Saturday, December 31, 2005

Goodbye, Ted

There are some hospice patients to whom it is extra-easy to become attached. One such patient died this evening, I just learned. We'll call him Ted. He was a big, jovial, ruddy-faced fellow with twinkling eyes and a firm handshake. I don't know much about Ted; I don't know what his profession was although I suspect he could have made a fortune in sales, because he had that wonderful knack of making anyone and everyone feel welcome in his presence. I'd met Ted a couple months ago when he had a one-day hospital stay to get some new medicine sorted out, after which he went back home. That one day, the regular staff had told me I simply HAD to see this man, because "You'll just love him." And I did. Ted came back a week or so ago, this time for the last time. He was just too weak to stay home anymore. When he came back, he was ready to die and quite forthright about it. We talked a little bit about how hard it is to be patient when one is ready and the process is taking its time. And about how God will not be hurried. And about how Ted's room in heaven will probably have the largest of big-screen TVs so he can watch his beloved football games. To each staffer who worked with him in the last week, Ted said his thanks for the care he'd received. He was saying goodbye to all of us, even folks like me, who'd only known him a little bit. And he'd said his goodbyes to his beloved wife and children too. Ted got rapidly weaker over the last week. Now he's gone, and I miss him, a lot. Godspeed, Ted. I'm glad I got to know you, even a little.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

You have to wonder

So late one night I was helping with the telephone calls after a death. When the family was ready, I phoned the mortuary. The staffer who answered the phone took all the usual information and then said, "All right then, I'll dispatch our Rapid Response unit."

Rapid response?? Somehow that just seems hilariously wrong when one is talking about transporting a body to a mortuary in the middle of the night. I doubt the owner of the body was concerned about speed any more. It was all I could do not to laugh on the phone.

The staffer wasn't kidding, though. The mortuary driver arrived on the unit 20 minutes later.

Monday, December 26, 2005

When Christmas falls on Sunday....

...Christmas weekend becomes a marathon. Services Christmas Eve. At least I didn't have to go in early to cope with the poinsettias, owing to having forgotten to tell the DOM to call me if help was needed. Worked during the day Christmas Eve on Sunday's sermon, went to church for services, team-leading the volunteers. That's when I found out the pastor was preaching Christmas Eve on the same text I was using the following morning.

And then after service he told me, well, you never focus much on the text on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, those days are for a message of reassurance and comfort and joy. Of course, I *had* been focusing on the text for the prep...Which led to a great sermon re-working after 11 PM Christmas Eve. Once I had the (new) points I was planning to use figured out, I realized I was too tired to write the whole thing out, so went to bed...

.....and woke up at 3 AM realizing I couldn't remember the middle of it. I fretted for a while before deciding to just roll with it--after all, the pastor (who is a fine preacher and thus One Tough Act to Follow) wouldn't be there to hear my ignominy.

Sunday morning the pastor SHOWED UP at the 9:30 service. Great.

Oh, well, it wasn't a total flop. People liked it and S. the opera singer was there and sang "Oh Holy Night" having flown from the East Coast overnight and a good time was had by all. And I raced to make it to dinner with friends at 2 PM.

And by 10 PM I was sitting on the couch staring dully into space with a splitting headache. Which, apparently, is what happens to church types when Christmas falls on a Sunday.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Where is hope?

I had written a huge post, which blogger devoured whole for reasons unknown to me, and now I am about out of time, so I'll have to write a shorter version.

The other day I was called out of a meeting with my clinical supervisor to the unit, where a chaplain was urgently needed. A man, younger by a good bit than I, had died of complications of drug and alcohol use, and his family was in deep grief. One relative was also very ill, but could not leave the body to seek medical treatment until a chaplain came and prayed. The family was Catholic and the patient had received the Sacrament of the Sick, but the ill relative needed something more. So I offered prayer and then took the relative to the emergency department and returned to the unit where I spent a lot of the afternoon with the family. The patient's final illness had been fast--relatives told me he'd been working four weeks earlier--but horrible. His liver, kidneys, and other systems were destroyed, his mouth was filled with painful lesions, his lungs were bleeding, and he was emaciated and so jaundiced that his skin was literally green. Most of the relatives were poor; there were gangbangers, others mired in addiction, some working and some unable to find work. The patient's mother, I learned, had already buried several sons, to cancers, to gangs, to drugs. This family truly expected nothing better. The hope embodied by the presence of children could only be generic, as most were poorly equipped to break out of the poverty, unemployment, underemployment, violence, drugs, and grief upon grief in which they came up. It was easy to see dysfunction and yet there was love and courage and mutual support and gentleness in the weeping, the hugs, the food brought to sustain the vigil, the care for the mother who had now lost half the sons to whom she had given birth, the shared sorrow in a room full of other sorrows, with every branch of the family telling me its own tales of premature loss and anticipated future loss. So many failures--personal failures to be sure but also systemic failures, and huge ones--had brought that family to that moment.

I felt utterly inadequate. There was nothing I could do in the moment to address the larger circumstances. Only weep with the mother, make sure she had hot coffee with sugar to help with her shock, offer condolences as each wave of family came, small things. I could not imagine the mother's heartbreak. The loss of even one child can destroy a person, and she had lost several. One is rendered dumbstruck in the presence of so much sorrow. And yet, as they left, the mother said to us, I never dreamed there could be such people, such kindness, I will never forget you.

There has to be some way I can do more, some way we as a society can do more. Wiser minds than I wrote after Katrina that the United States has, as a country, forgotten our covenant to our vulnerable ones. Could healing start with kindness, I wonder? Kindness is not enough, love is not enough, but could we start with kindness and respect?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Joys of the Season

....the Christmas season, that is. So last night, fool that I am, I decided that Wilson Wolfhound and I needed to take a nice walk so that I could look at Christmas lights and so that he could sniff the bases of trees. I knew that it was chilly and that flurries were falling, but I did *not* know that the wind chill was below zero. We chugged along for about a mile then cut over to the parkway (grassy, tree-lined area between eastbound and westbound lanes of a street) to head for home. I wonder how many people we terrify, lurching along the parkway after dark; I look vaguely humanoid although blurred in my layers of coats, hat, and gloves, and my 140-pound puppy, lanky and long-legged, has been mistaken for a horse, a pony, a product of alcohol-induced delirium, and (more generally) a "farm animal." And the sounds--all from me, as he is notably quiet when walking--"OH, look, new lights on that house!! Don't PULL, dammit, it's icy. Heel, HEEL I said, wow, they have a tree in their window now! Look! NO!!! No lunging, no diving, LEASH MANNERS you big goofball, yes, of course I still love you, you just have to PAY ATTENTION." Etc. I did fall again of course, nowhere interesting this time, but the hound decided this must be a fascinating addition to the evening's activities. He promptly began licking my face. Dog saliva freezes quite rapidly when the wind chill is below zero.

So this evening was the church's Christmas presentation, which was really enjoyable although I would say that in general those who lack relative pitch should not sing solos. Or duets. On the other hand, one soloist was taken ill at the last minute and the Director of Ministries had roughly five minutes to learn the part to fill in, and did extremely well. He (D of M) had been meant to open with prayer, but having been handed the solo he tossed me the opening prayer. Words to live by: When you get shanghaied, DELEGATE.

Friday I did my first solo funeral, for a person whose death I attended on the unit, and whose family decided that it would help them to have someone who had some connection with the deceased, rather than a rent-a-minister from the funeral home. The funeral home was rather Interesting, as the retainers who do things like hand out the memorial pamphlets and load the CD player all looked as if they should have been customers, and years ago at that. The chapel was, well, pleasant. But the pulpit/lectern/something in front was roughly the size of the command deck on a battleship. Perhaps there was a built-in baptismal font in the thing (full immersion of course); I can't think of a single other reason why it would have needed to be so immense. Suffice to say I didn't use it as I'd have disappeared behind it, and when one is nervous anyway there is no need to allow oneself to be intimidated by the pulpit of all things. I hope what I said was comforting to the family. Following the worst act imaginable is a gift, and I had that gift, because apparently the family viewing the night before was a disaster. There was a very visible corrugated-cardboard container holding the remains, and a shoddy preparation of the remains for viewing. The relatives were devastated, and I don't blame them. They'd had the viewing to help them remember the deceased as in life, and instead it made things much worse. I wanted to do better by them; don't know if I did, but if I failed it wasn't for want of trying.

Then, on the unit, new patients, new families. I have only four more weeks and it is going to be very hard indeed to leave. I will miss the CNAs, the RNs, the social worker, all of whom have been more than generous to me as a chaplain intern. And I will miss the patients and families, whose stories and struggles and simple heroism have so deeply touched and transformed my heart. Chaplaincy feels so right to me, so much a home. The ministry of holding a hand in the night...

Monday, December 12, 2005

And now we have MUD

So it will be in the 50-degree (Fahrenheit) range today, and we have snow AND ice AND mud, which is pretty much dog heaven here. Last week I took two nasty falls walking Wilson Wolfhound, and discovered the big goof has gotten a rudiment of cognitive capability: now, when I am lying flat on my back and the leash has come out of my hand, he comes bounding, slipping, and sliding back to me to see what's happened. This in itself is motivation enough to get up, since 140 pounds of bounding, slipping, sliding dog is not a soothing sight when one is lying supine on ice. However, I was extra motivated because one ignominious fall took place right in front of a mortuary, and my first thought was that business must be down, since a huge segment of their sidewalk was covered in ice with a light skiff of fluffy snow on top for disguise. I had visions of a guy in a suit with a long, skinny gurney heading my way, so I got up extra fast.

I preached last night in one of our denomination's churches in a smaller town about 60 or so miles away. The congregation is small and VERY quiet. While some make efforts at community (going out to eat after service, etc.) and many have known each other for years, they don't 'feel' vital as a congregation, and they do not seem to have much interest in changing that fact. I think many of the members live outside even the smaller town, with some being farmers or ranchers, and their lives demand a ton of their time and energy. Their needs are different from those of my younger, more urban congregation--on the one hand, the rural congregation has less overt crisis, but on the other hand, the rural congregation is more profoundly attached to sameness in their worship, sameness in their numbers, etc. The group has a closed feel even on first meeting. For their church to survive, they would need to develop some effective outreach, particularly to young people at the university near them, but I don't see that working unless the core membership is willing to share leadership, take risks, and be open to change. What was lacking that I see in my own congregation is a sense of lightness. Everyone took everything soooooo seriously. Perhaps that's generational; I don't know if I'd have developed as much sense of humor around church if I weren't worshipping with much younger folks. I don't know, though, I have to say that the people I have seen be most successful in ministry over the long haul have had lively senses of humor and have been able to take themselves, at least, very lightly. I did feel a sense of terrible earnestness in the congregation last night, and I don't know how, as a pastor, one could ever work with that--and yet, I think that earnestness, genuinely respectful as it is, may be one of the factors that threaten the very survival of the congregation.

I know there have been lots of traumas in the not-so-distant past in that little congregation. Feelings have been hurt, and badly. Mending is in progress, and it is probably too soon to look for playfulness. It may even be too soon to look for change. Perhaps wounded hearts need something familiar to cling to, in terms of worship, and familiar faces, etc., while they consider whether trust is possible. Their gifted young interim pastor is working hard, very hard to facilitate healing. But if I wish them one thing, it is the gift of some playful spirit. I was playful in my sermon, and several did ask if I would come back sometime, so there *is* that. Saying prayers for them today, and appreciating their willingness to hear me and make me welcome.

Monday, December 05, 2005

We have SNOW!!!!

And ICE!! And WIND!!! and cold temperatures, and blowing newspapers, and blowing leaves, and blowing trashcans, and it is SO VERY EXCITING that one of the two of us who walk in the morning thinks that leashes, collars, and the like should simply be discarded in honor of the occasion. We are not of one mind on this question, the two of us. Although it might be more accurate to say that we ARE of one mind, because Wilson Wolfhound can think at most one thought at a time, and today his thought is simply OH JOY!!! and he has forgotten all of his leash commands in aid of fully embracing the change in weather. His huge puppyness is absolutely delightful to watch though at 140 pounds it is somewhat difficult to control. He is a supremely happy boy now that the weather is to his liking. We had a grand walk with the wind blowing, and to cap things off a minivan pulled up beside us and the driver rolled a window down so she and her daughter could see the dog. Wilson is tall enough that he simply stuck his head through the open window to everyone's pleasure. He is now asleep on the floor at my feet, completely worn out from the wind and bonhomie. I have got to get back to the verbatim I have due tomorrow night. But just had to post about my "BIG ole puppydawg" and his love of snow.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Things you hate to hear over the hospital loudspeaker

Was grabbing a cup of coffee between patients the other day and heard this:

"COR-0, pediatric, emergency department, ETA five minutes...COR-0, pediatric, emergency department, ETA five minutes"

In this hospital, that means: A child whose heart has stopped and who is not breathing is en route and will arrive in the emergency room in five minutes.

Moments later I heard the desperate scream of the ambulance, louder and louder as it approached.

Imagining the parents of the child, all the relatives, the friends, all the hopes and dreams that accompany the birth of any baby, all reduced to one cluster of words: "COR-0, pediatric, emergency department, ETA five minutes..." What must they have been feeling.

It was one of those times when the only thing I can possibly do is stop right in my tracks and breathe a prayer: God be with them, oh, God, PLEASE be with them.