The call display on Carla’s cell phone showed the hospital was calling. She thumbed the receive icon. “It’s your father,” the nurse said, a hint of sorrow in her voice. “I think you need to come back. And you might want to call your family.” Carla breathed deeply, thanked the nurse, then clicked off. She had spent six hours that afternoon at the hospital, and though her father, Guy – short for Giuseppe – had been conscious and alert, his breathing had been laboured. She considered her huge Italian family: brothers, sisters, cousins, cousins of cousins – too many people for one hospital room. And would anyone be able to reach her brother, Gianni, in time?
Carla’s family was prepared for their patriarch’s passing. Guy had been in the hospital’s palliative care wing for two weeks, and the family had a phone tree in place, so no one person would have to call all seven children. Gianni was always last on the tree, because he either never seemed to be home, or rarely answered his phone, always letting calls go into voicemail. And then, maybe in a day or so, he’d call someone back.
Gianni, the family knew, wasn’t a bad sort – he wasn’t a selfish person, a ladies man or a fixture at some bar, though he did enjoy his Jack Daniels after a long shift at the auto body plant. He just wasn’t a great communicator. And forget about trying to reach him on poker nights.
But for some odd reason, Gianni, the youngest of the siblings, was Guy’s favourite.
After hearing from the nurse, Carla phoned Angelo and Francesca, whose jobs was to call Maria and Joe, and so on. As Carla headed out the door, she prayed that whoever’s task was to call Gianni was successful. Hang in there, dad, she thought, as she started her car. Let us see you one last time.
Within thirty minutes, Carla and her siblings – minus Gianni – were at Guy‘s bedside. Both Joe and Angelo had left messages for him. Guy, once a six-foot muscular dockworker, was now a tiny man lying weakly in his bed, his body decimated by multiple sclerosis. Several hours ago, he’d stopped swallowing. The pain medication barely soothed him. His eyes were open, but they seemed unfocused. There was a rattle in his breath.
Carla and her siblings put their hands on their father to comfort him. “We’re here, dad,” someone softly said; another added, “It’s okay, dad.” And another, “If you want to let go, we’ll catch you.” With tears in their eyes, Guy’s children talked to him, blessed their father, soothed him with their voices. Guy smiled slightly, closed his eyes, and his breath stilled.
A nurse stepped to the side of the bed and gently held one of Guy’s wrists, feeling for a pulse. A moment of stillness seemed to stretch into forever. And then they turned to the window, where the familiar putt-putt-putt-putt-putt sound of a motorcycle was coming from.
Marty pushed aside the slats on the window. “Gianni’s bike is pulling into the parking lot,” he said.
Guy opened his eyes and took a phlegmy breath. C’mon, c’mon up, Carla thought, knowing Gianni’s penchant for taking his time doing things. She glanced at her brothers’ and sisters’ faces. Everyone was staring at the door, willing Gianni to come bounding in. She imagined her always impatient sister Francesca gritting her teeth and swearing to herself. When will that man—
Gianni burst into the room, rushed to his father’s side and gently placed his meaty hand on his shoulder. “Hey, dad,” he said. “How’s it goin’?”
Guy looked at Gianni, raised an eyebrow, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a slight smile, as if he wanted to say, Oh, Gianni, what am I going to do with you? There was pure love in that look, and Gianni returned that love ten-fold with his eyes.
Then Guy closed his eyes and relaxed onto the bed.
Carla told me that story one afternoon several years ago, when we’d met for tea. I’m remembering her words as I zip up my winter coat and get ready to make a long but necessary drive out of the city. A dear friend is in the hospital, and I need to see her again. And I’m chiding myself for waiting so long to visit her. We contemplate great plans, and then life sends us in another direction. We all have friends and loved ones that we need to reconnect with – why wait for a crisis moment to give that person comfort and support? Loving someone on this side of life is so powerful, and making an effort to show it means so much to others. After all, you never know if you might be that person’s last visitor.
If you have any questions or comments on this subject or on any other spiritual matter, feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please visit me again!