Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number sixteen. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.
Frankie was in his late-twenties and just discovered he had brain cancer. The bad kind. As if there’s any other.
His wife was in the room. They were sure he could beat this: but can you really be sure?
Frankie had a smile the size of Texas; his speech was slurred from the pain meds but he was cracking jokes in that quiet room. He was genuinely funny. I couldn’t believe how funny he was even with all the tubes sticking out of him and half his head shaved from the biopsy and his tongue made of mush. He wanted to yank out those tubes and get back to work. I wanted to help him.
They kept talking about the future like it was a sure thing. “I’ll be fine,” Frankie said, and his wife: “He’s tough, he’ll be okay.” Part of my Chaplaincy Radar was sure that this was a bad idea, because cancer is an unpredictable monster, and I wanted them to confront the grief with honesty. But the other part of me wanted to feed the hope. Keep with the jokes, you know, keep it light and easy, and I’ll bring the pom-poms.
These are the harder visits, when no one wants to talk about the thing they’re going through. I know that positive energy is a good thing, and we need affirmation and good vibes for good health: but this sort of suppression is like covering a pot of boiling water with your hands, and the more you try to cover it, the more it burns you up and the more likely you’ll explode all over the kitchen.
I have to wonder how many patients go through those doors that stay tight-lipped about their grief, that don’t reveal their conditions to their families and employees, that don’t have a space to say how hard it really is. Even when a patient wants to talk to a chaplain, the second a chaplain is there: it’s like they’re suddenly naked, as if sickness is weakness or sharing is for kids. You know, like when you call a friend for help and they get back to you a couple hours later, and you get flushed and hot and say, “Oh yeah, never mind about that, I’ll be fine.”
I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.
Someone saying “I’ll be fine” sets off huge warning bells in my head now. It’s possible that yes, the prognosis will be fine or that the family will be fine or that the job will be fine. The person might really be fine, and I don’t want to take away from that. But so often the “I’ll be fine” bass-drop feels like a shield, or they were indoctrinated in the language of “stay positive,” and their smile is held up by clothespins between two cliffs over a chasm. Letting go of the clothespins is letting go of control, and most people hate that. It’s also the most freeing thing we can do.
Frankie asked me to pray for him, so we held hands together and I prayed.
I started with something like, “God, this is really scary.” And without looking, I knew they were crying.
Someone had said it for them. The thing no one wants to say. That sickness is scary, and a good prognosis in the hospital is like catching the sun while you’re drowning. I had to name it. Sometimes I hate being that guy, the one who rips off the band-aid. But I always thank that guy later. Band-aids are temporary, and you need the open air to do its work.
Afterward, Frankie’s wife took me outside the room and said Frankie’s brother had just committed suicide. She wept, and of course, I wept, too. Maybe that explained the humor. That explained the I’ll be fine. I knew they needed that.
I had to be the guy who said, “It’s fine that it’s not fine.”
They needed that, too.