Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hospitals can be symbols of peace, great joy — and sometimes dread


For me, it’s kind of like water.

Gentle waves lapping at the shore can have a deliciously calming effect, instilling a feeling of peace and relaxation, a salve to the raw nerves of a tense day.

A fish splashing at the end of a monofilament line, however, can trigger great joy and excitement — particularly for this guy. Whether it’s a rainbow trout leaping from a river, a largemouth bass punching the surface of a lake, or a girthy, river-bred northern pike grabbing your lure and — at least at first — charging at you faster than you can reel, it’s guaranteed to get my adrenalin flowing, my heart a-pumping.

Then there are the surf’s-up kind of waves, such as those I raced along the breakwaters on Lake Michigan in February or March 1978, the year I lived in Chicago. Of course, my friends and I were invincible college freshmen then. We did not fear death —we had our futures ahead of us and did not realize, perhaps, just how fragile life is. So we ran headlong from the end of the breakwater and toward the shore, confident in our ability to beat what seemed like monstrous, 30-foot waves before they could crush and soak and chill us. Sometimes they did. Part of the thrill was enmeshed in the sheer terror we felt, knowing just how potentially deadly these mountains of water could be. Yet we were so full of life that I do not think we had the wisdom to fear such risk.

Conversely, in the post-Jaws years, having that movie’s theme unexpectedly enter your mind while swimming in deep water, even in a mere freshwater lake, could inspire a mounting panic.

My thoughts drifted toward such thoughts many times this past week as I traveled back and forth to visit a loved one who took ill and then was hospitalized.

In my youth, I had very limited experience in hospitals. Mom worked as a volunteer at the old Saint Joseph in Elgin when we were children, and sometimes she would take us along with her to help — I vaguely seem to remember it was a candy stand, although it well may have been a gift shop of sorts. All in all, it was a relatively nonthreatening, somewhat boring but quiet experience. It was peaceful, restful and a place with nuns.

We would not gain a fear of nuns until we were older, but that is for another tale.

But there were other times there when we had what I always considered somewhat disturbing and bizarre encounters in which complete strangers would boldly approach my younger siblings and I. The would “ooh” and “ahh,” sometimes even pinch our cheeks: “Awe, look at those big, beautiful brown eyes! You must be Schnells.”

I can’t speak for my siblings, but it was an experience that played out time and again in my life until I took my first newspaper job in Rawlins, Wyo. During my move to that state in late 1983, I was nearly traumatized when I drove past Chugwater and saw a mailbox for a Schnell family. I made some calls, however, and was assured the Chugwater Schnells were of the blue- and hazel-eyed variety. Thus, at age 24 in my sojourn to the Wild West, the cheek-pinching portion of my life drew to an end.

Entering adulthood, trips to the hospital became more intense. People were “having an operation,” or were “very ill” or even “dying,” often whispered phrases that commanded a level of solemnity and often grave concern.

Of course there also was another phrase that people associated with hospitals that conveyed great excitement and anticipation, but I would not appreciate that until after I met Lisa in Rawlins. We wed a little more than eight months after our first date.

When Lisa gave birth to our first-born, Brian, a little more than 2½ years later, the hospital came to convey a whole new meaning to me — one of unspeakable joy in witnessing a miracle and a great pride in my wife’s monumental endeavor, and a sense of gratitude that both she and Brian were well.

For the record, no fish I have ever caught over the years could compare with, nor has a catch ever generated the level of excitement than that which I experienced each time I witnessed the birth of one of our five children. Completely, unutterably awesome.

But time has a way of darkening even rose-colored glasses such as those. Some years after returning to Elgin in 1994, I came to associate hospitals more greatly with illness, and death.

I worked with a sweetheart of a guy named Tom, who had a few years on me but generally was kind, had a great sense of humor and was a pretty good copy editor. We were among what at that point was a particularly great crew at The Courier News. But we each have weaknesses. Tom’s was drink, and he hid it well from me, at least until toward the end.

Tom entered Sherman Hospital in Elgin in June 2000, where for 50 days he was treated for complications from his alcoholism. During those final seven weeks of his life, I visited with him daily for the first couple of weeks, but I also spent quite some time visiting his home to clear out years of neglect and debris. Toward the end, he slept more, and my visits slowed to about three times a week. During his final week, I unabashedly told Tom, “My friend, I want you to know I love you.” He nodded in glassy-eyed acknowledgement. By this time he frequently was too weak to say much, and I believe he knew what was too rapidly approaching.

Tom died in Aug. 4, 2000, and his elderly mother asked me to say a few words at his funeral. That was the first time I had ever done that, and I was honored to do so.

I recognize, too, that hospitals are a place for healing. Three times in the past 10 years, I’ve benefited from outpatient surgeries to resolve unrelated health issues. I’ve known many others who can share similar stories.

But over the past five or 10 years, a part of me has dreaded returning to one of these institutions. I am a little older now. I have seen pain and death. Others of my family are older still.

So the latter half of last week, in a process that will continue into this week and perhaps longer, I’ll be back and forth to the hospital, checking in on someone I love very dearly, trying to provide some level of comfort, warmth and love, but doing so without getting in the way of my siblings — or the health care professionals. While at home, I’ll field phone calls from the hospital and gather information to send by email to those of my siblings and other cherished family members who live in distant states.

I will pray and I will trust in God. Part of me will look forward with hope, knowing that God answers prayer. But, in the back of my mind there is a nagging dread, because sometimes His answer is no.

I’ll be grateful if the answer is, “Not now.”