Every hospital needs a garden

Most pastors have reason to visit the hospital with fair regularity, but last week my visit was different. Wearing street clothes instead of a collar, I went to Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga and found my way to Palliative Care. I quietly knocked on the door and found my friend K. leaning over the bed of her father. She was asking questions, watching for his responses and making sure he was comfortable.

After a few quiet greetings to the family gathered around the bedside, we crept out to the lounge. I knew that after a week of being at the hospital day and night K. would be tired, and that as her beloved father lay dying, she would be filled with sorrow. So I simply listened as she talked about camping together at Algonquin this summer, her dad’s quick decline, the hospital’s excellent care. “It’s surreal, isn’t it?” I asked, remembering my own mother’s death. “You know this day will come, but when it arrives it is nothing like you expected.”

It may be nothing like we imagine, but those last days and moments can be a precious gift. They are filled with the strange contrast of holy mystery and everyday practicalities. The seconds tick by one at a time and yet hours seem to disappear in the blink of an eye. Blessed is the family that gathers together, that creates a room filled with peace. Blessed are the dying who are surrounded with love as they journey from this world to the next. That’s how it was for my friend and her dad.

I liked R. He was a good man, a rock-solid father with a great sense of humour. He faithfully served the church all his life, adored his grandchildren and shared such a deep friendship with his wife that even after fifty years, they still enjoyed each other’s company immensely. He was a kind soul, and many will miss him when he’s gone.

On my way out of the hospital later that afternoon, I was thinking about all of these things. Hospitals, no matter in what city or country, are places of great emotion. They are full of people whose lives are upside down, people journeying through illness, healing, birthing and death. The rooms may be sterile but the lives are not.

Then, as I walked along the corridor, I noticed a window to my left. It was a huge wall of windows, almost floor to ceiling, and they looked down on a small courtyard. I stopped to look and discovered beautiful trees and shrubs that were obviously well cared for. There were paths for walking and benches to stop for a moment. Birds flitted about in the trees, and I noticed that some of leaves had begun to turn. The curved edges gave the gardens an unhurried feeling, and the mass plantings spoke of order and calm.

Yes, I thought to myself. That space is perfect for a hospital. It is an acknowledgment of all that is happening here, all that patients and families are feeling, all the life that is coming and going. That garden is an invitation to reflect, meditate, weep, or rejoice. It offers a spot to leave behind the constant buzz of machinery and talk about the most important things, to remember our connection to the whole of creation and the changing of the seasons. It is a space that speaks of life in all its richness.

I know about Horticultural Therapy, and about the growing trend toward including such green spaces into institutions like hospitals and prisons. I appreciate any hospital’s willingness to make such a large and beautiful investment in the emotional and spiritual well being of its families. The funny thing is that this week, I felt its importance for myself.

Standing there by those windows, I didn’t even have to go out into the courtyard to reap its benefit. I paused, took a deep breath and carried on, mindful of this world that is so beautiful and complicated, so full of life and death, friendship and love. I am blessed to take my place in it.

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