On the way to the hospital, I knew in my gut, but I had yet to hear anyone say the words. It’s a funny thing, words. They have the power to create new realities, and their absence allows all sorts of hope and possibility to nestle their way into hopeless and impossible situations. Maybe, I thought, the look on Tracey’s face meant that he’d be paralyzed. I could handle paralyzed. Perhaps she was told “permanent brain damage.” I knew it was selfish to think that permanent brain damage was preferable to death, that at least we’d still have him with us, but Kyle with us, in whatever state, seemed infinitely better than us without Kyle.
At various times in my life I have had very vivid, lucid, dreams. Maybe this was one of those?
I’m someone driven by anxiety. You wouldn’t know it unless you’ve worked with me or seen me up close, but it defines my way of being in the world. (If you are familiar with the Enneagram system, I’m a textbook 6.) A component of this anxiety is always having in the back of my mind (if I’m healthy– if I’m in an unhealthy place, it is at the forefront of my mind) the worst possible outcomes of any situation. From a young age I have spent much of my thinking time imagining what it would be like if people close to me died. I think about their funerals, what I would say at them, how I would compose myself. I tried to figure out how I would cope without them, how I would honor their memory, how I would move forward.
Disturbing, I know.
Yet over the years there have been a small number of friends for whom I could never let my mind wander to that place. They were off-limits in this weird, sick, imaginary death world. As soon as my mind entered the borderlands of those storied realms for these people, I cut the thought-process off with a simple and firm, “No.”
Kyle was one of those people. And there I was in his minivan, driving to the hospital, knowing but not knowing, trying to interpret the look on Tracey’s face I had seen a few minutes before, hoping that instead of what I knew in my heart to be true, that he instead “just” had brain damage.
When I pulled into the parking lot of the Emergency Room at Hillcrest Baptist Hospital, the looks on the faces of UBC’ers who were gathered outside did not read “brain damage” or “paralysis.” They read disbelief, shock. There were about a dozen people outside, and as I walked toward the door I received a few embraces, and more than a few looks of concern.
Inside the lobby of the emergency room was a scene that suggested the chaos was subsiding, everyone now processing what they had seen and heard, some trying to figure out what to do next. There were local pastors, colleagues of Kyle who had gone to the hospital to give assistance to the many UBC’ers who had congregated. There were Baylor officials and professors, people who had known Kyle since he was a student in the early 1990’s. There were UBC’ers and people I didn’t recognize.
I was ushered first into the room where the family had gathered. Jen was on the floor, immobile, in shock. Kyle’s parents were greeting people through their tears. Shirley, his mom, saw me and ran to embrace me. His sister, Christy, joined her and they said they told me about one of their last conversations with Kyle, two nights before during their time at Bosque. They were talking about friendship, how difficult it is to make and keep close friends the older you get, and were naming the handful of people who they could legitimately say were their friends. Christy asked Kyle who some of those people were, and my name was the first person he mentioned.
The glazed over look that had been cemented on my face for the previous two hours shattered into an ocean of sobs.
After I don’t know how long, as I was trying to compose myself, Ben, our community pastor, came in with a lady who was serving as a hospital chaplain and asked if I wanted to see him. I did. The chaplain, along with my friend and co-worker Carol, who had come to the hospital to give me support, walked me down a hallway, one on each side, as if propping me up. Once we got to the door, the chaplain and Carol asked if I wanted them to come in with me. I told them both no, I needed to do it alone. The chaplain went in before me to give a heads up to the nurses who were working on preparing his body for transport to the funeral home.
As I stood there next to my friend lying on a table, I sobbed a low, guttural “No!,” as my face contorted like a child throwing a tantrum. Nurses stood on the perimeter of the room, looking down in order to give me the emotional space I needed.
I am not a mystic, and have no specialized expertise about what happens when we die. The philosophical and theological conversations about spirt/soul/body usually leave me scratching my head. As a believer, the immortality of the soul and the eventual resurrection of bodies are tenets that I confess and embrace, though I have no clue how any of that “happens.” Yet I have heard people say that when someone dies, their spirit doesn’t leave them immediately, but sometimes lingers around briefly before heading to wherever the next place is. I have no way of “knowing” if this is true, but it certainly felt true in that room. I couldn’t have said, as many people do, when pointing at his body that “That isn’t him, it’s just his body.” That was him. Just a few hours before, that was the person peeking his head around the corner, trying to get me to laugh.
He wasn’t there, but he was.