I want to go home. It’s nearly midnight on Valentine’s Day and my wife is waiting up for me. I’ve placed the chaplain’s duty pager on the desk in the call room, charted my visits for the night and am waiting for chaplain Lois to arrive. She’s supposed to be here at 11:30 but she’s late again. This is not good. If I get a trauma call from the ER or a death up on the units I’m committed and won’t be home for hours. Come on, Lois.
It’s been a long day. It all started before I even came to the hospital, an argument with my wife. Something I had forgotten about again- the kids’ teacher conferences? I don’t even remember. Absorbing others’ suffering and family drama for ten hours takes a toll. But I’m almost home now and am trying to think good thoughts about Lois. I bet she’s walking down the corridor to me right now. I put on my jacket and zip it up.
The pager jerks and rattles on the desk like its having a seizure. How do you people know when I’m leaving? I say.
I call the number, a nurse’s portable on the medical floor. Oh good you’re still here, she says. The nurse tells me an 82 year old man named Stanley just died. A nephew is bringing the wife in from a nursing home. Can you come up? she says. I look at the clock. Can I come up. I say yes, and hang up. The pager sits silent on the desk. You happy now? I say. I unzip my jacket and drop it over the chair. Then I clip the pager to my belt and step into the empty corridor.
Up on the unit I lean against a window and wait for the patient’s family. The moon is rising. My wife’s in bed by now, reading.
The elevator dings behind me. I turn. A wheelchair rolls out with an elderly woman in it, pushed by a large man I assume is the nephew. The woman has a man’s overcoat draped around her. She is wearing fuzzy slippers that look brand new.
I get down on one knee, look into her face and introduce myself. Hello, Mrs. Kaczynski. Thank you for coming in. My name is Jeff and-
Call me Evelyn, she says, not looking up. My name is Evelyn.
Evelyn. I’m the hospital chaplain and I’ll be helping you with things this evening.
Evelyn waves me off with an arthritic hand. We follow the nurse down the hall to the patient’s room.
A housekeeper is already cleaning up the room and she gathers her things and disappears out the door. A darkened heart monitor hangs on the wall above the bed. The man’s head rests on a white pillow case with the creases still on it.
The nurse pulls a chair up next to Evelyn and quietly explains what happened. That Stanley had too much fluid in his lungs, and his heart just gave out. Evelyn listens.
How did he get here? says Evelyn.
He came by ambulance from the nursing home, says the nurse. Where you live.
Evelyn frowns. That’s expensive. Couldn’t he drive here?
The nurse repeats that Stanley hadn’t been breathing very well.
I’ll say, says Evelyn. Just look at him.
Evelyn stares at the body a while.
You know, he looks very familiar, she says.
The nephew tells her it’s Stanley. Her husband.
Oh, she says, I see.
Evelyn notices the ring on her hand. How long were we married?
56 years, says the nephew.
Evelyn drums her fingers on her purse. When did this happen?
He died about eleven thirty, I say.
Evelyn jerks her head around. Who are you?
I’m the chaplain, I tell her.
Chaplain? she says. Well, I didn’t do anything wrong.
Evelyn looks at the three of us. She points at me. You better call somebody, she says.
Well, he doesn’t look very good, does he?
The nephew places his hand on Evelyn’s shoulder. Stanley is gone, he says. With Jesus.
Evelyn looks up at our faces. He’s dead?
Well, she says. If that doesn’t take the cake.
Evelyn sits awhile.
Then she shakes her head. I don’t remember this, she says. I must be losing my mind. She turns back to the bed.
So this is my husband, she says. What is his name?
The nephew tells her again. Stanley.
Stanley, she says. That’s a nice name.
Then Evelyn leans forward from her wheelchair. She reaches her hand out toward Stanley. Her hand is shaking and it wavers in the space between them. Then she pats him on the elbow.
You look like a good man, she says.
Her hand remains on Stanley’s elbow. The wall clock behind me ticks away for a long time.
Then Evelyn says softly, Goodbye, my husband. She sits back in her wheelchair, turns it around, and wheels herself out of the room.
After they leave, I stand at the nurses’ station with the patient’s chart open in front of me. I don’t know what to write. The pager vibrates on my hip several times before I reach down and press the message button. I call down to the office. Where are you? says chaplain Lois. I’ve been waiting for you.
When I get home the kitchen is dark. I go upstairs and crawl into bed. My wife is facing the wall.
You’re home late, she says.
Yes, I say.
I lay there a long while. Then I give her a hug. Happy Valentine’s Day, I say.
Happy Valentines Day she says in a sleepy voice, reaching behind to pat me on the elbow.
* * *
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10 thoughts on “Valentine’s Night: a Hospital Story”
Thanks for reading, Jim!
Oh, Jeff, thank you. On so many levels.
You are so welcome, Katie. As a physician you have been present to so much of the bittersweet too, in hospital stories.
Thank you for your comment 🙂
Thank you for reading, Don. Hope you are well 🙂
Thank you for your openness.
Thank you for reading, and your kind comment, Joann. I look forward to sharing the next story with you and other readers 🙂
Powerful and dramatically so very true.
Thank you for reading, Karen. I appreciate your supportive comment 🙂