The hospital was unusually quiet that bleak January evening, quiet and still, like the air before a storm. I stood in the nurses’ station on the seventh floor and glanced at the clock. It was 9:00 P.M.
I threw a stethoscope around my neck and headed for room 712, last room of the hall. Room 712 had a new patient, Mr. Williams. A man alone. A man strangely silent about his family.
As I entered the room, Mr. Williams looked up eagerly, but dropped his eyes when he saw it was only his nurse. I pressed the stethoscope over his chest and listened. Strong, slow, even beating. Just what I wanted to hear. There seemed little indication he had suffered a slight heart attack a few hours earlier.
He looked up from his starched white bed. “Nurse, would you . . .” He hesitated, tears filling his eyes. Once before he had started to ask me a question, but had changed his mind.
I touched his hand, waiting.
He brushed away a tear. “Would you call my daughter? Tell her I’ve had a heart attack. A slight one. You see, I live alone and she is the only family I have.” His respiration suddenly sped up.
I turned his nasal oxygen up to eight liters a minute. “Of course I’ll call her,” I said, studying his face.
He gripped the sheets and pulled himself forward, his face tense with urgency. “Will you call her right away – as soon as you can?” He was breathing fast – too fast.
“I’ll call her first thing,” I said, patting his shoulder. “Now you get some rest.”
I flipped off the light. He closed his eyes, such young blue eyes in this 50-year-old face.
Room 712 was dark except for a faint night-light under the sink. Oxygen gurgled in the green tubes above his bed. Reluctant to leave, I moved through the shadowy silence to the window. The panes were cold. Below, a foggy mist curled through the hospital parking lot. Above, snow clouds quilted the night sky. I shivered.
“Nurse,” he called. “Could you get me a pencil and paper?”
I dug a scrap of yellow paper and a pen from my pocket and set it on the bedside table.
“Thank you,” he said.
I smiled at him and left.
I walked back to the nurses’ station and sat in a squeaky swivel chair by the phone. Mr. Williams’ daughter was listed on his chart as the next of kin. I got her number from information and dialed. Her soft voice answered.
Janie, this is Sue Kidd, a registered nurse at the hospital. I’m calling about your father. He was admitted today with a slight heart attack and . . . “
“No!” she screamed into the phone, startling me. “He’s not dying is he?” It was more a painful plea than a question.
“His condition is stable at the moment,” I said , trying hard to sound convincing.
Silence. I bit my lip.
“You must not let him die!” she said. Her voice was so utterly compelling that my hand trembled on the phone.
“He is getting the very best care.”
“But you don’t understand,” she pleaded. “My daddy and I haven’t spoken in almost a year. We had a terrible argument on my twenty-first birthday, over my boyfriend. I ran out of the house. I . . . I haven’t been back. All these months I’ve wanted to go to him for forgiveness. The last thing I said to him was, “I hate you.’”
Her voice cracked and I heard her heave great agonizing sobs. I sat, listening, tear’s burning my eyes. A father and daughter, so lost to each other! Then I was thinking of my own father, many miles away. It had been so long since I had said I love you.
As Janie struggled to control her tears, I breathed a prayer. “Please God, let his daughter find forgiveness.”
“I’m coming, now! I’ll be there in 30 minutes,” she said. Click. She had hung up.
I tried to busy myself with a stack of charts on the desk. I couldn’t concentrate. Room 712. I knew I had to get back to 712. I hurried down the hall nearly in a run. I opened the door.
Mr. Williams lay unmoving. I reached for his pulse. There was none.
“Code 99. Room 712. Code 99. Stat.” The alert was shooting through the hospital within seconds after I called the switchboard through the intercom by the bed.
Mr. Williams had had a cardiac arrest.
With lightning speed I leveled the bed and bent over his mouth, breathing air into his lungs. I positioned my head over his chest and compressed. One, two, three. I tried to count. At 15, I moved back to his mouth and breathed as deeply as I could. Where was help? Again I compressed and breathed. Compressed and breathed. He could not die!
“Oh, God,” I prayed. “His daughter is coming. Don’t let it end this way.”
The door burst open. Doctors and nurses poured into the room, pushing emergency equipment. A doctor took over the manual compression of the heart. A tube was inserted through his mouth as an airway. Nurses plunged syringes of medicine into the intravenous tubing.
I connected the heart monitor. Nothing. Not a beat. My own heart pounded. “God, don’t let it end like this. Not in bitterness and hatred. His daughter is coming Let her find peace.”
“Stand back,” cried a doctor. I handed him the paddles for the electrical shock to the heart. He placed them on Mr. William’s chest.
Over and over we tried. But nothing. No response. Mr Williams was dead.
A nurse unplugged the oxygen. The gurgling stopped. One by one they left, grim and silent.
How could this happen? How? I stood by his bed, stunned. A cold wind rattled the window, pelting the panes with snow. Outside – everywhere – seemed a bed of blackness, cold and dark. How could Iface his daughter?
When I left the room, I saw her against the wall by a water fountain. A doctor, who had been in 712 only moments before, stood at her side, talking to her, gripping her elbow. Then he moved on, leaving her slumped against the wall.
Such pathetic hurt reflected from her face. Such wounded eyes. She knew. The doctor had told her her father was gone.
I took her hand and led her into the nurses’ lounge. We sat on the little green stools, neither saying a word. She stared straight at a pharmaceutical calendar, glass-faced, almost breakable-looking. “Janie, I’m so sorry,” I said. It was pitifully inadequate.
“I never hated him, you know. I loved him,” she said.
God, please help her, I prayed.
Suddenly she whirled toward me. “I want to see him.”
My first thought was, Why put yourself through more pain? Seeing him will only make it worse. But I got up and wrapped my arm around her. We walked slowly down the corridor to 712. Outside the door I squeezed her hand, wishing she would change her mind. She pushed open the door.
We moved to the bed, huddled together, taking small steps in unison. Janie leaned over the bed and buried her face in the sheets.
I tried not to look at her, at this sad, sad good-bye. I backed against the bedside table. My hand fell upon a scrap of yellow paper. I picked it up. I read:
My dearest Janie, I forgive you. I pray you will also forgive me. I know that you love me.
I love you, too. Daddy.
The note was shaking in my hands as I thrust it toward Janie. She read it once. Then twice. Her tortured face grew radiant. Peace began to glisten in her eyes. She hugged the scrap of paper to her breast.
“Thank you, God,” I whispered, looking up at the window. A few crystal stars blinked through the blackness. A snowflake hit the window and melted away, gone forever.
Life seemed as fragile as a snowflake on the window. But thank you, God, that relationships, sometimes as fragile as snowflakes, can be mended together again. But there is not a moment to spare.
I crept from the room and hurried to the phone. I would call my own father. I would say, “I love you.”