No amount of education and training can prepare you for death or a pandemic. I knew a doctor who went to Africa a few years ago to help with an Ebola outbreak. He was still rattled as he sat next to me at a bar. We were drinking whiskey. “The man’s drink,” as my college roommate and a longtime friend used to tell me. As a doctor, I knew I drank too much. With every sip, I imagined myself as a boxer pounding my liver. “It’s just the dying…the helplessness…the deathing…,” he muttered through a nearly drunken haze. “Deathing?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and told me to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “I am not Zen,” he concluded. I finished off my whiskey. I could care less about religion or Eastern philosophy. “If you were Zen you wouldn’t need to declare yourself Zen. You would just be,” I retorted. My friend stared at me for a few seconds and began to cry. Quiet tears slid down his face.
I worked at Francis Memorial Hospital in New York City. I was preparing to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, but Covid derailed my training. I was lucky if I got to cut once a week. I was placed on Covid detail. This meant reading a two hundred page manual on policy, procedures, and treatments. To enter the Covid Ward I had to wear a hospital hazmat suit. It imposed a barrier between me and the patients. It was for my safety. Many were dying or “deathing” as my friend would say, yet some were recovering and holding strong.
A co-worker, also a surgeon in training, asked me to cover her Christmas Eve shift. “My mother is in Chicago and has the virus. She’s not doing well. I have to be with her.” She looked completely defeated. She was a blonde, good looking woman who was also fierce. We had dated for four weeks when we both realized we weren’t compatible. I immediately consoled her and agreed to take the shift. What did I care? I wasn’t religious and I was estranged from my family.
Christmas Eve brought blustery weather and then snow. It was freezing outside, but I was sweating inside the hazmat suit. From the 9th floor, I could see a good part of Manhattan and it was marvelous to see the gentle snowfall and the lights that reminded me of the glitter I would sprinkle on Christmas cookies when I was very young and baking with my mother. She died in a car wreck while driving with me. Her arm got severed and it landed in my lap. Her head was crushed. I didn’t scream. I had almost a medical curiosity. I never cried when my mother died. All the counselors my father took me to said it was shock. Pure shock that rattled my soul and left me dull.
“Can I have some water?” The voice was hoarse, weak, and vulnerable. I turned and saw that it was Caroline. She was eighty and dying. She was not responding to any treatment. A nurse heard her.
“Dear Caroline. I’ll get you some water.” That was nurse Dia. She was very good with all the patients and I was jealous of her because she seemed to care more about healing than even I was.
I walked over to Caroline. “I should get some vitals.”
She lowered her oxygen mask. “You seem sad.”
“Put your mask back on. We’re all sad.”
“Yes, but in the others…the doctors and nurses…I can see a hope still burning.” She coughed and then inhaled oxygen through the mask. She lowered it again. “You know what I miss? My Nativity set. It used to sit on my buffet table every Christmas.” She paused. “I suppose it will go to my oldest daughter now. Hopefully, it gets passed on to one of my grandchildren.”
“How many family members do you have?”
“Four daughters, one son, and eight grandchildren.”
Her vitals were not good. I didn’t expect her to last the night. She had been fading for a week.
“What did you like about the Nativity set?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She coughed and Dia came with the water. “You hang in there Caroline. Christmas is soon.”
“My last Christmas…how strange…” Dia helped her drink the water.
Caroline laid back and put the oxygen mask on and then dropped it. I tried to put it back on her but she swiped at my hand.
“I loved that Nativity set because of the baby Jesus. What a true, godly act that birth was. All babies are special, but Jesus had a soul unlike any other. His destiny glittered in the stars in the heavens. Jesus must have glowed from every pore in his soft skin…and too move the heavens so that three wisemen would show to deliver him gifts. Mary must have been so proud.”
Caroline grabbed my hand. “When one baby is born many die at the same time. We don’t think about the souls who died on Christmas Eve to make room for the light of Jesus. So many will die tonight and so many will be born. Jesus’ destiny was determined. The rest of us must find our way and form our lives. We make choices. I’m fine with the life I chose. Are you? You seem bereft. Lacking in love. Love is everywhere if you look beyond yourself.” She grew quiet. “I think death is near.” She was still grasping my hand. I could see the machines and hear them beeping. She would flatline soon and she was DNR. I wondered where her family was.
In a shallow breath, she whispered, “Are you the baby Jesus? Ah, I have my Nativity back. You’re such a beautiful baby. Do not cry. I can see you crying behind the mask. Hold my hand tight. I’m not scared. I’m not bitter. I leave this Earth knowing I loved. You will go on and love too. You will love all your patients. No tears in death. Simply love…this has been such a strange year.”
She released my hand. “The only thing important in life is love. It takes dying to realize that. I wish I had spent more time with my husband. He worked so hard and was away so much…”
She squeezed harder on my hand. “Jesus, go forth and love. Do you love me?”
She released my hand and then flatlined. Dia ran up along with another nurse.
“I do love you,” I said. It was not a lie. My heart was near bursting. I was also crying because I was thinking of my mother.
“Are you going to call time of death?” Dia asked.
I cleared my throat. “December 25th, 12:00 AM.”
I signed the chart. “I need a break. I’ll be on OB.”
“With the babies?” Dia seemed shocked.
“With the babies.”