By Joy Caires
“the nails in his hands” (Jn 20:25)
They pushed fluids until they started to pour from her mouth, gave round after round of epinephran and took turns doing chest compressions for over two hours. They would get a pulse for a moment or two, just long enough to decide to keep going, before her heart would slow to a stop again. It was the longest I ever saw the medical team in the pediatric intensive care unit attempt resuscitation.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)
She was eight years old. After she arrived I stood outside the door of her hospital room room as the clinical team worked. As team members shouted orders for items from the crash cart, I prayed; with each bump on the monitors, I prayed; as numbers fell and rose, I prayed. After what seemed an interminable time, but was really less than 40 minutes, the parents arrived. I met them at the door of the intensive care unit and their eyes opened wide as they took in my black shirt and white collar.
“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26).
At that point I told them exactly what I knew—their daughter was still alive but barely, that the medical staff was fighting for her, that she had been intubated and that they continued to do chest compressions. I could not tell them that she would “make it”, and I couldn’t tell them that she wouldn’t. I huddled with the parents on the sleeper couch in the child’s hospital room as the team continued to struggle. I read the faces of the staff I knew so well and I knew that their heads had given up hope but their hearts and hands would continue to struggle to exact a miracle from the improbable.
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (Jn 20:27)
They went beyond the point of possibility and shortly before they stopped, her head lolled to the side and I saw her eyes and I knew she was gone. Her parents kept praying and, after a momentary pause, I prayed as well—for a miracle I was certain would not come. But, just as the medical staffs hearts and hands fought on, my heart and mouth continued to pray for the improbable. For this child the difference between the declarative of a flat line and hope was the pounding of hands upon her chest.
“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? “ (Lk 24:38)
By 2pm it was all over. The air in the unit was thick with tension and unspent grief. Another little girl whose family had been preparing for her death for months had slipped away and another child had entered Hospice care—all while we had tried to pound life into a lifeless chest. The medical staff huddled in small groups—two of the children had clear diagnoses, but the third would be a coroner’s case. The parents spent time with the children’s bodies and eventually left. The mortician made his appearance—even he was shaken by the magnitude of the death that day. And, we all kept working—other patients and families needed to be attended to and we were all conscious of the need to keep moving.
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (Jn 20:19)
Then word came, the attending physician had ordered pizza for the staff on the unit. As we were able, we used our identification cards to let ourselves into the locked staff room. It was quiet in the room and the locked door made me feel safe, safe from pain, safe from inexplicable death, safe... I don’t remember any conversation beyond the running commentary about the sauce and toppings—to an outsider we would have seemed callous. But, the current of the unspoken ran through us. While the words would not be uttered, love was truly in that place. Our bond as a team had grown as tight as that of blood brothers—but the blood we shared was not our own. Our souls had been bound by the blood of an innocent.
“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16)
I wonder what choices had brought us there? I wonder, what fruit we bore that day? Perhaps it was the peace that came from having shared in the washing and dressing of the child’s body; of giving a family an image that was less that of the violent cross and more that of the quiet tomb; or, the knowledge that we had given a child her last and best chance at life. We all went home later that evening, it was hard to leave and we clung to each other—finding excuses to stay a bit later, work a bit longer. We, regardless of beliefs, had chosen to dwell in the valley of the shadow of death and we needed each other—we needed to bear the fruit of hope even as we ate the fruit of misery. Blood and pizza became our sacraments whilst death lurked.
“I lay down my life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:15)
The outward signs of devastation and recollection and the insistence of living in the face of death—we eat because we are alive, we gather because we need to see life in each other. Each week we, the Christian faithful, gather around a feast of the body and blood. Each week we are joined with those who gather in mourning--bound together by a shared participation in the bloody death of an innocent. We will live despite death, we will feast in the shadow of the cross and we will love throughout time.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (Jn 20:29)
I have seen too much. My hands have touched the wounded side and my ears have heard the final breath. I have not seen…but I still hope. I hope for the resurrection, I hope for the loving embrace of God and I hope, for each innocent, peace beyond that of my own understanding. The irony for us Easter people is that it was Christ who conquered death and eternal life is on the other side of a flat line.
The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.