The White Bags and the Ones that Hold Them


They were everywhere.  Some were held tightly to the chest as if the heart needed it close by.  Some were laying on the ground as if they were too heavy to hold. Mine was in the chair next to me.  The white plastic bag held my husband’s blue pajama pants I gave him a few Christmases ago and his Wake Forest sweatshirt.

They had been stuffed in the bag as he put on the surgical gown for his emergency appendectomy.  All that he came into the hospital with was now in that white bag.  My mind wandered past the front desk, down the hall, through the secured doors, and into the operating room where he lay on the surgical table.  A doctor himself, he was not the healer in this moment.  He was the one being healed.  And all I had of him was stuffed in a white plastic bag.

The minutes ticked by and my eyes began to wander to all the white bags that littered the room.  Each plastic bag stood for a patient back on a surgical table.  Each bag marked a family who was contemplating what life would look like without that person. The bags bulged with the worries, fears, and nightmares of the loved ones.  The bags held the tangible and intangible things the patients had left behind to go back to surgery – the reading glasses, sweaters, shoes, hopes, dreams, wounds, and struggles.

Some loved ones sat stone-faced in the chairs, unable to take their mind away from the severity of the moment.  Some relaxed with their feet up and iPads in hand to drown out the voices in their head.  One raucous group discussed cooking techniques for turkey and time for the family Thanksgiving meal.  Others laughed nervously over silly things to break up the weight of it all.

The front desk calls my name and relief begins to fill my heart as I make my way back to the recovery room.  Sitting in the small recovery room, I take in the joy of the moment as I get to see my beloved’s chest rising and falling as he breathes.  Sleep has won and his body is healing after the doctors have removed the cause of his pain.  As we marveled before surgery, this could have meant the end had he been born in another time and place.  For some who still clutch their white bags in the waiting room, today could mean the end.  Life is fragile and these human bodies are not guaranteed to hold up forever.  The only guarantee in life is that one day, our belongings will go in a white bag.

This reality can sometimes be too much to handle.  When I first had children, it was as if the exterior protecting of my heart was unlocked and thrown out with the afterbirth.  I became a sensitive bleeding heart and I remain one today for I know in a deeper way that with every beginning there will one day come an ending.  There are times when I see pain approaching and I sense this abyss out before me – a dark hole of sadness that threatens to consume me if I open my heart and mind to all the reality of our mortality.  The abyss is the collision of life’s greatest loves and life’s greatest pains.

Wendell Berry writes it this way in A Place on Earth, as Margaret Feltner describes the pain of grieving her son’s death to her husband, Mat…

“From the day he was born I knew he would die.  That was how I loved him, partly.  I’d brought him into the world that would give him things to love, and take them away.  You too, Mat.  You knew it.  I knew so well that he would die that, when he did disappear from us the way he did, I was familiar with the pain.  I’d had it in me all his life.”

As “Black Friday” approaches and the consumerism of the holiday machine tempts my mind to wonder about the tangible gifts of the season, may these white bags stay ever in my mind as reminders of the ones who still sit in the waiting room.  All those sitting in that waiting room are dancing around the abyss.  They are coming face-to-face with the bittersweet nature of this life.  Our capacity for love lives hand-in-hand with our capacity to suffer.  To know love for another is to know the pain of losing him or her.

Life is unpredictable, fragile, and brutal.  But the beauty of life can be found in the ones who hold the white bags – for they remind us of the LOVE that binds our lives together.  They are bursts of color and life that hold the white bags during the hard sobering moments.  May we be the brilliant colors for one another that make this life worth living and the pain worth bearing.

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