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Clinging to the True Story

Her head slouched to one side on the pillow, and her breath rattled through a slackened jaw. As I watched from the doorway, my hands plunged into the pockets of my white coat to hide their worrying, I wondered how many great-grandbabies she’d spoiled, how many Italian treats she sneaked into their sticky hands between stirs of marinara bubbling on her stove. I wondered about the people she’d loved and lost, the memories she cherished. And my stomach twisted as her daughter, whom the coronavirus had stranded hundreds of miles away, whispered goodbye over Zoom.

This wasn’t how the story was supposed to end.

Grief abounds in the ICU, but those of us who work in its corridors still glimpse snippets of grace. When families realize that recovery lurks on a faraway continent, they paper a loved one’s room with photographs and drawings, and comments scrawled in black marker on poster board to say what a patient cannot: her favorite activities are golf and watching I Love Lucy reruns. He served in Korea, and his favorite color is green, like the Kentucky fields in the shadow of the Appalachians through which he ran as a boy. Each scribbling declares to those who enter that the person fighting for life in that room is more than a diagnosis, and more than a name. He or she has a story to tell, a story that matters, rich with color and joy, messiness and hilarity.

As I stood in the doorway, the N95-mask clenching my face, my critical care fellow leaning over with her cell phone so our patient’s daughter could see her mother’s greasy hair and glazed eyes, the story felt backward. Life had pummeled this poor woman for nine decades, until her body finally heaved and gave way. She’d survived wars and the Great Depression, untold grief and heartbreak. Death was supposed to claim her quietly, padding in with the footfalls of a cat, while those she’d nurtured encircled her and sang hymns. Photographs should have surrounded her. Her marinara recipe, its secret ingredient known only to her daughter, should have perfumed her final moments with the scent of home.

The ending, the finale to the real Story, is clear as daylight. And therein, we have hope. Katie Butler

Instead, she gasped in a mechanized bed, with no picture, card, or crucifix to hint at her past. No one lingered at the bedside to remind her, through tears, of the thousands of moments, many awkward, some glittering, that knitted together into the weave of her life. The only link to her story came in a tinny whisper across a touch screen. Even when she breathed her last, pandemic restrictions against funerals would mute her story, silencing voices that would have otherwise reminisced about her laughter, her fiery temper, and that time a Johnny Carson joke made her throw a spoon at the wall.

This pandemic, it seems, has wrenched us from our own stories. When we most need reminders of who we are—beloved, won through suffering, made new in Christ—the reel grinds to a halt, and the audience dwindles away.

After that shift in the ICU, I crumbled into bed, and knew to my bones that we are all broken. I prayed, and dozed in and out of a restless sleep, clinging all the while to my patient’s image on that bed. In a primitive corner of my mind, I feared that forgetting would erase her story entirely.

At mid-day, I shrugged off the cat who lay unconscious at the small of my back, and proceeded with homeschooling as usual. I made peanut butter and jelly for the kids. I continued our reading of Tolkien’s Return of the King as they munched.

The longer we read, the longer the pauses unspooled between their bites of gummy sandwich. Would Frodo make it to Mount Doom? they wondered, leaning forward over their plates. Would Minas Tirith withstand the siege? Would Aragon finally claim his throne? Deep down, drawing from the well of all that’s true and lovely, they discerned the ending, although we’d never dived into the trilogy before this year. They knew good would overcome. The ring would burn up. The King would return.

They knew this, because they knew that all good, true stories echo that one, greatest Story of all: the King come to earth, the evil undone, the world made new. They knew in their hearts that the best stories are “the refracted light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues.”

A few hours later I returned to the hospital, and entered an ICU filled to the brim with people on ventilators, people clinging to life within bare-walled rooms, people who struggled for survival without the comforting handhold of a spouse. I didn’t know the stories behind each hiss and sigh of the ventilator. No glimmers from their lives papered the rooms. With the coronavirus tightening its stranglehold on my patients, I couldn’t know the moments that infused their lives with meaning.

And yet, the One who gave them life and breath and everything else (Acts 17:25) knew their stories. He knew these dear image bearers in my care (Gen. 1:26), from their first influx of air in the delivery room to their last breath drawn in a hospital bed (Ps. 139:13-16, Isa. 49:1). And the ending of his Story is perfect. It will never diverge or disappoint. It flows like a cool cup of living water, ushering us to eternal life. The King, the One who bore our burdens (Isa. 53:4), will return. The cursed ring will burn up.

The middle of this coronavirus narrative is bloated and murky. But the ending, the finale to the real Story, is clear as daylight. And therein, we have hope.

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