The curious and perhaps inevitable effect of a major health crisis on any family is its power to elicit affection, emotion, and perhaps long-resisted efforts at connection from those most directly involved. Reserved personalities crack open, reach out. Estranged relationships build bridges, sometimes temporarily for survival, sometimes repentantly for healing. Close relationships sometimes buckle, sometimes grow closer, sometimes both and. Nurses are the necessary constant presence in the hospital room, going about our business as discreetly as possible but inevitably witnessing the profound revealing of relationships in the heart’s most vulnerable moments.
When there is a tremendous amount of brokenness and bitterness in the family dynamics, the heaviness of the health crisis itself becomes compounded. Nurses, particularly pediatric ICU nurses, typically bear witness to – and carry the weight of – the heavier emotions and the intense expressions thereof. Grief, anxiety, despair, anger, guilt, frustration, death. Death can be an emotion when there is nothing left for a ransacked heart to feel.
And so, truly simple, unencumbered love is rare to see in the PICU, in all of life, really. But one day, I witnessed such a love, and it changed me. It gave me hope. It made me want to be a different person, better, freer.
There was a girl and her father. They were just barely entering the recovery phase of the biggest health crisis of her young life. The doctor brought good news, the best news, in the morning. They were still recovering, but so relieved.
You could tell, though, they had a certain love, a certain commitment, a certain freedom in their commitment to love that carried them forward, long before this doctor’s good news carried them forward. You could just tell, the moment you met them.
The doctor’s good news made it an uneventful day, waiting for a room to open up on the regular floors since she no longer needed ICU care. I quietly slipped in to troubleshoot her leaky IV. Her father was reading The Lion King to her, but I only knew this because I saw the title of the book when I had entered. Really, by all objective measures, it was a terrible reading of the story. There was stammering, hesitation, repetition, a very strong accent, and the occasional skipping of words altogether. It took so much energy to decipher his storytelling, I wondered how the girl found this helpful when she had every movie and cartoon at her fingertips on the hospital TV. I was fairly certain her English reading skills far exceeded his. But she lay contentedly in her bed, hugging her teddy, gazing at her father.
I was still fiddling with the IV when the dad looked up mid-sentence at me, smiling. In his broken English he told me, “I don’t know how to read. I’m just learning, and I was supposed to start school soon but she got sick so I might have to wait a little longer.” I smiled and told him, “I’m learning Spanish, and you’re learning English. It all takes a lot of time.” I told him to feel free to keep reading, that I was still working on the IV but didn’t want to interrupt him. I returned my attention to my task at hand and was intermittently whispering to the girl, “Ok you’re going to feel me pulling tape off. Ok now you’re going to feel some cool salt water in the IV but tell me if it hurts.” The father had not yet resumed his reading, I assume to let me finish what I was doing.
“Papi. Papi, keep reading the story.”
The hesitant stuttering and stammering resumed, unashamed. I still couldn’t understand any of it and I can’t imagine the girl understood much either, but it didn’t matter. There was no shame, no complication in it, only love. What mattered to her was not that he read her the story, but that he simply read to her. He was content to read, and she was content to listen.
My heart was made freer that day.