The red envelope caught my eye. The top left corner has a familiar name. It’s been four months. Setting other mail aside, I quickly open the letter and smile.
Walking through the halls of this establishment, I am aware of my presence in quiet places that nobody speaks of. There are no decorations. No lamps offer warm light next to comfortable sofas. Instead there is excessive light and bars on the windows. I walk past closed doors hearing sobs and whispers. At the nurse’s station I sign in, quickly walking toward the chaplain’s office. There sits my new friend, Lance.
He tells me that in this state mental facility is an older man with a history of physical and mental illness. He arrived with a duffel bag and was protective of the contents in the bag. The patient’s request for daily chaplain visits provided Lance with the opportunity to gain the patient’s trust. He slides a piece of paper across the desk to me. It’s a list of the items in the bag. I read down the list: The Acts of the Apostles, The Desire of Ages, The Great Controversy, the King James Version of the Bible, Patriarchs and Prophets, The Story of Redemption.
I know why I’m here.
The list has a postscript: “a book wrapped in brown paper bag strips with the name ‘Emma’ on it.” Of all the books in the duffel bag, the title of this one remains a mystery. Nobody has seen it. It’s as if great care has been taken to keep this book in pristine condition by wrapping it to prevent any damage.
As we walk toward the patient’s room, I learn the patient has shared the name of his daughter, Emma, a social worker in the area. The book wrapped in paper bag strips is for her. Inside the patient’s room he sits on the floor, gazing at the small window high on the wall. There is nothing here to make this place home. Then I see it: The duffel bag.
Lance introduces me. We sit on the floor and wait. Finally, in slow movements he pulls out the paper bag package from the duffel bag and hands it to me. “Do you remember this?” I wonder if he is talking to me. I open the package. It’s a book: Famous Hymns With Stories and Pictures. “You should play the piano again. Your mother loved to hear you play.” He whispers: “I broke apart. Sorry. I pray God will understand.”
I walk out of the building holding the book. I have carefully wrapped it back in its original brown paper bag cover. I ponder: I have spent months searching for obvious signs of the Holy Spirit moving among us, whispering in our hearts, inspiriting acts of kindness toward strangers. In my search, I have missed an obvious place where the Holy Spirit works: Our family.
* * *
The soup kitchen is welcoming. I see rows of tables filled with homeless people of all ages. They are here for a warm meal. Emma is expecting me. Where could she be? I hear a kind voice: “You must be looking for me.” I immediately notice our physical similarities. He thought I was her.
I have no words. I hand her the package. She unwraps the paper, takes a sharp breath, and cries. She remembers. She tells me her father was a concert pianist who taught her to play piano. This was Emma’s favorite piano book. Her mother, an Adventist, died of cancer at an early age. The loss seemed too difficult for her father. He disappeared for 15 years. “I lived with anger that he left. Now it seems clear what I need to do,” she says, tracing the cover of the book.
* * *
The card in the red envelope has a photograph of Emma and her father sitting on a piano bench smiling. He is in a facility closer to her home. “The time left is precious. How can it be that through all these years, carrying my mother’s books, faith has remained strong in him? I am learning of the impact my mother’s faith had in him, and now in me.”
Dixil Rodríguez, a college professor and volunteer hospital chaplain, lives in Texas. This article was published January 12, 2012.