It is early Sunday morning and my cat has just pounced on my quilt-covered ankles to inform me her dish is empty: our weekly waking ritual on my faith’s holy day. If I don’t oblige right away she will start in on her most mournful arias, so I stumble through the dark of my basement apartment, scoop some kibble into her dish, and stare into the bathroom mirror at my badly lit face as I arrange it into the composed, non-reactive, open, listening face I was taught to assume in my first unit of clinical pastoral education. I am a conduit, not a vessel. God, drain the dead out of me at the end of the day. I haven’t been to church in six months. My cat leaps up next to the sink and bends her head to the trickle of water I’ve turned on for her, her quick tongue scattering the stream into little shining drops.
Since I began spending my Sundays at work in the hospital, walking the quiet corridors from 8 to 5, I’ve tried just about every liberal Protestant evening worship service within a 20-mile radius. Most Reverends I know will tell you that after three years of seminary and however many years in the field, they don’t go to church for the sermons, and I’m no different. I’m there for the bread and wine, not the one sermon that everyone in this town seems to preach every Sunday about how we should all try not to be so busy all the time. Everyone around here uses wafers for communion, too; every time the celebrant lifts that thin glossy cracker up toward the ceiling and invites the congregation to the “feast,” my heart sinks as I remember tearing off giant chunks of the grainy homemade bread of my childhood.
But the worst part of church is coffee time, which some churches, full of hope and good feelings, call “fellowship time” — those twenty minutes after the service when everyone mills around outside the sanctuary and strenuously tries to embody Christian hospitality toward each other over powdered-sugar-covered donut holes. It really is a valiant effort, and it’s right to try. As an introvert I know how hard it is, and I know that when I’m not at work I don’t always make it easy for others to be friendly to me, either. But since I am a thirty-something no-longer-in-school ordained single woman without any children, my fellow congregants usually struggle to find something in common with me, so we end up having some version of The Conversation — a Conversation familiar to pretty much every pediatric chaplain I’ve met:
FRIENDLY PERSON [after determining that I have no husband or wife or significant other or children we can talk about]: So what do you do?
ME: I work at the hospital–been there about three years now.
FP: Oh! What do you do there?
ME: I’m a chaplain.
FP: Oh my goodness. [a story about FP’s personal experience with chaplains, which I find genuinely interesting but always seems to end with] Do you work all over the hospital?
ME, giving up: Yes, but almost all of my work is on the pediatric units.
FP: Oh my God that must be horrible. Oh, I could never do that. Oh, you must be a saint.
And the conversation is over, because sick or dying children is a place no one wants to visit, a big black ocean of fear and grief that you can’t allow yourself to cross without risking some deep psychological or emotional shit. I don’t blame them at all; that fear is real, and it is pretty basic to human experience. It’s one of the things I try to help people through at work. The tired chaplain self-congratulatory quasi-joke is that chaplains are the ones who run toward the burning building when everyone with sense is running away. But I always want to say something like, You could do it. Lots of people could. It takes a lot of training and a lot of education, yes, but if you had that, you could do it, too. Some mean and unreasonable part of me sometimes wants to add, and you should.
The hospital chapel is quiet in the mornings. Often the cleaning staff have left the bright overhead lights on so the room looks like someone’s about to give a presentation, and every inch of the industrial tan carpet that I hate glares aggressively back at me. Today I dim the lights back down to a comfortable warmth, with shadows in the corners, so that the outside light can paint the floor through the squares of stained glass in the window. I check the wall of prayers, where patients and their families and friends have clipped up prayers they’ve written on the little squares of paper we leave by the door. The wall is heartbreaking, always, and theologically complex.
After six years of working in hospitals, four years of which have been in pediatric settings, my faith has been stripped down from the fullness of those creeds and confessions I joyfully recited before my ordination (What do you understand by the providence of God? The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty — all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand [Heidelberg Catechism Q&A27]). There aren’t a whole lot of rock-solid assertions I feel comfortable making anymore, and on bad days I feel myself bloom with envy when a parent or patient tells me about the peace their faith in God has brought them in the midst of their or their child’s cancer treatment or miscarriage or difficult recovery from surgery. I don’t doubt that they feel that peace, and I feel certain that peace is a holy gift to be nurtured and cherished, but times when I feel that peace myself are few and far between.
On the hospital’s pediatric oncology floor is a wall of faces, pictures of children who have passed through our care either to remission and healing or to a death no one could prevent. The families of these children chose the pictures, and they are beautiful. Some of them were taken before the kids’ treatment, and they glow with health, holding fishing poles, playing musical instruments, grinning at the lens. Some of them were taken mid-treatment, and they glow with hope, petting a therapy dog, waving at the camera, showing off their chemo hats. Only we who work on the floor know which of these children are no longer alive, which makes this wall both incredibly moving and incredibly difficult to walk past without a few tears escaping.
Would I rather not know? Would I rather pretend that each one of these beautiful children grew up healthy and happy and cancer-free? Oh, sometimes, yes. Oh, yes. To go back to the time when I didn’t know the difference between a neuroblastoma and an astrocytoma, when childhood illness and death was an amorphous horror that happened to people I didn’t know. Back when God was good, and in charge of everything. I remember that peace. But it is not what happened. That horror was not amorphous to the individual children and families who experienced it. It was horribly specific, detailed, immediate. I know that now because I was there.
Lots of people have heard that the shortest verse in the Christian Bible is the succinct “Jesus wept” (John 11:35), when he was approaching the tomb of his friend Lazarus. That’s how the King James version translates the original Greek word for “wept,” which is in the aorist tense. But the aorist tense is slippery sometimes; it can also refer to the beginning of a more continuous action, which is why the New Revised Standard version translates this verse as “Jesus began to weep”–no one was quite sure when it ended, or if it really ever ended at all.
On this Sunday I head upstairs to the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit, where there is a baby who had open-heart surgery the previous Friday. Her chest is still open, the gap covered by a clear dressing, the dressing covered by a clean white hospital sheet covered by a bright pink crocheted blanket. Her chest will stay open until her body’s swelling goes down enough so that the heart won’t be constricted when they close it. Her parents have taken a much-needed break for sleep, so I stand at her bedside while the nurse adjusts her medication pumps. Twenty years ago there would have been no help for this child. Though there is help for her now, there’s also no guarantee that she will make it through this recovery unscathed. All I can do is hope, and if hope becomes impossible, look for the small graces that allow a person to put one foot in front of the other each day after something so terrible happens. The graces do come, though they don’t make up for the grief. Through the window behind the baby’s bed I see fog shrouding the highest floors of the hospital, but I can still make out the dark outline of the river below, the trees, turning. What kind of people are we if we don’t allow our hearts to be broken?
I don’t go to church this Sunday evening. It’ll be waiting for me when I’m ready, the bread, the wine, the well-meaning people. Tonight I trudge down the stairs to my apartment in my heavy hospital clogs and hear the tiny high sound of my cat meowing behind the door, ready for me to fill her bowl, scratch her ears, and set a thin trickle of cool water running so she can drink, and scatter the drops into stars. It’s enough for today.
Descriptions of patients are generalized from many experiences and fictionalized for privacy.
Rachel Brownson is a hospital chaplain and earnest writer of poems who lives in Michigan. She tweets at @rkbrownson.