A bustling hospital. An unexpected arrival. A frigid Christmas eve.
I was saying goodbye to another patient when fate collided us.
“I’m sorry father,” I heard his son say, “you can no longer live with us, but here is a nice doctor who will find you a home. Merry Christmas, dad.”
Pretending not to notice his son’s exasperation as he pleaded for him to stay, I choked down the anguish from my own awareness of what was being witnessed and proceeded to examine him.
Bound to the prison of his seat—scared, bewildered, frail—he looked so lost. He asked why, what he did wrong, where his son had gone, not fully comprehending the chaos surrounding. A deep sigh escaped pursed lips as I searched within for an answer that failed to come. Taking his hands, contorted by disease, I gazed into eyes dulled by years gone by—their hope fading beneath a glimmer of fear of an iniquitous present and that of an unpromised future–and I made him a promise I wondered if I myself could keep.
“It’s going to be okay…you’ll see.”
But hours pass, and it was not okay—he couldn’t sleep, he wouldn’t eat, and the only sound I heard as I passed the door of his half-vacant room was the resonance of muffled tears.
Behind a mask, I also let myself weep.
* * *
Soon the day ended. I entered his room, prepared to make my final rounds. But instead of a bid goodbye, what came out was an exclamation of the first words that came to my mind.
“Sir, I think we should have a party!”
And that was what we did.
A 90-year-old veteran. A 30-year-old internist. A 20-year-old nurse.
Gathered around his bed, over reconstituted hot cocoa, he shared with us his history, his joys, his life’s adventures. Over paper cups of chicken broth, I told him my story. As the muted treble of holiday cheer dripped through the bedside radio, together we heralded in, with bittersweetness, the arrival of Christmas Day.
He then took my hand.
As I started to apologize for the late hour, he stopped me. Eyes still glimmering, I heard him laugh, and I believed I finally caught a glimpse of what was the real him.
“Thank you for a blessed Christmas,” he said.
A blessed one, indeed.
• • •
Some will recall this story shared two years ago about one of my patient encounters–
one that never fails to come to mind during the holiday season.