You're out of practice, I scolded myself as I drove home from the hospital, you're not doing this sort of thing enough any more.
What I had left behind in the hospital resembled nothing so much as the Book of Job -- a beautiful woman, newly married to a kind and equally handsome man, lying in a coma, her unseeing eyes half open, the force of her machine-assisted breathing jerking her head with each whoosh of the respirator. This was all horribly familiar to her husband, who had been there before: his first wife had died of cancer in her early thirties, leaving him with two young children. And to her parents, who had buried their only son just last year. Oh, my God, the father said when the phone rang at five in the morning last week, going from dream to waking nightmare in the time it took to answer it. The unthinkable was happening again. Oh, my God.
I met her boy in the elevator: tall, skinny, thirteen, carrying a pizza. It was suppertime, and of course you always eat supper with your mom. She can't talk to me, ask me how was school, ask me if I did my homework. She can't eat anything. She can't even breathe on her own.
We prayed. Come and lay hands on her with me, I said, they all came to touch her knee, her shoulder, her hand. Kindly they came, kindly to me, as if to be polite to the priest, and I prayed ineptly for healing, complete restoration because that was what we all wanted, fearful all the while of raping what remained of their hope but unwilling not to name the longing of all our hearts. There would be time enough for the cold comfort of the hard facts. I prayed for a miracle without saying the word. Let your spirit, by whose power you formed the brain and all its mysteries, flow through our hands. Let me recede and you come forth in might. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One, have mercy upon us.
We need a miracle, her mother said simply as we sat in the coffee shop.
I don't know what else to do but pray and I will pray many times a day and so will the church, I said, and she nodded and I felt useless.
God changes things, she said firmly, and I nodded, wishing he would change this one. She told me about their wedding. About the kids. About her recent promotion and perfect physical examination.
Fifteen minutes without oxygen. You get six or maybe eight before irreversible damage occurs. But maybe it wasn't fifteen. Maybe somebody counted wrong. Maybe the CPR her husband administered when he found her brought enough oxygen into her lungs to hold the place of her personality in her brain until the swelling goes down. Maybe there's tissue alive in there, waiting.
Bring an unanxious presence into the room. Bring calm. Bring hope. I kept taking peoples' hands and saying I was sorry, saying I would continue to pray, that I would return, and I saw an answering kindness toward me in their eyes that filled me with a sense of my own inadequacy. Let the priest think she's doing some good. Let her think she's bringing hope. Be kind. Be a team player.
I was inept. Inane at times, or so it felt. My inadequacy was all I brought into the room because that was all I had, and it was on display for all to see. But this visit was not about me. Their minds were on other things.
I have always been critical of Job's three comforters. They said such conventional things, such inane things. They made Job feel worse, not better. They refused to go deeper. But now I examined my own performance and felt more charitable toward them. They went as deep as they could. They did their best. Nothing they could have said would have produced what they wanted: the comfort of their friend, the turning of his sorrow into gladness. Only the love of God and the passing of time can do that.