Can you have a sincere and meaningful friendship that only lasts two seconds? I believe so. And I believe I had one this past Friday.
My wife and I arrived at the emergency room at about 8am. For the first time, it was actually my wife in distress and not me. The symptoms led us to believe that Lucy was passing a kidney stone: sharp, severe, lower-back pain that had eventually expanded around to the lower belly.
Lucy underwent some tests, and she was given fluids and pain medication. As anyone who has suffered through a kidney stone will tell you, the pain is incredible.
The first dose of morphine didn’t even make a dent, so they went to a higher strength medication. This dose brought the pain down a bit. We waited for the test results.
As I stood in the doorway to Lucy’s room, looking out into the ER, I heard the paramedics call in over the radio as they approached the hospital. About two minutes later, they wheeled in a woman in her early forties, and she looked familiar. My brain tried to process where I knew her from, and I thought it might have been one of the ladies that I had met for the first time at Bible study the night before. It was the very first session of a new study, and Lucy had pointed her out to me as the mother of one of her CCD kids from last year.
As I studied her face, I couldn’t tell. I had met so many people this past week. We’ve just started three separate Bible studies with dozens of new names and faces to try and remember. Still, I studied her face and tried to figure out if it was her.
Then the woman opened her eyes, and she happened to be looking right at me. We calmly stared at each other for about two or three seconds, then she closed her eyes again. It’s possible I may have smiled at her during that time – I really can’t remember. It was the only time that I saw her open her eyes since she had entered the ER.
Then, less than a minute later, she went into cardiac arrest. They rushed her into Room Three, and virtually everyone in the ER converged into that room. A calm, controlled frenzy of activity ensued. A few minutes passed, then ten, then thirty…
While this was going on, Lucy’s pain had returned to full force. She was back at a pain level ‘nine’, only one notch down from the ‘ten’ she was at when we had arrived. She was perfectly calm about it – and remarkably, so was I. We both knew that I couldn’t simply barge into Room Three and demand that the doctor and our nurse come attend to Lucy. They were desperately trying to save this woman’s life.
Lucy started offering up her intense pain for the woman in Room Three. They say the pain from a kidney stone is the worst pain that can be felt – right at the top of the pain scale. There’s also one very particular word that we use when we dare to speak of the ‘highest possible pain’: Excruciating. There is simply no word that evokes such anguish. You may not know where that word comes from, but it’s actually right there if you look. ‘Ex’ + ‘cruciate’ means ‘From’ + ‘The Cross’. The word that expresses our strongest pain comes from what we know was experienced on the Cross. Now, in her hospital bed, I watched as my wife offered up her excruciating pain. And she offered it – back to the Cross – on behalf of Room Three.
As we waited, whenever I needed to pass by Room Three, I’d cross myself and say a wordless prayer.
Over an hour passed before people started emerging from the room. Knowing that the doctor had just been through a very stressful event, I calmly informed her that Lucy’s pain had returned and asked if she could prescribe another dose of pain medication. She did so immediately.
I looked across the ER and noticed that our nurse had just come out of Room Three, so I went over to ask if she could administer the medication. Our nurse had tears in her eyes. Very professionally, she asked someone else to tend to Lucy – and then our nurse went back into Room Three. Soon after, I learned that the woman in Room Three hadn’t survived.
Lucy received more pain medication, and this time it cut the pain. As we waited to see what would happen next, I couldn’t stop thinking about the two-second exchange with the woman in Room Three. She had appeared calm – and that was good. But she went into cardiac arrest less than a minute after we looked at each other – and if she wasn’t able to open her eyes after that, I might have been the last person she ever saw. The immensity of that fact started ‘weighing’ on me.
Lucy was discharged about two hours later, once they determined that she was stable. On Saturday evening, she passed the stone and she felt wonderful. Sore, but wonderful.
During the day on Saturday, I started searching the Internet to see if I could find out who was in Room Three. As part of my effort to pray for her, I had read her last name on the huge computer monitor in the ER – so I had one clue. After searching for a short time, I had figured out who it was. Her name was Christine.
From what I could gather, she was a loving wife, and a mother to three children – two beautiful young girls and their even younger brother. She appeared to be Catholic, and she lived within the boundaries of our parish – but I had no idea if she was an active parishioner.
On Saturday evening, a lector friend of mine contacted me to ask if I could fill in for her and read the next morning at the 9:30 Mass. I agreed. When I arrived to read, I noticed that Christine’s name was not on the list of names that are read after the Prayers of the Faithful. I told Father Michael the story, and asked if I could add her name. As the family was certainly within the parish, he said that I could. I’m not sure if I mentioned Christine’s name to him before I put it on the paper. Then, during Mass, I read the lines:
Both with and in Christ Jesus,
he raised us up and gave us a place in the heavens,
that in the ages to come he might display the great wealth of his favor,
manifested by his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
After the 9:30 Mass, I needed to get ready to read for the Children’s Liturgy at the 11am Mass, and I also needed to get the Bible study room ready for our session at noon – which meant that I needed to cross over to the other building. On my way out of the front doors, I entered the sea of people that are normally outside just after Mass – but a very distraught woman caught the corner of my eye. She was crying profusely and hugging a man who I immediately recognized as Christine’s husband. Standing next to this woman were Christine’s two young girls. I walked over to the first one and tentatively asked: “Are you Francesca?” She took a step forward, hugged me, and wept. I told her that I happened to be in the ER when her mom arrived, that we saw each other, and that her mom seemed peaceful. She cried more. I then met Christine’s husband, told him, and offered my condolences. We hugged as well. They broke away, and headed off to the parking lot.
I stayed and spoke to the lady who had first caught my attention, and learned that Christine was very active in the parish. She and her daughters are part of the Children’s Liturgy team, and she also teaches (or at least assists) at CCD. Eventually, I realized that Lucy and I must have met her when the Children’s Liturgy volunteers first met to coordinate our efforts. It now made sense why I felt that I recognized her in the ER.
So, back to the two-second exchange. Can you really make a friend in two seconds? And can you really have an impact on someone’s life in such a brief span? Absolutely. There are so many times when our smile, or our kind word is the only smile or kind word that someone will experience all day. Or even all week. What do those two seconds cost us? Nothing. What do those same two seconds mean to that other person? It might mean…everything. We should never be reluctant to smile or say something nice to someone, even a perfect stranger. In fact, we should look for every opportunity to do so – because we have been created by God to be each other’s strength.
I know that Christine made a lasting imprint on my life during those two seconds, and I’d like to think that I had something to offer back. My wife Lucy is thoroughly convinced that she had the kidney stone for the sole reason that it brought us to the ER so that I would be standing in that doorway when Christine opened her eyes for those two seconds. For that brief moment, and because I happen to be a lector, she saw a face that she had seen before at the altar. And perhaps, during the short time she had left here, she took that as a sign that God was already waiting for her with open arms, eager to say:
“Well done, Christine, my good and faithful servant”.