When I walked into St. Joseph Mercy, in downtown Detroit, the same hospital where my wife breathed her last breath, I almost fainted. No matter how comfortable the leather cerulean blue chairs, or how calming the muted earth tones on the walls, or how inviting the carpet, it could not hide the undeniable truth: this is a place where people die. Still, passing out, albeit in the company of doctors, did not seem the best way to complete the task assigned to me by the angel.
The previous day, while standing at Kristen’s grave, drunk and cursing God, the angel appeared. He, if there were any gender to assign, did not have wings, or shine brightly, and in his plainness, I at first took him for a drinking buddy or somebody demented enough to play a trick on a tipsy, grieving widower. Instead, he told me secret things about my wife, our relationship and our final days together. When he saw that I believed him, he said, “Don’t be afraid.”
“Why would I be afraid? Whatever power God had, he obviously spent elsewhere, because we’re standing here, having this conversation over my wife’s grave,” I said.
“Fair enough. It’s an argument I hear often. Still, you should know she was faithful until the very end,” he replied. I took offense, and then another swig from the bottle that I held in a brown paper bag.
“Yeah, and what good does that do me now that she’s dead, or wherever, up there, and I’m down here,” I said as I raised my arms up and showcased the cemetery.
I half expected my anger to bring an Old Testament wrath, the kind that finds one stricken with festering boils, or swallowed whole by the Earth. Instead, the angel gave me a job to do, which is what landed me inside the walls of St. Joseph Mercy again, a place that only brought me grief and despair.
“You’re being given a gift to give to someone else in need. Whether you choose to give that gift is up to you,” the angel said.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a particularly religious man. Besides, who gives a gift, only to ask them to give it to someone else? This is a cosmic joke,” I said.
“The world has enough religiosity. We need a different kind of faith. The kind that your wife, Kristen had,” he said.
“You fail to see the irony in that statement,” I said, but he didn’t dare respond, recognizing that I could not be soothed by platitudes, especially in my inebriated state.
He explained the details of the mission, a word he used, not me, and instead of being honored, or overcome by a boundless gratitude for choosing me, I became livid. I cursed at him and shouted obscenities, in total disbelief that he would give me the one power I needed most when my wife was still alive. According to God’s good graces, I now had the power to heal one complete stranger, totally, whole again, not a worry in the world. My outburst didn’t discourage him.
“You have twenty-four hours, starting at midnight tonight. Touch them and they will be healed. I recommend sobering up first,” the angel repeated.
He disappeared, to wherever angels disappear, took my bottle with him, and I stood there, frustrated and angry. Like so many times before, whenever I needed to make a difficult decision, Kristen’s voice settled in between my ears, practical and true. She would say, “Think it through. Then, whatever decision you make, I’ll support you.”
She recognized how those words churned my insides, but then softened my heart. She would support me alright, but only after I thought it through as a spouse prone to impulsive actions. She knew saying those words in that exact order would be the only way to make me a responsible husband and one day a responsible father. A lot of good that did her, or me. Yet, I still wanted her support, needed it really, and this time was no different.
“Fine! I’ll do it, because I know you’d want me to,” I shouted at the headstone.
As I sat in one of the leather chairs in the hospital lobby, a heavy weight pushed me down and I wanted to let it push me all the way to the floor and rub me out into the speckled carpet. Touching a stranger in their most vulnerable time of need would be uncomfortable enough, but it made me realize by choosing one, I would in turn condemn hundreds, thousands, millions of others to death.
“Excuse me, young man, may I sit here?” an elderly woman said. She used a walker, the kind with the tennis balls on the feet, and pointed to the seat in which I sat.
“Sure, no problem. I was just getting up, anyhow,” I replied.
“There are no more chairs available, and I need a quick breather before heading up to visit with my brother,” she said.
She ambled over, turned around, plunked herself down with surprising agility, looked up at me and smiled.
“Do you have someone here you’re visiting?” she asked. My attention shifted to the conversation, all the while scanning the room for patients ill enough to appreciate the gift I could give them. Should I run up to a random person, tag, you’re it, and sprint back to the parking lot?
“No, I, well yes, my wife,” I lied.
“Oh? Is she not well?” she asked.
While several months had passed, I still didn’t feel comfortable with the label of widower. I didn’t want the pitiful glances, the hushed conversation and soft pats on the arm or shoulder. However, in a flash of guilt, I decided the road to a miraculous healing shouldn’t be paved with lies and instead should be approached with a bit of reverence.
“I’m sorry I said that. She’s dead, my wife, and she died in this hospital.”
“Oh honey, I understand. My husband’s been dead twelve years. I still tell strangers he’s at home, watching golf, or asleep on the couch,” she said.
We both laughed, and my weight got a little lighter.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did she die?” she asked.
“Cancer,” I said.
“Terrible, that one. I beat it twice. My younger brother is on the third floor. Chemotherapy. He’s seventy-five and could still run marathons. He was even featured in one of those running magazines, if you can believe that, but now he’s so frail,” she said.
“Yes, I can believe it,” I said. I clenched my teeth, and fought back the hot, moist tears starting to form.
“Alright, I’ve rested enough. If I don’t get up now I never will,” she said. She rocked forward and out, and stood still for a moment, then shuffled with her walker toward the elevator. She raised her hand up in a wave and I waved back goodbye.
The conversation motivated me to get on with the task, to walk the halls and find my way to a decision before I backed out completely. While a part of me wanted to sit, to consider alternatives or devise a scheme to release myself from the responsibility, I knew it would only lead to disappointment and regret. I took the stairs, skipped the second floor, third, and fourth and if there were a hundred floors I would have kept going. I finally opened the door to the fifth floor because there were no more left, and forced myself to walk the hallways.
They don’t leave chairs out in the hallway, which I never noticed until a few nurses gave me nervous glances. I couldn’t tell them the true reason for my visit. An angel gave me superpowers, and oh by the way, someone on this floor is going to win one of life’s greatest lotteries. A very soft-spoken officer would definitely escort me out and across the street to the psychiatric center if it came to that.
A door to a room with three beds was propped open, a single bed nearest the window occupied, privacy curtains drawn all around it. Two empty chairs were nearest to the door. I sat with a knot in my stomach and wondered why this continued to be so difficult. I could change a life forever, and if I knew a stranger roamed the halls who had the power to save Kristen’s life, I would have screamed at them to get on with it, choose somebody, or take your gift and jump off the roof.
That’s when a woman walked through, startled at the sight of me, and said, “Are you… from the other family?”
“No, I’m sorry, I needed to sit and think, and it looked like I wouldn’t disturb anyone, and I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here,” I said.
“No, please, sit. If you don’t mind the company of a distraught mother,” she said. She quickly sat down next to me, hoping it would in turn cement my position.
“I don’t mind at all. Are you here visiting someone?” I asked.
“My teenage son,” she said, motioning to the curtain.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m such an idiot. I shouldn’t be here,” I said, starting to leave.
“No, no, please, I need someone, anyone to stay. The nurses are so busy, and I thought you were from the other family. He was in — he caused a fatal crash — driving drunk.”
She waited for condemnation, either of her son or her parenting, for whatever tragedy had occurred, and only because I could muster no words of criticism or consolation, did she see it as an opening to continue.
“It’s hard enough to believe that he might die, but to think someone else is already dead. That he caused that, and even if he lives, it would only be a life of consequence or regret. It somehow makes it even worse, being caught in the middle of two terrible outcomes,” she said.
I never considered that angle. It’s possible with many of the patients, the only natural path forward, the only release, would be death — a stalemate in the end, where everybody loses. The weight grew heavier than when I entered St. Joseph Mercy, and I began to think the angel hoped I would not make a choice, an impossible task for a mortal, or a lesson from the Man Upstairs, to teach me a thing or two about cursing out the creator of the universe.
I stayed for a while, and she talked about broken dreams, hopes for her son’s future, dealing with the police, the other family, and if she should extend the olive branch. Her husband’s lawyer instructed them not to contact the other parents, but I could tell that compounded her sadness.
“To know another grieving mother is in distress, and to be told not to reach out is just inhuman,” she said. She finally got up and walked over and behind the curtain.
The more she shared, the more I realized bringing her boy back from the brink wouldn’t solve all of their problems. What I thought would happen or should happen as a result of the mission and giving the gift, seemed a trite conclusion to a world full of challenges that kept on coming. Only a few hours had passed — an emotionally exhausting experience that had yet to produce the intended result.
I left to choose another floor at the moment two orderlies wheeled a woman on a gurney into the service elevator with a door at each end. One pushed the gurney into place, while the other positioned the breathing apparatus and a heartbeat monitor.
“Plenty of room, my man, if you don’t mind a stop on the third,” one of them said over his shoulder.
“Thank you,” I said, as I stepped across the threshold.
The three of us stood in silence when the doors closed, a trio of gentlemanly escorts for the woman, who turned her head slightly to look up at me. A hand-knit hat covered her head, and the oxygen mask over her mouth fogged with each slow, steady breath she took. I knew the third floor, hospice, the last stop on a long journey. I thought of Charon, piloting the dead down the river Styx. Was I her ferryman? Visions of Kristen in a similar hat, donated by a cabal of charitable knitters, went through my head. Those days were cold and bleak for us both.
Before the shadow of death could snuff out this woman’s light, I reached out and touched her shoulder. I didn’t know her story. I didn’t need to. She smiled, her face lit up, a warm glow of life, and whatever gift I had she received. She mouthed the words “thank you”, and after reaching the third floor, the men took the woman with a second chance to be whole again, or at least as whole as humanly possible.
I rode the elevator down to the lobby, and walked out, but the weight did not lift, only the load got lighter, like I had shared a burden. Before I exited the hospital, someone elbowed my side, and said, “You know, if I were fifty years younger, I would think you were stalking me.”
I looked down at the same elderly woman from when I entered the hospital.
“Hi, again. How is your brother?” I asked.
“Cranky, as always. Still, I can’t help but love him. I come here once a week to visit. Same day and time. I bet if I didn’t show, he would appreciate it more the next time,” she said with a wink.
“I’m sure he appreciates it,” I said.
“Strange as it may sound, I got to thinking about that wife of yours while sitting next to my brother’s bedside. You look like someone who needs a friend to talk to, although, I guess most of us have that look around here.”
“I would like that. It’s almost lunch time. Would you like to grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria? My treat.”
“Young man, are you asking me out on a date?”
“You don’t tell your husband, at home asleep on the couch, and I won’t tell my wife, who is out dancing with her girlfriends.”
We walked to the cafeteria that day, and for weeks and months after, occasionally inviting a few wandering souls to join us, to let them talk, grieve, or sit in silence. The angel never visited me again and I know why. Healing mattered, but a shared experience through life and in death mattered more. Whatever faith needed working out, could only be understood in the company of others.
This story is going to hit close to home for a lot of folks.
I love that he did not pass the gift of healing to who I expected. And the ending was pretty cool too. Well done.