Life matters: Retracing an old path

BY DAVID WHITLOCK

I exited the University of Louisville hospital and hot-footed it up Chestnut Avenue toward Norton Hospital. I had suddenly changed courses, and having started in another direction, I quickened my pace.

Although I had made a spontaneous decision, I had a reason for my journey.

Earlier that morning I had arrived to pray for a parishioner who was undergoing a complicated and serious six-hour surgery. It was one of those occasions when a pastor needs to be there to pray before surgery. The sun was still fresh on the horizon when I left the hospital and started toward the parking garage.

As I stepped onto Jackson Street in front of University Hospital, I turned left, the opposite direction of where I had parked, and headed toward Norton Hospital.

“You’ll be driving back from Louisville alone tomorrow,” my wife, Lori, had said the night before. And then she added, “Just like you did the same day 14 years ago. I’ll be praying for you.”

She was referring to my first wife, Katri’s death, 14 years ago to the exact date I was to be in Louisville to pray for the family. I had shared with Lori how I had made the drive from Louisville alone that day, and what had awaited me when I arrived home: How to tell my kids? What about arrangements? A dozen what ifs and should haves had swarmed around me that day.

My brisk walk to Norton’s didn’t take long. I quickly made my way into the entrance of the hospital, then to the fourth floor and the oncology unit where I had left her those 14 years ago.

Standing there, it was like it had just happened and like it was forever ago — all at once.

The place was the same, but different: updated fixtures, new décor. But the people were in similar situations. Medical staff documented their work, examined their charts, or attended to patients. One patient looked at me with what I thought was a raised eyebrow, or so I imagined. I quickly moved on, not wanting to intrude like an uninvited observer to someone else’s private pain.

I had been in that place, too: It’s a road best traveled only with close companions.

“Some things are worse than death, Dr. David,” my trusted friend, now deceased, Dr. John C. Polk, had consoled me the night before Katri passed into eternity.

How quickly 14 years passes.

Stepping out the front of Norton Hospital, the sun was now peeking down the street; the sound of cars honking echoed off the tall buildings; the smell of diesel from transit buses wafted by, then was absorbed in the evaporating exhaust fumes; people bustled down the sidewalk, hurrying to get work on time; a driver with her window down complained aloud about the traffic.

Life moved on, without hesitation, relentlessly — just like it had 14 years ago.

And I wondered, and still don’t know exactly, what led me to retrace the steps of a 14-year-old path.

I do know this: sometimes we have to travel certain roads again, perhaps not all of them, but at least some of them, for they serve as markers of where we’ve been, even if they don’t always tell us what that part of the journey meant. We best make our way through them without getting bogged down in them, so they don’t become roadblocks on our journey. But if we try to bypass them, suppress them, attempting in the process to cauterize the memories, so that we no longer feel the pain they can bring, we risk scorching the opportunities for a fruitful future, as foggy and uncertain as the road ahead may appear. When we erase patches of our past, our direction forward becomes skewed. Anesthetizing ourselves from hurts and pain can make us numb to the very people the Lord has brought alongside us as our traveling companions.

Even as we look back with tear-stained cheeks, we can grasp the hand of the one beside us and step forward with a smile of hope on our face.

“Have a blessed day,” I tell the lady in the exit booth as I drive out of the hospital parking garage.

“You too, sir,” she says. “And have a good day.”

It already had been one, in its own way.

Contact David Whitlock, Ph.D., at drdavid@davidwhitlock.org. or visit his website, davidwhitlock.org.