In a really entertaining movie there is always 1) an Important Goal: what is the protagonist trying to get? 2) a Ticking Clock: there is only so much time to achieve the Important Goal, and 3) High Stakes: what will happen if the Important Goal is not achieved?
For Ron, a patient I’ve been following for many weeks, the Important Goal was to get him a new liver. His own liver was so shot after years of drinking that he had to be hospitalized just to keep him alive. Yes, he had stopped drinking many months before but it was too late.
The Ticking Clock was how rapidly his liver was deteriorating. The doctors were constantly changing his medications to keep up with his downhill slide.
The High Stakes, as is often the case in the hospital, were the highest of all: death.
That was just his physical situation. His spiritual/emotional health was just as bad. He suffered from acute self-loathing. “All those years I spent drinking, thinking whiskey was my friend. Thinking that the people I drank with were friends! What an idiot.” He knew a liver transplant would give him a second chance at life. “But I’m not sure I deserve a second chance.”
The Important Goal: self-forgiveness. The Ticking Clock: forgiveness before death and/or a new liver because what’s the point of a new liver if you continue to hate yourself? The Stakes: death, when you hate yourself every day it’s a kind soul-death. Plus, hating yourself does not make a very hospitable home for a new liver. Self-forgiveness seems to be the hardest of all. I’ve heard that it’s almost impossible to forgive anyone anything until you understand the why behind the offense.
Ron did a lot of reflecting and investigating to understand why he did this to himself. What pain was so great that he anesthetized himself every day? What would have been a better way to deal with life? What were his spiritual beliefs and what could he do to nurture his spiritual life now? As weeks went by, he worked through these questions—not always finding answers but leaning into the questions.
But the clock kept ticking and time was running out. He was moved to the ICU. He was lying there with more tubes and lines than ever. His eyes were a bright lemon-yellow. He batted his eyes at me and said, “Call me Mr. Sunshine.” He gave a weak little laugh.
“How about if I call you a cab?” I asked. “See what I did there?”
“Oh, yeah. Very funny, very yellow. At least in a cab I could go somewhere.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Anywhere with people. Regular people.” I knew what he meant. At this point there were no visitors allowed so the only people he saw were medical providers, housekeeping—and me.
The next time I saw him I returned with a teddy bear to keep him company. He held it out in front of him and announced, “I shall name him Poke! For that is what they do to me all day long.”
I always offer prayer at the end of all my visits and ask, “What would you like me to pray about?” The answer tells me what or who is sitting in the front row of their hearts. Ron always said, “Healing. Forgiveness.” We both knew he meant that physically and spiritually.
He was moved out of the ICU, and his jaundice cleared slightly but he looked like a skeleton. I saw him on Wednesday. “You can’t come in, he’s getting a bath,” the nurses said.
“No, I want her here,” Ron said. “Just stand there and look out the window.” So I stood with my back to him and looked out at the Cascades.
“So what’s on your mind today, Ron?”
“Oh, you know—fear of death,” he murmured from behind the curtain. Fear of death? Holy Moses. This was the first time he had spoken to me about death.
“Ron, this is definitely a conversation we need to have face-to-face. Why don’t I come back later today?”
“I’ll press my tuxedo. See you then,” he whispered.
But I didn’t see him again that afternoon. There were too many urgent requests: heart surgery, an extubation, a stillborn. I didn’t see him the next day because it was my day off. I hoped he wasn’t obsessing about death. It turned out that he didn’t have time to obsess.
That night they took him into surgery and gave him a new liver. I had no idea until yesterday when I kept seeing “post-op” on his chart and wondered, “What operation are they talking about?” Duh. I realized later that somehow I thought I would know. There’d be trumpets or confetti or fireworks.
So yesterday I walked into his room and once again the nurses said, “You can’t come in.”
Ron yelled, “I’m on a bed pan but I want you to come in.” (A dubious honor.) They discreetly pulled a sheet over him.
“I heard there was a new liver in town,” I said while washing my hands. “Just thought I’d check it out.”
His daughter was standing in the corner grinning from ear to ear. We hugged and jumped up and down, both of chanting, “Can you believe it? Can you believe it?”
I turned to Ron. “How dare you get a liver when I wasn’t here?”
He laughed then shouted, “I want to pray!” I was astonished for two reasons: 1) I hadn’t heard him speak above a low-murmur for weeks and 2) we always prayed at the end of my visit. Maybe he didn’t want me to stay long. I stepped up to his bed and took his bony hand.
“What would you like me to pray about?”
“I’m going to pray!” he said. Again—astonished. He closed his eyes and tears ran down his face. “Thank for my skilled surgeons who did the surgery. Thank you for the nurses who took care of me. Thank you for all the people who kept me alive—” he choked and he started sobbing then took deep breath. “Thank you for Debra and for giving me a second chance at life.” Now I was crying. By claiming his second chance I knew he had reached some degree of self-forgiveness.
Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
That goes for self-forgiveness as well.
After Ron finished his prayer and said, “Amen,” he looked up at me asked. “What do you say to that?
“Let the healing continue!”