“DNR” and “DNI” were in bold letters on the bracelets she wore.
DNR: Do not resuscitate.
DNI: Do not intubate.
Those seem like easy decisions to follow – the wishes of the patient. Those decisions were made by my mother when she was in good health, and working as a registered nurse at a nursing home. She expressed to all of us children that she did not want to be a body lying in a bed with food going in one end and out the other, with no sign of life but the movement of her chest to the beat of the respirator.
A blood clot that likely escaped her fibrillating heart headed to her brain a few weeks ago, causing a massive stroke. While her first stroke with the same cause eighteen months prior left hardly any residual, this one left life-changing ramifications: paralysis. The initial ambulance trip brought good conversation where she had her typically humorous answers to the hospital staff’s hourly questions:
- Who is president?
- Who is this? [pointing to my brother]
- The one I am mad at. [haha!]
The following days and weeks were not so jovial. She fell into a deep sleep, where answers came no more. She shouted in her sleep, yet when awake, she mumbled with her eyes closed as if straining to communicate with nurses who asked questions. Sometimes she would wake from slumber for their questions, but the mumbled answers through closed eyes seemed disconnected to the woman I call, “Mom.”
- What year is it?
- What month is it?
The clock was ticking toward death by starvation. Two weeks was the maximum that the doctors would allow her to receive nutrition from the NG tube. At that point, if the swallow test was not passed (for which she would not even stay awake!), then a more permanent feeding tube would need to be surgically implanted. Is this what she meant by “no tubes” in her wishes? What about the woman who was joking with the doctors the night she arrived at the hospital just ten days before?!
It is difficult living thousands of miles from my family, but tragedy multiplies that pain. I traveled from North Carolina to Colorado. I knew I was optional; God was in control. My dad and brother could make wise decisions without me. But I knew I would feel better if I saw her.
This is one of those times when “the only daughter” (as I am) has a special role of caring. I figured I would massage her head, wash her feet, and whisper in her sleeping ear. I decided to take Christine (age 11) along, since she would be an added blessing to Mom as well as to me. Besides, I want Christine to have experience in caring for the elderly, since I plan to be one some day.
We entered her hospital room, her 12th day. Her paralyzed left side was obvious, even while she slept, yet my heart was grateful for the glimpse of her.
“Mom,” I whispered in her ear and she jolted, so I know she knew I (or someone) was there, despite her closed eyes. Christine stood by my side, as we stared at her limp body.
After praying over priorities, I cancelled my week’s speaking engagements that had been planned for a year. I prayed the audience would understand and be encouraged to live their own lives by God-given priorities if a moment like this ever arose.
As we sat at the hospital hour upon hour, I realized that my octogenarian dad (as well as my older brother and his wife) had been doing just that for the eleven days before I had arrived! Dad took his seat next to Mom’s bed, with crossword book in-hand, just as normally as if it were his own living room. I am afraid he was used to “his” chair. What a blessing to have a 55-year-old marriage to weather these storms, whether my mother was aware of his presence or not. “A true love story never ends” is a sign on their wall at home.
The next day, Christine was weary of the sitting. “Can I sing?” she asked, so innocently. She has a way with spreading smiles anywhere she goes, and though I honestly wasn’t ready to smile, I knew her singing would give it a nudge in the right direction.
“Sure. That would be great.” I said.
Christine stood by her bedside opposite my father and me. She looked at me, and then toward her sleeping grandmother, then began:
“What a friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.
Oh what peace we often forfeit
Oh what needless pain we bear.
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.”
Her voice was angelic. It was so light-hearted, as if she didn’t feel the weight of the situation…as if she wasn’t “needlessly bearing the pain” just like the words she sang.
My father asked, “Is Mother singing along?”
I looked at my mom’s sleeping face. “I don’t think so,” I said.
My father’s hearing problem has probably handicapped his communication, but lack of hearing didn’t mean lack of feeling what was going on.
Christine went from one song to the next into Mom’s sleeping ears. “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace.” It was as though she knew my mother would prefer the older hymns to their contemporary counterparts.
Somewhere in the third or fourth song, I noticed Mom’s lips moving, and even heard a groan of low singing.
“She IS singing now!” I said to Dad.
We watched as Mom mouthed the words along with Christine’s voice, sometimes jumping ahead and saying the lyrics to the familiar hymns before Christine got to them. I was happy to see Mom was still with us.
Tough Medical Decisions
My dad took advantage of the “awake” opportunity. He leaned over her bed in a caring position, and spoke directly into her ear, asking her the tough questions at hand.
“If a feeding tube is necessary for you to live, would you want to have the surgery to implant a feeding tube?”
“Yes” my mother’s head nodded.
“What about a respirator?” he asked, since the anesthesiologist had warned of her high risk of needing one post surgery.
“No” my mother’s head shook decisively.
To be sure she understood the questions and that we understood the answers, he asked her again, and got the same replies.
Phew. A little peace came into my heart, knowing her wishes more precisely for the situation at hand.
The following day, as they prepared Mom for surgery – I bent down to her eye level. I told
painting displayed in the waiting room
her I loved her and would be waiting for her on the other side (though in my heart, I truly didn’t know if I meant heaven or the recovery room). She opened her eyes and smiled. Her lips didn’t move – not even the non-paralyzed side. But she smiled… deeply…with only her eyes…looking at me. Her eyes communicated a depth of love that can be transferred even through one…deep…look. Her smiling eyes said, “I love you. I am proud of you. I am glad you came,” though her lips never changed their sedentary position. Her eyes said it all, and I drank it in. Then her eyes closed again.
The feeding tube surgery beat the odds…or God beat the medical odds, and Mom – and her fibrillating heart – came through the anesthesia better than predicted. However, if I had thought she was asleep most of the time before the surgery, now she had gone into hibernation! The pain meds combined with the leftover anesthesia to make a sleep cocktail that ended our ability to converse…for what ended up to be the rest of my stay.
What to do when the going gets tough
“Can I sing for other patients?” Christine asked, a couple days later.
You gotta love the heart of that girl! She went from crying over the sight of “GG” being sick, to wondering what “Pop Pop” would do if GG didn’t make it…to asking if she could sing in front of complete strangers.
I couldn’t think of a better way to ease the pain.
Serving others is always the best pain killer!
While one nurse checked my mom’s vitals, I heard her take a phone call from a coworker down the hall, “No, we don’t have a worship service, but we can have a clergy visit him if he wants.”
The nurse hung up, and I smiled at the coincidence – or God-incident.
“I overheard you say that someone is looking for a worship service?” I said to the nurse. “My daughter here was just asking if there are any patients who would like to hear her sing.”
“That would be AMAZING!” the nurse enthusiastically replied. “I’ll meet you at room 32 when I am done here!”
Christine and I left to find room 32. We waited outside for a minute, because the patient was settling into a chair.
Dressed as if for church, younger than most of the floor’s residents, the patient looked like a civilian, except for the wires which protruded from above the buttons of his shirt. He had what looked like lifelines connected to the machines that whirred behind him.
“Hello!” he said with force – much more volume than we had heard at my mother’s bedside all week. He must have already heard we were coming.
“I just can’t believe this Bible-believing hospital wouldn’t have a worship service on Sunday morning!” he said. “I mean….I go to church every Sunday, why wouldn’t I go today?! Especially today?!”
Christine asked, “Would you like to hear, ‘Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us’?”
“That would be great!” He spoke with enthusiasm – as if finally somebody was going to do something right around here!
He watched her intently, switching to glance at me a few times while she sang.
Her voice quivered a little. She can sing in front of thousands, but the one-on-one attention made her nervous. I cut her off at the third verse, fearing tedium.
“You give me such hope!” he blurted as if anxious to speak. “I mean, what is our country coming to?! All that has happened this week?! And overseas?! And then I see the beautiful picture of youth in front of me, focused on Truth!”
He went on to talk about politics. (with which I agreed!)
And religion. (with which I agreed)
He spoke of his family.
He mentioned his past…and his future. Christine and I silently listened.
“What a blessing you are, Christine!” he said, as if she had done some major deed by singing one song.
I wondered if the real gift had been in her listening, not her singing.
“You want to hear my favorite song?” she asked. Of course he agreed, and her confidence escalated into What a Friend We Have in Jesus with gusto.
His intense stare made me glad she hadn’t sung more of the other song. He was enraptured. I wondered what “griefs he bore” that the song seemed to be carrying away. His face softened and eyes welled.
I quietly sang harmony (below), while lifting prayers (above), deeply worshipping in this stranger’s hospital room.
When she was done, I asked him if he wanted to pray. I honestly don’t know what gave me the gumption at that moment; I am not usually one to hold hands with complete strangers. Nor am I one to put my daughter in front of strangers. I am not a gifted Bible teacher, and don’t feel led to lead men. I suppose the Holy Spirit prodded me to come a little closer…closer to his life.
Christine, the man and I held hands and I spoke words to the God of the universe. What a precious privilege to “carry everything to God in prayer.”
As the short prayer came to a close, I could feel his grasp gain strength while trembling.
“Amen.” I said. I once heard
Prayer is when the weight shifts from our shoulders to His.
I felt that weight shift.
Tears streamed down the man’s suntanned cheeks in giant drops.
“You have blessed my year! I can’t tell you what this has meant to me! What a blessing you are!”
The real message
To recap the message: what a glorious God we serve!
- “No organized worship service” did not mean “no worship”…and it may have even been more intimate worship the way it happened.
- The best painkiller is to serve someone else in pain.
- There are no coincidences, only God-incidents. Without my mother’s illness, we would never have been in this man’s life – nor would any of you know to be praying for him right now.
As for my mom, she has since been released to a skilled nursing facility, where, Lord willing, she will begin her long road to recovery. Christine and I felt comfortable leaving, and on my dad and brothers’ encouragement, kept our plans for family vacation in Italy the following day. (More on that to come!)
In the mean time, I am looking forward to the next time I see Mom’s smile, while holding onto the memories of many in the past.
P.S. Thank you for praying for my mother, my father and this patient, Tom. There was a similar “singing” story with another patient on the same hall. Almost identically, with very different backgrounds, the other patient, “Chris,” was tearfully touched by Christine’s singing and the prayer. Please pray for him as well, since he received a very bad diagnosis the night before Christine walked into his room. He trusts in Christ alone, and according to the doctors, will likely be with Him in heaven soon.
Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Colorado sunset, June 2015
Mom and Dad with their first great-grandchild, Adelyn. March, 2015
Dad and me, Casey’s graduation, May 2015