Are You Red-dy or Fiery Veil? I held both lipstick tubes against my shirt and weighed the decision. Finally, I decided my day would be the same no matter which shade I chose. I swiped some across my lips, extra thick, and headed out the door. I was as ready as I would ever be for my first day on my own as a hospital chaplain trainee.
When I got to the hospital I procrastinated-- signing my name in all the right places, carefully placing my lunch and purse in the locked cupboard. I walked alone in the halls, looking into the faces of the other people and wondering if they were as nervous as I was. The motion in the lobby was constant with an assortment of volunteers, patients, families and hospital workers walking through. I studied each face carefully wondering what was happening in their lives. I was there because I had to be. As part of the training to be a pastor, I had to have a “clinical” pastoral experience. In other words, I had to be a chaplain for a season.
I got to my assigned floor, filled mostly with leukemia patients. I slipped behind a computer at the nurses’ station and printed out the list of patients I was to see. I promptly tucked the list into my folder and convinced myself that introducing myself to the people not attached to IVs would be a better first step. “Hi, I’m Sue. I’m training to be a chaplain.” Nurses, doctors and custodians politely shook my hand and got on with their work. I wandered to the restrooms, washing my hands slowly and carefully. I pressed my lips together. The lipstick was sufficient.
When my hands were dry I walked to the lounge and took out the patient list while the TV blared a morning news show. Nurses and doctors talked in the hallways. Equipment beeped and flashed constantly, a never ending assault of noise. The elevator came and went with people and balloons. Down the hall a man wretched. My own stomach turned. An hour had passed since I walked in the doors and I still hadn’t been brave enough to visit a patient.
I sighed and tried to tune out the noise while I decided whom to visit first. I settled upon Grace. It's natural to begin a chaplaincy with some Grace, I thought. Outside her door I put on the required paper gown and mask, my flimsy armor against whatever lay on the other side of the door.
I was so nervous that I don’t remember what I said or she said, only that after a few minutes she was crying and I was crying and three years of academic theological training seemed pretty much useless. Her chemo wasn’t working. The hope of heaven was nothing compared to the agony of final separation from children and grandchildren.
An eternity later, I wiped my tears, prayed with her, stripped off the rubber gloves and paper gown and put them in the special garbage near the foot of her bed. I walked out the room directly to the elevator, trying look as confident and purposeful as the nurses, but my lower lip betrayed me. I went to the cafe for a latte, something predictable. Something familiar.
A few minutes later I tossed the lipstick-stained cup into the trash and went back to the leukemia floor.
Training to be an interfaith chaplain is like those swimming lessons they give to babies. You get thrown into deep water with no instruction, no tools, and a vague hope that if things go horribly wrong some strong hands will pull you to safety. My training group wasn’t unprepared, all six of us had some theological education in one religion or another. We had done ministry work. But, unlike the medical interns and residents, we didn’t follow an experienced chaplain who showed us the ropes. Our instructor simply showed us to our floor and said, Go. The learning comes later as we dissect our experiences.
Chaplains don’t dispense drugs or use sharp things like scissors or needles. Chaplain tools are time, words and occasionally touch. While we might say something awkward or commit a religious faux pax, the chances of us accidentally killing a patient with our words are pretty much zilch. But that doesn’t mean words don’t have power. The questions we ask reveal deep truths. Our presence reminds people that their lives have meaning. Our willingness to listen assures them that someone cares. The things we do can give life to a dying body It’s a powerful kind of healing.
As a chaplain, I wasn’t there to convert, cajole or evangelize. My role was as easy and as difficult as being fully present in some of life's worst circumstances. I’ve recited the Lord’s Prayer holding the hands of a young Hispanic woman, she in Spanish and me in English, the words of our prayers mingled together in a shared rhythm. I searched though an old man’s coat and gym bag searching for a red yarmulke so that he could wear it while he talked to God. I discussed about the meaning of life and death with an atheist who was frightened of his diagnosis and had no interest in a higher power. I’ve stood by wailing families who surrounded the body of a loved one who had passed. I've sat quietly while a young man cried his confession. I’ve talked softly and stroked wispy white hair of an unconscious old woman whose family called but never visited.
Chaplaincy training isn’t about doing it “right” but rather just doing it. It’s about learning to see the person and not the tube coming out of her head with slippery pink liquid draining into a bag. It’s about spending five minutes staring into the frightened eyes of a dying man who can’t hear or speak. It’s about letting a mother bleed mascara on your white shirt when what you really want to do is run away and pull your own children close. It’s about facing your own fears about loneliness, loss of control and death so that you don’t dash out the door and down the steps when the going gets tough.
At the end of my first week I entered Beth’s room. She had a quarter inch of fine dark hair growing back on her head and a computer propped up on her lap.
“Come on in,” she smiled and motioned me to the chair near the bed and shut the computer. She was more comfortable in the hospital room than I was.
As the conversation wound from diagnosis to prognosis to her children, she admitted that even though chemo was going well and the prognosis was good, most days she was so weak that she couldn’t even lift her two -year-old. Her four- year-old wondered why she couldn’t play like she used to.
“How do you do it?” I asked. “How do you face it without falling apart?”
She sighed deeply.
“I did fall apart. Six months ago, I didn’t get up off the couch. Not because I couldn’t physically, but because I couldn’t mentally. I wasn’t dead but I was already dead, you know?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, even though I wasn’t dead, I quit living,” she looked away, going to a different place. “My husband couldn't take it. One day it all came out. He was standing there yelling and crying and I was on the couch curled up and crying and my mother grabbed the kids trying to get them outside to make sure they didn’t hear it.”
“Wow.” I cringed inwardly thinking a chaplain should be more profound.
“That’s when I realized that I needed to do something,” she continued. “I mean, here I was in this-- this shitty place and all I wanted to do was escape. Retreat. That’s not who I am. My husband knew that. I decided that’s not who I want to be. I’m a fighter. So, I started going to a psychologist and taking antidepressants. I’m choosing to live until I actually die—whenever that is. I want my kids to, know, really know, how much I love them.”
Sometimes hard to tell who is doing the ministering.
Walking in and out of those hospital rooms over the next six months, I realized that I am not the keeper of wise words or religious truths. I could never have all the right answers. But rather, I learned each of us holds a piece of the collective wisdom that defines our humanity. We give and take from each other, bearing witness to the fragility and resiliency of life. Talking about our lives and our deaths are difficult conversations. They are sacred conversations. In these moments it doesn’t matter what lipstick I wear or if I feel ready. What matters is that I’m willing and that I care.