Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Sound of a Breaking Heart

I have for a long time been fascinated by sounds. This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows that I'm a musician. Whenever I'm in a new sleeping environment - like a hotel room - I'll invariably wake up in the middle of the night and lull myself back to sleep by listening to and discerning the sources of various sounds. Even on road trips I'll close my eyes and listen to the sound of the wheels as they move across the pavement, the windshield wipers at various speeds, the radio, the hiss of air as it passes through a partially-opened window (this is all when I'm the passenger, of course).

The hospital is full of sounds. Pages for traumas blare from the overhead paging system. The rush of footsteps, the ding of the elevator, the beeps and blips of monitors, the "this is gonna pinch just a little bit" of nurses trying to calm nerves of one awaiting a blood draw, the steady beep of a flatline. There are myriad other sounds, to be sure, and there's no need to go through naming all of them.

But tonight I found a new sound...one I've probably heard before many times but hadn't discerned its sound. It takes various forms: the flatline beep, the called code, the "there's nothing more we can do", the "I'm sorry for your loss...", the "NOT MY BABY!", the raspy ventilator that can do no more good, the shattering of glass, the screech of wheels, the sound of gunshots. These are the sounds of breaking hearts, of hearts pierced by mortality and broken by the day-to-day tragedies that none of us expect but all of us face.

And how do you fix a broken heart? What do you say to a mother who has spent the last fourteen years as a single mother working two jobs to support a severely challenged child? How do you assuage her guilt when she wonders what more she could have done, what other doctor she might have seen, what would have happened if she would have acted/thought/judged/loved differently? How do you tell this mother whose heart is now attached to a respirator with a plummeting blood pressure and a poor prognosis that she did everything she could? How do you heal the heart that lives outside each of us, the heart that is the one we love, the heart whose blood is our blood, the heart whose ache and pain is our ache and pain, and whose passing we will experience as though our own organ were being torn from our chest?

I baptized a teenager tonight. A teenager whose life's history has been one narrated by his doting mother who has loved him past the "he has about five years to live" prognostication delivered eight years ago. A teenager who has never played ball, kissed a girl, played an instrument, failed a test, or smoked a cigarette. I baptized this boy tonight and I commended him to the arms of Jesus and my prayer was selfish: it was that Jesus would carry this child home and that he would love this boy half as well as his mother has loved him. And her prayer? She just wants Jesus to tell her baby how much he loves him...she wants Jesus to tell her son this daily, hourly, every moment.

And what can I say? What can I do? Can I do anything? I can hold her hand and tell her that it's obvious that she loves her son. I can stare into her eyes and tell her that he will be loved for all eternity, that his lifetime of suffering is nearing completion. That soon there will be no more seizures, no tests, no six-month hospital stays. And she knows this. She tells me that this is what she wants.

So the 'whfft' of tissues pulled from a box, the sniffles of choked-back tears, the snap of latex gloves, the muted moan of despair, the silent prayer offered by a mother who seeks respite for her son...this is the sound of a heart breaking. A heart wounded because she had the courage to love her son, to pour her life's blood into another human being, to give of herself such that now she aches as her son nears death.

I pray for her this night. I pray for her and for all persons whose hearts will bleed out before the sun rises in the East tomorrow morning. And tomorrow morning I will go home and go to bed. And at some point I will wake up and look at the clock and think, "Boy, I can sleep for another few hours." And at that point I will lie back and close my eyes and my ears will search my surroundings listening, straining, to hear ambient noise. And what sound will my ears detect and what will its source be? Will it be an ambulance siren or the clap of thunder or the sound of someone slipping on the ice? And will this sound be attended - like so many sounds we take for granted every day - by the sound of a breaking heart?
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