Life after Death

I stood out like white cat hair on black pants in the congregation. I’d been invited by the pastor, a friend of mine, to visit the church he pastored and worship with the congregation, a group I’d come to know through funny stories and endearing descriptions. When the service ended, warm-hearted people welcomed me, one after the another. “We’re so glad you’re here.” “Come back and see us.” I had my own receiving line that morning.

11699034243_c1e085da5d_oA smartly dressed elderly woman came up to me while her fellow parishioners were extending their hospitality. She was full of purpose, “on a mission” we could say. I wondered if  she was the chairperson of the outreach committee. As she said hello, she reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a business card and held it out to me. There was my name, title and the hospital where I was a chaplain.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked.

I felt confused. I thought she was trying to pass herself off as me, although I couldn’t imagine why.

“No, ma’am, I don’t.”

Her face lit up and she smiled widely, showing off pretty teeth and sparkly eyes. My response seemed to please her. She gently took hold of my elbow to lead me away from the well wishers. “I want you to meet someone.” She guided me over to the spot where a small group of older man were talking. Interrupting their conversation, she presented one of the men. “This is my husband, Holman.” (Not his real name.)

I shook his hand and said that it was nice to meet him. He had no idea who I was, so we looked at each and then to the woman, as if to ask, “well, will you explain yourself?”

“You don’t know who we are, do you honey?” she asked.

“No … I’m sorry; I don’t.”

“You helped me on the day Holman died and rose again, just like Lazarus,” she beamed. “As you can see for yourself, he’s very much alive!”

I laughed. I remembered that day well.

I had been summed to the emergency room to care for a woman whose husband had been in an auto accident. She was shocked and upset. She’d gone to the accident site when the police called her, as it was only a few blocks from their house. She’d sat near her husband while the paramedics did what was necessary before transporting him to the hospital. When they left, she followed right behind the ambulance.

We sat in a private family room, a place for those in distressing circumstances. It separates them from some of the nonsense of the emergency room waiting area at a time when they need space and privacy. Soon after I arrived, I was paged again by the emergency room secretary.

“He’s dead,” the ER secretary said as I reached her desk.

“What?” Based on everything I’d heard, this reality seemed absurd.

“He’s dead,” she repeated.

“No! How can that be?”

“The doctor said to tell you and that he’d be right in to talk with the family.”

It was still the man’s wife by herself at this point. No other family had arrived. I couldn’t believe this surprising news. I peeked in the trauma room to see for myself if there was a dead body.

I couldn’t even begin to think of how to prepare her for the news she would soon receive. When I returned to her, I asked casually if she’d been able to reach her kids. She had. They’d be at the hospital just as soon as one could get off work and pick up the third sibling. In an effort to ease the pain of what was coming, I asked if there anyone else I could call to be there with her until her kids arrived. No, she’d be fine, she said.

The doctor walked in wearing his obvious discomfort. He introduced himself and sat down as if to have a social chat with the woman. He, too, adopted a casual approach, calmly asking about what had happened earlier.

She recited the same story she’d told me. Her husband and another person had been in an accident not far from their home. She’d gone over when the police called. She talked with her husband then and he said he felt okay, just a bit sore. She said she’d followed right behind the ambulance to the emergency room, which was near their home.

The doctor shook his head up and down as he listened. What had his health been like? It had been fine. Nothing serious.

Then, like a sudden thunderstorm that shows up on a sunny day, “Ma’am, your husband has died. When he came in he was showing signs of heart problems and breathing irregularities. Then his heart stopped. We did everything we could to get it beating again, but we couldn’t get it started. We did everything.”

The three of us sat still in that small room on plastic-covered furniture. None of us had words to say.

After awhile, the woman leaned over to me and took hold of my hand. “Oh, honey!” She was rightfully stunned at this unexpected grief and the pain of losing her husband. It didn’t seem possible. How could it be true?

The doctor went on to explain: “Sometimes these things happen in older people. The heart becomes overwhelmed in response to a trauma and it simply stops. It could be that he had an underlying heart condition that you didn’t know about that led to this. We just don’t know at this point. I’m so sorry, ma’am.”

When the doctor left, the woman and I just sat there in an abyss of silence which we fell deeper and deeper into with each passing moment. After awhile, I asked if she would like to go back to see her husband.

“No, honey, not now. I don’t want to see him dead. I want to remember him alive.”

She would cry, sigh, and then repeat again and again: “I just don’t understand. I talked to him. I just talked to him. How could he be dead?”

“I’m so sorry.”

After about thirty minutes, her practical mind took over and she started thinking about people to call, including the funeral home that would need to pick up her husband. She began making mental plans for the service. She even thought about which suit he should wear as she prepared to bury her husband of nearly 50 years.

“I just can’t believe it,” she said, once again covering her face with her hands.

I asked again if she wanted to go back to see her husband. Again she refused.

During one of the intermittent silences during which we let reality soak into our awareness, there was a soft knock on the door. I hoped it was her kids. I opened the door slightly to shield the woman from whomever was on the other side. It was a nurse who motioned for me to follow her out into the hallway. Excusing myself, I followed her a short distance where we’d be safe from overhearing ears or from thin walls, on the other side of which sat the new widow.

“There’s been a mix up. Her husband is across town at another hospital.”

“You’re kidding!” Knowing that this wasn’t a joke.

“We’re talking to the ambulance dispatcher to find out what happened and how we got someone who was supposed to be there, and how they got our patient.”

“How is he doing?”

“He’s okay. Bumps, bruises, he’ll probably be sore for awhile, but all in all, he’s fine.”

The doctor showed up just then, a far happier man than when I saw him a half hour earlier. We went back into the room, no doubt our shining, happy faces incongruous to the situation the woman thought she was facing. We were giving away the plot twist.

The doctor, sitting a little taller, his shoulders squared, said with new boldness in his voice: “I’ve never, ever had this situation happen. There was a mix up at the accident scene and your husband was taken to another hospital. The man we have was to have been taken there, where his family is. You’re husband is okay. He’s very much alive. As soon as we can arrange it, we’ll let you speak to him.”

He patted her hands, profusely apologizing about the mix up, but assuring her that her husband was alive and in relatively fine shape.

We both cried even harder, but for entirely different reasons. The woman leaned over to me, took my hand, and with a squeeze proclaimed the good news that “the Lord has raised my husband from the dead! I had him in the grave, as good as gone and buried. He’s alive … he’s alive!”

You may never see such joy. There’s something astoundingly precious about the joy that comes from receiving back to life what you thought was dead. We felt like Mary and Martha when they saw Lazarus walking out of the grave, no longer dead and buried, but very much alive.

As we stood in the church many months after that resurrection, this dear woman; her living, breathing husband; and me were reminded that life is precious and to hold dear those we love. Our joy was complete.

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