In 2005 I was 37 years old, the mother of eight-year-old twins. I experienced many health concerns that year which culminated with a hysterectomy. I felt very young for such a procedure but trusted my doctor as we made the choice to move forward with surgery. The skilled hands of Dr. Rebecca guided the team taking care of me, and the surgery was deemed a success. My recovery in that hospital room, however, revealed an even bigger purpose.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness on the night after my surgery, I heard their voices. They were there to comfort and to protect me. Although I did not fully awaken until much later, I knew that my husband and my sister were there with the nurses who were caring for me. When I woke up the next morning, my blurry eyes adjusted to a typical hospital room: drab blue walls; the brown pull-around curtain for visual, but not auditory, privacy; the hanging TV; the metal pole with plastic tubing connected to me; the adjustable hospital bed. Even through my hazy vision of the room, I knew that people who loved me were very near.
A short time later, I realized that I had a roommate. Bed B was occupied by a 79-year-old named Helen who obviously had pretty glasses because everyone kept talking about them. They also talked about her surgery—gall bladder removal because of stones. From the conversations about pain medication and limited movement, I gathered that I was feeling better than she did even though Helen’s surgery was the day before mine. I felt fairly strong and ready to go home, and by noon, I was unhooked from my tubing and pain pump. However, she was not.
When the nurses left us for a while, she began to talk. She had no family…she was the widow of a man with thirteen siblings…all of those brothers and sisters were now gone…she had no siblings of her own…she had no children. Essentially, at that moment, she had me. We learned each other’s names because the nurses used them, and so our talks began. She was funny and kind, with always a sad hint in her voice. We shared pain stories from our surgeries and talked of going home.
Early on the third morning, my parade of visitors started with a flourish. My husband arrived early and, right on his heels, a basket of flowers. Then came my parents, my pastor, some church friends (carrying bath and body soaps!), another minister, my mother-in-law bringing my children (with more flowers and homemade cards), my sister, and my brother-in-law. My whole day was spent trying to be a hostess from a hospital bed. Exhausted, I kept up my end of the conversations and basked in appreciation for my stream of well-wishers. Through the whole day, though, I realized that Helen had no company.
When mine came, she grew silent and listened. When they left, she asked me who they were and directed me to be grateful for them. The strangeness of that brown curtain that separated us came over me. It created a physical wall while there was also an invisible force that kept us apart because I simply could not understand the depth of her loneliness and because she did not want to take away from my company. I heard her tell a nurse that she had no one at home to help her, and a neighbor would pick her up because she had no family. My mind wandered to my visitors and to “The Schedule” hanging on the fridge at home detailing all of the people who wanted to help me take care of life as I recovered.
She and I were both eating solid food for supper, but the mystery meat made my stomach turn when I looked at it. We both refused to eat. She giggled like a schoolgirl with a secret, a bond of rebellion between us. As the evening grew nearer, our doctors made their decisions about letting us out. She could not go without help at home. I was released into the care of my husband and sisters.
I felt horrible to leave her. Would her next roommate talk to her and share the miseries? Before I left, I inched past the brown curtain to see her for the first time. Helen’s thick and flowing white hair framed her pretty, but pale, face. Her eyes sparkled behind those glasses…very striking pink frames. They were huge circles with rhinestones on each side, and the lenses seemed to also be tinted pink. As she looked at me through those rose tinted lenses, she smiled. Helen told me to take care of myself and to enjoy my beautiful twin babies. Her voice had the ever-present hint of sorrow, but her shine of a smile surprised me. She had grace and beauty and an understanding that made her seem very special.
As I rode home, I knew that a large group of family and friends waited for me. They wanted to baby-sit, help with the laundry, bring home-cooked meals, and pray. Helen was still at the hospital. Being alone was so frightening for me that I saw much bravery in her smile.
Even though I never saw her again, she reminded me of an important lesson. I knew to be thankful for a protective husband and children, for hovering parents, for bossy sisters. But more than that, as I look back now to that time 17 years ago, I learned to reach beyond life’s brown curtains to find beautiful souls who, through rose-tinted glasses, touch and need to be touched. This lesson creates a struggle for me now because pandemic life has highlighted a part of me that loves solitude. If I were in Room 4408 now, would I be so quick to engage? The thought makes me sad because I’m not sure. The line of visitors would not be allowed in a hospital room now, and, by my own choice, my open nature has closed because of life’s events. Revisiting Room 4408 encourages me to open my heart again and follow God’s command to love others. Jesus said this commandment is the most important one, and my rose-colored-glasses friend reminds me even now to be thankful and reach beyond a curtain hung by people or by a pandemic.
Written October 22, 2005 and January 17, 2022