I thought I was simply making small talk. I had no idea what would transpire as we made our way through the hallways.
My wife and I were at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta as my daughter recovered from major back surgery the previous day. Here, our eyes had been opened to a new level of paradoxical discoveries of both parental pain and hope. The children we saw in the hallways, courtyard and in the cafeteria looked just like the children we see on the TV news shows or online clips raising money for treatment of childhood diseases. We saw cancer patients. We walked along kids adjusting to life with physical limitations. We observed children in various stages of recovery from accidents and heart surgery. We couldn’t help but feel abundantly blessed by our family’s health.
I made a quick trip that Friday night to the parking garage to retrieve a bottle of water from my car. Standing at the elevator that would return me to the hospital was a man about a decade younger than me. In one hand he carried a large unopened box of Pampers. In the other, bags of diapers already dispensed from the box from which they had once been packed. “Boy or girl?” I asked in an attempt to be neighborly. In a hospital where we as parents are concerned about our children there is a sense of camaraderie—we are in this together. The ailments of our children may differ, but we are there for our kids.
I anticipated his response to be something such as “A boy, he had heart surgery yesterday.” Or, “Our daughter, she’s been here for 2 weeks and we are hoping she is coming home by the end of the month.”
Instead, his response left me speechless. “I’m giving these diapers to the hospital.” Pausing briefly, he continued, “My son is passing away tomorrow.”
What? Could I have heard him correctly? My son is passing away tomorrow? Stunned and not having any clue of how to respond, he filled the conversational void with a few details. His son had been born with a rare disease. A week earlier key organs had begun to malfunction. “Tomorrow we will take him off life support. There is no use keeping him on it.” Tomorrow.
Tomorrow wasn’t just any day. It was the day this father would say a final goodbye to his 5 year old son. Tomorrow was the day before Father’s Day.
We rode the elevator together to the hospital lobby and proceeded to walk the hallways to the “Butterfly”elevators that would transport us to where our children were receiving care. On the 4th floor lay my daughter. Her surgery a success, she would be wheeled out the front doors on Father’s Day to head home. There in that same building, his son, alive only because of machines, was only hours away from death, never to communicate with his dad again.
As we journeyed, with no visible emotion but with a deep and quiet sadness in his voice, he told me he had been through this before. Just 5 years earlier his oldest son had died of the same disease. Again, I was speechless–two sons in a span of 5 years. Tragic.
“I’m not one for sympathy,” he said as we continued to walk. A strange comment, I thought. Then, “My wife died in 2010.” No way! Not only was he about to lose his second young son to a horrific disease, he was doing it alone as a single parent who was still grieving the loss of his wife.
As we continued to walk and talk he told me of a third son—a 2 year old who must have been born shortly before his mother’s death. Sensing my pain for him, he offered the only encouraging part of his heartrending story; This third son was healthy and free of the disease that had stolen life from his brothers.
As the elevator ascended I knew our tomorrows would be remarkably different. I would spend another day at the hospital with my daughter on the road to recovery. He would stand by, sit with, or kneel over a little son as a fateful decision would be carried out before his eyes.
I don’t remember who got off the elevator first, but as we parted I couldn’t grasp the pain this man was feeling. I never caught his name and he never heard mine. Yet, I prayed for him often that weekend–and continue to pray for him now.
I don’t know if this father gained an ounce of support from our conversation. Though tempted to try to say something encouraging, I knew the best thing I could do was listen. And listen I did. Earlier in my life I would have felt obligated to say something spiritual, but I knew I didn’t have the relationship currency nor did I have the time to offer anything of much substance. I curbed the desire to offer some religious cliché that could have produced more anger than hope. Instead, I did my best to express my genuine concern and my thoughts for him and then we parted…for tomorrow.
Jack Bruce lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and four children.
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