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?


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