April 3, 2012 / Creative Writing
In Kali Wagner’s poem, two mourning women become potters, the dirt of their sons’ graves “dusting the house” of their grief.
February 25, 2013
I couldn’t pray. I tried. In the family waiting room, elbows propped on the plastic seats, I bent my head, opened my mouth, and waited. Then I stood and left. Back in the room, I joined my wife. Staring at our daughter, we inclined our heads and listened to doctors and nurses and machines. Nodding, miming comprehension, I concentrated on the soft, steady exhalations of the ventilator. Whispers that sounded like it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.
Later, we tried together. Kneeling, heads bowed, we murmured a few Dear Lords. It was short and weak. Embarrassed, we resumed our worries. We tapped our feet and chewed our lips and picked already bleeding cuticles. I flipped through magazines; she stared at the floor. Lacking divine words, we attempted small talk so meager it died as it started. We touched, hard and vague and brief.
The doctor prayed. We found him alone in the room, his chair pulled close to our daughter’s bed. His eyes were open but he didn’t see us enter. Standing, he pasted a doctor’s safe smile under his worried eyes and offered nothing more. We sat until exhaustion killed our nervous ticks. Together, we listened to each sublime shoosh of the machine.
Every so often alarms sounded. A nurse would enter on cat’s feet and study the scribbled lines and flashing numbers. I coveted her knowledge. Adjusting a dial or wiggling the little white clip attached to our daughter’s finger, she’d wait until the numbers crept up to an acceptable level. Nodding sympathetically, she’d say, “Tough little girl, your Hannah. She’s a fighter.” All forty pounds of her, I thought, but I just nodded. We ached to hold her, to climb beside her in bed, to read her bedtime stories and listen to her prayers. Instead, we hovered, dangling like the privacy curtains, envious of the wires and tubes that embraced her.
Later, I tried prayer again. It was after my wife overheard the nurse say, “If she makes it through the night.” Until then we clung to the wonders of medicine. We spoke of when, but never if. Now, if hung ugly, crowding the room, sucking our breath. I leaned toward the bed, smoothed a corner of the sheets, and sighed.
Then—call it a dream, a vision, divine comfort—I saw hands like liquid silver flow into that antiseptic space. They slipped around the tubes that swarmed her tiny face and with the kindness of water, slid into her mouth. Something opened before me, a curtain pulled aside, and I watched them flow gentle down her throat and into her lungs. There, fingers split and multiplied, opening innumerable passageways until I, too, could finally breathe. It was a second’s passing. I woke from it and looked around, but there was no one to tell. Instead, I listened to the ventilator pushing oxygen into my daughter’s lungs, the IV pump whirring, my own heart beating.
What do you do with an experience like that? You breathe deep. You shout hallelujahs and fall on your knees. You cry. You whisper thanks. You begin a story for Guideposts; you imagine it recounted by a puffy-haired blonde on the 700 Club. You shake your head, rub your eyes, and mutter something about needing sleep. You stand and stare into your daughter’s face and wait for something to happen. You sit. You bury it deep in your fear-clenched heart. You stare at the oxygen reading, watch its ticking descent, one red digit at a time, until the alarm sounds and the nurse comes and the only hands you see are tiny and pale and wrapped with tape.
The ventilator breathed for our daughter for six days. On the second or third day, the doctors, by process of elimination, determined that she battled an unidentified strain of viral pneumonia, complicated by asthma. The fight was reduced to management: pump in oxygen, fluids, sleep-inducing drugs, and whatever other potions that seemed prudent and wait. It was up to her and God.
People came bearing fragile comfort. I recall their troubled eyes, but their words, if I heard them, have faded. My wife rarely left the room, as if her presence sustained life as surely as the clicking pumps and hanging bags. Twice I convinced her to leave, to hug our boys and sleep at home. I sat sentinel in the dark room, an open Bible on my lap, my eyes tracing the same line over and over again.
Hope dwelled in the halls like an omnipresent hum. It flared in the desperate sighs of parents, rustled soft from nurses’ scrubs. It hid in everyday talk, in jokes told, in balloons tap-tapping the ceiling. Hope stared silent from the glazed eyes of plush bears and patient dolls bunched on window sills. It scuffed along on crepe soles. It rushed strained and crackled through a stethoscope. It was all you believed in, even when you believed in nothing.
The staff assigned us tasks. We learned to watch the oxygen saturation numbers. We silenced alarms; we pushed a few buttons. One day a respiratory therapist arrived and rolled Hannah on her side. “Watch carefully,” he told us, “you’ll need to do this.” He began to pound her back with cupped hands, jarring her mucus-clogged lungs so they could drain. Later, it was our turn. We repeated this daily, often under the critical eye of a nurse. I never did it well. Under my tentative blows, I felt my daughter’s fragile frame, her precious skin slack over blown-glass bones. My wife would watch impatiently and then gently push me aside. I’d listen to the hollow thumping of her cupped hands, her face bracketed with pain and determination.
Ten days after we carried our daughter into the emergency room, we brought her home. She left to the soft cheers of the staff. She was a hero, a pale and shrunken scrapper, a resilient survivor. They accepted our thanks but refused any credit. At home we rejoiced, celebrating with a new and firm awareness of the fragile. We told and retold the story with wonder in our voice and gratitude too deep to express. Late at night in our darkened bedroom, we lined up our stories, weaving together the frayed edges until they became one whole. Still, there were things we didn’t say.
Life realigned, settling back into familiar postures. I almost forgot those luminescent hands. At first I pushed them aside, shrinking as if from a smoking mountain. In rare and hesitant moments, I would recall them, testing for truth, examining my confused awe at this strange gift. Maybe I was ashamed.
When, months later, I finally told my wife, she absorbed it with calm and silent believing, patient for me to tell it again. I did, more bravely each time, first to a few trusted friends and then, when I thought they could understand, to my sons. Strangely, the last to hear was Hannah, and then only because someone thought she already knew. She confronted me, her hurt cloaked in the fierce righteousness of a teenager. I stammered to explain why I guarded the story like a secret, saving it for the right time and the right words. Her eyes told me my error. It wasn’t mine to keep.
Robert Vander Lugt
Robert Vander Lugt lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and four children. He helps run a family business and is currently pursuing a writing degree from Calvin College. His work has appeared in Catapult and the Banner.