Spinning in the ICU

by Susan Palwick

My friend Michelle lies on a bed in the ICU, her head thrown back, mouth open, breathing audibly. Two days ago, when she was disconnected from the ventilator, no one knew how long she’d keep breathing. She has pneumonia, so the nurses say it probably won’t be long now, and they say that’s a blessing. People in Michelle’s condition—a persistent vegetative state—often survive longer than anyone wants them to.

The doctors and nurses have been very careful to explain that Michelle isn’t brain dead. The only part of her brain that’s still functioning, though, is the brainstem. Her body still performs automatic reflexes: breathing, coughing, blinking. But she has no higher brain function, no consciousness that we can detect, no “I.” The people closest to her believe that she wouldn’t want to live this way, so they’ve agreed that the doctors will take no heroic measures.

She’s only three years older than I am, a former student turned administrative assistant for one of the writing programs at my university. I saw her just a few weeks ago, and she was her usual bright, energetic self. She’d just started reading one of my novels. She told me how much she was enjoying it.

Then I went out of town for a few days, and when I came back, I learned that she was in the hospital. She was diabetic, and she was admitted because of trouble with her blood sugar, but then she had a seizure, and she aspirated—inhaled some food or liquid into her lungs, which is what caused the pneumonia—and then she stopped breathing, and by the time the code team resuscitated her, her brain had been without oxygen for at least fifteen minutes. And now she’s here, in a persistent vegetative state in the ICU.

I’m here too, because when I e-mailed her best friend, another former student, to ask how I could help, the friend said, “She’s always loved your writing. Would you go to the hospital and read to her?”

So I did. I read her one of my short stories, and I read her the rest of the book she’d started. Her friend told me, “She loved the book, but she was worried about the characters. I want her to know they’ll be okay.”

I’ve been here every day, reading aloud. Sometimes other people are here too; sometimes we think we see her respond to a word, a touch. She blinked! Michelle, blink if you can hear us. She blinked again! But she’s still blinking. Michelle, stop blinking if you can hear us. No: she’s still blinking.

A priest has been here to give last rites. Michelle wasn’t very religious, but some of her friends are. A rosary is wrapped around one limp hand. Her closest childhood friend flew in from Texas to spend the night on a cot in her ICU cubicle, to say goodbye. He left a bright stuffed animal on the bedside stand. A picture of another friend is tucked under her arm. Someone painted her toenails a bright, pretty blue, teasing her all the while, as the ventilator—still connected, then—hissed in its implacable rhythm.

Yesterday, I finished reading my novel to Michelle. I’m tired of reading, so instead I spin. I started spinning just a little while ago—in fact, I learned on that trip I took out of town — and although I’m not good at it yet, it’s a soothing activity, perfect for a hospital room. I spin cotton thread on a takli, a small metal spindle that fits easily in my purse. The takli is Indian in origin, the same spindle Gandhi sometimes used, and when I was researching cotton spinning in India, I came across a lovely article on the spirituality of spinning.

Spinners draw a fine, twisted thread out of a mass of fiber, cotton or wool. A triangle of fiber from the mass converges at the point where the loose fiber becomes thread. The article I read compared this point to the moment of passage from life into death, from time into eternity.

I think of that as I spin, as I listen to Michelle’s labored breathing. I watch the point of passage in my own spinning, and I think that Michelle is just at that point, too: and I think that this is sacred time. All of the tokens her friends have left—the nail polish, the photographs, the toys—are sacraments, visible signs of love. We have acted in faith even though we don’t know if Michelle can see or hear us. We don’t know if she’s still here, but every day when we leave, we give her permission to leave, too, just in case she needs to hear it.

I’m alone here today. I’m tired. I put away my spinning, kiss Michelle’s forehead, and tell her it’s okay to go. And then I go too, back home.

I plan to visit again the next day, but Michelle dies that morning, finally and fully. All of the breathing has stopped. All that is left is our love for her and hers for us, those fibers of feeling spun into a thread, thin but strong, that will connect and hold all of us through this hard time, into eternity.

This article received the 2013 Award of Merit for Theological: Devotional/Inspirational from the Associated Church Press.

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