Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
-- A. E. Housman
Taking her hand was like stepping into a wind tunnel. She drew me with all the force she was losing. I braced myself on the bedrail. She held on, as the cliché goes, for dear life. She was holding on to me.
As the grey tabby curled by her bandaged head and the orange one at her feet, a brain tumor was killing her. She could understand but couldn’t say much. I figured out that she could answer a question, if the question included words that she could answer with.
“I’ll ask you some questions, Caitlin, so I can find out how you’re feeling, if that’s all right.” “That’s all right.”
“Are you afraid of something? are you in pain?” “Afraid of something.”
“Afraid of what, Caitlin? of afterlife? of dying itself? Something else?” “Of dying.”
She and her sister auditioned me. These two had left three more sober siblings in Ireland, in favor of a bohemian life: they weren’t going to accept a chaplain who wasn’t “funky.” I wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t found me funky enough.
Caitlin feared that her tumor was God’s punishment for her sins. It would mean her life had been wrong.
She was a trans-Atlantic stewardess in a time when the title certified that you were female, single and easy on the eyes. She made her own rules in the air and afterwards. She was a friend of poets and artists, an inspiration to her younger sister, and a closer of taverns on either side of the pond, on first-name basis with the precinct police, who would drive her home with the barstool from which they could not extract her. She was a wild Celtic Catholic woman, estranged from her church and half her family, and holding on to me.
Here there be monsters, but we can’t in good conscience deny ministry to the attractive. Firefighters run into burning buildings, and we run toward grief and fear. That’s why people look at us with pitiful eyes. How can you do that? they think, why would you do that? But it’s our calling: we must pluck up courage and learn the skills. And chief of these is to name the beast on which we ride.
For minutes at a time you might have watched us in seeming silence, the grey tabby in my lap, Caitlin holding on to me, I holding on for both of us. She was the sprite who lured Merlin into the woods; and I was her funky priest, a druid rather standing in for priests whose judgment she loathed and feared, but whose absolution she desired. These projections almost matched up.
You may say this was a corrupt bargain, a deal of deceptions. Compared to what? I say. It was this or nothing. In extremis she opened her heart, and closed her hand on mine, and this is what came through. She didn’t have a truer version of herself to show me. Nor I to her. “Speak now, and I will answer,” says the poet. I got her message right between the eyes. My answer was, I’ve felt your power, and I’m not running away.
“How shall I help you, say.” Her sister and I found a priest of compassion, who brought more of God’s mercy than of judgment, and didn’t reinforce her fear. She took Anointing of the Sick from him.
She reached the age of sixty in that bed, and died -- as best we understood her -- in peace, with all her siblings near, including the ones she left behind.
There is no pure apprehension between human beings. We are always writing roles for each other on first impressions or long acquaintance, based on the past and looking through the present toward the future. The role you write for me can only partly coincide with the role I write for myself, and neither can be verified right now. On those people I have known the longest I project my most hyperbolic hopes. I make assumptions. “We’ve known each other through thick and thin,” I say, “and so I surely thought that you . . .” “Assume” is the word that makes an ass of u and me. Of such flimsy stuff do we construct our bridges of longing and compassion, extrapolating from facts to what no fact can support. It’s the best we can do, sometimes asinine but sometimes miraculous. Keep moving, and keep naming the faith. Stop and drown. We walk at best on water.
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