Instead, I get into an involved conversation with the patient about the aftereffects of his brain surgery.
It's as much of a conversation as you can have with somebody who has expressive aphasia; the tumor has left him unable to form complete sentences without a whole lot of effort, and he's still having trouble naming objects. Still, you can tell when something's bothering somebody, right? So I stuck around after I stuck his finger and let him fumble-talk.
We went through what to expect in terms of his recovery. He'll get his speech back--there was no permanent damage to his speech centers. What he said next surprised me.
"I don't want to die."
In one complete sentence, with no pauses.
There was a long pause. He finally looked at me, rolled his eyes, and sighed out one word:
"Oh," I said, "I get it."
"You don't know what's going to happen to you when you die?" I asked.
Then he said, "...Want...to...die..."
"Give me more" I told him.
"Want...to...die....Wife. Daughter. Other daughter. Forty...forty-three...have...own...things...not...be...like..." and he stopped. He waved one hand, taking in his body in the bed, the drains coming out of his skull, the lines and cords around him.
"You don't want to be a burden to them." I said, more certain of this than the last one.
"Yes" he said, definitely.
I was stuck. Theological discussion of what happens after death is not one of my skills. Four years at a Christian college left me with a complete uncertainty of who's going to hell and who's going to heaven (with a few notable exceptions) and totally unprepared to coax out the threads of the fear of God out of a man who could barely say his own name. Likewise, I couldn't be certain that he wouldn't be a burden, in the sense that we usually understand burdens: I couldn't assure him that he would be able to talk as well as he had in the past, or that he wouldn't need help, later on when the tumor came back, with such things as dressing and peeing.
He went on. I was going to stay at his bedside for as long as this took. There are more important things than checking blood sugars on somebody who's needed no treatment for them for a week, after all.
"My...wife. Saint. Never...not...doesn't...angry. Not a cusser. I...cuss." Again, the hand-wave.
Cussing is not, as far as I can tell, a problem for God. But cussing is not what this is about, not really. Cussing is a stand-in for all the things he's screwed up, all the times he had to kill somebody during his time in the Marines, all the things he could've done better. I know this, and I feel my heart break a little for him. There's so much in there that he wants to get out, and right now, at this time when it's so important to be able to confess his sins, his speech is tortured and elliptical.
I tell him, "God speaks in metaphors and without words. You don't need to have words to talk to God, and I don't believe that you've done anything worth going to hell for."
Then I remember: his wife told me how he still has nightmares about the man whose throat he cut, years ago, in some other country in some other conflict.
There were other things I said. I remember most of them, but they're not important to put down here. Some of them were funny. Some of them weren't.
Why, I raged at God, do You put me in these situations? You know I don't have the answers to why You do the things You do. You know I can't just sum up everything with some pat theological answer. You were the One who made me question every-damn-thing You do, and yet you present me with somebody who needs solace? Fuck you, God. Just... fuck You.
I drove home that morning with Neko blasting as loud as I could stand her, wondering if I had enough beer in the house to make a difference.