In the Heart and Mind of Suffering

My mother lays in the hospital bed, uncomfortable, shifting around searching for a spot where her physical pain will drift away. She sits up, slowly. I adjust her pillows behind her head and back. She complains about the pain; I understand. She glances at me with the knowing awareness that, in fact, I do not understand HER pain. It’s rough, prickly, and without end. We talk, once she settles, about anything but the pain. Georgia football, the new Offensive Coordinator, her friends, her plans to walk the biggest hill in our neighborhood. She talks about everything that focuses on some future event or passion. She tries to find a way past the pain of her back, her legs, her abdomen, newly opened through a surgical procedure.

I can do little more that sit, offer thoughts and wander verbally with her as she goes from topic to topic as a way to distract her mind. It works. For a while, it works. Then it doesn’t.

I help her stand and make her way to the bathroom. I disconnect the power cord from the wall as she takes her IV unit into the bathroom with her. She moans, unknowingly, at the pain of rising and sitting. She grabs her stomach as she coughs up phlegm. Her coughs are productive and sometimes violent reactions to the mucus that has filled her lungs. I hold back tears as she tries and fails to pull down her pajamas. She’s deeply embarrassed by her son helping her. She feels vulnerable and not the least bit comfortable in my presence. She wants privacy. She wants to be able to do things herself. She struggles with the clothing, the IVs poking out of her upper arm because of the thin skin on her hands.

I help her out of the bathroom and then say, “It’s time for a walk.” Her doctors have ordered walking and getting her to move is no easy feat. As her eldest child, I feel responsible. I try to keep my tone light. “Let’s just walk down the hall and back.”

After a few moments we walk through the door and into the hallway of the surgical recovery ward. The hall is filled with staff in red scrubs at computer systems hooked to al kinds of equipment. Adorned on some of these devices are pictures of flowers and names like “Brandi’s Station” with flowers scattered around the name written in green sharpie and cursive lettering.

As we plod past the stations, my Mom’s mood has changed; she greets each of the nurses and aides. She talks about everything: the busy ward, the other patients. She asks about their wellbeing and how things are going for them. I’m amazed by her demeanor; bright, upbeat, curious. As we wander down the hall, she says, “Let’s go a little further.” We walk to the Nurse’s station and then top the right, down the hallway where a patients in more dire straits are housed. A woman cries out repeatedly, “OH god, I cannot breathe! I’m dying, I’m dying.” Police officers sit in a chair at one room as a man, bound to the bed, writhes to be freed from his velcro straps. His incoherent, shouting nonsense. As we pass, I ask the officer, a young Black woman, what happened. She says, “I cannot talk about the patient, sir.” 

We reach the end of the hallway, and turn around at a blank wall. We walk back to the room and my Mom’s pace increases slightly. She whisper’s, ” I cannot listen to that woman yell.”

We move to her temporary housing, walk into the space. The bland, light green color casts a pall on the space. It feels dank, dark, institutional. The lights flicker overhead. The wall behind her bed filled with outlets of some sort. Red plugs, hose extensions.

I reconnect her various devices to the power and her NG tube to the large container on the wall. It’s half filled with bile, a green, semi-clear liquid. I’ve been asked to check for signs of blood in the sludge. I help Mom sit, carefully, on the side of the bed. She cringes in pain, grabbing, instinctually, her abdominal area. Once she is settled, I sit in the folding chair in the room. It’s small. I’m a tall man. I shift, squirm, move to find some comfort.

We chat a bit more about everything and nothing. Not much to say in these moments. 

My Mom wants to go home. She’s tried of being in the hospital and misses her friends. She talks about walking with Frances, and again brings up the big hill, “It’s on McWhorter” she says and I say, “You will be able to climb that beast!” She smiles, slightly.

Her eyes starts to close. She breathes more deeply. She wears the pain all over her face. It’s on her body and in her mind. I can FEEL the pain sitting about two feet from her bed. Her struggle. Her fear.

As she falls asleep, I watch my mother try to rest in a kind of liminal state of being; not fully asleep and definitely not awake.

Tears fall from the corners of my eyes as I watch. There’s nothing at all that I can do. Nothing. I cannot relieve her suffering, her struggle with her body. I watch. I know that in a very short period of time, I too will face these moments. My children will wonder at what to do. We will both be without a path to follow, a hope to grasp onto. Maybe I will learn this lesson, but right now, I cry. I cry for my mother, I cry for the suffering we all face, and I wish, hope, and pray that no one faces what we face today.  And. And, I know the truth.

May You Be Happy, May You Be Well.