At the morning meeting, the staff chaplain who had been so kind the night before said I always seem to end up in some extreme situation when I’m on call at that campus, and he said, “You’re doing good work here.” He said that in front of the director of the spiritual care department, which I hope made up for my encounter with the latter an hour or so later, when he found me sitting serenely in the cafeteria after breakfasting on three pieces of quiche that were utterly delicious but very tiny, like hockey pucks. Pleasantly full of butter, eggs and bacon, and long after I had presumably gotten on the shuttle, I was reading The New Yorker and drinking green tea when his unmistakable voice came from behind me: “Chaplain.” I felt a bit embarrassed, though he didn’t seem upset.
I departed with alacrity and arrived back at my usual campus wondering if I’m just too lazy to be a chaplain (or anything else). Sitting in my corporate cube and feeling dissatisfied with what seemed like meaningless work, I more than once concluded that the best way I could contribute to a non-profit would be to refrain from “working” there.
I went to take the on-call pagers from the person who had been holding them until I arrived, and he asked if I wanted to have lunch with him. I was quite full, but did go sit down with him and did actually listen to him in my best chaplain manner, and, after all, it’s the holidays. We have been trained that providing care to one staff member translates to better care for ten patients; maybe caring for one chaplain translates to better care for ten staff members. My peer mentioned that he had seen one of the patients on my floor, discerned her problem, and recommended such-and-such course of action, certainly something that sounded wise and that I might tell myself in that situation. (That having a horrible medical problem means we must learn to live in a world that is new to us, and that being vulnerable gives us the best chance of connecting with others.)
I made my way to that unit, where they had pizza! I really ought not to have but I did, while sitting in a wonderful massage chair someone had lately given the department as a gift. Then I went to see the patient my peer had mentioned (he thought she could use more support), but our visit was cut short by the arrival of a care team member she needed to talk to, so I went to see another patient that two different nurses had asked me to visit that day. They said she was crying and crying. On my previous visit, she had complained nonstop, and I had been shocked to discover that she is only five years older than I am. I had genuinely thought she was 25 years my senior, and resolved never to complain again.
During our second visit, I sat down and just listened to her, and tuned in to my own heart center, and didn’t concern myself with whether all aspects of her tale were true or not. If they are not literally true, they are metaphorically or symbolically true, and have just as much impact, as far as I’m concerned. I felt quite relaxed and rather sleepy after all that quiche and pizza. I let my eyes close a time or two, and told the patient, “If I’m asleep when dinner comes, wake me up.”
I spent an hour and 25 minutes with her, by which time it was clear to me that her deepest desire is to feel loved, and that she does actually have faith in God. Voila! I marvel at my fellows who can march into someone’s room, immediately figure out what the problem is and dispense a solution, but I can’t do that and am also strongly philosophically opposed to it, even as I am sure that that approach brings wonderful benefits to many.
Fortunately, there are many ways to be a chaplain, including my ultra-time-consuming method. Toward the end of this visit, the patient showed me her childhood rosary, which she said she rarely shows anyone, and I was able to offer a prayer that I think was spot-on: for the patient to feel God’s love, and for God to show the patient how she can offer love and care to herself. The patient asked me to come back the next day, and was sad when I said I would be off for the next four days. Before the visit was over, she almost but not quite smiled.