Chimes in the Snow

Chimes in the Snow

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

Chimes in the Snow

Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.

William Congreve

“That boy’s going to die and he knows it,” said one of the other nurses. “Look at his eyes. Why can’t they do something?”

I’d been looking into those eyes for days. Twelve-year-old John had a ruptured appendix with major complications, not something we expected to kill a child with the kind of antibiotics available. But he continued to deteriorate, gangrene set in, and the smell of death crept in, in spite of all our efforts.

I glanced out of the ICU window. All I saw was a strange, gray world with little color except the narrow houses smashed next to other tall, narrow houses perched on the edge of steep hills. The houses looked as if they’d tumble down with the slightest wind from a passing cardinal’s wing. Clouds stretched across the sky like dirty rags.

It was the late 1970s and my husband, Karl, had taken a new job as a respiratory therapist in Butler, Pennsylvania. We moved ourselves and children across the country from the north Texas prairie to a small industrial steel town, and I went to work in the local hospital.

At first I loved the hills, being from flat land, and the tree colors during Indian summer made me want to get out paints and capture everything on canvas. But snow came in October, and it never left. Streets turned black and gray as the city sprinkled coal dust on the snow for traction. I missed the wide-open, warm Texas skies.

And I dreaded going to work.

Tension laced through the ICU like we’d all been caught in a net. Our young patient’s parents and physician had the same glazed looks of disbelief that said, “How can this be happening? Why is this happening?” and the unspoken question, “How can God not help him?” We had strict visiting rules in the ICU at that time, but we broke them all, letting his parents stay around the clock.

The entire staff of the ICU took turns staying with John and his parents so that a nurse was at his bedside, touching his hand at all times. John’s parents looked at us with eyes that asked, “What can we do? What did we do wrong?”

Every time I looked at John, I saw my son, Jeff, almost the same age. I pictured Jeff sick and me helpless. I could hardly stand it.

Other nurses felt the same way. We tried not to get too involved with our patients; the emotional toll could be too great. But detachment didn’t always work.

“I’ll come in early; I can’t sleep anyway.”

“Tom has to work this evening, I can stay late with John.” Some nurses volunteered to work past their time to leave and others came in early. We couldn’t stand the idea of leaving him alone and we were frustrated by our inability to change the situation.

John didn’t make it, in spite of our efforts. He died at 5:00 PM and I worked the rest of my shift on autopilot. The normal back-and-forth bantering that keeps the ICU tension at bay died with John. All of us worked, doing what we had to do, saying little.

As medical professionals we knew we couldn’t save all of our patients. But death should have exceptions. It should never come for children.

I can’t keep doing this, I thought. The ICU is too hard. It’s like I watch my own children die over and over.

I walked home that night, seeing a gray world, trapped hundreds of miles from family, smothered by hills that closed in more tightly each day.

Just as I reached our little blue house, music rang out from the small church across the street. That seemed strange. The chimes never played at night. I turned around when I reached the top of the stairs to the porch. Just as I looked at the church, a full moon slipped from behind the ragged clouds and lit the snow with a blinding glow. The light glinted from the stained-glass windows and shone off the cross on the steeple. Stars winked between the clouds.

I wasn’t deserted and neither was John or his family. God was with them and with me. I had to accept life as it was, full of hope and of mystery, things we’d never understand. I’d found new eyes by which to view my world.

Gazing around, I saw the beauty in the snow, the hills, and in God’s plan. It’s there if we look for it . . . in the flash of a bird’s wing, the smile of a child, and in the sound of a chime.

Over the next forty years of nursing, when my sight got clouded again—and it did—I simply listened for the chimes in the snow and my vision became clear.

Carol Shenold

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