I think I mentioned here when I was doing hospice volunteering that I’m scared of dead bodies. I had never touched one, and asked Samantha, my supervisor for clinical pastoral education, if this would be required. She said if I’m scared of death, this is going to be a hard summer, but then she softened a little and allowed that she herself has never had to touch a corpse.
Herewith the story of my very first day on call, which was the day before yesterday.
I decided to take the bus so I wouldn’t have to worry about my bike being stolen from the parking garage, and I left extra early, because I knew the bus was going to have to detour around the Juneteenth celebration. I did not know that the bus was going to stop dead and the driver tell us to get off and walk a block over to catch some other bus. There was a blind man on the bus who didn’t freak out, but who expressed that he was going to need clear instructions. I said, “Don’t worry, sir—I’ll go with you.”
We made our way over a block, the very friendly blind man holding my elbow, us chatting away, and there we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, with virtually no traffic of any kind, next to a shabby little park with a few shady characters studying us. I called Muni to ask if we were in the right place, and while I was on hold, we decided to start walking north. I was now worried that I was going to be late to take the pager from the previous on-call person, and could easily imagine what Samantha would have to say about that.
Periodically, I stepped into the street to see if there was any sign of a bus. The third time I checked, there it was 20 feet behind us, preparing to roll by. I yelled, “Stop! Stop!” and waved my arm violently, and the driver let us on. The blind man and I had a good chat while we rode to our stops. He had encountered clinical pastoral education students at the hospital he goes to. When he got off the bus, he said very cheerfully, “Thanks, reverend! It’s been tops!”
At work, I saw there was a request to visit a young man in oncology. Just 26 years old, he has decided that he doesn’t want his suffering prolonged and evidently means not to have any more chemotherapy. He said that one month ago, his life was “normal.” (I’m not sure if his illness had been diagnosed yet or not.) He was making plans for how his life would unfold; he was saving to buy a house. His sister is going to be married next year and he would like to be there. He has good friends who have been visiting him, but his entire family is in India, and his parents don’t yet know about his decision. They are coming on Thursday, and I felt sad thinking of them arriving here after such a long trip to learn that they are going to lose their smart, gentle son so young.
When I went outside, I felt so happy just to be able to walk along the sidewalk and feel the sun on my face and the fresh breeze.
I made my way to my normal units and saw a few patients. Then I got a page: a patient had died and her partner wanted a blessing said for her. I had thoroughly prepared in case I had to baptize a dead baby, but had not prepared at all to say a blessing for a dead adult. I went to the patient’s room and peeked in. Sure enough, there was a dead body in it. Before heading to the unit, I had done some frantic Duck Ducking for blessings, but found only things that were very religious or seemed too cheesy. I had been told that the dead woman had not been religious. When her partner returned to the area, he told me they had been together for 26 years, and that she had changed his life. I asked about her beliefs in order to pick up some clues about what to say, and then we went into her room and stood on either side of her bed. The skin of her face was already tight over her skull.
Her partner took her hand and I stood politely across from him as he told me the story of their first date, how they were in Golden Gate Park and she called, “Charlie! Charlie!” Just as he was wondering if he’d taken up with a lunatic, squirrels began to come out of the trees—the gardeners who work there all call the squirrels “Charlie.” The woman’s partner said he didn’t have many photos of her, but he had thought to save her driver’s license, and he showed it to me. She had a pretty face and a warm smile. She was wearing red lipstick. Very different from the person between us, but her partner didn’t seem to notice. He said, sounding happy, that it was the first time in days that he had seen her actual face; she had been covered with monitors in the ICU.
The longer we stood there, the more comfortable I felt, and I decided to be brave and to touch her. Her hands were at her sides, palms down, fingers curled under. I rested the back of my hand against the back of hers, and felt that it was still warm. I left my hand there, and after a while, began to feel so tenderly toward her that I rested my palm on the back of her hand, putting my hand over hers, and it was fine.
Then I put my hands in prayer position, closed my eyes and offered a blessing, improvising, and after I said “Amen,” I looked at her partner and saw that he had tears in his eyes. He said, “That was beautiful. Thank you so much.” Moments later, my on-call pager went off. I’m glad it didn’t do that during the blessing. I would have turned it off, but Samantha had made herself clear on this point. I apologized, and the woman’s partner said, “No, no, I know you’re busy.” I touched the dead woman one last time, and felt that now her hand was perfectly cold. The warmth in her hands had left while we were with her.
This page turned out to be for another dead person in need of a blessing, at another campus. I took a cab there to find a Samoan family, 15 or 18 people, sitting in chairs near the deceased in her bed, a woman. In the class at Sati, we learned that people may feel shy about touching their dead loved one and that if we do this, it can embolden them. However, this family did seem to be keeping a formal distance, and they indicated a chair for me that was a few feet from the bed, so I sat there and didn’t touch her. But I could have! I can totally touch dead people now, thanks to the nice woman who changed her partner’s life and knew the secret of summoning squirrels.
Again, I asked about the beliefs of the departed person, to get some clues as to what to say, and I offered a blessing, with one of the relatives murmuring, “Yes, Lord,” at intervals. I liked that she felt inspired to join in. When I was done, they thanked me, and I went into the adjoining room. There were a number of little kids running around, and a lot of food laid out. As I was leaving, someone said, “Chaplain! Wait, chaplain! We’re making you a plate,” and they handed me a paper plate with biscuits, potato salad, and two pieces of fried chicken. I sat in the lobby and ate their kind offering and then I took a cab back to my usual campus, where I spent the night in an apartment reserved for our on-call people.
I did not get paged during the night. I got up to go to the bathroom once and was dazzled by the beautiful city lights and the glowing round moon making its silent way through the night.