I was striding out of the main entrance of the hospital, on a mission to complete the rest of my errands, when a thought landed in my path like a construction barrier. I stopped, and leaned against the wall in the hospital entrance to consider my options.
Around me, other people walked, most with drawn faces. No one likes to be in the hospital, or have a loved one in the hospital. Especially not the week before Thanksgiving.
I, on the other hand, was in the entrance not because I had come to visit a friend, but just to get fitted for an N-95 mask in case I take care of a COVID patient. It was only the first in my list of errands before picking up Anina at the babysitter. A stop at the post office to drop off packages. An appointment at the chiropractor. A Walmart pickup order west of town. Grabbing something to eat.
But how could I have forgotten? Our friend Chris was in the hospital, somewhere up on the heart floor. I did have someone to visit, and it had completely slipped my mind until I was in the entrance on my way out.
I looked at the time on my Fitbit and felt the pinch of my shoes and thought about the long trek back to the inpatient area. I thought about the errands I still had to run.
Not enough time. My shoulders sagged. We had invited Chris for a meal the night before, but he had responded that he was in the hospital again, his weak heart no longer able to maintain the delicate balance of fluid and pressure. I had told him to come for Thanksgiving next week. He said he would come, and bring dessert. Pumpkin and apple pie, probably.
Well, we could catch up then.
I turned, and walked to the parking garage.
The Back Story
I first met Chris in the hospital, when he underwent the biggest surgery of the surgeries: as I recall, a replacement of his ascending aorta along with other work on the heart. In this surgery, for a short time, all blood flow to the brain must be stopped. The body is packed with ice, thus lowering the demands of the cells and allowing people to recover from no blood flow to the brain for up to 45 minutes or more. This is no small ordeal for a man in his upper fifties who had not taken the best care of himself anyway.
Chris survived, although, in his own words he died a few days later in critical care. I wasn’t there that night, but I remember the story – his heart stopped and his chest was opened by the surgeon at bedside. Of note, the pacing wires in his chest were still on and zapped the surgeon as he worked. This, especially after a big surgery, is not an ordeal that people tend to survive. But Chris did.
We conversed in the hospital as he recovered. My good vocabulary antennae picked him out as an intelligent person, and I liked his stories and his honesty about the poor choices he had made. I found out that he lived in the apartments on Jackson and 3rd, within walking distance of where I lived, so I checked on him after he was released from the hospital, and we kept in touch from time to time.
December 2, 2017 and the Next Few Years
When Marnell and I were struggling to find a local building for our wedding on December 2, 2017, Chris made the connection for us to his church, the beautiful Grace Lutheran on Marion Avenue, in the heart of the city.
After we were married, we saw Chris from time to time. In the spring, he would appear, mushroom hunting. Other times he joined us for meals.
Summer of 2020
In the summer of 2020, Chris joined us once a week for a meal. Marnell’s brother Norrell was in the area for the summer, so he often came too, and occasionally the boys who had stayed with us or other friends. These were the greatest people to cook for. Neither Chris nor Norrell were picky eaters, and both had been exposed to a wide variety of foods. When I would ask Chris if he liked this or that, he would say, “I like food.”
The meals were never dull. Norrell and Chris and Marnell played off each other in a endless succession of puns and dry jokes. I learned about oyster dressing and how to kill a snapping turtle. (See the audio below, a clip from a night when our neighbor Jen was present too.) Whenever Marnell thanked God for the food and said “Amen,” Chris would add, “And A-women. Can’t forget the women.” He often talked about his Mennonite or Amish friends. That’s what he called us, too: his Mennonite friends.
Chris told stories about his childhood, the various occupations he had in life, his addictions and work with recovery programs. In a world where people make a point of looking good, Chris’s honesty refreshed us all. In particular, I found language to understand and converse about my own struggles with overeating.
“I learned to play Scrabble in prison,” he told me, and we started a (usually) friendly competition, battling across the board of colored squares and arguing about words and whether we were truly challenging the other person’s word, or just casting a suspicious eye on it. Marnell created an Excel spreadsheet for the scorekeeping. By entering one number, the sheet calculated both the total points and the average points per player per turn.
After Anina was born, we didn’t have Chris as much. He kept saying he wanted to play Scrabble again and we finally fit in a game in late summer. Since we were staying home for Thanksgiving, we planned to have him then, and I was certain we could play a round of Scrabble while Anina napped.
Sometime, probably in September, Chris walked over with a phone he needed help with. He thought maybe he was sick, so we sat on the porch and talked as darkness fell over the world.
“You guys are such a blessing,” Chris said with tears in his eyes.
The day after I stood in the hospital entrance, Chris called me. He was out of the hospital and feeling great. Yes, he was still planning on Thanksgiving and bringing the pie. He would probably pick these up at Martins, but he might need a ride. He was happy to bring things, because it made him feel good to help, he said.
He had also re-joined his church choir and church council. He was feeling great, and thinking of going out to mow a lawn for someone.
A few days later, he talked to Marnell on the phone, also sounding upbeat, and excited about the Thanksgiving Day festivities planned at our house.
I was surprised I had not heard from him by Thanksgiving morning. I tried to call him, but he didn’t answer. His phone often ran out of minutes, so I wasn’t too concerned, but I was a little surprised he hadn’t reached out about going to Martin’s for the pies. Marnell decided to check on him an hour before the meal so there would still be time to run to the grocery store.
He didn’t answer when Marnell pounded on the door. Disappointment filled me. I had been looking forward to re-connecting, the interesting conversation, the game of Scrabble. Surely he hadn’t forgotten? Perhaps he was back in the hospital. But he normally would have let us know that he wasn’t able to come.
Marnell picked up Nick and Dracko, then went back to the apartment building. There, a neighbor informed him that, although she had seen Chris putting up a Christmas tree in his window a couple days before, he had been missing from a meeting Wednesday. A concerned friend called the police for a wellness check.
The police found him dead.
Marnell told me this over the phone as I stood at the cutting board in the kitchen attacking the large and very hot roasted turkey with a sharp knife and a “How to Carve a Turkey” Youtube video propped up beside me.
The sharp knife and the video instructions are suspended over the steaming turkey.
We had a nice Thanksgiving with the boys. It felt refreshing to me that they knew Chris. He had once lived in the house they live in now. He had helped shoot off the water rocket for Nick’s birthday. No one really cared about the missing pies. Marnell and Nick ate ice cream and strawberries.
But over my soul, a deep grief fell, not only for a good friend, but for someone who had given me the language to understand myself better. By his own, admission, Chris’s life was not a success. But by his honesty, he made me question if we really know the definition of success.
In the afternoon, while Nick, Dracko and Marnell played Settlers, Anina and I took a walk. My feet went down the back alley of their own accord, and up third street to the apartment. I opened the smudged glass door and stepped into the front hall, and walked down to Chris’s door. No one was around. I walked back out.
On December 2, 2021, our 4th anniversary, we went to a funeral service for Chris.
It’s a busy time of year. It’s hard to fault anyone for trying to get through their errands. I understand why I did what I did that day in the hospital entrance. I was late picking up Anina the way it was. I was sure I could wait to catch up with Chris until Thanksgiving Day.
Still, I wish I would have let something else wait instead. The post office. The Walmart pickup. The chiropractor.
I wish I had gone back and seen this friend one last time!