Saturday, November 26, 2011

pro nobis

What can I give him, poor as I am?

-- Christina Rosetti, "In the Bleak Midwinter"

Lord, we don't get it. Don't ask us to sign on to this. We hope something good comes of it, but we don't see it now. Not right now.

Sometimes when the young ones die, they are still gorgeous. Ravaged inside, they still have their muscle tone, their bone structure and complexions intact, and they lie in their beds like sleeping beauties.

I'm standing in a tiny room stuffed with people. We're gathered, mother and brother and sisters and children, nieces and nephew, children and grandchildren and best friend, and there aren't enough chairs for us. The chairs are stuffed, with padding and with the people who pile on them, some in the laps of others, arms around each other. The air is stuffed with shock, and with anger. They knew it was coming, but they still weren't ready.

It was too big a crowd, too much emotion for the room they had shared with another patient who still breathes, his own knot of loved ones around him. It's too much for this room too, too much for any room. We stand and we sit and we huddle together, and I'm in the middle of them with my hand on his friend's shoulder. It's all I can think of to do.

Lord, don't ask us to understand this.

I come from a church where people don't like to pray, don't like to admit there's anything to pray to. Their great American guru told them to rely on themselves, never to admit they need anything from anybody, never to think they lack what they need to take care of themselves. "Men descend to meet," Emerson said, and left the church. Sneak up on them, catch them on the right mood, caress their egos, and my people might admit that they "meditate" every now and then, about nothing in particular; but to beseech whom they know not for what they cannot name is, shall we say, foreign to their nature.

I don't meet many of our people in my work. I do meet many requests for prayer. Ora pro nobis, they say in their various ways.

Make him better, they sometimes mean, and we cannot do it. If we could cure their sickness, they would not be here.

Make it all right, they sometimes mean. Because they do not think it's right, but think they ought to say so.

This is the Department of Reality, and I will not say it's all right. I will not. I will say that they are loved and deserve to be loved. I will say, as my father's prayerbook does, that God walks in the valley of every shadow, that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, that nothing will be the same now but that a different life is to be found, that you may stumble over it when you least expect, but it will be the life of a person who loved and lost, for grief is the dark lining of joy. But I will not call this event a blessing.

I will not say that God wills young people to die. I will not say it. Those who are angry, let them shout. Those who are broken, let them wail. If they want to climb into the bed and take the corpse in their arms, well, let them, they're in a great tradition -- others have done it before. If God isn't big enough to bear the scandal, then God can go to hell with the other false spirits. But God is by definition -- the only God I'm willing to deal with -- big enough. Prayer brings faith into being, that there is something big enough to hear the truth. If there isn't, we're already dead.

Ora pro nobis. They want me to pray. This isn't about me, or about the fashionable skepticism of my people, or about Criticism so High and Mighty that its legs don't touch the ground. This is life and death. If I didn't plan to get in the trenches, I should long ago have taken off the uniform to nurse my doubts at home. This is for them.

What do I have to give them? the truth. Start with the facts. Give the death its proper name, enumerate the people who are here, give voice to their wound, rage, incomprehension. Call God to account. If there is faith, it means that we act as if there were someone to call out. I know my advocate lives, says Job, so come here, give answer. Not a solution but a response, show that you heard me.

When the Voice spoke from the Whirlwind, it didn't say that everything was all right. It said that Job had been heard. People can bear a lot, if they have been heard.

The good that is to come is not in the event itself. In seven years of this work, I've learned nothing good about death, but I've seen good things come from facing death, one's own or someone else's. "Life is real, Life is earnest," wrote a poet of my people. Death makes life real: otherwise it's just endless rehearsal.

So out of this whirlwind I hope the voice will speak to them. In time.

The sleeping beauty still lies in the other room, not to be revived. I've named the people, and lifted up their loss into the light. And what is the meaning of this? it is still to come, as they learn how to live not in spite of but with the loss. Be our good shepherd, says the prayerbook, walk with us in the valley of the shadow. Our part is to keep walking, and keep calling out.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

early holiday

Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude . . . to choose one's own way.

-- Viktor Frankl

There had been a change in her condition. In the vernacular, we say she had "taken a turn." That's what I learned in the overnight notes -- she had taken a turn, for the worse.

I called her apartment, where niece and caregiver were holding vigil. That's what I learned when I spoke to them -- they were waiting for Charlotte to die. That's what the change meant. She was, as we say in our lingo, "actively dying."

Niece and caregiver thought that Charlotte would like it if I came over. So I cancelled other appointments and went to visit Charlotte. I found her, as we say in our notes, "unresponsive." Her eyes were closed, and there were seven or eight seconds between her breaths. Otherwise she did not move. A peaceful scene.

I said a psalm or two, and spoke a wish to whomever listens in our extremity, that her last visions would be beautiful. It's said in our business, we say it to ourselves and to clients, that the last sense to go is the sense of hearing, and that therefore words of love, or perhaps just the sound of the voice, may be of comfort as the the last coma descends. I don't know what evidence there is for that advice, but we say it and we act as if it were true. It's of comfort at least to those who are left behind -- there's something they can do in the last moments. They don't just have to suffer. There is something they can do.

Then I talked in the living room with Karyn, the niece; about the help she can get from her brothers and sisters as Charlotte slipped away, about funeral plans, about financial arrangements. Rita the caregiver came from the bedroom, saying that Charlotte had changed again. I went to the bedside and at first it looked the same to me; but her breaths became less frequent. The intervals grew. Ten seconds. Fifteen. Thirty seconds. Then we waited as a minute elapsed. Another minute. I touched her hands, then her cheek. She was cold. It was a simple as that. No turmoil, no evident struggle, no death rattle. There were tears in the room, but also a sense of accomplishment: she had died at home as she wanted, and without suffering.

Karyn looked at me. "Thank you for coming. She was waiting for you."

I don't think she was waiting for me. I don't think my part in this story was as crucial as that. But I said -- and this is another piece of our lore -- that some people hang on until something important happens, till a family member arrives, a holiday passes, a child is married or a baby born. I don't think I was that important in this case. I don't think Charlotte was waiting for me. But it comforts her niece to tell the story this way, and it's not my job to kill her hope, or to trash the beauty of her fiction.

But here's another story. Roberto was twenty-two years old, and dying fast of lymphosarcoma. It was early October, and he saw that he wasn't going to live for the holidays. So he asked for -- no, he demanded, he made a fuss -- that the family should gather a month early, and have a Thanksgiving dinner. His mom thought this was a bit much, considering the complications. It was hard enough just to take care of him, without organizing an extra holiday. But he was tough. He insisted.

So they gathered; the family came from far and wide on that day. They had their turkey, and he got to see them all. He told them he loved them, and they gave thanks for his life, for their life together. And he died that evening, on his self-declared holiday, at 7:30.

Roberto couldn't survive his illness. He couldn't even survive to the holidays. But knowing what was impossible, he could embrace the just barely possible. He could declare his own holiday. He could call his people together. He called, and they responded. He was brave. He was clear in his head. He was a loving son to his mother, brother to his siblings, nephew to his uncles and aunts. He brought rejoicing to the day of his death. He declared his holiday, and held on for it.

The death of a young person is the hardest kind. So much is lost, the full life that older people sometimes in their last days say was theirs. But his courage and his honesty brought celebration to the day of his death. In obscenity he made beauty. He chose his attitude, and made his death into a song.

In neither of these cases did I do anything. I witnessed what someone else did. Karyn told a story of Charlotte's death. Roberto told the story of his own. They were no longer powerless. No longer victims, they became authors.

A pastor may come to speak the good news, but a chaplain comes to hear the good news. These were miracles, and I got to see them.