August 4, 2017

Unsigned Application

Growing up, I enjoyed books that began with “Once upon a time . . .” and blue glossy covers of Bible Stories (with the word “stories” sketched in a calligraphy font). It was a grand opening, introducing characters and plots. With time I have come to appreciate that stories are often necessary for purposes other than entertainment: Reminders? Anchors for challenging times? A way for the Holy Spirit to bring comfort and connect strangers?

* * *

I sit quietly watching Phyllis rest. I wonder about the next chapter of her story. I wasn’t supposed to meet Phyllis. The day of her accident, the county hospital in her community was full and she was transferred to a hospital where I regularly volunteer. I remember the call, informing me that the hospital needed volunteer chaplains, two weeks before my scheduled start date. I met Phyllis that day.

“Sign the application,” she said. “You already have the job.”

To get admitted she had to sign “one too many documents,” and worried that the pen would run out of ink. I heard her story. She remembers snowy winters, walking everywhere because they didn’t own a car (this is where she stopped narrating to introduce a new character, her husband Larry). Phyllis was 20 years old, pregnant, working in a factory every day, “no time for vacation with a baby coming.” Larry worked in a steel plant and walked her to the factory, then back-tracked a mile to his job. At night, he would read from a big Bible that once belonged to Phyllis’ father, while she sewed a small, white garment for the baby. “I had no idea if it was a boy or a girl, but I told Larry, ‘We are taking this child to get blessed at church. It will be wearing this dress no matter what.’”

It was a boy. Phyllis and Larry dedicated their son to God. The handmade white garment was too long for the baby. Embarrassed, but with a grateful heart Phyllis prayed: “Let him grow into you, God.”

He did. Serving as a teacher for disabled children, Markus is now a minister of music; he volunteers in the “old neighborhood” in after-school programs, helping keep young people “off the streets.” I stood next to him as the surgeon informed us that Phyllis’ heart was failing. I watched him hold her hand, prayers exchanged between them. That was yesterday.

Now, the surgical team arrives to take Phyllis to her procedure. She wakes up and reaches out to me. We pray one last time; she holds my hand tight: “Sign the application,” she whispers. “Your parents placed you at God’s feet, gave you to His service. He knew we would meet. You had a divine job application before you even knew it! We parents don’t sign those, we pray for them. Our children choose to sign, to live out the story with purpose. Sign the application. You already have the job.”

I watch her leave and stand silent for an hour. Finally, a nurse peeks through the door and whispers: “I’m sorry.” In the empty room I cry, conscious of the divine intervention in human stories, conscious in silent pain that my heavenly Father still hears my tears. I hold Phyllis’ Bible in my hands. Her father, Larry, and no doubt Phyllis and Markus held this Bible. This Bible has a new home, a new story.

* * *

Once upon a time I met Phyllis. Our brief friendship changed my life. When she passed away, her family Bible was left in my care. One day, I drove to the church she called “home” and watched her son, Markus, lead the music service. I sat in a pew I imagine that Phyllis once sat in. I sang. That afternoon, sitting on the church steps, I returned the family Bible to Markus. He looked through it, touched the familiar marked paragraphs. He said it was a good Bible, then asked, “Did she tell you about the application?”

I smile as if it is a story I have never heard. Because it is.

Dixil Rodríguez, a university professor and volunteer hospital chaplain, lives in Texas.