You Are With Me
She laughs--the wide mouthed, toothless grin of a first smile. Her nostrils flare. A pink, elastic, bow encircles her bald head. Her thumb aims towards her mouth, finding her hands still a new trick. The day she died, they held a birthday party for the first birthday she’d never have. I ran about trying to find a small cake, candles, and the birthday poster her mother requested.
Another picture, wispy blond hair brushes a smooth forehead, glitter bedecked lips part, she is looking up towards someone, mom perhaps, a favorite toy. The top of her princess dress frames her neck, and I know it spins around her legs in a dizzy dance. She was buried with a tiara. I’m in the next picture; a small boy and I grin at the camera. He is dressed in camouflage pajamas. His eyes are bright. A tube is taped across his cheek and goes down his nose, into his belly. It feeds him on days when he can’t bring himself to eat. He was transferred to another hospital…last I heard he was still alive.
This time, a card--a Christmas picture of two teens tacked crookedly at my desk. His face is round from the steroids used to calm his inflamed intestines. He smiles without teeth in a shy way. I haven’t seen him in months, but every time I chew bubble gum I remember the months he could not eat and the gum he chewed instead. At my desk I am surrounded by letters, pictures, and a poem sent by a friend who knows me all too well—“I felt I was a child instructing the grown-ups, / Giving advice like paper dams on a violent stream.”
I am a hospital chaplain. Prayers, games, and tears are the economy of my day. I baptize the dead—a theological no-no but in the midst of tears can anyone say “no” to a families request for their dying child? I bless the intubated. I offer reassurance, but more often, there is none to give. My smallest parishioners are weighed in grams; my largest are sometimes older than me with congenital problems best solved in a pediatric hospital. I drink lattes on my way to work, a bribe to leave my room, my warm, safe place where death is something that happens to pets and grandmothers.
There are times when my work is one of joy. A call to the side of a mother I have known for months asking a blessing for the long awaited trip home. I celebrate as a teenager, emerges laughing from baptism in the physical therapy pool. I read stories and offer comforts unique to the chaplain. I answer the curious questions of seekers, dispel myths, and tell jokes. I e-mail former patients who have left this place healthy and hungry for the world. I am continuously astonished by the volume of love the human heart can hold. The world becomes a testimonial; the hospital wards a witness and my calling, by turns a blessing and a burden.
At church I find myself a fish out of water—a priest, but not the priest of this parish or that parish. I am a priest, whose ordination anniversary stands in the singular. I am a priest, not yet 30, who has seen too much and bites her tongue when a colleague comments that my job is “cute.” I wear a collar every day, band, not tab. I curse God when a favorite relapses—and I trust that God does not take my words personally. I keep my faith alive because I sense that the ache of my heart is only dwarfed by the ache of God’s own. Likewise, when I celebrate I also sense that the joy in my heart is only dwarfed by the joy in God’s own.
God does not promise that we will never suffer; rather, God promises that we won’t be alone when we suffer. So, I stand with the suffering…walking in the valley of the shadow of death. And in the valley, I find a question—how long can I walk here? I wonder if that is the question that plagues all of us? How long, o Lord, how long? So, here I am, the day ahead—will it be long enough for the fullness of glory and the depth of despair? The answer, somehow, is always “yes”.
My pager goes off in the night, and my lips form around a “yes”. I throw on a clerical shirt and get in the car. An emergency c-section and a dying child wait at the end of my journey. I race to the hospital—I would rather baptize the living than the dead.