Hospital Hallways and the Heart of Mourning:
I was sitting at my desk, working on the budget, when I answered my cell phone that day in January. What are the words to that song? “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.” Well, it was 4pm when the phone rang, but it was Thursday. “Rachel? Josh was in an accident. He’s not breathing or moving. They’re trying to get him to Mexico City. I don’t know what to do. Can you call everyone?” In that simple breathless conversation I had lost my friend.
He didn’t die, but almost. He didn’t disappear from my life forever, but almost. I spent the next week living in Josh and Shelly’s house, praying on the hour every hour, even through the night, making arrangements for medical intervention from state -side, parenting their two kids, keeping 130, 000 people/day updated on Josh’s situation, leading the church who was now left pastor less and trudging through the early stages of my own grief, together with my two best friends.
I flew down to Miami the next week. Josh’s new address was the University of Miami hospital, 7th Floor, transferred there out of ICU on the day I arrived. that was a long week. The warm weather in January didn't even seem to faze me. I cried once in the hallway on a phone call to my friend that week. She was living far away and I had to explain to her that Josh was in a near drowning accident, his neck was broken and he was paralyzed… forever. I got reprimanded that night for allowing Josh to see my sorrow. “That’s not what he needs right now Rachel.”
The week before I had sat with him in four meetings for the church we worked with, and every week before that for the last year was the same. The week before we were working out a schedule that would allow us to share a car in an effort to avoid repairs on another vehicle. The week before, I had dinner with Josh and Shelly and the kids three times. But this week, these two weeks, we different. I didn’t have Josh’s friendship anymore. I didn’t have his creative support for my radical ideas about church and worship. I didn’t have our intricately woven banter on philosophical musing of little consequence. I didn’t have phone calls. I didn’t have emails. I didn’t have a home to drop in to when I was feeling single and bored. This week was different.
Josh was transferred to Mary Free Bed after that week in Miami. He wanted to be nearer to home and his kids, 3 months of rehab ahead of him. I won’t ever forget the feeling in my heart and stomach the first day I came to his room in the hospital: it was the hallway, heavy and smooth, beckoning. I soon learned to park in the parking garage instead of the parking lot. The entrance there was on the level of Josh’s room. Room #322. Immediately inside the automatic sliding glass doors, the hallway began. It’s a long hallway. First the glass skywalk to the hospital building, then the brain injury rehab unit hallway, then the nurses’ station hallway, then the Spinal Cord unit. Josh’s room was on the left, two doors from the very end.
Passing through that hallway was passing through every fragment of my grief over and over a gain. And each time took a lifetime. And each time was harder than the last, until one day, it got familiar. I started to belong there, in that hallway. I started to covet my time walking through my grief. Slowly, some days, at a near run on others. I would look at myself in the reflection of the skywalk walls. Or I would focus my eyes on a single brick, almost undecipherable at the end of the hallway, in the middle of the back wall, so far away. I always felt God there. Sometimes I cried on the way down the hallway. I always remembered life and death. I always remembered love. I always felt nervous about what I would find at the end, in room #322, for I knew I would not find my friend as I knew him. Who would it be? Would we ever regain our world, in any shade or shape? No we would not. The consequences of the accident and Josh’s new life would blot out the energy and life of our little friendship. I would leave the church before Josh was even released from Mary Free Bed. I would separate my life from that family. They would move to another house, far away from the one I dropped in to so often. We would painfully try to commit to a friendship in the next year, make it work, look for the positives, remember the past, but it would not stick. I had lost.
I think God put that hallway there for me. Maybe for Shelly too. Maybe for the kids. Maybe for all the visitors to the Spinal Cord unit. But certainly for me. The end of the hallway wasn’t just that brick in the wall, it was the heart of God, and… I think, the heart of me too. The hallway was a whole life of hurt and suffering and sorrow, sometimes a river of comfort, sometimes an ambush of pain. You see, our grief is never alone. It's never only this grief at this time. It's all the losses and broken wishes of our whole lives, our whole self. All at once, resurfacing each time we lose again. I loved that hallway. I miss that hallway. I don’t think I could have gone on without it.