Saturday, November 05, 2016

Spartan Gravitas

I was on call again at the other campus this past week and need to amend what I said about there being 11 sources of light in the sleeping room even after the main light is turned off. Actually, there are 16 of them, four of which blink. I brought along a sleep mask I discovered in a drawer at home which proved to be too uncomfortable to sleep in, but the lights didn’t keep me up the way they did the first time around. I dreamed I was sleeping on a city sidewalk when an enormous metal thing the size of a house fell out of the heavens and landed next to me, missing my head by inches, and I dreamed I was all alone on a city street in a torrential downpour.

But, backing up, I arrived at noon for a couple of didactic sessions followed by a department meeting, at which we learned that, for the first time in however long, TWMC is probably going to offer an extended unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) starting in January; final confirmation still pending. This means a part-time schedule (16 hours a week, I believe). We students were extra-excited to hear this because it means some of our on-call shifts would disappear.

My group also learned that Jodie would be the supervisor for these new students, and Anita would then be the sole supervisor for our group. Anita is a brand-new supervisor and it did cross my mind that it might be good to have a more experienced supervisor, but if Anita is qualified to supervise, then she’s qualified to supervise, and I do like her.

At 4:15 p.m., I took my pager, the two on-call pagers and the on-call phone, had dinner in the cafeteria (a salmon burger and two orders of about the best French fries I’ve ever had), and then it was non-stop work until about 10 p.m. I visited a lot of people, including a young boy who may have cancer, another intubated in the ICU, a deranged woman in adult acute care, and twins born prematurely. One is doing fine; the other is struggling.

I arrived at one of the five intensive care nurseries just after a nurse had called a baby’s family to advise them to rush to the hospital if they wanted to say goodbye to him. He was a darling boy, several months’ old, who looked perfectly healthy asleep in his little crib. He was wearing a tiny shirt with a colorful decoration on it. The sight of that small cheerful garment made me cry, as I reflected that it was the last thing he would ever wear. I dried my eyes and blew my nose and re-gelled my hands, and then I stroked the baby’s head—he opened his eyes once or twice—and put one of my fingers in his tiny hand for him to hold, and I spoke softly to him, telling him that everything was all right, that he was safe and loved, that there was nothing to fear.

When his family arrived, I introduced myself and continued on my rounds. I visited patients, all children except for the deranged woman, until about 10 p.m. and then did charting until about 11. I noticed that one of my youngest colleagues has a gift for wonderful chart notes. I plan to study them for my own edification. I’m sorry to say that another of my young colleagues recorded in a chart note that a mother was still thinking about whether to “pull the plug” on her baby.

I got a solid eight hours of sleep or so and was awakened at 7 a.m. by a Code White, the same as a Code Blue but where the subject is a baby or child. The patient’s mother turned out not to want company, so I came back to the sleeping room and did ten minutes of metta meditation for the baby whose head I had stroked. I amended the phrases I normally use; I used these:

May you be happy and contented.
May you be safe and protected.
May your transition be peaceful and joyful.
May you die with ease of well-being.

As the on-call person, I was in charge of running the morning meeting, which begins with an interfaith reflection. I described my evening briefly and spoke about how it’s dawning on me more and more how essential it is for chaplains to be able to grieve, along with helping others to mourn their losses. I talked about the profound effect Stephen Jenkinson’s book Die Wise has had on me, how, as he says, most people who get a terrible diagnosis want More Time, but this is the More Time right now, it seems to me, and I talked about remembering to invite grief to have a seat at the table.

I led the group in metta meditation using the phrases above, and concluded by reading Sapphire’s poem “California Dreamin’,” which is heartbreakingly sad; I choked up while reading it. One of my peers asked to see Sapphire’s book and one of the staff chaplains came up and said a lot of nice things to me, about how beautifully I’d held the space. I told him he had made my day, and he said, “You made mine.”

Several of my peers came to ask about their young patients and thanked me for seeing them the night before. I felt such a lovely bond with them as we spoke. These are remarkable people. I feel so lucky that they are my co-workers. Two of them are going to North Dakota next week to join the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I had been thinking that working
as a chaplain with children, seeing so many children die, would be way too hard, but now I understand how people do this. The children are so precious and so cute and so vulnerable that the hearts of those who care for them break, and that, paradoxically, is what makes it possible. The danger is if your heart doesn’t break. I could really feel, during that on-call shift, a powerful mix of combined energies—sorrow, awe, tenderness—and how they were washing through me, back and forth, like waves coming in and going out. So, letting your heart break and also having someone to tell.

The staff chaplain who said all the nice things took the trouble to send this note to my supervisor:

I told Sarah [the manager of the Spiritual Care Department] that I wanted you to know what a fine reflection Bugwalk offered this morning. Upon learning of the death of a little boy she tended to last evening, Bugwalk offered him, and us, a metta meditation that was perfectly somber and light. She created quite the sacred space with spartan gravitas. 

I met this child and his mother once, perhaps two months ago. But Bugwalk’s earnest presence tapped my own grief immediately. She has a gift for public prayer.
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