One of my favorite all-time books is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I read it many years ago at the suggestion of one of my college English professors, and although I have not read it again since, the impression it made on me at the time was profound. It is rightfully recognized as an American and twentieth-century literary classic.
One of the most pivotal scenes in the book occurs when the plane of Yossarian, a bombardier in the U.S. Army during WWII, receives heavy anti-aircraft fire, resulting in the mortal wounding of the plane's gunner, a young man whose name is Snowden. As Yossarian attempts to assess and attend to Snowden's injuries, he realizes that they are so severe that Snowden is beyond saving, but he protects Snowden from that realization:
"'I'm cold,' Snowden said softly. 'I'm cold.'
'You're going to be all right, kid,' Yossarian reassured him with a grin. 'You're going to be all right.'
'I'm cold,' Snowden said again in a frail, childlike voice. 'I'm cold.'
'There, there,' Yossarian said, because he did not know what else to say. 'There, there.'
'I'm cold,' Snowden whimpered. 'I'm cold.'
'There, there. There, there.'"
Earlier in this scene when Yossarian first goes to Snowden's aid (by the way, note the absolute appropriateness of Snowden's name), he discovers a severe leg wound to which he applies a tourniquet. As Snowden complains of pain, Yossarian looks in vain for morphine to ease that pain. Then to his great horror as he continues caring for Snowden he discovers a ghastly abdominal wound--one that he knows the gunner cannot survive. All that is left is for him to cover the victim with a blanket and soothe him as best he can.
During the last few weeks and months I have found myself thinking of this scene and greatly empathizing with Yossarian. I don't mean to minimize the horror of the wartime situation--what I face is nothing like that--but it seems that more and more I find myself not knowing what else to say except "There, there." I am a mommy--I am used to kissing and bandaging "owies" and making things better. But I find that these days I just don't have the ability to make things better. I look at my mother lying severely injured in a hospital bed, and I can't turn back time to the moment before her crash, and I can't make those injuries heal any faster. I hear from friends who are going through some of the most trying times in their lives as they struggle with complicated family situations and financial challenges, and I don't have a solution to their problems. I look at my husband, who already has no time for recreation or exercise or the pursuit of his own personal goals, yet who for the sake of the family is adding additional income-generating activities to his schedule while he simultaneously takes college classes to please those who think he needs additional credentials to do the job he has been doing smashingly for almost 20 years now. And I feel equally helpless to lighten his load.
All I can do is offer a hug, a pat on the back, a warm blanket, and the words "There, there." And of course I can pray. But like Snowden I can't seem to ease the pain, and like Snowden I don't have solutions to the temporal problems faced by the people I care about. I know I'm not alone in feeling helpless to assist. Over the past week I have been touring skilled care facilities looking for an acceptable environment in which my mother can complete her rehabilitation and recovery. The first one I went to was simply unacceptable. The second one, although lovely, was very expensive and not accepting of Medicare. Yesterday I saw two more, both of which I found to be not merely suitable but quite excellent. After first one and then another admissions director told me that there were currently no beds available, I found it impossible to maintain my composure and started crying right there in the lobby. The kind woman who was assisting me offered her sympathy, but what could she say? She did not have an answer for me. "There, there."
I know that in time all of these things will pass and that the ultimate victory over sin, death and the grave has been won in the person of Jesus Christ. As I look to the cross I find peace in that assurance, and although I may not have the words to comfort my loved ones, I know that Christ does, and I entrust them to Him who is the only true comfort. But in the meantime the day is long and the path difficult, and I find myself wondering if and when the burden will get lighter, both for my dear ones and for myself.