Monday, April 10, 2017

white bird

Seventy years are given to us!
     Some even live to eighty.

-- Psalm 90:10 (NLT)

Oh to be seventy again!

-- attr. Georges Clemenceau

. . . a small white bird banging in my heart.

-- Peter Meinke, "Poem to Old Friends Who Have Never Met"


The arithmetic is staggering. It staggers me. Today at about three in the morning I completed my seventh decade and -- get this! -- began an eighth. Doesn't seem right. When I say it out loud, my friends say surely that's wrong. But yes, I am living my eighth decade.

Older versions of scripture were more stately: "The days of our lives are threescore years and ten." In our age of vaccines and potable water and municipal sewer systems, the psalmist seems to bestow a right. I'm owed my seventy years, dammit, it's in one of those amendments somewhere. And if I don't get my threescore and ten then something has gone terribly wrong, so I'll retain legal counsel and there'll be an investigation to find out whose fault it is. Somebody has to be brought up on charges.

But entitled as I am to seven, an eighth decade seems to exceed my rights. I might finish it or I might not. The Constitution is silent about it. "Some even live to eighty . . . " how remarkable! how lucky!

And if you've already been blessed with a look into your medical future, if you feel on certain days the fatiguing race of medications through your body, if you know that other, more tiring chemicals are to follow and you know the name of your angel, you might see the next ten years as a contingent matter.

I was widely praised a week ago for not doing much. It brings to mind the secret motto of counseling: don't just do something; sit there! I came late into two meetings, both of them emotional. In each meeting a team of clinicians were coaching someone through a difficult decision. I listened hard, because it took me the whole meeting to catch up. What were they talking about?

By the time I figured out what the question was it had been answered and the team was leaving, and I stayed there with -- in one case the patient herself, in the other case a daughter who had made a hard decision. In both cases tears. In one the assurance that no, she wasn't about to die now, she had many days yet to live with us, and were proud how brave she was, to say that if her heart stopped she would not want resuscitation, would not want intubation. In the other case to say she really loved her mother, that her tears were the proof of how deeply, that the choice was a hard one with no clear answer, that we understood and would support her. In both cases a prayer to whatever it is that brings us here where we cannot bring ourselves, for the unearned gift that life is, for the chance to care about such things.

That's all.

I guess it worked.

There was a shoutout on the company email, much praise.

Perhaps I am entering a phase of minimalism. Perhaps I operate on automatic pilot, accurate without decisions. You might say "instinct." You might say "experience." You might say "lazy." Maybe I am letting go of something. Maybe that's okay.

It's a time to separate, and grasp other work. My heart is elsewhere. Where has it gone, mi corazon? Always a fool and now an old one, I can mess things up in that new territory where a small white bird flutters.

There is fluttering around those who start out in the work, sent to me so I can clear some steps for them, watch them in their wobble and point to pits where they could fall. The holy terror, the impulse to flee and the command to stay in the room for another breath, with what cannot be fixed. Then the reduction of that inbreak to documents so ill-suited it's hard to say whether one makes a stream of gobble or a string of lies -- the soul's war between priest and bureaucrat. This watching, their looking back for confirmation, for some years now have been my chief joy.

And now, even newer, the fluttering around those next to me, nurses and social workers and doctors and yes even managers, who under merciless pressure to produce numbers and protect posteriors, five or six or seven times a day send out their fragile emissary of compassion to broken places of the world, and then recall the shaken messenger before he can flame out -- in this my later stage I hear a call from them.

"Staff support" is in every chaplain's job description, and the job itself makes staff support impossible. In our work reports it's literally unrepresentable: unless I lie, it looks like goofing off. It's not another bloody meeting where, hell or high water, you staff will be supported by me the counselor and here's the agenda. It's not another complication in your schedule. It's my being with you. Maybe we talk about kids, or cats, or temples in Thailand, or John Cleese. Maybe it's you and me laughing till we choke with backstage jokery. Maybe it's me reminding you, or you me, that we don't deserve to be bullied.

These are sweet things, and I am perfectly capable of botching them. They are still sweet.

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2 comments:

Agnes said...

Ah, yes, the beauty of age. Little is expected and, one hopes, that little is more eloquent than much would be.

Nana said...

Hollis, I recently entered the eighth decade also. Doing so engendered contemplation, prioritizing, and a decision to change my circumstances. Other birthdays happened with little notice. Yes, my threescore and ten has been used up, some well, some not so much. Every day from here on is a gift. I hope I use it well.