The Robe

Glimpsing God in the Ordinary

by Bill Holmes

A few years go my gastroenterologist told me that I needed to see a surgeon. There was a lesion in my colon that needed to come out. The biopsy was negative but both the lesion’s position and my age shadowed problems ahead. I consulted an oncologist friend of mine. “Get this done. What are you waiting on?” Well, my surgeon had a well-deserved vacation planned. I wanted a well-rested surgeon probing the depths of my abdominal cavity. The surgeon’s office called with a date and time. My cardiologist sent a letter of permission to “anesthetize and surgically treat.” Everything was set.

What now? Of course, in the hospital you need a robe, don’t you? Unless, of course, I wanted to walk down the hospital corridor with my less-than-pleasing rear end showing through the open hospital gown that never fits and never ties shut. The last robe I purchased was in July 2002 before heart valve surgery. I live at night in what my wife calls “lounging pants” and an undershirt. That is hard to do in the hospital where the medical team wants quick access to every part of your body.

It was off to the shopping mall to find a decent looking robe. Macy’s had only one in stock. It looked like one my grandfather wore. Sears had none that I would want to be caught dead in—and I intended to live! On to the expensive place, Von Maur! Even the name causes my wallet to duck. There it was: navy blue with a thin white trim. More than I wanted to pay, but a quick check on my Amazon iPhone app told me that it wouldn’t be cheaper online.

“May I help you?” The clerks in the men’s department always look neatly dressed, professional. His shirt looked to be a size too large, loose around his neck, but nonetheless neat. “Yes, I need a robe and this one looks good to me,” I said. His reply came softly as from one who was quite tired, “That one may be a little warm this time of the year.” Almost without thinking I mumbled, “Not in the hospital.” That was his cue. He then told his story of just returning to work after two months in the hospital. The colon cancer had spread throughout the regional lymph nodes, invaded his stomach and the tail of his pancreas. “They said they had done all they can do. They will scan me in six months. I came back to work this week.” It was then I understood the poorly fitting shirt. His thin neck, sallow complexion, and sunken eyes attested to the veracity of his cancer story.  For the next ten minutes he told me more of his story. It was déjà vu, as I had heard that story hundreds of times, each with subtle differences. Perhaps he was the reason I went robe shopping that day—perhaps he needed someone to hear his story, someone who could say, “Yes, I understand.”

Finally he asked me why I was going to the hospital. I felt like an imposter because I knew (at least I think I knew) that my problem had been caught early, and my shirts would probably fit okay in two months.

Three days after my surgery the surgeon informed me that the lesion was indeed early cancer, but the margins were clear. The robe hangs on the door of my closet, reminding me of that day when during a more than chance encounter a fellow traveler needed to tell his story. The robe was just the vehicle to move us both into a sacred space. I am reminded that there is indeed a thin space where we glimpse God, or in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God.”

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