Monday, September 5, 2011

The Top Floor

There is a place in the hospital where I used to go to pray. Not quite in the hospital, but on the top of the parking garage. The top floor of the Green garage, to be precise, and to avoid confusion with the blue and the purple garage. I took the stairs from the place on the fourth floor where the walkways intersect, one headed to the purple garage and still more distant parking, the other to the blue. The Starbucks is squirreled away there between the walkway and the Bright building, where the outpatient clinic for the oncology department that James would have gone to receive treatment if he'd ever become well enough to be treated. We toured it once, and I remember looking forward to a day when James would spend only his days and not his nights at the hospital.

I took the stairs from the walkways to the top floor of the garage in the morning, after I'd grabbed coffee, double fisting venti skinny caramel macchiatos past a steady stream of doctors and nurses migrating from the garages to the hospital, bleary eyed with coffee in hand. Some would nod to me in some sort of unspoken recognition, as with my uncombed hair and inevitably stained shirts I looked exactly like what I was, someone who lived at the hospital.

At the top of the stairs I walked outside of the glass vestibule and its chilly air conditioned bubble onto the bare concrete roof of the garage, towards the edge of the railing where I rested the cups of coffee. The view was- is- spectacular, the whole Dallas skyline. The building I work in, all the others, gleaming in the sun. It was warm as well, a welcome respite from the sterile coldness of the hospital. More importantly, it was quiet. Of all the memories that have stayed with me from the hospital, one of the most enduring is of how loud the place was. Even with nothing going on, the constant whir of instruments and the steady beeping of vital signs never ceased, there was never a truly quiet moment. No one bothered to park on the top level of the garage though, so I could always count on it to be silent.

It was here that I prayed, removed from the air conditioning and the noise. I looked towards the skyline or to the interstate and begged God to heal my son. Some days I cursed him. I never close my eyes when I pray, I just think and stare into the distance, as if God will suddenly decide to stare back at me. The ritual of closed eyes and bowed heads always seemed strange to me, even as a child I couldn't imagine why God, if he was everywhere, need only be deferred to when I paid attention to him. Eyes wide open, I'd look around at those in prayer, wondering at their devotion.

Prayer does not come naturally me. There are some people for whom prayer is effortless, a natural effusion of their thoughts, feelings, and devotion. I am not one of those people. Even as a boy I remember being bored in Religion class in Catholic School, patient enough to learn the words but confused and annoyed that anyone would want to sit and say a rosary- sometimes more than once. I certainly did not have that kind of patience. Did God reward repetition? Nevertheless, like any good Catholic, the words of the Hail Mary were often used as a prophylactic litany against all manner of fears, from bad dreams to a call from the principal's office. Now and at the hour of our death, Amen. So it was strange to me to make prayer part of a conscious routine, a regular stop between the Starbucks and James' room, steaming coffees in hand. I do not remember the first time I went, or how the routine got started, or even why I decided I'd explore the top floor of the parking garage in the first place, it simply crept into my days.

I never stayed long there, never long enough for the coffee to go cold, just long enough to utter a few words and to pray for the life I wanted James to have, the one I hoped God was somehow preparing him for. The family I hoped he'd have, the teenage rebellions I hoped would be less damaging than my own. I remember thanking him when James' surgery was a success, and asking for more successes, small ones I hoped would build into larger ones. I ended each visit with the same request "Protect my family" I asked, over and over again.

Since James died, I have often asked myself why God didn't listen to me. I have wondered why he let my boy die. Why we lost him so suddenly, before we even had a chance to register at the outpatient clinic or anywhere other than hospice. James' time in hospice was even abbreviated, our schedule with the nurse never materialized, James died too soon for schedules. I have been angry.

The more I reflect on those prayers though, the less angry I am. There, alone, I could pour out my fears, my regrets, and my guilt. I could do something for James in praying for him that I never could do in the hospital, no matter how hard I tried, and just ask for him to be well. You can't ask a doctor that question- their concerns and your questions are more granular, what to do about the extubation or the meds James is getting. Wellness is part of a grander plan, one you are aware of but has very little to do with your day to day. Perhaps God didn't answer me as I hoped he would, with a healthy James. He knew of course, that James would never be well again. But he let me talk it out, there on the roof of the parking garage with my coffee. He let me bargain and wheedle, ask for miracles and cures. He gave me that place, away from the relentless action of the hospital to collect myself, and to talk to him. He did not answer my prayer literally, but he protected my family. He took James before he suffered through chemo, before spinal taps and IV drips of toxins became routine, knowing they would never work. He let me release all my fears, my guilt to him, so that I could care for James when he needed me most. He gave us all the support we could ask for, we were swarmed with people who cared. So I am not as angry as I was. I don't think I wasted my time at the parking garage. If anything, I am glad I went. I'm glad I prayed. Sometimes though, I still wish I'd received another answer. In a lot of ways, I'm still waiting for one.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I often find myself at a loss of understanding when it comes to prayer. Does it change things? Is God just a big ear without hands? Probably not. I think so often it boils down just as you said -- we get to be in relationship with God. And that is all the good we need in life, even if it's not always all the good we want.

  2. Thank you for sharing! Sometimes I don't understand unanswered prayers either. Praying for your family!!!!!

  3. Thank you for being so real and authentic, although I wish you didn't have to go through this. I pray for you all often even though we've never met. I am so terribly sorry.

  4. Total stranger who just wanted you to know that I read this and "heard" you. Praying for you.

  5. What a real, honest, raw post of your emotions! Thank you for sharing. What a blessing that we serve a Lord that can take our honesty, understands it, and will let us use it to bless other people...just like you have done here.

  6. Praying for you and your family also!

  7. What a great post, Matt. You do not struggle alone in understanding the ways of God, why He answers some prayers the way we want and others He does not. He always answers, but sometimes the answer is "No", and our finite human minds cannot comprehend why. Why would we put us through grief and pain? I wish I knew. I find myself constantly going back to Isaiah 55:8 - "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways." But we do know that there is a plan and a purpose for everything. It may be in Heaven when you fully understand it, or God may reveal it to you here. Keep searching, keep talking to Him....and us! You are always in our prayers.

  8. I believe you touched the hearts of hundreds of people with this single post. Thanks for sharing in such an honest way. I think of you all often and prayed for you this morning specifically, while on the treadmill and listening to Natalie Grant's song called "Held." I asked Jesus to hold you all even more tightly than He has ever held you before. I pray you can feel His presence with you each day.

    Much love,
    Stacie Smith

  9. I am so moved by you and your wife's full of courage and grace. This post is beautiful. Your son is beautiful, too, and your love for him. I will be praying for your family. My hope is that one day God will turn your sadness into eternal, overwhelming joy.
    Jessica (Pfister) Downing
    Hope to see you at Cinco's 10 year reunion...