Larry's Hospital Room

Copyright (c) 2002 by Kenny Felder

When I walked into the hospital room yesterday, I had to stop myself from gasping at the way Larry looked. All the hair had been shaved off the front of his head, leaving a mop of curly hair that looked like a bad toupee badly glued onto the back. A long, obvious scar ran across his forehead. He needed a shave. And yet his facial expression—always somewhere between a smile and a laugh—still looked exactly like I remembered it.

Seven months ago, Larry was (as far as he knew) a perfectly healthy man in his early 40s. He has bachelor’s degrees in both music and math education, a Master’s degree in theological studies, and a Ph.D. in Physics, which he taught in a University in Chicago. He is happily married. On February 8, he was diagnosed with a malign brain tumor. He had surgery on February 12, but the tumor could not be removed. It took four days to go from "perfectly healthy man" to "maybe a year to live."

So, in characteristic fashion, Larry put together a Web page about it. He explained that he was dying. The brain tumor had the effect of suppressing his emotional reactions, so the tone was somewhat flat. But his personality still came through: the Web page was technical ("Glioblastoma multiforme: This grade IV astrocytoma is a poorly differentiated, rapidly growing tumor that occurs most often in adults"), it had a sense of humor ("this may be the brain tumor talking"), and it was religious ("I've always known I was mortal, like 100% of every preceding generation. But I'm also immortal and wish to live out my life in light of that fact as well. May our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, bless you in all His ways.")

By the time I saw Larry in the hospital yesterday, he had deteriorated far beyond the man who wrote that Web page (which his wife is now maintaining with regular updates). For the most part, he lay still while his wife and I chatted about the tumor, about flaws in the hospital system, about religious hypocrisy. Larry raised himself up and gasped out a sentence, one slow word at a time. "" His brain was not capable of forming words and sentences easily, but he wanted us to know that he was paying attention and enjoyed hearing us talk. And he obviously was, as he demonstrated when we got to a subject nearer and dearer to his heart: math teaching. I said something about an advanced high school math student using a calculator to subtract 26–24. Larry spit his words out again: "" He was smiling as he said it, obviously finding such students annoying and amusing at the same time.

Susan told me about the last time Larry had seemed really coherent. Some orderlies had been moving him, and had gotten confused about the proper way to treat his legs. Larry sat up and said "Look, let me explain it. The left leg has a clot. The right leg..." and so on. Larry’s mind can still work lucidly—but the only thing that seems to bring out his verbal abilities is pain.

Larry leaned over to me and asked "Do you...remember...when I taught...your...electronics...lab?" Of course I did, I told him. In one lab report I wrote that I was "Kirkoffing." He wrote in the margin: "Verbing even proper nouns, I see!"

He smiled again. "Your...lab reports...were always...a" He looked almost confidential as he told me he had given me an "A" for being clever and funny. He probably also remembers that I was completely incompetent in the lab, but he politely neglected to mention it.

As I left, I told Susan "Please let us know if there is anything we can do to help." "We’ll put you on the list," she replied. Susan seems to have a bit of Larry’s sense of humor. But the biggest thing they have in common is complete faith that when Larry dies, as he almost surely will in a few months, his soul will rise to heaven and eventually be joined by Susan. They know that, despite all the suffering they are going through, things are working out exactly the way they are supposed to. They know it will be OK in the end. And they almost certainly do not know, as they sit there in the hospital room—Larry in his propped-up position on the bed, Susan in her permanent station by the window—how much I envy them both.

Larry Martin died just a few weeks after I wrote that essay.

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