of you from the very beginning. You are my very own. I kept you warm, and I fed you. I watched you grow. I loved every second of it. You are the finest person that I have ever met, and I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom.”
“I am going to let you take care of me now, sweetheart. I don't think I can take care of myself anymore. I need you to take care of me.”
“I'm going to put my life in your hands, just as you were put in my hands. I am going to let you take care of me now. I love you and I trust you, and I am in your beautiful hands which were so tiny once. I am so proud of you. You are my sweet girl.”
I could barely breathe as I listened to Violet sob. All sound drifted away. My head swirled in their words. For days I felt a deep and raw prayer pouring from me. I hungered for them to have goodness. I thought of my daughter. I was immersed in the thought of my family. I felt honored to have overheard the sacred conversation. I felt as if I had been given a great gift.
True to their pact, Violet took care of her mother as she suffered through final bouts of antibiotics, confusion, home care, and failed attempts at physical therapy.
Three months later, I saw the notice in the newspaper that Helen had passed. If there is anything that I am certain of, it is that Helen passed into greater light, carried there in the hands of her daughter who she had once welcomed to the world. It must have been a moment that inspired the awe of angels.