There Isnít A Moment to Lose: A Reality Check on Your Life




by Herb Orrell

She had awakened me from a trance. Maybe she thought I was lost or maybe I just looked lonely. Whatever her motivation might have been, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt her gently touch my arm and ask, "Is something wrong?"

I had been crying, the kind of crying self-conscious people like me do. The kind where you try to pretend the something in your eye isn't a tear, and the curling, quivering of your lips is just a nervous tick or the beginnings of a sneeze.

She had seen through the awkward mask I was wearing. Seeing through masks was part of her job.

When my eyes finally focused, I saw that the inquisitive voice and gentle hand belonged to a Catholic nun.

Until that moment I had never had any contact with a nun. I learned right away that when a nun puts her hand on your arm, she'll leave it there until she's good and ready to take it off.

Her name was Sister Maria. We met, quite by accident, in a hospital late one afternoon on a rather dreary and otherwise uneventful February day.

There to visit a man who had just undergone multi-bypass heart surgery, I found him in recovery, looking very pale and bionic, attached to all those pipes and tubes and wires and machines that go beep. His eyes were glazed, and a huge bandage covered his chest. The ventilator was breathing for him with a raspy, guttural moan, reminiscent of Darth Vader.

He was an older man, well into his 70s. Because of his age and even more because of his attitude, the whole scene lacked any real urgency. He told me before the operation that he had already lived longer than he had planned so he had little preference as to the outcome. His family felt that way too, which complicated my visit with them in the surgery waiting area. What do you say when nobody cares?

I sat down with the family for a half hour or so and heard a lot of anxieties and complaints about the doctors, nurses, the courtesy coffee pot's cold coffee as well as the usual kind of remarks about $10 aspirins and $200 bedpans.

Then they started in on the relatives.

"So and so from Des Moines never cared a lick about anybody but herself and wouldn't lend Mother Teresa a quarter to make a phone call."

"If that granddaughter from Portland thinks a once-a-year Christmas card will get her a mention in the will, why, she's got another thing coming."

This was followed by some very candid remarks about the patient. One by one, family members rose against the tide of popular opinion which had painted their loved one as a "son-of-a-bitch." In truth, they insisted, he was a nice guy-at least some of the time. It was just that he, like many of us, wished he could have done something different with his life, something better with his life. Maybe then, he wouldn't have been so angry all the time.

Although I didn't mention it to the family, it sounded to me like the fellow I just saw in the recovery room had, in reality, been dead for many years. Surviving the multi-bypass wouldn't change any of that.

"Let's all hope for the best," seemed like the diplomatic thing to say. The wife, apparently numb, didn't bother to raise her stare from her styrofoam cup of cold coffee as I turned and headed in the direction of what I hoped was the parking lot.

I call it "hospital blur." The symptoms are a mental disorientation brought on by look-alike corridors and the sting of Lysol in my nose. The result: while trying to find my way to the parking lot, I get caught like a rat in a maze.

Down many corridors, it all looked the same-odd numbers on the left, even on the right. Every once in a while the colors changed ever so slightly which, to an informed observer, indicated something important, I'm sure. Mainly, however, the hallway just led me forward and I was on automatic pilot until a dramatic change in the scenery stopped me dead in my tracks.

On the wall straight ahead was Mickey Mouse. A medium-sized Mickey with a dazzling, toothy smile. His right arm was extended; his white-gloved hand urged me to turn left. Underneath Mickey was a sign in capital letters which read, "WE LOVE CHILDREN."

I don't know how to explain why I turned towards the children's wing, other than to ask if you also might have experienced a moment when your actions were less the product of your better judgments than they were, shall we say, an act of surrender? I could have gone the opposite way and ignored Mickey, but something made me go towards the kids.

Just a few steps forward and suddenly I was awash in a sea of bright colors, an explosive contrast to the bleached white or milky pastel walls coating the other parts of the hospital. The nurses' station was decorated with a variety of teddy bears, some metallic-looking balloons, and a Storytime Big Bird sitting on the edge of the counter, staring off into space with his big, droopy eyes.

"Do you have the one about Big Bird visiting his grandma at the seashore?" I asked, trying to break the ice.

The nurse behind the counter, obviously with time on her hands, launched into an explanation about how this particular Big Bird had recently gone mute because "the thing inside of him that makes him talk is jammed."

She also said they'd given up trying to fix him because one day when maintenance had shown up at the request of the head nurse and had him torn in pieces trying to find out what was wrong, one of the younger kids saw Big Bird dismembered and almost had a heart attack.

"Which way to the parking lot?" I asked.

It was a week or so after Valentine's Day, and I got distracted by the pudgy cupids with their broken arrows still lingering on the wall behind her. When she finished giving me directions, I had to admit I hadn't heard a word she said.

"I'm sorry, would you mind..."

Slowly, but firmly, she repeated: "Elevator number three. Down to the ground floor, turn left. Follow the hall to the end, then turn right."

Such efficiency. She must have given those directions a thousand times.

"The Cupids stay up all year," she said with a smile.

The directions the nurse gave me were quite accurate, but they weren't complete. The nurse should have warned me about the picture window.

About 25 feet from the nurses station, there it was-a big picture window. I came to a stop in front of the window, and my first impression was that I was looking at one of those "what's-wrong-with-this-picture" drawings, in which you have to find the mistakes deliberately blended into the image.

Children love this game. Usually there are horses sitting in the clouds, ducks on roller skates, fish wearing sneakers, bicycles with no handle bars-anything for a laugh. But what I saw through that picture window, while it didn't make any sense, was not in the least bit funny.

The room was filled with children, but it was also filled with things that don't belong with children. There were oxygen tanks, IV tubes, different kinds of electronic monitoring devices, all in stark contrast to the pictures of the Little Mermaid on the walls and various stuffed members of the Sesame Street Gang on each of the beds.

The children looked wrong, too. Their color was grayish, or grayish-yellow. Most of them didn't have any hair. Their heads were swollen. A haunting blackness surrounded their eyes. They all looked very, very sick as they lay in their beds.

The room was called the Children's Oncology ward, but to me it looked like hell itself. As I stood there, I started to cry.

I felt the hand on my arm. "Is something wrong?" said the gentle voice.

When Sister Maria asked me if I wanted to sit down and talk, all I could do was nod, "Yes."

There was a little alcove near the "what's-wrong-with-this-picture" picture window. We sat down together and, with her hand once again on my arm, the sister asked me which one of the children was mine. That was a harder question to answer than I thought it would be.

"None of them," is how I answered her, but that left many things unsaid.

I told her how I was just wandering around and Mickey told me to come in and have a look. I also told her I was a little sick to my stomach, which was probably the only thing I was sure of at the moment.

Sister Maria was a very old nun. She was also so frightfully thin she seemed to be swimming in her layers of nun's habit. On her face time had painted a mosaic of elegant wrinkles, facial stretch marks, which spoke of a heart that had given birth to a lifetime of love and laughter.

"Why do you hurt so much when you see those children?" she asked. I was getting more than a little uncomfortable and her hand on my arm was an unbearable weight.

"I don't like death," was all I could think of to say.

She pressed on. "I've been working with those kinds of children every day for the last fourteen years."

A little angry with her and suddenly angry at the world in general, I asked, "How can you stand working with death all the time?"

There are moments in our lives, mostly unexpected moments, when something that can only be called grace comes rushing in, crashing in, and all we can do is stand there dumbfounded and hope we don't forget the lesson of the moment. Sister Maria's answer was, for me, one such moment of grace.

She looked at me with her gentle eyes and said these precious words: "I don't work with death." She paused for a moment and then offered a wrinkled smile, "I work with life."

She went on to tell me the different ways she had helped people over the years, in many places throughout the world, in many different capacities. Then she confided in me that, of all the places she had been, there was more life behind that picture window than in any other place she had ever seen.

For a moment I thought she was starting to glow. "It's a different world in that room," she said, "a kind of glorious, magical dance. It's a world where every moment is precious, where nothing is taken for granted. It's a world that has no time for bitterness, anger, or grudges. It's a world where people aren't afraid of their feelings. If they want to laugh, they go ahead and do it, right out loud. If they want to cry, they do that, too. When they cry, they never cry alone; there's always someone to hold them. It's a world where people don't pretend to be something they're not. It's a world where people forgive because life is simply too precious not to. It's a world where people touch and hold each other. It's a world where people take care of each other.

"Once or twice a week, when some of those children have enough strength to get out of bed, do you know what they do with that strength? They get up and go over to the bed of another, to be with someone who is less fortunate. I work with life," she reminded me.

Without warning, she got up and extended her hand. Too weak to resist, I allowed Sister Maria to lead me back to the picture window. Time had slipped by and my watch said 5:30. There were some adults in the room now, parents sitting on the edge of the beds. Some were spoon-feeding their loved ones.

Just then one of the children looked our way and waved. A little, shy smile crept across his angelic face. I offered my own shy smile in return and once again I felt that hand on my arm.

"He'd love to meet you," she said.

"Oh, I don't know, I'm late already," I lied.

Without moving her gaze from the window and with just a hint of playfulness in her voice, she said, "What's the matter, are you afraid to fall in love?"

I didn't answer her; I couldn't answer her. I just stared for a long time through the window until the words finally came out. "Do you know the way to the parking lot?"

"Elevator number three, down to the ground floor, turn left, follow the hall to the end, then turn right."

I thanked her, she smiled. I thanked her again, and she just looked back through the window. After a few steps I noticed that just past the picture window was the door I could have gone through. On the door was another cupid.

About a month later I was back in that same hospital. The excuse I used was a woman who had her gall bladder removed, but my real reason was something different. It was that face in the picture window, that very sickly yet angelic face that had smiled at me. I thought about it for a long time, that face in the window. I would go back and visit him. This time I would walk through the door. I even stopped on the way and got him a little toy. Nothing much really, just a wind-up car I bought at a five-and-dime store.

Maybe you know what happened.

"There isn't a moment to lose," is what she was trying to say. Not just on the other side of the picture window, but on our side of the window, too.

Life is too short not to care. It's too short to be afraid to laugh or cry out loud. It's too short to be afraid to fall in love. It's too short to wish you had done something different with your life, something better with your life. It's too short to be angry.

She was right. It's all too precious, too short, every moment. There's a little wind-up car on my desk at home to remind me of that.


Excerpted from Unspeakable: The Truth About Grief by Herb Orrell. Copyright © 2003 Herb Orrell. Excerpted by arrangement with Bayou Publishing. $24.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.340.2034 or click here.