The hospital waiting room on the fourth floor at Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center in Anniston was empty and quiet. The only sounds were the dinging of the elevator in the distance and the clanging of the food cart as meal trays were being collected from the patients’ rooms down a nearby hallway.
While visiting with my father-in-law in room 416, I had taken a break and parked myself in a chair in the corner of the waiting room to check a few emails and respond to a few voice mails. That is when I heard it. The music started. I recognized the tune as Brahm’s “Lullaby.” I also knew what it meant. A baby had just been born on the third floor in the Labor and Delivery Unit.
As I sat wondering whether the baby was a boy or a girl, and imagining the excitement of parents and grandparents, I heard the elevator ding even as the lullaby continued to play. But rather than a food cart returning to continue the collection ritual, I saw a man in a dark suit pushing an empty stretcher covered with a velvet blanket. His identification badge indicated that he was not from the hospital but from Chapel Hill Funeral Home and he was there for a different kind of collection ritual. As he passed the waiting room and entered the oncology unit, the lullaby faded. And in my mind, a requiem began to play.
Now, I wondered whether the deceased was male or female, young or old. Was the patient a person of faith? Did the family have a support group? Did the person have a full and meaningful life? Or did this dreaded disease interrupt the life of one far too young?
Although I deal with a mix of emotions every day in my work as a pastor, I don’t recall such an abrupt and emphatic reminder that life exists in the juxtaposition between birth and death. A life had begun and a life had ended on the same day in the same place at almost the same time.
Coincidentally, earlier that morning, I had just completed outlining a sermon series about “Exploring the Meaning of Life” from the book of Ecclesiastes. In chapter 3 of this wisdom book we find the time poem, which includes the line stating that there is “a time to be born and a time to die.”
As I sat waiting for a biopsy to be performed on my wife’s dad I found myself reflecting on the span of one’s existence. Life is lived in this undetermined and unpredictable season between the lullaby and the requiem.
Every day is a gift, with no promise of tomorrow. The challenge is for us to discover meaning and purpose early on, and to spend our lives investing ourselves in consequential and influential acts of service rather than trivial pursuits. We have the opportunity to grow in faith, to build relationships, to explore the beauty of creation, to engage in a meaningful work, and to contribute to the well-being of others along the way.
When I left the waiting room to return to room 416, I noticed the stretcher, no longer vacant, departing room 422. The family had already gone. I watched respectfully as the man in the dark suit guided the gurney toward the elevator. And as he entered, two things occurred to me: 1) Someday that will be my body under the blanket, but not just yet, and 2) Obstetrics and Oncology are often only one elevator stop apart.
I suppose a person doesn’t have a lot of say so regarding when the lullaby announces the beginning of life’s journey and the requiem affirms the completion. But you and I do determine the song we will sing between the lullaby and the requiem. Sing it well!