Resilient and Fragile: To Rise and Fall, In Reverse and Farewell


Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.


I did my first baptism ever, at the hospital, for twins who were just born.

Lisa and Aletha had a ton of complications. One had survived. The other had died. The mother had dropped out of college and had just been evicted. The mother’s grandmother had passed away the very same day from cancer. The twins’ father had fled; he couldn’t deal with seeing his cold baby daughter, much less ponder how he was going to raise the surviving one, who he had expected (maybe hoped) would die.

I entered the room and stood at a curtain, reading the label of the sterilized bottle of saline water, feet shuffling. The mother called me in.

“Chaplain,” she said, actually smiling. “Weird to see a guy walk in instead of walk out.” She chuckled, and burst into tears. Then laughed some more.

“I’m sorry,” I said, hanging my head. “How are you?”

“Besides wanting to punch my boyfriend in the neck?” She cackled, loud enough for a nurse to walk by. “Oh, you know, it is what it is. I’m so tired of crying. I just found out I have to put my dog to sleep. What a week, it’s been. I’ve never had to be so strong.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Maybe you don’t, though. Have to be so strong, I mean. Weak and strong are both okay.”

She nodded and reached for my hand. She squeezed it for a second, closed her eyes, smiled, let go. “Glad you’re here, at least,” she said. “Go ahead, chaplain. Do your thing.”

“Is there a specific way you’d like me to do this?”

She laughed again, through tears. “You know, chaplain, I’m not religious. I don’t even know why I want this. It just feels right. Bless my baby into heaven, and bless the other one to live her best.”

Both the cribs were next to her bed. I looked at Aletha, perfectly still, a brown and blue pallor in her skin, future interrupted, a snapshot of unknown dreams in a box. My stomach swirled with a very different grief, like opening an album of blank pictures, entering a hollow hallway with outlines of where the frames should be. I opened the saline bottle and I sprinkled some water over Aletha and I held her and I prayed.

I didn’t know what I was saying; it felt like random, generic, religious language, maybe a thee or a thou in there somewhere, repeating Father over and over, trying to sound official, and I thought about all those ritualistic baptisms and the robes and altars and goblets and glass, and I couldn’t do that here. Not in a place like this. In the middle of praying, I suddenly said, “I don’t know why, God.” I shuddered and clenched my fists. “I don’t get it. We don’t know why. We … I want to believe that You do. Aletha is with You now, and she’s okay. I hope she’s okay. Be here, please. Be here somehow, in the places we’re broken.”

I turned to Lisa, who was breathing rhythmically, red and peach skin, mouth moving, a box of possibility. I sprinkled the saline, said a few spiritual-sounding things, and finished: “We give her to you, God, all the future in the world. Thank you for Lisa. Thank you for her life and all she can become.”

I turned to the mother and said, “I’m sorry. I wish I could do better.”

“No,” she said. “It was perfect. The only good thing all week.”

We talked for a little while. She laughed and cried, simultaneously, in waves of euphoria and heartache. I realized only later as we were talking that I was doing the same.

I prayed one last prayer for Lisa and Aletha. I thought about how resilient and fragile we are, little creatures born into blinding stimuli, fighting for breath, fighting to the very end, how earlier I visited a grandfather who survived rolling out of a car and I visited a young woman in her twenties whose blood had inexplicably turned against her, and I saw how painfully weak and remarkably strong we can be, that turnarounds and reversals can happen in the lowest of depths, that farewells must be made even when all is spring and sun, that flat-lines become summits and a pulse can crash mid-flight, and what crushes one person may sculpt another, and healing is just as hard as hurting, and sometimes we need ritual, but other times we need to break free, and we don’t always get to find out why—but the end of one possibility may open the door to another hallway, where the frames must be filled somehow, baptized by a memory of the future, even as the glass runs dry of sand and we return to dust. I grieved over all that Aletha would miss, and I was scared for all that Lisa would endure. Life, I suppose, is tremendously weird this way, and so we find some way to hold such opposing waves in each hand, the inevitable interruption of dying, and the surprise that we are still alive and fighting.

We are resilient. We are fragile. And maybe both are okay today.

J.S.


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