I’m working the bookends of life this summer: the oncology floor and labor/delivery/pediatrics. Maybe you think I have those in the wrong order; not for me. The oncology floor holds my attention so much more directly than LDR or peds. I’m not sure why that is. I am finding the end of life — and the difficult times near the end — more compelling to be with than the beginning of life. So I don’t find myself up on the third floor with the women and children very often, unless they ask me to come.
Last week I followed an order requisition to visit a woman who had reportedly asked to see a chaplain and to work on an advance directive document (living will and/or a health care power of attorney). I can see where a woman who was facing a difficult delivery might make such a request, but most of the time when such an order req comes through, the woman is in active labor and paperwork is the last thing on her mind. So, I usually check in with the patient’s nurse and she and I both grin when she comes back and says, “Um, no. But thank you very much.”
This time, after the “thank you very much,” the nurse said, “But I do have another patient who I think might appreciate seeing a chaplain, if you have time.”
“Of course,” I said. She checked in with the patient, and then came back for me. This young woman had gone in for a sonogram the day before to see how her 20-week (gestational age) twins were doing, and perhaps discover their sex(es), only to be told that both babies’ hearts had stopped beating. The process of inducing labor was beginning even as the nurse and I were walking to her room.
As the nurse shared this hard, hard story, I was mentally checking in on myself, remembering my miscarriage, making sure I had my own feelings squared away in order to be present to the patient. We went in the door, and the nurse introduced me. I spoke a few minutes with the young woman, her husband, friend, and mother. I prayed with her, offering to come back if she needed me, or if there was something she wanted us to do for the babies; an anointing, or baptism. She nodded, thanked me and I left.
Then she was in labor for the next 20 hours.
When I found out the next morning that she had delivered the babies around 4 am, my heart broke a little. Her nurse was asking for a chaplain to visit her, so I went back to the floor.
She was exhausted, but immediately began speaking as if our conversation had never ended … which, in a way, it hadn’t. I held her hand; she spoke a little about the babies, what she saw, what she learned, what she and her husband had gone through. After a pause, then, she said “My dad died this year ….” I think she said something about it having been the same day she found out she was pregnant, but I’m not sure, because in that moment my eyes filled up and my heart broke the rest of the way open.
We are told that it’s okay, if tears well up with a patient, to let them fall; we can’t hold a space for them to be authentic with their feelings if we are not authentic ourselves. Of course, we can’t go to pieces; if that’s happening, it’s time to leave the room.
I knew several things in that moment: that my tears were about my dad and his passing some years ago, and the ongoing grief of that, that I’d share this moment with the patient and get to a place where I could pray for her and be there for her, and that then I’d go find someplace else to be for a while.
And that’s how it was. I put my arm around her shoulders and prayed what I could pray. There was no easy grace to be had, no good answer, just shared pain and the cost of love: that there comes a day when we cannot hold the beloved any longer. I went on my way. She is going on hers, with the help of her family, and time, and God.
We spiral back through the valley of the shadow of death, I find, and this was a long detour for me. I did not make another visit that day; I would not have done anyone any good. I sat and cried for a while. Meditated on the nature of grief’s return, and its leavings. Spoke with a peer about what was happening; received his care gratefully.
Later in the afternoon I left the hospital in a spitting gray rain, plans for a summer hike shifting to a trip to the gym. As I rode the bike to nowhere, I listened to an OnBeing podcast from last year, in which theologian Serene Jones is one of the featured speakers. Some of her words immediately resonated for me, across the months and miles:
Grief is of all the emotions the hardest because it is never resolved. The loss never stops being a loss. But the religious traditions have much to teach us. When grief becomes mourning, [you] name what was lost and truly get in your gut some sense of what wholeness would look like …. That’s a very strange connection between hope and grief.
You name what was lost.
I have lost the rough caress of my father’s hand in mine.
I have lost the illusion that he ever put me first.
I have lost the opportunity to hear him straighten out my brother … and my mother.
I have lost the place in which I could have stormed at him, and felt fully received.
I have lost the conversation in which I could say I really do understand.
I have lost the hand I want to hold.
Get in your gut some sense of what wholeness would look like.
Wholeness …. Wholeness will sound like our tears and laughter and my voice saying, “I know, Dad. I know you loved her beyond reason, and sometimes we paid the price, in our very flesh. It was wrong, you know it, I know it, and I forgive you, and I love you, and I always will.” Wholeness will smell like a combination of cotton, Old Spice, and rain. Wholeness will taste like a Whataburger, with mustard and pickles. Wholeness will feel like his hand in mind.
Thanks be to God, I have not lost my father for all time. And I never will. I do believe there will come a day when I will be gazing down that long tunnel, waiting for those who love me to let me go, and my father will be one of those waiting for me on the other side, grinning, a fistful of golf clubs in one hand … and the other rough, muscled, horn-nailed hand will be reaching out to me. Ever and ever, amen.