Reflections from the Waiting Room

It’s been an early morning. I’m at a hospital in St. Louis, sitting in one of the least-pleasant waiting rooms I’ve waited in. My wife is in surgery this morning. And I’m waiting.

This isn’t a new experience for us. I’m grateful for that right now. It gets easier as the track record of positive outcomes gets longer. Eight other times in seven years (that’s most of our married life) I’ve waited while high-stakes procedures were performed on my wife. Every time, she’s been fine and things have gone well.

But that doesn’t change the fear; it sneaks up on me, like a wave from behind. All is well, but then, before I realize what’s happening, I’m under water. In that moment of terrible clarity, I’m face-to-face with reality: the body is delicate. Life is fragile. Sometimes things go wrong, even in the best hands. My wife is vulnerable. I am vulnerable.

It was almost overwhelming when the nurse, working her way through the pre-op checklist, asked about whether L has a living will and how we might summarize it in a sentence to be added to the chart. All measures possible? Husband decides? For a quietly frantic moment, we’re under water. It’s real. I could find myself in the position of making life-and-death decisions before I leave this place. Today could be the day everything changes.

The chances of that are incredibly remote. This is an outpatient surgery. Her surgeon does this surgery every day, with outstanding results. But I’ve lived That Day before. I know That Day sometimes arrives. It’s been almost 20 years since my family got the call that my dad was on the plane that went down. Everything changed that day. It happens. So I can’t help but take seriously the remote possibilities. I can’t help but feel the vulnerability of stepping up close to the edge that divides life as we know it from a very different life or even death. What’s normally far enough away that I don’t have to think about it is frighteningly close today. I’m glad the surgeon is behind the wheel. But sometimes even the best drivers can’t keep the car from going over the edge.

The redemptive part of feeling this vulnerability, this deeply-rooted fear, is the fact that it’s a sign of love. It’s the flip side of the same coin. There’s no love without vulnerability, and the greater the love, the greater the potential loss, the greater the fear when the possibility of loss comes closer. It occurred to me as we were saying our “I love yous” earlier that this would be a lot easier if I didn’t love her. Everything else in our married life would be harder, but this morning would be easier. Sometimes, in the course of everyday life and its frustrations and headaches, it’s hard to be aware of how deeply I love my wife. But this morning, it’s real. So real I’m scared to death. Sure, that fear is wrapped in layers of reassurance and logic, but it’s there. It’s there because of the depth of love that’s there at the core.

As much as I prefer not to ever feel vulnerable, especially at this level, I am grateful for what it shows me: the love that has been built in almost a decade of marriage (and the four years of friendship before), the depth of connection that has been forged in the crucible of a hard road together, the amazing blessedness of our life together and the beauty of our son. All of these raise the stakes and deepen the vulnerability.

I’m reminded of a huge community of sisters and brothers who share this human experience of vulnerability and fear. I’m sharing this waiting room this morning with a number of them. And this is the same-day surgery waiting room; elsewhere in this hospital, there are others whose loved ones are much closer to the edge than my wife. And, of course, around this city, across the country, all over the world, right now, I have human family members who are in this very same place of uncertainty and fear.

And we’re all surrounded by love—the love of family and friends, of caring professionals at work, of spirited bystanders who care. Of God.