By Michelle Cook (Faculty)
They usually enter this space in pairs, sometimes in a group, rarely alone. They take a seat and wait until their first name is announced. If they are able, they rise and walk towards the individual who called their name. Some are too weak to walk and are pushed in a wheelchair. The name-caller smiles and while they reach for the arm with the bracelet, they ask the person to state their name and birthday. The person responds, knowing they will be asked to do this several more times before the day is over. For most, their pilgrimage begins here.
The name-caller and the person turn and go behind the door while the rest of us wait. Later the person will emerge with a Band-Aid or a thick wad of gauze with tape pulled tight across the crook of their arm. The person will pull down the sleeve of their shirt to cover the spot where the blood was taken. They will leave this area and go off to another part of the building to await the news of their results.
I am a waiter. My person has gone behind the door as I sit here and watch. In this large open space, I always make sure to get a spot where I can see the entire area. On my first visit, I texted my sister, “This place is a room full of sadness.” We come here every few weeks and I have become accustomed to the routine. As I have watched and waited here over the months, bored and daydreaming, I find it oddly peaceful here. I no longer call it a sad place, but rather it is a place of unexpected hope.
There are all kinds of people in this room. Some look too robust to be here. Others are so frail they look as if they could break in two. I watch them all. My medical background lures me into playing a game where I attempt to diagnose the others. I try not to do this, but with so many years of experience, that kind of training is hard to turn off. Still, it feels wrong to be doing this to these fine people, so I stop.
As I sit and wait, I drink in the aura of this place. I have been here so often that I am comfortable and can relax. There are moments now when I begin to feel an odd sensation when I come here. The air around me seems charged with a strange type of energy that I have never felt before. Am I imagining it, or do I really sense spirits gracefully moving among and between these people? They swirl and float, their gauzy presence is all around. They are shapeless forms that linger for a moment around a person and then move on to someone else. There must be dozens of them, and I am glad they are here.
I wonder why this has become, for me, a place of unexpected comfort. Watching the specters drift and glide mesmerizes me. This must be a place where the veil between the physical and spiritual realms is thin, I think to myself. There is an electricity in the air here that dissolves any barriers and allows those two worlds to connect. I am sitting on hallowed ground.
As I absorb the energy, my eyes are drawn to a painfully thin, jaundiced woman. Her face is without wrinkles or lines. She is much younger than her initial impression suggests. Her teeth are white in sharp contrast to her yellow skin. She is too weak to sit up, so she lies down on the bench. I imagine her apparition hovering close to the ground surrounding her as she lies still. The opaque and wispy arms of her spirit encircles the woman, sweetly pushing back her hair and placing a gentle kiss on her forehead, like a mother saying good night to her child. In this, I feel unescapable kindness.
Across from me sits a college-aged girl playing with her phone. I can see rings of blonde, baby-fine hair peeking out from underneath her pink, Red Sox cap. These are strands of hope sprouting through despite all she has endured. She is sitting next to her mother who has worry lines on her face that no number of cosmetic injections could ever erase. They were caused by the kind of fear that takes your breath away. The fear of losing what means the most in the world to you. A spirit envelops them gently and they smile towards each other. “Help them,” I pray.
Who are these spirits, I wonder? I imagine some belong to those who sat in these very same chairs and have moved on to another place. They convey their wisdom, wordlessly telling the person “I have done this too. I understand.” Other souls are loved ones who have passed. They offer warmth and comfort and convey the knowledge that when the time comes, you will not be alone.
A young woman holding a baby is wheeled into the area by someone who I assume is her partner. Her head is covered in a long scarf tied with an elaborate knot and she’s missing her eyebrows. Her partner is attentive to her and the infant—passing cloths and bottles to the mother so she can feed her child. I watch the woman smile as she stares deeply into her child’s eyes. Pure love, I think to myself. And then, What good could come from this little family having to experience this? Scenes like this rattle the notion that God is a loving and merciful being. This makes me angry.
I notice the three of them are surrounded by spirits forming an ethereal circle around them. Several embrace the woman in a manner that is almost protective. Another sits at the foot of the wheelchair as it reaches up to lightly touch the baby’s cheek. I close my eyes and when I blink, I realize my cheek is wet. I try to gain control, but my eyes fill up. This could have been any of us, I think as I reach for a tissue. The contrast between a baby, a symbol of hope, and the despair a threatening diagnosis brings seems cruel and unnecessary.
When I look back, I see there is no space between this cluster of spirits. They have formed a tight encasement around the little family, almost like an otherworldly bubble. When the woman’s name is called, the family moves as a singular unit. Their spirits do not leave them as she is wheeled towards the door. Instead, they hover, and their tight circle moves in closer as the baby lets out a squeal. The room smiles when it hears this unexpected sound. There it is, I think to myself, hope. I imagine the that the spirits must be making certain the hope stays close to this family and that it never dissolves or disappears. You stay with them, I command the spirits. You make sure you do not let this child become motherless—as if my will could keep them safe.
A tall, sturdy man confidently enters the space. He hesitates for a moment and then takes a seat. Family member, I think to myself. It surprises me when he stands after a name is announced. Not a family member, but he’s alone. I don’t like that. Then I notice the translucent hand of an apparition resting on his shoulder. There’s a familiarity between these two, almost like old friends. I begin to wonder if I am watching an exchange that has happened here many times before. Perhaps this is evidence of the power of these visions. Their ability to give courage and resilience, to the point where a person can return to this place and boldly enter it alone and without fear, is miraculous. I am humbled to be witnessing this.
My mind wanders as I think about our drive here. It is a bitter January day—the air is so icy-cold that a deep breath will make your head hurt. Moments ago, we were huddled close and warm in the car as it swerved down the treacherous, tree-lined road. My passenger is
, a quiet person. Not much of a talker. The Silent Generation. I chuckle to myself because this describes him in so many ways. Any conversation we have is usually about how horrible the other drivers are and how much we love valet parking. “Worth every penny,” he remarks.
He emerges from behind the door and walks towards where I am sitting. He has always appeared younger than his age and it is no different now. He looks healthy although I detect a slight drifting in his gait. No spirits, I notice. Maybe he doesn’t need them yet, I think to myself. This turns out not to be true; the results were not as we had hoped. They will need to change his treatment, and there is discussion about joining an experimental study.
Later, the time between hospitalizations will shorten. There will be an emergency procedure in the wee hours one morning. It will seem like it’s going well, at first, but this disease is mean and unyielding. Once it charts its course, there is very little that can stop it. This is the ride we are on now.
Later still, I try to reconcile this healthy-looking man with the fact that he is now actively dying. He’s still awake and talking but he is deteriorating. There are people who need to see him one last time. Phone calls are made and soon the room is loud and boisterous, as if nothing significant is happening. The mood is light until it’s time to say good-bye. Final hugs are given, and people leave in tears and heartbroken. It feels as if all the air has left the room when they go.
Day light turns to dusk. City noises quiet as we enter the evening hours. The room gets progressively darker. The activity on the nursing unit decreases as it begins to settle in for the night. I tell the others death is imminent. “I can’t do this,” one says. When I open my mouth to speak, I can hear his voice coming out of it and I say, “Sure you can. We’ll all be right here.” “Truthfully,” I tell her, “I’ve done this professionally, and I have never regretted being there. I know what to expect, but this will be different for me too. He’s family.”
We have wrapped ourselves in the blankets the staff has given us as we settle into our spots around the bed. Everyone is exhausted and dozing, curled in chairs that are not well-suited for napping. The air in the room has become thick and weighty. I can feel a force bearing down on my shoulders as the room darkens. When I inhale, the air seems viscous, almost syrupy.
I look up towards the ceiling; it looks milky to me. So milky in fact, the outline of the ceiling tiles is almost obscured by the haze. I feel as if I am in a trance. Then, I see them, and they are everywhere. Packed tightly, they are stationary and not at all behaving in that airy way I have experienced before. There are scores of them. They fill every corner of the room. We are surrounded, drenched in their presence. I imagine they must be every soul we’ve ever met. The veil here is non-existent, I think to myself. The room feels so heavy and somber, yet it has an undercurrent of purpose, and urgency. There is important work to be done here.
I am grateful they are with us. Let this be peaceful, I ask them. I am worried that I may not be awake at the moment of his passing, so I make one final request, Please don’t let me miss it.
Hours pass. Our vigil is interrupted only when the nurse checks in. When she leaves, the room returns to its melancholy mood. I find myself drifting off to sleep only to awaken with a startle. Time moves slowly and I am watching him closely. I’m not sure how I am able to stay awake all this time. I want to rest, but my senses are heightened as I watch for subtle changes in his condition.
The room is silent but for a low, nearly inaudible hum that I attribute to some piece of medical equipment, but the sound is unfamiliar to me. I am focusing in on the noise, trying to figure out where it is coming from. It seems to be getting louder. Although I am not sleeping something, disturbs my tranquility. It feels as though I am nudged awake, and I quickly sit up. His breathing pattern has changed.
We stand and gather closer to him as he takes his final breath. Someone moves to notify the nurse. “Stay for a moment,” I say, “He’s still warm and he’s still ours. Once we tell the nurses, he belongs to them.” So, we remain a bit longer until the finality of what happed here sets in. Someone opens the door. As the light from the hallway hits the room, I feel a rush of air pass by my face and the room becomes instantly brighter. I look toward the ceiling. The specters are gone.
Were they real or simply the musings of those who wait? If you are looking for evidence of their existence, I have none to provide; just as there is no concrete proof that other elusive qualities like hope, faith, and love exist. Patients, and those who wait with them, come to these places day after day, year after year and bring with them a steady stream of hopeful courage. This energy, like all energy, cannot be destroyed. How could so many people, and so many emotions concentrated in one area, not generate an intensity that would manifest itself? And, if comfort is derived from these visions, does it even matter if they are real or not?
I no longer visit that sacred space. I miss it. There are moments when I yearn to be surrounded by the comfort and mystery of that waiting area. I may return one day with another person or perhaps I will need to go there myself. For now, I am certain my person has joined this band of benevolent apparitions. He will be there floating among the other spirits offering comfort and quelling fears with his presence, just as he did one morning long ago when he walked an anxious bride down the aisle.
“I’m nervous,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he answered. “You are not alone. I’m right here.”