(This post is part of my continuing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
Not long ago, my boyfriend and I took his two sons to a local waterpark, on one of the Saturdays I didn’t have to work. It was a fun day, and I felt quite relaxed as we floated down the Lazy River on inner tubes. But just then, I heard a familiar beeping, and I wasn’t so relaxed anymore. It took me a moment to locate the source of the sound. It was not, as my mind had instantaneously concluded, coming from the pager I carry at work in the hospital. Rather one of the nearby water slides used a very similar tone to let the person working at the top of the slide know that it was safe to send the next rider down. Once I figured that out, I breathed a sigh of relief. Still, after nine years of responding to all kinds of emergency calls that begin with that sound, I had a Pavlovian response to it every single time, a small rush of adrenaline. Some subconscious part of my brain has learned that when I hear that sound, I have to immediately be ready for anything.
It’s no longer an outright panic response. In my first units of CPE, the sound of the pager always set my heart racing and my hands shaking. Now, it’s more of an instant alertness, an internal pep talk telling myself to gird up my loins and screw my courage to the sticking place. (And if I’m completely honest, on some busy days my internal response is more along the lines of, “Shit, not again! I just want to sit down and get a bite to eat!”) Not every call is a life and death situation, but many of them are. And on some shifts, that pager is merciless, leading me from crisis to crisis with no time to process in between them. One of the hardest parts of the job for me is showing up fresh to every call, no matter what came before. I want each patient or family member to feel as if they’re the only people I’ve ministered to all day, because so many times, I’m meeting them on their worst day.
The man just diagnosed with stage 4 cancer deserves my full attention and compassion. He doesn’t need to know that I’ve already seen two young children die today, that I’ve spent the last five hours holding their wailing parents as they grieved. All that matters to him and his wife right now is what they heard from the doctor an hour ago. Their world has shrunk to include nothing but them and their pain in this moment, and they are taking the risk of inviting me in as well. By the time I walk into the room with them, I have to be ready to sit with them in that pain, to bear witness to the incarnational presence of God by my own presence there. How can I prepare myself to be fully present to them in the few minutes it takes to walk to the patient’s room? How can I possibly be ready to enter into yet another kind of sadness and let go of the last two calls, with their own grief?
I say a lot of elevator prayers, often silent but sometimes (if I’m alone in the elevator with God) out loud. Sometimes they are prayers of commendation for the people I’ve just left. “Father, into your hands I commit ____.” Or even just, “Please, please help,” when I don’t know how to pray for them, but trust that the Spirit does. In my book, I tell the story of the letting-go ritual I developed, and sometimes I do a quick, makeshift version of that in the elevator. Other times my prayers are focused on the situation I know I will be walking in to when I get off the elevator. “I’m not ready for this. Jesus, I’m not ready for this.” It’s my version of “I believe; help my unbelief,” I guess. “I’m not ready for this; make me ready.”
And I hear that same fear echoed in the words of so many of the patients and family members I meet. “I’m not ready for this.” How could they be? We’re never ready to hear that we have cancer, never ready to watch a loved one die, never ready for a car crash, never ready for the phone call from the emergency room that our child has been shot. Some things you just can’t prepare for, no matter how hard you try. More often than I’d like to admit, that’s what I find when I walk into a hospital room. After a Master’s degree focused in pastoral care, five units of CPE training, and nine years of chaplaincy experience, there are still things I could never be ready for. But somehow, every single time, God meets us there in our unreadiness.
I am just as unprepared for the miracles I get to see – not often miracles of inexplicable physical healing, but miracles nonetheless. In the midst of the worst tragedies, when people are at the end of their rope, I hear them crying out, “I’m not ready for this! I don’t know how to live through this! I can’t go on after this!” And the miracle is that God is never not ready. There is never ever a situation in which God is unprepared to love us, unready to guide us through, step by step. I’ve never once found God caught off guard, ready to throw in the towel and say, “There’s nothing I can do here.” The miracle is that no matter what happens, somehow almost all of us do go on, we do get through this. God is always ready to show us the way, always ready to be our way.