On Christmas Eve, Tom picked me up after work and we drove (in a car lent to us by a colleague of his) to Sacramento to spend the evening with Ann (Tom’s mother), Steve, Julie, Julie’s mother (Diane), and Ann’s two dogs. Tom and I slept over at Ann’s, and we all went to Paul and Eva’s the next day for stockings, refreshments, and to admire the Christmas tree. Present were the aforementioned, plus Paul, Eva, Dan, Sarah, Chris, Kristin, Chris and Kristin’s baby (Rowan), and Kristin’s mother and father, Jim and Denise. Late in the afternoon, we went to have Christmas dinner at the home of Steve and Julie’s next-door neighbor, Robin. Her two best friends were there, plus Ann, Steve, Julie, Diane, Tom and me.
I was able to go to Howie’s Tuesday night this week because I was scheduled to be on call on Wednesday afternoon. I knew Howie wouldn’t be there; he’s always away between Christmas and New Year’s. Attendance was generally light. Some people were probably away on their own holiday travels, and there are a lot of people who don’t come if Howie isn’t there, but my walking friend was there, with a couple who are longtime friends of his. He introduced the man as a chaplain, and at first I thought he was kidding, but the friend really is a jail/prison chaplain. He said he’s not sure what he offers, but he knows for sure what he receives. He said he learns something every day, and is frequently touched by those he encounters.
I told him that when I finish my two years of education, I will be 57—is that too late for a career change? He said, “If that’s the path you’re on, it will work out.” A chaplain intervention, just at the exact moment needed.
On Wednesday evening, I was on call at the other campus and feeling rather gloomy about F. We have been breaking up for nearly an entire year. As Todd Rundgren sings, “Grains of sand one by one—before you know it, all gone.” F. lately sent me such a rude text message that it may have represented our final ten grains of sand, all that was left of what once seemed like a whole beach. In any event, there has been no communication since then on the part of either party.
I mentioned to one of the staff chaplains that my romantic relationship had ended. This was the same person who complimented my gift for public prayer, so I like him very much. He put his hand over his heart and looked sad for me. I also ran my question by him about whether I’m too old to be embarking on professional chaplaincy. He said he started at approximately the same age, after a career as a social worker. He said many of the working chaplains he knows tend to have more life experience.
Soon I got a call from a nurse on behalf of a patient whose dog had died. She called back and said the patient had been given Ativan, so all was well at the moment, “but we can just call you whenever, right?” I know that some hospital personnel think there are three shifts of chaplains, in which case it would be perfectly appropriate to call at any hour for any reason. But this is not the case. I told her that when we’re on call, we work for 24 hours straight: we work during the day and we hope to rest as much as possible during the night. “Oh, I understand!” she said. I will say that I would not have said this had my supervisor been within earshot, though my peers supported my approach when I told them about it the next morning. I told the nurse that, having said that, if the patient was really freaking out during the night, or panicking, they should definitely call me, and I added that I sympathize with how painful it is to lose a pet.
I did my rounding, visited a patient I always visit when I’m at that campus, went to sleep, and was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a call about a baby whose death seemed imminent. I was in the room when the doctor arrived and told the parents that the baby was telling us goodbye. He suggested that most of the medical equipment be removed so that the parents could hold their baby in their arms and change its diaper if they wanted, and when they were ready, the final piece of life support would be turned off. The doctor said that continuing to pump oxygen into the baby is damaging its lungs, but the parents shook their heads and said they wanted treatment to continue. This baby has been in the ICU for more than six months, and I learned later that the parents feel they are on the opposite team from the care providers, which must be really terrible—not to be able to trust your very ill child’s doctors and nurses, and to feel they are giving up too soon or even failing to value the life of your child.