The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.

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.

No—it doesn’t always work out.

The storm doesn’t always pass.

There isn’t always closure.

Not everything will be all right.

I won’t know why.

There’s a moment in the hospital when our illusion of safety is shattered and the stark reality sets in:

Things won’t change,
they won’t get better,
there won’t be a miracle,
and there won’t be a happily ever after.

It looks like God has exited the building, and that maybe He’s not coming back, and that we will never, ever know why this awful tragedy had to happen.

Babies die. Spouses drop dead at thirty. Diseases take and they take and they take. Prayers go unanswered. Drunk drivers walk free and their victims die slowly in a fire. People die alone. Some people don’t know who they are when they die; some people don’t have a single number they can call. They’re cremated by the county without a trace.

I soon found that I was having a series of tiny panic attacks over faith, more and more disorienting, these little underground bombs that threw me into crisis and left me scrambling for answers.

After a particularly hard case where a young woman’s dad shot her mom and then himself, I came home and tried to pick up some random inspirational book from my bookcase. What I found inside was so unimaginably distant and disgusting that I nearly threw it at the wall. I went through a few more books, and words that had once comforted me were crass and trivial. I couldn’t possibly believe that any of these authors had really suffered or seen suffering. I’m sure they had—and that’s what I wanted to see. Their raw edges. Not these luxurious, over-privileged travels and extra tips on mental re-arrangement, completely removed from the wounded. I saw these first-world tales as they really were: shallow, out-of-touch, and bereft of consequence.

I was lost in the whirlwind of malheur, the pain underneath our pain. I was struck by intrapsychic grief, from the loss of what “could be” and would never come to pass. I was a wax thread in a hot oven, my old beliefs dripping and frayed.

I suddenly understood the intensity of the Psalms, all the anger and violence and whiplashes of doubt, encapsulating the moments when we can no longer un-see this garish void of the nether, the unreturned.

I wondered if maybe it was easier not to believe, because believing was so dangerously painful.

Continue reading “The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.”

I Held a Swastika.

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.

The nurse told me that the patient, Willard, had taken a bite out of another nurse. He had swung at one of the doctors and thrown urine at a surgeon. Willard had multiple organ failure and he couldn’t walk; he kept demanding to go home. “Get me a wheelchair, I’ll flop in and ride over you people.” The staff kept trying to get him to stay, to get treated, despite his violent non-compliance: because nurses and doctors have the guts to look past that stuff.

They called for a chaplain to ask about Willard’s family members, to see if anyone could pick him up when he was discharged. I was the lucky chaplain who took the order.

When I walked in, I immediately noticed the patient had a tattoo of a heart on his hand, near the inner-fold of his thumb, with a swastika in the middle of the heart. The cognitive dissonance was startling. Not “I love mom” or his wife’s name, I thought, with a bit of snark. But hate in your heart. Very subtle.

“He’s one of those, you know, angry old fogeys,” the nurse had whispered right before I walked in. The nurse was a Middle Eastern man, about my age, and I couldn’t imagine the awful things he had to go through with this patient the last few days.

My eyes locked on the swastika first. The symbol held a terrible place in my memory: when I was a kid, someone had spraypainted a red swastika next to the front door of my dad’s business. Though my dad had tried to paint over it, I could still see it on hot summer days, a scar on the wall and a scar in my head, a mad throbbing declaration of all the world’s ugliness dripping in crimson. I still dream about it sometimes, and in the dream I’ll peer down at my wrists, which are engraved with the same red marks down to the veins.

The patient, Willard, saw me and said, “Thank God, a chaplain, finally someone who can hear me.”

But I don’t want to hear you, I thought. And a sick part of me also thought, You deserve this. I hope you never leave. Then you can’t hurt anyone out there.

He said, “Look, I see your face, I’m not trying to hurt anybody. You get it? I just want to go home. Fetch me a f__ing wheelchair, would you?.”

Willard got louder. He clenched his fists and waved them around. It was rather sad to see someone so animated and aggressive while pinned down to a bed, like the blanket had eaten his lower half and he was trying to crawl out. “Come on, I told you people that I wouldn’t hurt nobody. I got a dozen things wrong with me, I’m not a danger to you, I want to go home and to die in peace. You hear me? I’m ready to go home and die.”

Continue reading “I Held a Swastika.”

I’m Not Okay. Is That Okay?


It’s a crazy, incredible thing to be in a place where people slow down and listen, where they hear your whole story and let you paint your full heart in the air.

I was telling one of my fellow hospital chaplains about life lately, about my health problems and secret panics and suddenly about a billion other things, every humiliating and painful and neurotic moment that had been twitching my eye for the longest time, and I didn’t realize how much I had bottled up in my neatly wrapped fortress. I was embarrassed, but my chaplain friend only nodded, never flinched, stayed engaged. She then prayed for me, a really beautiful prayer, like cool water for bruised purple hands, one of those prayers where it sounded like God was her best friend down the street. And I wept. A lot. Quietly, but inside, loudly. Something then shifted and settled and became still for a moment, like the leaves of a tree coming together after a strong wind, a momentary painting. I left lighter.

Later I visited a patient who had nearly died from a brain bleed, and when I offered prayer, the nurse grabbed me and said, “Me, too.” I took her to the side, and she whispered, “Cancer. I might have breast cancer, and I’m afraid, chaplain. I’m so damn afraid.” She clenched her teeth and tried not to weep, but I put a quick hand on her shoulder and she wept anyway. She talked. I listened. There was nothing for me to say but to be there. And maybe nothing had changed—except we were made light somehow, and together drew something bigger than us. We drew colors into the gray.

There are still places, I believe, even in a busy and unhearing time, where we can draw free. I hope to meet you there, where we are not okay, but less gray than yesterday. I hope to pray for you, that we become bigger.

J.S.


Photo by Image Catalog, CC BY PDM

Ocean Electricity, Carry Me.

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.

Continue reading “Ocean Electricity, Carry Me.”

Room Enough for Us: Coping With the Way We Cope.

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’m in a room where a father keeps telling his high school daughter, “It’s all in God’s hands now, it’s all in His hands.” The girl has lost both her feet in a car accident and her eyes are blank; she’s looking past her dad, somewhere else, into another universe where the other driver had one less shot at the bar.

I want to tell the father, You’re not helping. Can’t you be more sensitive? Don’t you know it’s a process? Can’t you see it doesn’t work?

Every room, one after another, is filled with friends and family members who try to help with the same kinds of shrink-wrapped platitudes. I’ve heard them all.

“Everything will be okay.” But what if it’s not?

“This is God’s plan.” To suffer this much? Why?

“It could’ve been worse.” But isn’t it already bad enough?

I get bitter about this stuff. You’re not helping, I keep thinking at them. And more selfishly, Let me do my job.

I guess it’s easy to see the dad as the bad guy. And sometimes, the guy who brushes off your pain really is the bad guy. But — I’ve also been learning about why we say this stuff so much.

I’m learning that we’ve all learned a way to cope, whether good or bad, and we default into the only way we know how to get through.

I thought about that father and his daughter, and how much his daughter needed to process what was happening. But maybe for the dad, the platitudes were his initial way of processing. Maybe that was all he knew about coping, and it’s what he needed right then.

Of course, the daughter needed it more. She needed the honest room to talk, to be mad, to felt what she felt. But the dad was short-cutting all the honesty because he never had the room to feel how he felt, either. He never had that chance in the first place.

I’ve seen that there’s no school for this sort of thing; there’s no open venue for vulnerability in an increasingly polarized world; no one is rewarded for saying the harder things out loud. We use religious language and pep talk and positive thinking because it’s all we’ve been trained to do. Westernized prosperity and self-help and self-talk are big businesses. We’re constantly taught that if we “dream big” and “try your best,” that we can “achieve anything” and “like attracts like” and all this other brainwashed, first-world, upper-class tripe that only works in suburbia. We’re conditioned to affirm and encourage and cheer each other on, even and especially by forced, coerced, plastic smiles. Anything else is seen as a “Debbie Downer” or “Negative Nancy” or “toxic triggers” or something. No one is taught how to talk about illness, death, or dying with dignity.

So I get it. I get why we try to fix it so fast. I get the denial. We’re all indoctrinated to be scared of the dark, so we keep it light. It’s easier to spout off a motivational one-liner that looks good in typography. No one tells you how to paint without a brush and to jump in the bloody mess.

So I hear, “God has an amazing plan for your life!” one more time, and before I get too bitter, I have to pause. I have to remember where all this comes from. This is what he knows. That’s the size of his spiritual muscle. It doesn’t make me better than him. It only means I have to be better for him.

I’m trying to have grace for this.

Continue reading “Room Enough for Us: Coping With the Way We Cope.”

Five Husbands.

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.

The doctor tells him in one long breath, “Your wife didn’t make it, she’s dead.”

Just like that. Irrevocable, irreversible change. I’ve seen this so many times now, the air suddenly pulled out of the room, a drawstring closed shut around the stomach, doubling over, the floor opened up and the house caving in.

“Can I … can I see her?” he asks the doctor.

The doctor points at me and tells Michael that I can take him back. The doctor leaves, and Michael says, “I can’t yet. Can you wait, chaplain?” I nod, and after some silence, I ask him, “What was your wife like?” and Michael talks for forty-five minutes, starting from their first date, down to the very second that his wife’s eyes went blank and she began seizing and ended up here.

I’m in another room, with a father of two, Felipe, whose wife Melinda is dying of cancer. She’s in her thirties. She fought for three months but that was all the fight in her; she might have a few more days. Felipe is asking if his wife can travel, so she can die with her family in Guatemala. The kids are too young to fully comprehend, but they know something is wrong, and they blink slowly at their mother, who is all lines across greenish skin, clutching a rosary and begging God to see her parents one more time.

“Can I see them?” she asks the doctor.

Another room, with a man named Sam who has just lost his wife and kids in a car accident. Drunk driver, at a stop sign, in the middle of the day. Sam was at home cooking; his wife was picking up their two daughters from school; the car had flipped over twice. The drunk driver is dead; Sam doesn’t even have the option to be angry. Sam was hospitalized because when he heard the news, he instantly had a heart attack. He keeps weeping, panicked breaths, asking to hold my hand because he doesn’t know how he can live through this. He hasn’t seen the bodies of his wife and daughters yet.

“Can I see them?” he asks me.

Continue reading “Five Husbands.”

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.

Continue reading “Resilient and Fragile: To Rise and Fall, In Reverse and Farewell”

The Songs We Long to Sing: A Pearl Forms in the Deep of This Stirring Sea.

Photo by Aidan, CC BY 2.0

Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number fourteen. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

Sometimes a patient just talks for an hour, and I say two sentences, and that’s the whole visit. The patient usually says, “Thank you so much for your wisdom and advice” — and I hardly said a word.

Maybe that’s a good thing. If I had said too much, I might have messed it up.

But more than that: some patients just want an ear to listen.

I’ve seen the same thing at the homeless ministry. I ask someone, “How are you?” — and the answer is a breathless forty-five minute life-story of financial collapse and arrests and rehab and failed job interviews, and at the end, “You’re so wise, now I’m so pumped up for life.”

From the homeless to the hospital, I see the same craving:

People want to be heard. Because we want significance. Meaning. Dignity. A voice.

Nobody wants to live in a vacuum of silent solitude. If we can tell even one stranger about what we’ve gone through: it brings value to everything we’ve gone through.

Continue reading “The Songs We Long to Sing: A Pearl Forms in the Deep of This Stirring Sea.”