A Waiting Room Christmas Story
Alone for Christmas for the very first time, and a stranger in the big city, I learned that city folk and country folk aren't so different after all.
Christmas of 1981 -- it had been a horrible year. In May, I found my husband of three years, the church choir director, in bed with the soprano. In the wake of that disaster, we pulled up stakes and moved three thousand miles so that we could "work on our marriage" in the absence of what turned out to be Gerry's many mistresses. I was young and more or less fresh off the farm when we moved to the Big City. I didn't know anyone in the city except Gerry, and after I caught him cavorting with his boss's wife at the company barbeque and ejected him from our home, I didn't have him to talk to either.
The patients and co-workers I was meeting in the Big City were SOOOOO different from the folks I'd grown up around on the farm, and even from the folks I met at the State College where I got my BSN. Nurses wore make-up to work and heels to go out for a drink on their weekends off. They called dinner (the noon meal) lunch and supper (the evening meal) dinner. They had more sophisticated tastes in music and books than I, had more sophisticated wardrobes and no one admitted to knowing how to milk a cow or fix a barbed wire fence. I had nothing in common with them except the 40 hours a week we spent together at the hospital.
I was no stranger to working Christmas, but I'd never been alone on the holidays before. Since I had no seniority, I was working Christmas and since I had no money to fly home for a visit any time during the holiday season, I volunteered to work all of the holidays. It was the only place I've ever worked in a career that has spanned three decades so far where there was no holiday potluck planned for Christmas Day.
Christmas morning dawned cold and clear and I had been up most of the night sitting alone in my living room, crying and feeling sorry for myself. I dragged myself into work and greeted my patients with a profound lack of enthusiasm. Late in the morning, a very well dressed middle aged woman appeared at the nurse's station where I was going over new orders asked me "where do you want me to set up the buffet?"
"HUH?" I asked, articulately. "What buffet?"
"Why the Christmas buffet, of course," she said. "Every Christmas I bring food for all the people visiting patients in the hospitals, and to the nurses, too. It's my way of saying thank you." She went on to tell me that "In the old building we used to set up in the waiting room between the ICU and the step-down unit, but this new hospital is laid out so differently I'm not sure where I can plug in my crock pot."
No one had said anything to me about a potluck, but the nursing assistant working with me that day greeted the woman like an old friend. Together, they figured out where to set up the buffet, plug in the crockpot and seat the diners.
When my turn to eat came, I was astounded to see the well-dressed woman with her husband and a grown daughter serving Christmas dinner next to a very shabbily dressed older woman and her family. I found myself sitting all alone to eat my Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, and obviously taking pity on me, the well dressed woman sat down to chat with me while I ate. After a bit, the shabbier older woman came to sit with me as well, and then her younger daughter-in-law. Bit by bit, the story emerged.
The week before Christmas some years ago, the 18 year old son of the well-dressed woman had shot himself in the head while they were vacationing on the seashore. He was airlifted to our ICU, but it turned out that he was brain dead. In the same ICU was the other woman's 30 year old son in end stage congestive heart failure with no hope for survival other than a transplant. I'm sure you know where I'm going with this. Although we try to keep donors and recipients out of the same ICU, it didn't happen that way. The well dressed woman sat next to the family of the other patient in the waiting room and they began to talk to one another. As families sometimes do, they bonded. As they eagerly awaited news of their individual sons, they rejoiced at each tidbit of good news together and mourned together when the decision was made to let the 18 year old go.
"I wanted to donate his organs," the boy's mother said. "I wanted something good to come out of this horrible situation." It turned out that the other woman's son was a match. If this were fiction, I'd have the teenager's heart transplanted into the young father of three and have him do well and live happily ever after with his wife and children. But this isn't fiction and it didn't turn out that way.
After making the wrenching decision to say goodbye to her son and give his organs away, the well dressed woman found out that his heart was going to the son of the woman she'd been waiting with hour after hour, day after day. So after saying goodbye to her son, she sat with the other man's mother and his wife, waiting helplessly while the surgical team worked on the young father. It was her son's heart after all. She wanted to hear it beating in the other man.
Things didn't go well in the OR that night -- and as Christmas Eve turned into Christmas morning, the young father of three bled out on the operating room table. All through that night, the three women sat together holding hands and praying together, and when the surgeons came out with the horrible news, they cried together.
The following Christmas, the three woman found themselves in touch once again, grieving over the loss of the 18 year old with so much promise and the young father who would never see his children grow into adults. They claim not to remember whose idea it was, but the idea was born to serve Christmas dinner to other families stuck waiting for news on Christmas day, and to the hospital staff who tried so hard to save both men. "We can't do much," they said, "but we can make someone's Christmas a little less bleak."
And so it was that every year the three women and their families put together a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings and served it to the staff and visitors in the waiting room of the hospital where they'd lost so much. It turned out to be the last year for the elderly woman.
How could I continue to feel sorry for myself after hearing a story like that? As I swallowed my turkey past the big lump in my throat, I felt my spirits lifting. It proved to be, it seems, that the big city women weren't all that different from the women in the small farming community where I grew up. They love their families, they pray with strangers and they give back whenever they can. That was the turning point for me -- I resolved to stop feeling sorry for myself, stop looking backward and to move ahead with as much grace and dignity as I could muster. As long as I live, though, I'll never match the grace and dignity of the three women I met that Christmas Day.Last edit by Joe V on Dec 18, '14
Mar 23, '12Woah, I love all your stories Ruby. They are very touching and have big lessons for me to learn from. Please keep the work up whenever you have free times. Really appreciate your effortDec 25, '16Thank you for reminding us what the spirit of Christmas is really about as well as the kind of gifts we should be focussing on. And thank you for the difference you have made over the years both to your patients and to your many allnurses friends who you may never meet in person. Your story brought tears to my eyes.Dec 25, '16Wow, great story! You did a great job in telling it. What a wonderful story of the human heart. I am humbled by the power of God's love shown through these women.
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