A “Coming Undone” Moment

An excerpt from Coming Undone…

Ragged.  That was a good word to describe Dr. Warren’s “family.”  It wasn’t a family.  Just one guy, and Kathryn wished she had thought to ask a few more questions.  As they walked down the hall, Dr. Vitter in front, her in the middle, and the guy behind her, she sank into prayer because that was all she could think to do.  God had better show up for this one because she was definitely out of her league.  He looked just barely this side of death himself.

In the office, Dr. Vitter motioned toward the little couch on the far wall, and Kathryn accepted his invitation.  When she was seated, she watched Mr. Warren sit on the other side, gaze down, looking like he might fall off the earth if someone didn’t hold onto him.  She smiled softly, hoping her compassion was evident and not condescending.  It was then that she realized Dr. Vitter was not planning to stay.

“Take as long as you need,” he said, and with that, he turned and hustled out, closing the door behind him.

Oh, help, God! her heart screamed into the abyss where she was now staring.  She looked over at the guy who looked positively ripped to pieces.  Where to start and how?  Words failed her. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t catch your first name.”

When he looked up, his blue-green eyes were filled with a pleading for her to do something, anything someone hadn’t already thought of.  “Uh, Ben.  Ben Warren.”

She nodded, wishing she could do or say something to take away the immense pain in his distraught eyes.  “Mr. Warren…”

“Please, call me Ben,” he said with the saddest of smiles.

“Ben,” she said softly, “I’m sorry about what’s happened.”  The words stopped because compassion choked the rest from her chest.  She had learned not to force herself to keep talking in such situations.  Time was a stabilizer that rushing simply couldn’t match.  “Dr. Vitter said you’re considering hospice care for your father.”

Ben’s dark eyebrows arched in slight sarcasm.  “I guess.”  He exhaled and put his elbows on his knees and his hands to his mouth.  “I don’t really know what I’m doing to be honest with you.  All of this… stuff is totally new to me.  I don’t know what’s best.  I don’t even know what’s worst at this point.”

She watched him, her emotional radar searching for any and all signals that would guide her words.  “I take it you will be the one to make the decision.”

“Yeah.” He laughed a hollow laugh.  “Lucky me, huh?”

Kathryn didn’t push it.  He was working this out in his head and his heart, and she had to let him in his way, in his time.

When he looked at her, there were a myriad of questions in his eyes.  “Um, can I ask you some things?  I mean, they didn’t really tell me much about your… program.”

“Certainly.  Ask whatever you want.”

Ben swallowed hard and let his gaze fall to the floor at his feet.  It was brown.  That registered. He was glad something did.  Words were becoming harder and harder to come by and harder to say without breaking down completely. “Um, well, I take it from what Dr. Vitter said that once Dad is transferred… there, that’s pretty much it.  Right? I mean he won’t get any care after that.”

“If you mean do we put him in a dark room and wait for the end, no that’s not what we do.” Her voice was soft and very kind. “We feel we’re a place that can provide the needed transition time for your father and for the family.  Hospitals are wonderful for those who are going to survive, but they are not great places to die.”

Die.  Man, he hated that word, but he nodded anyway even though his gaze was still firmly on the floor. 

“The staff and machines and keeping the family at bay are just not conducive to giving everyone the time they need to say good-bye,” Ms. Walker continued. “We don’t make you say good-bye on a schedule.  The schedule is whatever you set.  You come when you want, stay as long as you like, leave when you’re ready. It’s totally up to you.”

Something akin to hope brushed his heart, and he picked up his gaze.  “No five minute visits every two hours starting at eight and ending at eight?”

She smiled clearly getting the reference.  “No, you do what works for you.  We have round the clock staff who specialize in end-of-life issues.  We can help you through not just your father’s transition, but we can point you to services that can smooth life out as you go forward as well.”

His shoulders relaxed as he let out a slow, choppy breath.  As he looked at her, the need to tell someone how overwhelmed he was overtook him.  He looked down quickly trying to squelch it.  However, even after several long seconds, he couldn’t.  “I’m… Uh, I’ve never dealt with anything like this before.  I feel like I’m in the dark with no idea which way to even go.”

“You’re not alone. Most people feel like that,” she said like the touch of an angel’s wings.  “Believe me, no one feels equal to this one.  What you have to understand is that you’re not being judged.  You get through it in the best way you can. You just have to learn to be really gentle with yourself.  That helps.”

He laughed that hollow laugh again.

She joined him.  “Well, it’s pretty much a learned skill.  We’re all so programmed to think we have to know what to do and what to say that when we don’t, we feel like utter failures.  I know.  I’ve been there.”  Her eyes were soft as was her smile.  “But this is not some kind of competition.  It’s not a pass or fail test.  It’s doing your best and giving yourself the space to do it the way that makes the most sense for you.”

“So you think I should sign the papers.”

“That’s not my decision.  I haven’t seen the medical reports.  What I want you to know is that our facility is not some draconian echo chamber.  We really do care, and we want to help when you’re ready.”

A moment more and Ben nodded.  At least he’d stopped looking only at the floor.  That was something.  And he was calm—at least on the outside.  She had seen families screaming and yelling at one another in these situations.  This was definitely better although she could tell he was struggling mightily to get through this minute to the next.  

He stood from the little sofa and offered her his hand.  “Ms. Walker, thank you very much.”

She shook his hand.  “You’re welcome.  And for the record, it’s Kathryn.”

“Kathryn.”  There was almost a smile there.  “That was my grandmother’s name.”

“Really?” She tilted her head in surprise.  “Most people call me Kate, but I really prefer Kathryn.  I don’t know why.  It sounds more old-style Hollywood or something.”  With a saucy smile, she tossed her blonde locks over her shoulder as if she was anywhere near as glamorous as those ladies.  “Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?”

This laugh made it all the way up to his eyes.  They were nice eyes, kind of a hazy bluish-green. “That she can.  That she can.”

After a moment the laughter fell away from her.  “But really, if you need anything, here’s my card.” She slipped it from her pocket and handed it to him. “Just call anytime.  Of course, I’m not the only one on staff, so if I’m not there, Clyde or Yvonne will be able to help also.”

He took the card and looked at it for a long, long moment.  When he looked up again, there was genuine gratefulness in his eyes.  “Thank you.”

Her only wish was that she could do more.  “You’re welcome.”

After she left, Ben went down to the cafeteria, got some coffee, and found a little corner to disappear into.  It was only three in the afternoon, but it felt like midnight-thirty.  He took a sip of the coffee and set the cup on the table.  Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out her card.  Kathryn Walker, St. Anthony’s Hospice, Social Worker.

Who signed up for a job like that?  He would run for the hills.  Slowly he turned the card over and over in his fingers.  What to do?  She didn’t make it sound as horrible as he had envisioned, and yet a good salesman could sell anything.  True, she didn’t seem like a pushy salesperson.  But it was her job to make her facility seem as user-friendly as possible.  He thought it through again and took another drink.

It wouldn’t hurt to check the place out.  At least then he could give Dr. Vitter a logical reason why he wasn’t going to take that option.  Downing the last of the coffee, he grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket.  With a hard blink, he forced himself to dial the number correctly.  As it rang, he realized she probably wasn’t even back yet.

“St. Anthony’s Hospice, this is Kathryn.”

His heart snagged on the softness of her voice.  He spun the phone’s speaker down to his mouth. “Uh, yeah.  Kathryn? This is Ben Warren.  I just talked to you?”

“Oh, yes.  Ben.  Did you need something else?”

“Um, well, yeah. Kind of. Um, I was wondering if maybe I could come over and see the… facility.”  There were certain words he just couldn’t utter.

“Oh, well, sure.  Of course.  Do you want to come now?”

Now?  Now was a little soon.  His spirit recoiled at the thought.  He’d long before given up the nursing home route on his sales trek through the city.  There were just some things he did not want to subject himself to.  “Uh, well, I don’t want to bother you.  I’ve already taken up so much of your time…”

“Oh, it’s not a problem.  Tell you what, I’ll meet you by the elevators on the neurology floor.  Will that work?”

“Uh. Yeah. Sure.” 

“I’ll be there in five.”

“Okay.” 

And she was gone.  Only then did reality occur to him. What was he thinking?  He wasn’t anywhere near the elevators on the neurology floor.  He jumped up, nearly knocking the chair to the ground.  Two doctors from the table near him glanced his direction.  He quickly resettled the chair, ditched the cup, and headed out.

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About Staci Stallings

Staci Stallings shares her heart for God with her novels, articles, and conversations. She loves making new friends, writing, and playing piano and guitar.
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