“God help me!”

On the last of the past several days I spent in hospital (nothing to worry about — a chronic condition), I was moved to a different room. Why? Something to do with overcrowding (the phrasing’s comparison to prison conditions would surely elicit a wry smile from Foucault), though I was being moved from one double suite to another, but whatever. My new roommate C. was in a very bad way. I occupied my new room in mid-afternoon, and the rest of the day (and through the night), C. moaned in apparent agony; I didn’t even attempt to introduce myself, as he was clearly semi-conscious at best and non-verbal. I’m quite sure he never knew I was there.

I had already been informed that I’d be discharged the next day (yesterday), as I was more or less recovered and in good and improving health. C.’s anguish was difficult to listen to, and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit that yes, it got tiresome. There’s really not much to do in a hospital bed when you’re no longer seriously ill nor are on the good drugs. I had my iPad and a book and a New Yorker, so I read, napped, watched “Rachel Maddow,” and frittered away time reading various internet things, farcical, ludicrous and serious in relatively equal doses before attempting to sleep. Despite the potent (but not potent enough) cocktail of sedatives and anxiolytics I was on, I could do little more than doze. At some point, I gave up all together, figuring I’d just watch something on Netflix or waste time on Twitter. But something else happened — whereas until then, I had been trying my damndest to ignore C.’s inarticulate moans, I started listening. It’s remarkable what can happen when one stops and just listens.

Earlier in the day, C.’s wife of 43 years had come over to my side of the room to introduce herself and vicariously C. She explained that his was truly a cruel fate — an autosomal recessive disease that results in early-onset emphysema that was now in its literally final stage — his physicians estimated he had a day, maybe two left. He’d never smoked a cigarette in his life. He was only in hospital while waiting for a bed in hospice care. His journey had reached its end. Though he looked a decade younger, he was 81, and had outlasted his illness since its symptoms had caused him to go on disability thirty years prior. By rights, he should never even have known who Barack Obama was. I heard all this and expressed my sympathies in a polite, but rote manner; I heard and filed away in my memory; but I didn’t listen.

I’m generally not the world’s most compassionate person; in the abstract, sure, but when it comes to individuals, there’s typically only room for one in my orbit: me. I am an egoist through and through, and, while I’m not proud of this fact, I can’t help but acknowledge it. Yet, listening to C. cry over and over “Help me! Help me! Help me! Oh God help me!” some ember of humanity flared into life within me, and I did something I wouldn’t often do. By this point, it was starting to get light, but still too early for visitors; C. was alone in a sea of torment that only he could know. I dragged myself out of my bed and staggered over to his side of the room. I moved a nearby chair to the side of his bed and just held his hand. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t pray — I don’t pray, anyway — I just listened and held his hand. The rational — and one could say cynical — part of me knows that it made no difference whatsoever, that he never knew I was there, that of the earth’s 7.6b people, he was one alone in the dark.

And yet. I can’t accept that. I know we all die alone, that our deaths and lives have no ultimate meaning, that we and all we know and have ever known amount to the Planck mass against the unfathomable vastness of this (perhaps itself one of infinitely many) universe(s). Try as I might, I can’t kill the Romantic kernel deep within me; even if it meant something only to me and his wife, C. was not alone. Had he passed during the few hours I sat there with him until she came, he would not have been alone. I do not know if he’s alive as I write this, but his hospice approval came around the same time I was discharged and wheeled to the exit. He will die alone as we all will, but he won’t be alone.

I don’t write this to congratulate myself on doing something for someone else for once, but to express how a dying old man brought me to my metaphorical knees, and reminded me that the most important things you can’t learn from Plato, Spinoza, Kant or Proust. A frail hand holds more than all the world’s libraries.

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~ by Benji on 29 March 2018.

5 Responses to ““God help me!””

  1. This is incredibly moving, Benji. I remember holding my father’s hand that way as he was dying, and hoping that – but not knowing whether – he could feel it. I don’t think you are even one bit as selfish as you make out, by the way…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Petchary's Blog and commented:
    This moving piece is written by my Twitter friend for years – erudite, serious but often funny, too. An Aries like me, and we are on the same “wavelength” – whatever and wherever that is. This is about compassion for a stranger. I want more compassion in this world.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Having been in the room when my father said goodbye to each of my children, and his final breathes, the personal goodbyes he spoke will forever be imprinted in my mind and my kids. It was far more difficult then his last breath, either way he did not die alone which was most important.

    Liked by 1 person

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