My oldest turned 10 a few days ago. A decade of the great experiment called parenting–the growing up ourselves, the falling down and picking up again, the long days and short years. It’s hard to believe I’m this deep into being allowed to be someone’s mom. We are proof of grace, and so many have helped cover him in truth and love over the years. He remains our little boy even as he is days away from the 5′ mark; we continue to covet your prayers and hand-me-downs.
We found out about Dante on the tail end of a strenuous summer 2 years into marriage and Los Angeles living. I was a chaplain intern at Methodist Hospital in Arcadia, riding the bus between downtown Los Angeles and the peacock suburb far east. I was sleeping in the chaplain’s quarters every couple of weeks, working on-call shifts. Ryan would get up early to drive me to the most strategic bus stop in our 1995 Taurus each morning and I remember a good fight or two as a nice start to the day. He himself was busy with transitioning out of an office job to help on his first church plant team. I was looking at the last two quarters of seminary and the chaplaincy summer internship fit in with my part-time job responsibilities the rest of the year. That’s about all I knew when I started.
There, amidst all the hospital smells, hall traffic, and beeps so many dislike, I found a rhythm and a blend of meaning and calling and vocation that is rare. I loved visiting patients, classes with the cohort, learning from the medical professionals, receiving evaluations, the vulnerability, and the ecumenism; it was like swimming–beautiful but exhausting. I was forced to maneuver the lanes of suffering and feel the coolness of sharing sacred space with people, cultures and religions I’d never met. Words were often few in the rooms. We donned a greater respect for language and pregnant silence. What started as a check on my graduation requirements became a season of treasured growth, challenge, and ministry. Its stories and structure stuck with me for years.
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In Grace (Eventually), Anne Lamott recounts a church service she led in a nursing home one Sunday afternoon. Her son, Sam, accompanied her. She writes:
“…the people here are shipwrecks, and sometimes there is not much left, but there is a thread in them that can be pulled and that still vibrates. It’s like being with nuns who have taken vows of silence but mutter. So we show up, talk and sing. It seems to fill the people, breathe more life into them…I’ve seen them come back to life during this service, even when they cannot sing. I’ve seen these moments bring them joy and comfort. We don’t lay a heavy Jesus trip on anyone: it’s more that he is a medium for our showing up and caring… Some of the residents seemed to be out of it, drooling, dazed. Then you would hear them saying the Lord’s Prayer. ‘Amen,’ we say loudly; then we go around one last time, touch each person, and tell them how glad we are that they are there. I realize again and again that this is really all you have to offer people most days: a touch, a moment’s gladness. It has to do. Luckily, it’s a lot” (p. 207-208).
Over and over I was invited to enter into the taut thread that is the patient’s experience. Strung between despair and dependence, hope and healing, they lie there. They could be broken so easily but we try to strum them gently enough that they find company or even meaning in this space. To regard their story that didn’t start upon admission.
In Mark’s case, he had been rendered vulnerable by a flaky family, unmonitored AIDS, and homelessness. His lumbering 6’2″ body was itchy and blotchy; he looked intimidatingly unwell. He turned out to be endearing, energetic, and he loved sports and trivia—a great guy underneath the shadows which kept many from knowing him.
I’ll never forget the time that I briskly walked by his room, my mind on the patient I was getting juice for, and suddenly heard, “Danielle!” Here came Mark, holding the back of his gown together, quickly limping and keen to interact.
As I slowed my gait and we made our way down the hallway, I asked where he was going. I felt badly when I realized that he was embarrassed that he was going nowhere. He just thought he’d say hi and eagerly emerged from his room. From that encounter onward, I visited Mark more.
As time went by, I helped him get a cane instead of an old crutch. I spoke with the nurse about his desire for new lab reports, since he had no idea where his viral load was these days. We talked about restarting the antiretroviral drugs he was supposed to be on—the ones that sustained an HIV positive person’s life and bolstered their immune system so a cold would only be a cold. But most of all, I watched a couple game shows and I listened to sports statistics and I prayed.
In other words, most of all, I did something a child could do with Mark. And that is what he thanked me for. That is why he was sure to call me later when he found out he was being discharged.
Mark was more responsive than many patients and his hobbies were lovable and easily identifiable; the world was unkind to him just the same. He had a stigmatized disease, he was unkempt and limped. Outside of the hospital, I may have avoided Mark. As a family member of Mark’s disease, my confidence is shaky about how he would be received in church settings. And then I remember that for the time Mark and I hung out in the same hospital, we got to be the Church together. I got to listen to him, learn from him, wonder with him and pray with him. I got to sit quietly with him and be affected by his pain. How rich I am to have been invited into those days with Mark, practicing my part of the one, holy and apostolic.
The ministry of presence is part and parcel to the “with life” of the Spirit. It is a theological stance: God is with us so there is nothing left to do. There is little time left in the hospital; we must be together! We must say what has been unsaid; we have the mixture of reckless urgency and connecting vulnerability to look at the things we haven’t looked at. To say “Amen” to the prayers that come from the depths.
As a chaplain intern, I swam with Mark and his shipwreck. I listened to the song of dashed hopes, poor confidence, and sitcom history. In that strange pool of the hospital, in the quiet and chaotic, away from the edges of trite platitudes and small talk, I learned about God. And, I suspect, so did he.
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In the last few weeks of the tiring commute and workload, I felt especially fatigued. We learned we were pregnant and I was thankful for the chance to process the change of plans with my cohort and supervisor. My learning theme for the internship was “control,” and, well, even I thought this was taking it a bit too far. Mentally, I boxed up my first CPE unit quickly as I dove into my last terms of seminary, making sure I could complete all the classes before this new due date. While I felt odd in my theology classes as a married woman attending without my husband, I felt like a spectacle packing up my laptop bag in maternity garb. Any passion that had been kindled for hospital chaplaincy was overshadowed by the pragmatism of finishing the degree and making room for a baby—worthy endeavors to be sure.
The profound effect of that chaplaincy internship and the ministry of presence have waited, even grown, over the past 10 years of parenting. How helpful to examine with colleagues my inner fears or biases that led me to steer or end conversations as I was unwittingly preparing to be a mom. How fitting that I would be introduced to the enneagram and its lens on my work, marriage and parenting tendencies as one type of homework subsided and another landed in our laps. How gracious that childlike presence and a better regard for silence between friends be fostered before I sat for years with little emerging people doing all and none of the things.
The last few years we’ve sought out ways to remain in our community, in this city, and embrace our personal interests and gifts while making ends meet. It has been a taxing investigation. From my station at home, I’ve had the opportunity to watch some of my friends chart the chaplaincy path. Every hospital visit and stay over the last 11 years has reminded me of the summer in Arcadia. It turns out that chaplaincy has proven to have a good shelf life in my heart.
Reassured by this, late last year I began my applications for residency–a way to complete additional CPE units while earning a stipend to become a professional chaplain. I felt blind turning in my essays and forms; most applicants haven’t been the lucrative combination of stay-at-home-moms/grant writer/dropout ministry staff. More importantly, I’d changed so much since I last went on rounds and I have never been away from my kids full-time. Was there still room for me in this role? How does spiritual care change when one’s own spirituality has experienced so much transition? Was returning to a full-time job unreasonable given our family system thus far?
The answers to the latter questions remain to be seen but for now, some have seen it fit to make room for me in the chaplaincy world again. With excitement and trepidation, I’ve accepted a residency position at a local hospital to start in the fall. In one week, we celebrated getting into preschool, residency, and potty training! Amazingly, my supervisor from 2008 has since become a CPE supervisor at another hospital with a residency program; he called me to extend the invitation.
I have months to wrestle with the fears and logistics of this new chapter; Ryan and I know that we don’t even know the changes ahead. (Unfortunately I like to preemptively troubleshoot which makes his Enneagram 7 heart sing.) There will be more fights and surprises ahead, between my mind and heart alone. But when I think about Mark, and other patients, and look at this 10-year-old kid in front of us, I’m mostly thankful. I think about how chaplaincy has informed all the parts of life since that summer stint, and I know life will inform all the chaplaincy ahead; God is with us. I’m grateful that someone offered the presence and the listening ear to tease out the improbable story and help me dive in—again.