A couple of weeks ago, I noticed there was a mourning dove sitting on a nest on the fire escape outside my living room window (my living room being the same as my bedroom, office, gentlewoman’s cave and workout area). I saw there were two eggs on the nest after the mother (or father) for whatever reason flew away. The parent had not been gone for more than two seconds when a large black crow landed and began to pluck at the edge of the nest with its beak. I shooed it away, and it was lucky I was watching at that exact moment because, according to my father, the crow would have eaten the eggs. He said birds will even eat the young hatched children of other birds. After several days during which a parent was present every time I looked out the window, the baby birds hatched, and a time or two I saw their scrubby little bodies peeking out from under their parent.
At work that week, I saw a note from one of the palliative care social workers saying that a certain younger patient does not want chaplain visits and had asked Delia to leave his room. I was pleased to be able to report that I had had a perfectly civil, if short, visit with him. I said that he said he is being visited by his wife. His wife? He was not known to be married. Why, yes, his wife, coming from such-and-such Bay Area town. Bay Area? This patient lives in another state. When I was asked during rounds meeting to describe the patient, it finally became clear that we were talking about two different people. I said I would delete my chart note and figure out how I had come to see (and chart on) the wrong patient. To make such a blatant screw-up was rather embarrassing, though the social worker assured me that she has done something similar, and that everyone has.
Right after the meeting, I went to that patient’s room and immediately understood what had happened. As I approached the room, noting the descending room numbers, I saw personal protective equipment on the door of what was likely to be the correct room, based on the number of the room next door. Or was it personal protective equipment? Maybe it was the equipment those who clean the room are supposed to use if the patient is receiving chemotherapy.
Fortunately, just then a nurse popped into view and I asked her. She explained, and I turned and went into—the wrong room. I sent a note to the palliative care team saying I’d figured out what had happened and had removed my chart note. I got a note back from the social worker later that afternoon saying, “Just wanted to let you know that we are so very appreciative of your presence this week. We completely trust your instincts, skill and wisdom as a chaplain. I can imagine that today was quite difficult. [The other social worker] let me know about the morgue experience. Hoping we can check in tomorrow. Sending hugs.”
As for the morgue experience, I got a call saying that the family of a deceased palliative care patient wanted him to have a blessing. The staff member who normally brings the body into the viewing room was not available—would I mind doing this in “the cooler”? I said I would not mind, though my true feeling was that there was nothing I would less rather do. Anita offered to come with me, but I decided to be brave.
A young woman let me into the necropsy room. Beyond her, I could see a man poking at something red and pulpy lying on a table, evidently an autopsy in progress, something I had had an active desire never to see. The young woman opened the door to the freezer, where there were five or six bodies wrapped in white bags. She offered to bring my fellow into the room outside the freezer (or perhaps not a freezer as such; a cold room), where her co-worker was, but I also actually didn’t feel like seeing the face of the frozen dead person, so I said, “No, that’s fine,” and I stood in the doorway of the freezer and offered a blessing to the patient of interest, as well as to the others in the room, while I was at it. I wondered if I should make the gesture of touching his head through the bag, but did not want to and did not.
Before I left, I asked the young woman, “Is your co-worker working on a head?”
“Yes,” she said. “A fetus.”
I then called Jodie, one of our supervisors, to see if I’d cheated by not having the man brought out and uncovered. “No!” she assured me. She said the family just wanted a chaplain to be near their loved one and offer a blessing. I told her about the autopsy and she was sympathetic. She asked if I’d ever seen one before, and she said she has seen two. She said I should feel free to come by to debrief further if I wanted.
That afternoon, when I got home from work, I went to the window to admire my birds and saw that the nest was empty. When I turned on my computer, I saw a note from the manager of my apartment building saying it had come to her attention that nasty, poopy birds were nesting on the fire escape, and might she go through my apartment to deal with the situation?
I was upset. I cried. I didn’t think she would harm baby birds, but I suspected she might have shooed the parents away long enough for the crow to get them. But it turned out that she does know you cannot disturb nesting birds, and she said that when she went through my neighbor’s place to get to the fire escape, the nest was already empty. Maybe a big aggressive bird scared the parents away and ate the children. I was relieved when I learned that, though a tragedy had occurred, we had not caused it.
That first night, the parents were clearly in distress. They flew around close to the nest, and periodically, one of them stood on the nest and looked down as if somehow the babies would reappear. I kept looking, too, thinking maybe somehow they would come back.