March 5, 2014

Vigil for the Dying

The doctors assured us that the ventilator could very well be a temporary measure, that once they drained some fluids out and fed some fluids in and checked some levels and did some tests that he could turn around — of course he could! — turn around and improve. There was also the unspoken other possibility: that things could quickly turn for the worse, that this could be his last night on Earth.

Either way, someone had to stay at the ICU overnight, just in case. I volunteered for the duty so that my mother could sleep at home for the first time in a week. I wasn’t allowed to stay in the room with my dad, though. ICU only granted limited visiting times, unless there was a special circumstance. Those of us with critically ill loved ones had to bed down in the ICU waiting room.

It was not a room designed for overnight stays, with its cold linoleum floor and bright fluorescent fixtures. I took a place on a small couch (practically a double chair) covered in high-traffic vinyl and sporting sturdy, uncushioned arm rests. It was too short to lay on, too uncomfortable to relax on, and stationed right underneath a wall-mounted television tuned to the History Channel with no clear off button. The Comfort Inn it wasn’t.

Around me were people just like me, each of them resting uncomfortably on utilitarian seating, each of them there just in case. We did not, to a person, expect much to happen overnight, but we were there in case something did. Overnight in the ICU was all about waiting for the worst. That’s what this place is, after hours — it’s a room for people waiting for their turn to grieve.

One family’s turn came just after midnight. I had dozed off into a light nap and was awakened by the sounds of their tears. It was hard to be in the same room as that grief. It was so sincere, so chaotic — Who should we call first? Who should we text? Should we wake Linda? Who should tell Mom? That could have been anyone in that room soon. That could be me soon, crying at midnight in the ICU.

Fortunately, my own night in the waiting room was uneventful. I dozed, I blogged, I read, I chatted with some fellow vigilants. When the first morning visitation time came — 6 AM — I was told that nothing had changed overnight. He was still alive, still under sedation, still not getting any better but also not getting markedly worse. My time to grieve would have to wait, at least for a little longer.

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