Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Returning to the Scene

Today, we took our 4-year-old son to the hospital for a routine procedure. 

He whimpered out his fears during the short car ride, knowing full well what was ahead.

“I don’t want to get poked,” he said in a soft, broken falsetto.

We patted him calmly from the front seat, and promised an ice cream cone on the way home.

By the time we arrived, his tears had dried, and he had moved on to other topics at hand. After we parked, he practically skipped through the parking lot toward the glass entrance. 

The huge glass canopy above us had bright photography of sunflowers and seascapes on its underside, to offer visual comfort for kids who come in on stretchers.

They thought of everything when they built this hospital, which first opened in the summer of 2008. It is a spectacular facility. Everything about it is state-of-the-art.

I should know.

In God’s providence, I’d had the privilege of serving as a parent advisor on the construction of this hospital. For several months before they broke ground in 2006, and all during its 2-year construction, I sat on a small advisory council made up of parents, children and some hospital staff.

Once a month, we would huddle in a small construction trailer where architects, interior designers and hospital executives would present drawings, designs, floor plans and flow concepts to us, to get our opinions and advice. As construction got underway, we took hard-hat tours, making suggestions every step of the way for how to make the hospital as patient-centered as possible.

So today, as we walked into the main entrance of this 3-year-young hospital, I saw my fingerprints all over the place—from the photo mural choices, to the paint colors, to the furniture, to the location of the elevators. I’d had a hand in all those decisions. This place is a real symbol of personal achievement, collaboration and great teamwork.

But that’s far from the only thing this hospital symbolizes for me.

On a chilly October Sunday morning in 2008—just a few short weeks after the pomp-filled ribbon-cutting ceremony for the hospital—I entered the lobby of the Emergency Room wing, out of breath, frantic. The ambulance had arrived shortly before with our 8-year-old—unresponsive on a stretcher—and my wife in the front seat of the ambulance.

I had stayed home until a babysitter could come and be with our other 3 kids. Then I jumped in my car and sped over to the hospital—that hospital I had come to know like the back of my hand.

I barged through the entrance to that slick, clean, brand new ER. Not a soul was in the waiting room except for the receptionist and a security guard.  The receptionist’s face fell.

“Are you Dad?” she asked. 

“Yes,” I said. 

She picked up her telephone, said a few words under her breath, and hung up. “The charge nurse will be right out to get you,” she said.

It seemed like forever, but it was only a couple of minutes until someone came out. I followed her back through the double doors. As soon as I entered the hallway, I saw another nurse wheeling a bed down the hall with Elli on it. She was draped in a starched white sheet up to her neck, so I could only see her face. 

She looked like she was sleeping peacefully, which struck me as horrifyingly strange.  Every other time I had seen her being wheeled down a hall on a hospital bed unconscious, she had a million lines, cords and IVs going into her body. There was none of that this time.

That was the moment I was sure we had lost her. She was gone.

They wheeled her body into one of the brand new triage rooms and pulled a heavy white curtain behind us, so we could be in a private place with her body. One of the nurses stayed in the space at all times. She said she was not allowed to leave us alone with her, but that we were free to stay there with her body as long as we wanted.

Joy and I slumped in chairs next to Elli, weeping and praying.

They gave us tissues, but I just kept wiping my tears with the sheet that was draped over Elli's body. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind as we sat right next to the gurney, stroking her forehead, her hair and her hand, which had now grown cold to the touch.

In a moment, the place I had once thought would always be a symbol of personal achievement for me was instantly eclipsed by the pain of losing Elli there. I would never see it the former light again.

As we left the hospital today, with Luke happily skipping out ahead of us, the memories were almost too much for Joy and I to bear, had it not been for Christ's new mercies pouring down into the moment.

My fingerprints may be all over the walls, but our hearts still roam the halls, missing the girl who left us for heaven that day.

We miss you, Elli.

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