It had been years since I'd been to the hospital that our lives centered around for so long. Finally, I felt ready. Eager, even. Our last visit was to see the memorial plaque that had recently been installed in honor of Greg in the hospital's "healing garden". We were escorted by the kind woman who had coordinated the purchase and installation over email. We met at security and though her face was partially obscured by an N-95 mask, I could tell from her eyes that she was smiling sympathetically. After all, whose heart wouldn't be moved at the sight of my young son showing up to see a plaque in memory of his deceased dad? It was a brief but meaningful visit. The healing garden had been our oasis during long hospital stays and it felt right to have Greg's name etched in stone and mounted on the wall. He was gone, but he would be remembered. The plaque made sure of that.
Since that visit, I've driven past the towering hospital less than a handful of times and each time brought a stab of sorrow to my heart. We'd spent so much time within those walls over a period of 12 years. There had been trips to the emergency room, test after test, procedure after procedure, and surgeries of all kinds. We'd met wonderful medical professionals and a few uncaring doctors. We'd seen terrible things and witnessed acts of love and heroism. Our time in the hospital had shaped us profoundly. Every time we left, we walked out changed in some way.
Many of my memories are painful but some are sweet: Bringing our infant son to meet the heart transplant team for the first time and watching their eyes light up as they met the boy whose life was made possible when they saved his daddy. Running into nurses years after Greg's transplant and getting a big hug from the women who felt like family and had been a life-line to us during a horrible time. Following behind our toddler as he confidently waddled his way through hospital corridors to the Panera where he would eat a bagel and drink chocolate milk while waiting for his daddy to be ready to go home.
Those sweet memories filled my mind as I drove to the hospital and entered the familiar parking deck. We were going to a place that felt like home - a place that held so much of our history and so many pieces of the puzzle that explains why our family is what it is.
I didn't expect to find it so changed. The transplant patient parking spots - literally the only perk to being in the transplant program - had been turned into general spots. It was a seemingly insignificant detail but it felt jarring after years of parking in the row with "Transplant Patient Only" signs - a nod to our lives being extra hard so we might as well be able to park close to the entrance.
The entrance itself was far more reminiscent of the hospital during the pandemic than any of our visits beforehand. A decade before visitors were restricted, I'd snuck our cat into the hospital late at night (with full support from his awesome nurse) to visit Greg was stuck there as he waited for a heart... or death. Now, no one could enter without being questioned. A security guard stopped us, inquiring about our plans and making sure we were following the strict visitor protocol - the same proticol that made life so horrible in 2020 when Greg was hospitalized during a pandemic and our son wasn't allowed to visit him. Memories of those days came flooding back: restricted hours, no way to talk to doctors or be there when they did their rounds, no oportunity for my husband so see his little boy that he missed so much. It was a dreadful, confusing and scary time. I wouldn't wish that scenario in anyone.
I'd hoped to take our son to get a bagel and chocolate milk for old times sake but quickly realized we weren't going to have a walk down memory lane. A new visitor policy enacted just hours before restricted access to people 12 and older and my son didn't make the cut. The security guard took pity on us when he heard we were there to see a plaque in memory of my husband and we gratefully walked in, knowing that the visit needed to be quick. The second security guard to accost us was far less kind and took no pity on us but I wasn't taking no for an answer and he finally let us go.
I'm not usually one to break rules but being back in the place that made the last month of my husband's life so terrible gave me determination that I don't usually have. They hadn't prepared us for my husband's death. The least they could do was let my son in to honor his dad's life.
We took the elevator up one floor and quickly walked down the hallway toward the garden...passing the ICU waiting room where I'd sat, heart pounding, as I waited to hear if Greg had survived surgery. Passing the family consultation room that we'd been ushered into on the day we found out Greg would need a heart transplant. With no time to linger, we rushed past as long-forgotten memories raced through my mind.
I breathed a sigh of relief that the doors to the garden weren't locked and we were able to slide in without anyone stopping us.
While I searched for Greg's plaque, our son started doing what he'd always done in that place - running around, climbing over stone walls, and throwing oddly shaped seeds from the lovely trees to see if they would burst. Seeing him respond with muscle memory to this special place was surreal - like being transported back to a time when Greg was upstairs and we'd soon join him once our boy got some energy out. Not wanting to draw undue attention, I reluctantly told him to stop and we took a few pictures before making a quick exit.
We drove home sharing memories with each other. I'm grateful that most of his are good. We talked about the time we almost fell down the escalator together, the fountain he loved as a little boy that had been turned into planters for fake plants and our little "dates" to get a bagel. We spoke of visits to daddy, playing in the outdoor kid area, and the time a helicopter landed on the helipad while he played in a fake helicopter nearby.
It's a part of our life we don't often revisit but one that formed us both in many ways.
Going back was far harder and way less fun than I'd hoped but it was still good. The hospital is as much our story as the home we live in and the small town our son was born in.
And every day, wether we visit or not, there's a plaque in a garden that reminds all who visit that Greg was there and his life matters.