Monday, November 17, 2008

first client

-- Something is taking its course.
-- We’re not beginning to . . . to . . . mean something?

-- Samuel Beckett, Endgame

You remember your first clients, because they teach you how to work. I’ll call her Kitty. She taught me what my job was. I didn’t know.

Imperious, angry, terrified, begging and demanding help, a retired schoolteacher still teaching the world, she had for the first time met the pupil who would not sit down, the guest who had come to her home and would not leave. “I don’t appreciate that,” she used to say of some remark, some behavior or other, fill in the blank, that offended her prerogatives and high standards. Kitty didn’t appreciate a death sentence. It offended her. This wasn’t the way it ought to be. Somebody was to blame. Maybe God. No, that was impossible. Maybe herself. But no, that was inconceivable.

From the office they called me -- an intern chaplain making my very first visits. This lady has just been admitted, they said, and she has urgent spiritual needs. You should see her as soon as possible.

Me. They called me. But I was a mess. I staggered through my visits, deflected from the mark by doubt and fear of failure. These people are really in trouble, I said to myself. What have I got to offer them? No words from a book, no advice delivered in a seminar, could answer that question.

I called her that evening, and Kitty invited me to her home the next day. High in a spotless apartment of a housing project tower, she opened her door to me. Unusually robust for a “terminal” patient, she led me to her parlor, gave orders for coffee, placed me on her couch and herself in an armchair close by. I felt her authority. I’m the wrong guy, I thought, for a commanding lady estranged from one of Harlem’s great black Baptist churches because, as she would say, they “don’t have the true Spirit.” I’m – well, I’m, er – white. And I’m a Unitarian Universalist: I bring to her parlor my utterly classic liberal Problem of Belief.

Kitty didn’t have time for any of that. She never noticed my disbelief, she brushed it aside. She didn’t give a damn, there was work to do.

I opened by the book. I asked what she was feeling, and encouraged her to tell me about it. She poured out her rage, indignation, confusion, terror. How could God do this to her? She, who had always tried to do things right. She wept. The worst thing was, she and God weren’t talking to each other. That was what most terrified her. She couldn’t pray.

I suggested that God, according to everything I had been taught, wants to know our honest thoughts. Not just the nice things, the adulation and adoration and gratitude; but also the rage, the resentment, the impossibly difficult critical questions. This idea surprised her. I asked if I could help.

So she took both my hands, and we both bowed our heads, and I started talking. I began with the facts. I told the Spirit that I was here with Kitty, that she had seen the end of her life, was overwhelmed and angry about it, didn’t know what she should do or how she should do it; she felt abandoned and betrayed, and needed help to find the meaning in these days to come. I kept listening for the next words, and all the while Kitty kept speaking for herself, over under around those words that were not mine. And when there were no more words to say, I said Amen, and she did too. And we looked at each other. And let go our hands. Something had taken its course. We knew this because we could feel it had finished now. If you can feel the end of it, you know it was something.

Kitty didn’t die. At least not on my watch. Like a number of people with her particular diagnosis, she got better. We had to discharge her. Our parting had a different grief.

Kitty ordained me. Though I can’t give a simple answer to the first great theological question (and am not obliged to), I am her “man of God.” No matter what other seals of approval I may acquire, I will retain that one. God bless her.

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