Monday, January 16, 2017

The Other Kind of Dog

Friday night on call, I offered prayers for a particularly ghastly looking man dying in the ICU. He had severe facial injuries and his eyes were open, blank and white, held partly shut with medical tape. I thanked God for the immense gift of this man’s life, all the remarkable people he met and the remarkable things he did. I have no doubt that both of these are true. His nurse stood on the opposite side of the bed with her head bowed during the prayer.

The evening was entirely full of patient visits and making my rounds, and the next day was also very full, but in between were nine and a half hours of sleep, for which I was very grateful. On Saturday I got a request to go visit four patients at the psychiatric institute. As I was walking toward the front door of the psych unit, someone who works there was coming down the hall toward me and asked, “Spiritual care? I could tell by the way you walk.”

When we drew abreast of each other, he said, “The SPCA is here, doing a therapy animal event.”

“Oh, great,” I said. I was envisioning a cage full of gamboling kittens.

“They brought a dog. Or, no, a rabbit—the other kind of dog.”


One of the psych patients, a young man, told me that he’s been feeling like killing himself, and also like killing other people. I was glad we were sitting in the little office right near the front desk, where all the workers are, and that I’d thought to block the door open with a chair, though the chaplain who normally visits that unit pointed out later that a lot of people feel like killing someone. The question, as with suicidal ideation, is whether the person has actually formulated a plan. This fellow told me he’s been homeless for 21 years.

I said, “You don’t look old enough to have been doing anything for 21 years.”

He said, “I’m 21 years old.”

When it came time to meet with the second patient, also a young man, the little office was in use, so we were shown to an empty room far at the back of the unit, and when the worker left, he closed the door. This person, who is Chinese, told me how Chinese students are being killed for their skins. I led him in a guided meditation, and then he told me a bit about his recent history. According to him, he’s in the psych unit because he hit his guardian, who is a woman. I started to feel distinctly uneasy. Evidently, so did the patient, because he suddenly said, “Us sitting here talking—there’s something behind it, right?” I was relieved when I was out of that room and plan not to get in that situation again.

The third psych patient’s girlfriend had come to visit him, so we didn’t speak for long. The fourth was an older woman with a particularly charming smile due to a tooth missing right in front. She told me she had changed religions, and now members of her former congregation are sending her “presents” that turn out to have bombs in them. She asked me to pray for her safety, which I did, and then she added her own prayer, in which she described how God can “take the shape of a butterfly.”

I now am happy to get a request to visit the psych unit. I hear such interesting things there, and each patient has his or her own unique world. Entering into each of those worlds has a sort of dreamlike feel to it.

As for F.: still gone. At first I was saying to myself, “May I align myself peacefully with things as they are.” I think this is a good wish, but I eventually saw that it was also about hoping not to feel too much pain. The latter can be accomplished by thinking about all the bad things about him, but has the drawback of not being the whole truth. He has horrible qualities but also excellent ones and we had many wonderful times together, so I amended my wish: May I be open to this experience of loss, just in this very second. There is a raw, bereft, stunned quality to some moments.

Yesterday was hard. Tom, Ann and I went to see 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips at Berkeley Rep, a Kneehigh production. We had lunch at Au Coquelet first. Lunch was delicious and it was great to see Ann and Tom and the play was splendid, even with our sightlines somewhat impeded by the railing in front of our loge seats. But this is precisely what F. and I did on what turned out to be our last day together. We had a marvelous time. I had not the slightest idea that I’d never see him again, which is likely what is going to happen. We will almost certainly not be friends.

I think what makes him feel strong and safe is getting angry and staying that way. He has decided that I have this and that horrible quality—I wouldn’t say I don’t, but I also have splendid qualities, which I don’t think feature any longer in his ruminations. He has decided that he is a wholly innocent party who has been cruelly victimized. This is not accurate—I am not a victimizer—but there is nothing more powerful than an idea oft-rethought. I can see that likely nothing good could ever happen between us again, but it’s still hard to lose him.

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