Friday, July 30, 2010
As my phone buzzed me from my sleep I thought, how did my alarm get set vibrate rather than ring? Through one half-opened eye I looked at it and realized simultaneously that it was a call coming in from the hospital and it was 4 am. "Hello," I said as awake and alert as I could manage.
"Is this the Protestant Chaplain on call for <insert name of hospital here>" came the official sounding voice from the other end.
I sat up and said, "yes, this is Nancy" as I forced my brain to pay attention to what was coming next.
"A family on <insert ward #> is asking for a chaplain, the patient is dying."
"Wait, let me write this down." I knew I couldn't rely on my memory at this time of night (or morning, I'm not sure which timeframe 4 am belongs to). I turned on my bedside lamp and reached for my notebook and pen. "Go ahead."
"I'm sorry for waking you, Ma'am."
"No apology needed, I'm on call, it's what you are supposed to do." The official sounding voice laughed and gave me the details. "Please tell the family I'll be there as soon as I can," I said as my mind had already started going through my closet thinking about what I can put on. As I physically opened the closet door I thought of the entry I read in the Beauty Tips for Ministers blog about always keeping one outfit pressed and ready for those middle-of-the-night calls and I wish I had paid better attention to the advice. I grab what doesn't need ironing and pull it on, make my way to the bathroom, put up my bed-head hair as neatly as possible (wasn't oily hair supposed to end sometime in my 30s???), wash the sleep out of my eyes, decide against any makeup beyond a quick dust of powder, put in earrings, and brush my teeth (a very important step I was glad I thought of even if halfway to the hospital I realized I had forgotten to freshen my deodorant).
I got in the car and thought "Oh, dear God, I have no idea what I'm supposed to do!" Which I immediately followed with the prayer "God, you are going to have to give me the words." Thankfully, the drive was uneventful and I even managed to stay within the speed limit.
I entered the darkened room to find two women, one looked about my age and the other older standing beside the bed where the man appeared to be sleeping. I softly whispered who I was. The younger woman, the daughter, stepped away from the bed and explained the situation to me.
"My father is dying," she said. Tears ran down her weary face but her voice was strong. "His breaths are coming further and further apart. He's been in so much pain and we don't want him to suffer any more. We've said our goodbyes to him. Please pray with him so that he knows it's okay to let go."
These words will ring in my ears forever. My mind and heart raced through time to two separate events, years apart yet just as vivid as this event unfolding before me. I remember standing with my grandmother at my granddaddy's bedside and hearing her whisper to him "Shug, if you are ready to go, it's okay." About ten years later, I said similar words to my own mother: "I know you don't want to be this sick and if you are too tired to keep fighting, it's okay." And, now, these people I didn't even know, had never met before walking into this room, were asking me to give their husband and father permission to let go of this life.
I stepped close to the bed, took his hand, placed my other hand on his shoulder, and leaned in close to his ear. "Mr. <patient name> my name is Nancy, I'm the chaplain. Your wife and daughter have asked me to pray with you." I took a deep breath and said a quick silent prayer asking God again to direct my words. "Heavenly Father, please take your son into your arms and relieve him of his suffering." As soon as these words passed my lips I felt his shoulder shake and I thought it was him taking another breath. "Give comfort to his wife and daughter in their sadness. God we know you understand our pain at losing a loved one and even though we can rejoice that <patient name> will no longer suffer but live in your glory, they will grieve losing him. Give them strength, God."
Before I could finish the prayer, his wife says "He's gone, I feel it." For some unknown reason, I respond, "I just felt him breathe" thinking this was the movement I felt. Both the wife and the daughter said they didn't feel anything, that he hadn't moved …
The events of the next three hours were mostly guided by the hospital staff, the doctor coming in to pronounce the time of death, the nurse disconnecting him from all tubes and such and telling the family they could stay with him as long as they needed. I sat with them for about two hours listening to them tell stories of his life amid tears and laughs. Finally, they stood and said they were ready to go and I walked them downstairs to sign the necessary paperwork to allow the hospital and funeral home to coordinate and cooperate. As I walked them to the front of the hospital, the sun was up and it was time for me to start my regular duty day.
I am deeply grateful to have had this experience and touched and thankful for my fellow chaplains who, after only half of my "regular duty day" sent me home to take care of myself, spiritually, emotionally, and physically (although I teased them it was just because they wanted me to shower). Through this event, I realized, again, the awesome responsibility that comes with God's call for my life. I will lead people through the most difficult, as well as the most joyous, spiritual moments of their lives and yet I cannot rely on my own strengths or abilities but those that God gives me for this purpose.
This experience of praying someone through their moment of death will stay with me forever, not in a frightening way but in an awe inspiring way as a testament of God's presence in our lives and physical being. I hope to always be amazed at the way God can build my confidence and humble me at the same time with the same experience.