At the end of my shift, I was confronted by a patient’s son. He comes in every day from 4-6PM to see his mother. Her case is very complicated and raises many questions. Prior to her hospitalization, she was a high functioning person. She walked, spoke, cooked, cleaned, probably danced, and was probably cherished by many people. Perhaps those are my own hopes for her, but either way, she was a woman living in an uncertain world, certain she had more life to give.
She initially came in for issues with swallowing. Tests were done, scans were initiated, and what they found was a mass in her esophagus that prevented her from moving food down into the stomach. Action was taken to remove it via surgery. Sounds pretty simple, right? Should have been, but here’s the thing about health: it can change in the blink of an eye. Although, the mass was removed, she suffered a multitude of complications thereafter and she still hasn’t recovered. She currently lies in bed with a breathing tube surgically place into her trachea, which is connected to a machine programmed to provide a certain amount a breaths per minute. She also has a tube in her stomach for food and medication. She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t walk or dance. As for living her life, well, it happens right from her bed, in silence and probably discomfort.
Back to her son. He confronted me and asked me a challenging question. “What do you think of her condition?” My initial response was, “well, she is obviously very sick and we are juggling a lot with her complicated hospital course.” I spoke those words and immediately felt so stupid. What does someone do with a response like that? There was no ounce of clarity or compassion or honesty. It was diluted, matter-of-fact, and unsettling. He fired back and said, “that’s just what I thought you were going to say. You all say the same thing. Everyday you tell me something new is wrong with her. You tell me I should do XYZ because that will help her. You tell me she can’t do this or that. You know what that all means to me? Nothing, because you’ve given me nothing. I want the “why.” Why isn’t she getting better? Why can’t she walk anymore? Why can’t she speak or recognize me? Why is she getting worse and worse by the day?”
As I took question after question; raised voice after raised voice, I interrupted him and said, “Sir, I don’t have the answers. I just don’t. I know she didn’t deserve for this to happen to her. I know that complications happen all of the time and they are, many times, unforeseen. I know that she has been poked and prodded more times than I can count and for what? We still don’t have all of the answers, and sometimes we won’t ever have them. She is very sick, yes. This whole situation is messed up. It’s not fair and I would be frustrated and angry and sad all at once. All I can offer you is my word. My word that I will give her the best care that I can. My word that I will advocate for her. My word that I will believe the best for her.”
He was silent for a moment and then apologized. He thanked me and left shortly after.
On my way home, I thought about that situation, but also, situations in my own life where the “why” was something I didn’t receive. I thought of situations where I’d scratch my had and sit in utter confusion. I imagined myself as the emoji with shoulders raised and hands up, wondering what the heck just happened. We have a yearning for the “why” in life. Why did he shut me out? Why did she walk away? Why did they say that? Why can’t they be honest with me? Why did everything change? Why is this happening to my loved one? Why can’t anyone figure out what is going wrong?
There’s an unsettling reality, and it’s this: sometimes, we won’t get answers to the “whys” in life. We can pry, we can investigate, we can plead…and morning will come and the question marks will remain. There’s hope though. Morning will always come. Circumstances will change. People will come and go. Life will begin and life will end. Life doesn’t stop, and neither should you. The minute we surrender the need for the “why,” you catch up to the life that’s continued to move forward. You find your footing again. You’ll move onward, in-step, and the idling in the past will cease.
I wonder, too, what I would do if I had every answer to my “why” questions. How would that affect me? Would I even appreciate or like the answer? Does it change my circumstances? Does it fill every emotional need thereafter? I have no clue, but I’ll take my chances on the fact that the present and future certainly hold more for me than the past ever could.
Here’s to living life, despite the uncertainties. Here’s to the families of patients, patients themselves, and everyone caught in between…there’s always hope.