At County Hospital late in February, I had a long chat with a fellow who was “right as rain” until late November, and then suddenly stricken with a mysterious and rare illness. I think he appreciated having the opportunity to tell his story to someone who had plenty of time to listen to it. I have read and I believe it is true that when we have a traumatic experience, we need to tell the story X number of times.
I also had a conversation with a woman who seemed at first perfectly well, but by the end of our talk, I was starting to think she was not at all oriented to reality. I shared some of what she said with a couple of my fellow chaplains, one of whom responded with the James A. Owen quote, “All stories are true. But some of them never happened.” I believe that. If it is not literally true that this woman’s cousin is paying agents of darkness to bedevil her in such-and-such ways, it is true in some other way, perhaps in that she feels alone and endangered.
She was having physical symptoms, so I encouraged her to go to the ED and offered to walk there with her, but she said, “No, no, I’m fine,” and hurried off. I could see in her eyes that she had just realized she was dangerously near a parole officer.
I left the hospital late—there was a crisis with a premature baby toward the end of the day—and scurried over to a Market St. karaoke lounge to go to a friend’s birthday party. There were several people there whom I knew. My friend was joyful and bursting with life in a red dress, and I also got to meet her two darling sisters for the first time. I briefly considered getting up and singing a Metallica song. I think that would have been a crowd pleaser: 55-year-old me with my rapidly whitening hair and conservative chaplain clothes, but after a while, I realized that the songs somehow all sounded the same, I guess because the arrangements and accompaniment were generic. The place was hellishly loud, making conversation impossible, and there was a two-drink minimum, so before I had to order a drink, I gestured to my friend that I needed to go.
I was getting hungry, so I went to Whole Foods, a place I normally hate, but which now seemed an oasis of quiet and calm. I got two pieces of pizza to eat while walking home, a rare time-saving exception to my mindful eating practice. Just as I finished the first piece, I encountered a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk. It had been unusually cold and windy, and as much as I was looking forward to that second piece of pizza, which was the more desirable one, I could hardly have two while this woman had none, so I said, “Would you like a piece of pizza?”
She said, “I’d love a piece of pizza! I don’t want to suffer any more. Please don’t talk to me.” I handed her the pizza and said, “Would you like a napkin?” She reached up her hand and I handed her all the napkins. As I walked away, she asked, “Are you homeless?” “No,” I answered, and for some reason, I felt like weeping.
That night I slept for 11 hours, and dreamed that I was playing the trumpet beautifully, with mastery and ease. I also dreamed that Sam was tending to a patient in the hospital with great warmth and tenderness, and that the patient was very pleased.
A couple of days later, I went to Sam’s goodbye party at the Zen temple where he had been living. He has gotten a job in hospice, the second person of our CPE cohort to gain employment as a chaplain.