I recently had the privilege of spending much time with my “extended family” as they sat in the ICU waiting room day after day awaiting word on the condition of their son. Randy, a healthy and virile 37-year old, had been like a son to me for 24 years. He had left home the previous morning via a back road heading towards the Interstate. He had worked for his company for several years and although he had only recently moved “to the country” to escape the concrete jungle better known as Dallas, he knew the route by memory and could have driven it with his eyes closed.

This particular morning we assume his eyes were open, but in the end we may never know. He left home at 8 am according to his roommate and by 8:10 a.m. he had crossed the country road into oncoming traffic (thankfully there was none at the present time). His truck somehow connected with a wire fence (we’ve been told that Randy may never remember any of this, so I have no explanation for how this happened) and ripped it out of the ground as he continued on his way. After hitting a tree, rolling his truck several times and catapulting through the windshield, he ended up in a field not visual from the road. Therefore he lay there for over 30 minutes before a passerby saw his limp body, called 911, and set actions in motion for Randy to be carefllighted to the county hospital. His insurance information was in his desk at his house – not in his wallet.

By now many of you will be thinking “oh, how sad.” Yes, it is. But let’s delve deeper. Randy lay in the hospital until after 6 PM that night as no one knew who to contact. The Highway Patrol only had his drivers’ license, and that of course gave no “in case of emergency notify….” information. Thankfully, one of the local Highway Patrol returned to Randy’s residence and left his card on the door, with a note attached to notify anyone in the house of Randy’s whereabouts. His roommate was the first to get the message, his father the second, his mother the third and so on. One by one family members were faced with the fact that their son had been alone in the hospital since early morning, in critical condition with not one family member there to be of comfort.

The irony to this story is the fact that Randy’s mother and I attended a memorial service for the daughter of a dear friend of ours earlier this same week. She had suffered from manic/depressive disorder for nearly three years and could no longer bear the pain. She had chosen to take her life instead. Before the memorial service began, my friend leaned over to me and said “I can’t even imagine what she is going through – what if this were my daughter or son who had taken their life? I don’t think I could live through it.”

Such a simple yet loving remark. We sympathized, we wanted to help the mother of the deceased – our friend who we had known for many years – but until you walk that walk, there’s a lack of understanding that can’t be denied. And yet my friend felt the need to make that remark. And within the week, she found herself sitting in the ICU unit fearing the same end result.

The life of Randy hangs in the balance at this time. He has been on life support since his entry into the hospital. Little things continue to cause hope for the family (blood pressure rising) and others force them to consider the unthinkable (pulse rate falling). They put their jobs on hold, praying for understanding bosses, as they wait daily in a small cramped waiting room hoping for a few moments of the doctor’s time at unpredictable times of day. Friends call, and family from afar sends love, but in the end it’s the core family who knows the feelings of the waiting. The pain – the unanswered questions – and the fear of the unknown.

I’ve been so privileged to be included in this family’s agony, and yet it’s made me turn again to the caregivers who I’ve come to know in the past year and a half. My thoughts center on them as I spend hours in the ICU waiting room holding the hand of my friend, or her daughter, or the roommate, or whoever needs the most support at the moment. I think of caregivers who have tended to loved ones for lengthy periods of time. I think of those who have reached “burnout” stage and want more days a week “out of the house.” I think of those who have other family members who may not be receiving the amount of quality time from the caregiver due to responsibilities with their ill one. All sorts of circumstances pass through my mind as I sit hour after hour trying to be positive with those I love, while internally I realize that even “if” Randy survives, there is a good chance that he will never be the same. This comes from the doctors, not me.

I am no longer a caregiver, as many of you know. Not in the terms of caring for a loved one who is terminally ill. But is that truly what a caregiver is? Those of you who are changing diapers several times a day, preparing meals for one who can’t get out of bed or directing Hospice as to what is needed for a particular day – you are truly what we think of when we mention the word “caregiver.”

However, I wish all of you would look beyond the one to whom you’re caring for and realize that every single loved one, every single family member and perhaps every single friend who is important to your life is a part of the caregiving process. It’s understandable that caregivers would concentrate on their ill loved one and merely hope that other family members and friends will be taken care of by a Higher Power. That’s what prayers are for, and a large majority of caregivers do turn their loved ones over to that Higher Power on a daily basis. But for those who don’t, or for those who are so caught up in their responsibilities or concerns for one person in particular, please let this story serve a purpose.

We all have family, or have had in the past. Many of us are blessed by having friends close enough to be called “family.” Are any of those people really less important than the one person to whom you devote most of your time? We find it so easy to take those for granted who are healthy, functioning family members or friends. But in less than five minutes one of those can lose that health forever. We all need to realize that when any loved one or friend exits the back door each morning, it may be our only chance to say anything that will be the last words they remember as having heard from you. Whether it be “I Love You” or “have a good day” or “call me when you have time,” the words are interchangeable but the thoughts are not.

Please don’t let a loved one leave your presence with the hope that they will be reunited with you after work, after golf, after a shopping trip, or after any absence which could result in a permanent departure. “LOVE” is such a small word – but perhaps has the largest meaning of any word in the human language.

Patti St. Clair