Carpooling Home: a Chaplain’s Commute

I leave the parking lot of jacaranda trees and signs for “heroes” with my badge still on, stomach growling for dinner and spirit aching from helplessness.  It’s the first day of the week. The purple blooms remind me of a different life, of falling in love with East Africa a long time ago and beginning grief work. They witnessed my baptism into realizing the Divine superseded my lame caveats and already inhabited the margins.

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Somewhere on the 110 headed towards the skyscrapers I realize the older Asian lady with 10-week-old roots is sitting in the car with me. I tear up thinking about her alone in the hospital room, tethered in the double bind of self-reliance and English as a second language. I see her as a young girl, remembering what it was to be scared at bedtime.

She isn’t the only one with me. The two young boys I saw in the quarter-mile-long line at Costco this morning at 7am came too. I wondered how the rest of their day went. I wondered if their mom, desperate for regular things, left the store satisfied. I cry to think about their school year and standing in line as the new morning gig.

The purple trees dot my way north, even from the neighborhoods that don’t get carpool onramps. Stark against peach stucco and gray cement, their exotic seasonal scream defies the moment. Inside the car, the confetti floating around the car is white, pieces of paper with names. Names upon names upon room numbers upon names upon phone numbers upon names. Too many list each other as emergency contacts. Too many faceless phone calls all over the region, I’m driving by one patient’s street now.  I think about the names of the deceased. From the New York Times front page. From our own planning of a collective memorial service. Too many people. I cannot pronounce them all; I cannot reach them all. I cannot grasp them all.

Jewish belief used to warn against stepping on a scrap of paper for fear it held YHWH’s name. All these papers hold YHWH’s name. Raining, crying, names.

A news update about fining PPE litterers $350 backdrops the drive.

I hear the voice of one of the widows. Perhaps she’s sitting behind the driver’s seat; I can’t see her face. I grimace at the sharp tip of her sorrow. Each menial task insults her grief and pronounces it because he was the one to water the damn plants.  We drive by the Coliseum; they went there together. She must learn to live in the shadow now. Into the shadow.

I think about my friend at a different hospital, where routine became non-routine in an instant. “No, God, NO,” I put my foot down. I recall the times when the stupid cartoon and the stupid tablet game and the stupid song are all voluming at once in the same room and any one of them would be stupid enough, but all of them at once were hideous. Of course, the racist uniformed murders haven’t stopped, the cancer diagnosis hasn’t muted, and the dementia progress hasn’t stalled. The family dynamic didn’t excuse itself, swinging into a harmonious moment in deference for a pandemic; the dynamic exploded like it was bound to because there’s less to hide behind anymore.

The grief we started with reverberates off the new noise, accelerating and sometimes combusting. The deafening impact of the cacophony to our souls is both our agony and salvation.

Slowly, as the tears fall, my passengers are gently let out one by one. I make it to the neighborhood that is home, the streets where I often recognize pedestrians. I watch the jacaranda blooms fall over the groomed yard, the Jack in the Box potholed parking lot, and the unmasked men on the bench, all the same. I imagine purple confetti on the 10-week-old roots and in the morgue, cascading over the Emergency Department, and mysteriously in the pockets of a set of 6 and 7-year-old brothers. I imagine the blooms swirling in the MRI tunnel, and choking the guns of the powerful. I imagine them lining graves and fed by ashes—ever a canopy, always a holding.

I am taught again at the footstool of nature: traveled with, quieted and overshadowed.

I make it home alone.

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