The small Post-it note was stuck to the bottom of the box. Its presence immediately noted as I collected the card stock of prayer requests from the hospital’s chapel prayer box: “To Whom It May Concern: Who are you? What do you do? What do you know about COVID? about people dying? Do you read my prayers? I am scared. Thank you.”
A small piece of paper with enormous requests from a stranger asking for my identity, purpose, job description, theology, and objectives for the day. I lock the box and place the note in my pocket, out of sight, for now. Yet in my mind all day, I write.
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To Whom It May Concern:
I am a hospital chaplain. I am not called a first responder, although I am part of the team that stands on the front lines of triage, greets the ambulance, is present at intake, walks with the agony of humanity and the unexplainable into the hospital; traversing the same halls EMTs run, where clinical teams chart, patients are transported, and “recovery” is a descriptor used to evaluate and treat the pain that weighs heavily on a gurney. I am among the first three people called when someone is in physical or emotional distress; the person called when life is in the balance, the hospital room is too quiet, or when fear of the moment or surroundings brings into clarity the hazy questions we all have in our life review: Did I do it all? Did I get it right? What happens now? How will I know if this is it? And a rather common question right now: “Is this truly God’s will?” Sometimes all patients need is a little grace, a reminder of divine mercy, a prayer to help move past this present point in life. Whatever hope you bring to the hospital, it will be nurtured.
My work schedule is often determined by you. If something goes wrong in the middle of the night, I will show up. There will be an urgent page, and I will travel down the dark, lonely highway back to the hospital, with its bright lights, a city all its own. If I am already in the hospital, resting in an on-call room, I will find you. I will be your advocate, a voice among many that will encourage you, be honest with you, participate in your care, sit with you until calm brings rest from pain. I will stay until you say what needs to be heard in the moment, until you share what is in your mind and heart, until your stories are completely told, or until your silence finally lets you rest again. I used to have a “set” schedule. Now I am just here most of the time. See, I care for patients, their families, but also for the staff—my colleagues.
Prayer is a necessity; air to thirsty lungs.
Most days are spent nodding and waving at colleagues. The emotional space is crowded, but the hallways are vast, quickly emptied; but seldom is the day I do not walk quietly past someone staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows in the lobby, captivated in thought, in emotions, watching and waiting for the world to turn from inside. Some days I am fortunate to catch a friend boarding the same elevator (only two of us allowed at a time). There are so many conversations left hanging in our hospital halls, no frames, unanswered questions, suspended as if we are coming back to them someday to “hang them up properly” and not just leave a hole in the wall, in our hearts. For in the midst of a conversation we are called away, reminded that the daily is not about us; it never is. The daily is about others, service to others, always. For this “ministry of healing” I belong to is all about mission. Right now that mission requires the crossing of a gauntlet I have never seen, full of decisive, defining moments, both in crawling the dark trenches or traversing the cloudy fields.
I have met COVID-19 up close. The introduction was brief, and then pieces of me had to adjust. Now I wear scrubs under all the PPE and recognize different-color markers on the floor that lead to decontamination, emergency, exit. A picture of me without the PPE is laminated and attached to my trauma badge, signed, so you will know who is under the mask, know my smile. I want you to realize that even though we are in a difficult moment right now, we are not alone. I believe we remember days of smiles, hugs, and camaraderie with our family, loved ones, our dear friends. So when I read prayer cards, truly there is no doubt that it is God’s will that we will smile, sing, laugh, hug again.
Your prayers are on my mind and on my lips all day long. Even when the faces of those whose names are signed on a prayer card elude me, there is something about the penmanship, the tear-stained lines, the drawings of a flower or a heart in mindful marginalia, that makes my heart ache and reminds me of one fact that grounds me during the longest of days and nights: we are not irrelevant to God. The prayer of those before me: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26), is one God answers with strong, mighty, delicate care. I pray all day long. I stand aside during codes, pray, observing, until the body can no longer sustain and the limitations of human effort are recognized. When the blood is on the floor, physicians shake their heads, they step aside for me, for prayer. I may be the one who delivers the last words of comfort, the final precious message to a beloved family, child, friend, so I must pray all day long. Prayer is a necessity; air to thirsty lungs.
Even with technology, COVID-19 has designated me a lonely survivor, often the last person your loved one will see. Amid despair, when loved ones cannot be together, I am allowed through the doors. I coordinate televisits and do my best to ensure that if your loved one is inside the hospital, separated from you, they will see, hear, feel you close. I will hold the medium of communication, sit with the family in this way as a most intrusive and welcome guest. I listen to words of encouragement, regret, love, forgiveness, words light with emotion, heavy with desire to be where I am. Often, no matter history or dynamics, there is not one family member who would think twice about trading places with me at a moment of loss, for the privilege of holding the hand of a loved one is priceless. I feel the loss too, and will care for your loved one as they are transported out of the hospital.
There appears to be no shelter for our breaking hearts, no comfort for our bodies in the elements as we all engage in bereavement outdoors. At a distance from the hospital I see families gather, waiting for news, waiting to know what happens next: sun, rain, wind, cold morning temperatures—the elements do not deter the necessity for comfort. From a distance I talk to the family, ask about their loved one. I hear stories about traditions kept, unexpected life moments. For a while families will rejoice in the color that those memories bring to their present monochromatic existence, a lackluster future that feels impossible without the one who has died. Between these emotional wars we laugh. But the “rest” has not happened yet. Eventually someone’s voice will crack, tearing the seamless ribbon of memories we have managed to carefully tug at; we remember why we are together. Closure is a resting place that alludes us right now.
I bear no judgment for anyone. Instead, as I write, there is a conscious recognition that this pandemic has forged a strong common denominator in relationships among strangers. Do you see it? Hope. The Holy Spirit nurtures that in us. In prayers, every day, there is a reminder of hope. It arrives as an unexpected gift: time. It moves us from one day to the next, offering opportunities to serve others.
Life is so fragile. I am scared too. My solace comes from Scripture, prayer. I don’t know if you have a Bible, but I included a list of my favorite psalms for you, knowing they will comfort you, praying they will bless you. I do believe we are meant to be a blessing toward one another.
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A small package with a Bible, a business card, and a personal pager number was addressed and left in the chapel with only a prayer to guarantee “To Whom It May Concern” would pick it up. It was 2:00 a.m., a quiet time in the chapel, when, if you stand at the left corner of the room, the stained-glass windows create a faint shadow of a cross, visible through the “busy” carpet. Fourteen hours later my day has ended. I am home, safe, on call with three pagers on the table. As I cry my day out, narrating the losses, gains, and exhaustion to God, the familiar sound of my pager fills the quiet apartment. There, in a text: “Thank U, chaplain. Prayers 4 U.—Psalm 23.”
Dixil Rodriguez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review. She previously served as a hospital chaplain in Texas, Ohio, and California.