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 have a difficult time moving on after each hospital visit. And really, shouldn’t I? You know, like when you see a two minute video on Facebook about a national tragedy a thousand miles away, and then you scroll down to your friend’s vacation pictures of the Eiffel Tower or something; I can’t flip the page that fast. I’m not a channel-changer. I can’t quickly transition from videos of a war-torn Syria to a breakfast bagel. That doesn’t make me “morally sensitive” or anything, but I really, physically can’t do it.
I think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the mementos that each soldier carried with them in the Vietnam War, things like a girlfriend’s pantyhose or dental floss, but really “the things they carried” were each other’s burdens, and maybe their nap-sacks got lighter as the war went on, but inside they were sinking without a life-vest. Their mementos eventually became each other, until the person next to them was the thing they carried.
I leave each room carrying that patient with me for a while, and I’m reminded of this time I almost drowned in the ocean when I was a kid. My friend’s dad took us out on a boat into the middle of vast nothingness, and my friend and I decided to swim, but a current carried us off and we were inhaling huge gulps of sea water. My friend is a better swimmer, so he grabbed me up and swam us both back to the boat.
Sometimes, chaplaincy is like that. Here’s a patient trying to find themselves amidst doctors and diagnoses and complicated medical terms, a thirty-ish patient just learning the name of his ten new medicines, a forty-ish patient who came in for chest pain learning that she needs new lungs, a kid with an amputated foot learning about prosthetics and phantom pain—and for a second, I try to help that patient swim a little, and their arm pushes me down momentarily, but we need to stay afloat to find the boat, and occasionally we don’t find it, but I just swim with them in that turbulent roaring ocean for half an hour, and that was enough for another gulp of air.
It’s this weird, floppy dance in a storm, and I never forget how much that patient clung to my neck for dear life. I can feel their arms slung over me, right now, some resisting, some desperately squeezing, and mostly they’re just wanting to know they’re not alone in this horizonless abyss. I can’t forget that look on their faces, and as crazy as it might be, part of me doesn’t want to. It’s like I have to hold them here in my head-space or I’m not honoring them somehow. And whichever part of me that feels grief is also the same part that carries compassion, so I can’t shut down one without the other. Maybe, I think, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If grief is watching your life float away while the tide is burying you, then I’m trying to swim towards the grieving person in the encroaching tide. I can only do that if I’m actually in the current with them, and I’m glad to do that.
We talk about “managing grief” a lot, but maybe that’s not something I always need to do. I let it hang out a bit. The patients see it and they’re equal parts startled and comforted that I’m right there with them. Like, do you remember the scene in Forrest Gump, when Lieutenant Dan is yelling in Forrest’s face about destiny, and he asks Forrest, “Do you know what it’s like not to be able to use your legs?” And very timidly, Forrest replies, “Y…yes, sir, I do.” Lieutenant Dan is taken aback, just for a second, and soon he’s disarmed of anger. They both connect there, like static electricity.
Maybe for this reason, I get along really well with criminals and ex-convicts in the hospital. I’ve been trying to figure this out, and after talking it out once, I think there’s a dark possibility that I also feel the same turning of the key: a prisoner to my own past, to a voice of condemnation, to a cell in my own head. I know that’s probably a self-indulgent thought, like I’m making it too much about me, but in fact, getting to know this haunted hurt I carry has helped to better serve others in the same kind of situation. Our prisons have different names, but the same narrowness chokes our guts.
I was talking to this patient Darrell, who was both a prisoner and was dying of cancer, and we connected like we were long-lost brothers. I went to see him at least three times. We seemed to practically speak the same language, like the Lieutenant and Forrest, built-up friction from a lifetime that released a charge and met in the middle. That’s the thing about static shock; both people have to feel the sting, or they miss each other.
I still can’t figure it out, completely, why we got so close like that. But I dug into his hopelessness and his regret over his past choices and his fear about the future, I mean, close enough to weep. I wept over his questions. When will the cancer stop eating up my insides? What will the judge say at the next hearing? What will my hometown say when I’m released? When I leave the prison, will the prison ever leave me?
There was one prayer where we gripped hands like we were arm-wrestling, a sort of overly masculine gesture of two men making a pact, and even though Darrell was drained from all the chemo, he held on like I was a plank in this dark, terrible ocean. But I knew I wasn’t the only plank. He might not have known it, but he was keeping me afloat, too. I don’t think he knew the strength he had or the progress he had made or the kind of gifted person he really was. I only hope I helped him to be a little more free that day, to un-turn the key, just a little. There we were, in a sea of grief, lighting each other up.