It is always like this. The page comes with its shrill cry, tearing you out of sleep at ten past midnight, and you know that within minutes you will be walking into pain. A chaplain, like any human being, is a tired body; and now you’re yanked from the rare perfection of rest into suffering’s pinnacle — from life as it feels meant to be (if God exists) into life as it most torments us. The work is familiar the more you do it, but the inner groan is always the same: let it not be so. Let it be a false alarm, let this be the first night that the trauma bay is empty, or else let it not be me who is summoned there; let me fade back into sleep. Sleep. Better that there be no reality, only the unreality of oblivious sleep forever, than that reality be so marked with pain. Than that I should have to wade into it.
I blink the sleep from my eyes, dressing not slowly but not quickly, either. As though God might come to earth with the promised resurrection of the dead in the thirty seconds while I am tying my tie. Giving that strange phantom up there just a little more time to save us so that I don’t have to walk into the emergency room with my finitude and trepidation.
On the fourth of July, a ninety-year-old woman was brought in after a massive stroke. Somehow her husband of sixty-eight years had the presence of mind to bring their address book with the phone numbers of their nieces and nephews — they never had children of their own — but in the panic, rushing out to the ambulance, he forgot to bring his glasses, and now he sat there in the private family room of the ER, all alone, peering desperately at the spider-writing on the pages and typing numbly onto a cell phone he didn’t know how to use. When I arrived, he was a mess of “I don’t know how to call anyone” on the one hand, and “I don’t know how I’ll live without her” on the other. “We were having a normal day, a perfect day,” he told me, putting down the address book for just a minute. “Watching Jeopardy!– and she was getting all the answers right, and then she said her arm was numb and within minutes she was out like a light. It had been a totally normal day.”
I sat beside him and he asked me, “Will you read these numbers to me?” Yes, I thought to myself, that I can do. I cannot raise the dead or protect him from what is to come, but I can read these numbers to him. That is possibly all I can do. “Two-one-five,” I read, as he typed, and then he gave me the phone. “Here,” he said helplessly. “Can you do it?”
For a while it looked like we wouldn’t reach anyone. It was late and everyone was in bed. Miraculously, on the last attempt before we gave up, we connected — first with one niece and then with another, until around 2am, just when the doctor was ready to explain the grim prognosis, a half dozen nieces and nephews and their spouses had gathered around their dazed and staring uncle. Every time someone new came in he pointed to me and said, “He’s been here with me the whole time….he’s been here with me the whole time….”
As I sat with his family, monitoring their reactions while the neurologist laid it all out in complicated terms, my thoughts flashed back to another fourth of July, my first summer of chaplaincy, in 2013. I was the single one on our team, the one who volunteers to take the holiday shifts while the other chaplains are watching fireworks with their families; so I was in the hospital and I was paged that night, too.
In 2013 the fireworks were going off outside the massive window of a shrunken-looking Latin American woman with liver disease, sitting small and alone in an over-sized reclining chair on one of those glorious medical floors at Mass General overlooking the Boston esplanade. The night sky over the city sparking like a broken fuse while she told me of her pain, her loneliness in this country where she knew next to no one. She held up her jaundiced arm to the flashing red and blue and orange light and marveled at it, as though seeing it in a museum of curiosities. “My skin,” she said. “It’s jellow. Every day, más y más jellow.” We watched the spectacle outside as we talked and in this way, of the thousands of patients I have met, she made it into that room where a few of them gather forever in the mansion of my undying memories.
2013. 2019. Sometimes, after many years, compassion fatigue sets in; but at other times, something sparks. As I was sitting in the waiting room with the ninety-year-old and his nieces and nephews while the doctor went on and on — so many technical words for “there is no hope” — suddenly it was one of those moments when for whatever reason significance unexpectedly alights. A catch in my throat generalized, metastasized to every part of me: my spirit, my trembling hands. Words of prayer without logical sequence came to mind. “Your people, Lord, your people,” over and over again they came to me. “You keep on bringing me your people.” Always these hospital rooms where our solitudes meet. Where the pain connects. Where somehow the reality I’d wished away when the pager had gone off became realer and more important, even more beautiful. “There is nowhere else for me to be,” the words kept coming, Your People. “In an unhappy moment, one still can love.”
And somehow, irrationally, simply because of love, I know You exist, You Are, You Are Here. In the midst of everything great and small, in the interstices of our connected fates. This ninety-year-old man about to lose the friend of his soul. My own miraculous escapes from death, and women I’ve loved sleeping this very moment in other arms. The cirrhotic woman I watched the fireworks with on this very night six years ago probably dead by now. And so many others, the thousands upon thousands of hospital rooms I’ve walked into, the thousands upon thousands of lives whose intimate heartaches I’ve glimpsed. Pearls on an endless thread of moments, from solitude to solitude, beauty to beauty, each one — each “patient” (from the Latin “to suffer,” recalling the English “to await”) — a human soul. A world. Your People. The meaning of my life, my small and glorious life.
After the patient, comatose and unable to speak, was moved to the ICU, I accompanied the family upstairs to a new waiting room and went in with them, two by two as the ICU allows, to visit her. The hospital — which sometimes strikes me as a holy temple, other times as a mighty palace of pain — the hospital quiet at three AM, our paces quiet too as we walked down the long hallway of intensive care past the other rooms, the other beds, where other patients were hooked up to their machines, rhythmically beeping. The nieces and nephews first because her husband wasn’t ready to see her with that tube in her throat, her eyes closed in that mysterious slumber. “Can she hear us?” her family asked me. “I don’t know for sure,” I said, “but they say the hearing is the last thing to go,” and I paused, wondering whether I should have said, “last thing,” but they got the point and went up to her ear and whispered, “We love you, Auntie…we love you…we love you…”
Back and forth I made this solemn walk down the hallway, like Charon crossing the Styx, until the only visitor left was her husband, who finally agreed to go with me to her unresponsive side. He walked in and took a moment to compose himself, passed his long hand over his long wan face, then went over to her and planted a big kiss on her forehead. “It’s me,” he said, adding her pet name, and just like that, with a thunder and fury like fireworks in the night, her heart monitor started wailing, the numbers flying off the chart, her legs started kicking and the lump in her throat swallowed and swallowed as though gasping for air, for water, for food. He looked up at me in panic. “What’s wrong?” he said. And I was trying to keep the tears in as I said, “Nothing’s wrong. She heard you, she felt you. She knows you’re there.”
Sixty-eight years. I’d be a hundred and one if I married tomorrow my partner of sixty-eight years. The heart monitor taking its time to settle down. This man, holding this woman’s not-quite-lifeless hand. My own heart so full of love. I look at them and I want the past, the happy days, to walk into this room and take them back again into its arms, just as I could almost desire this suffering for myself, to choose among the options this valedictory kind of suffering.
Eventually I took him back to his family so that they could go home and try to rest, and we all began to say goodbye. Each of them offered me a hug, thanked me profusely for the little I’d done. Teachers of such gratitude. The husband was the last to approach. “I want you to know,” he said, taking my hands in his, “that I will never forget you. You’ve been here with me the whole time, and I will never forget you.”
That was when the tears came, slow and warm. “I won’t forget you, either,” I promised, each of our faces mere inches from the other’s nose.
Afterwards, I return to my little bedroom in the back of the hospital where we chaplains wait all night for the pager’s piercing call to rouse us from our sleep. Before lying down, I sit on the side of the narrow bed with my feet planted on the tiled floor, and for the first time in a long time, I pray, I really pray. “Your People, Lord,” the words are simple, not even sentences. “Your People.”