Two Hospice Essays: Part One, A Call
It is strange how people seem to belong to places, especially to places where they were not born.
— Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories
“You don’t see this often,” the chaplain said to me. On my first rounds at Hospice I entered a room: a baby, born without her brain’s frontal lobes, gurgled on her mother’s chest. The baby lived with the mother for months, much longer than the doctor expected. The baby’s face grew gravely unencumbered. We prayed over that baby every day. When the baby died, words never explained it. The mother walked out of the room, her arms slackening at her sides like old latches to a door of an abandoned house.
I have decided to become a priest. No light decision. Each piece of my sentence is weighted. The wild, oval-flourish of the “I,” the firm, charged, unequivocal “decided,” the blossoming, fleshy “to become,” and finally that stern, indelible object, “a priest” — all yoked together, coming out of my hand, onto a keyboard, displayed on a screen, projected outwards, by lasers, into space. Who invests in such architecture? I hammer my antique sentence on air.
Unfortunately, sentences are no longer immortal. E-mail has wrecked the intimate tenacity of handwritten sentences. A letter, breathed on, spilled on with coffee, ink-smudged, the paper torn, words crossed out, nails time. Today e-mails disappear fast as Japanese bullet trains. When Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” his ink was concrete. I am glad that sentence was saved. Nowadays, cavalier deletions crowd us. Instant messages quicken me.
I often wonder these days if this departure from the slowly personal is affecting that fragile thing we call the spiritual world. As our glaciers melt and the lakes dry up, and Bejing’s sky is a complete ceiling of pollution so that the citizens no longer can see the moon or the stars, so too has some of the patient, ponderous care we took in communicating with each other begun to completely evaporate. Archeologists will have a harder time finding e-mails than they did the ancient Roman letter from Vindolanda.
No doubt, this rushed, charged atmosphere I breathe and walk through every day, is also pushing me towards the priesthood. I want to be quiet. I want to be still with others. I want to let others know Jesus loved them. If Jesus sets off alarms, I want to let people know, simply, they were loved.
I have been called. That sounds arrogant, unstable even, I know. But that is not how I mean it. I mean to express obedience and transformation. No cell-phone, answering machine or labyrinthine voice-mail system reached me. I got quiet. Through silent retreats, spiritual direction from nuns, Hospice courses, volunteering, and simply aging, I began to listen. Exiting the Tower of Babel, my message came, clear and direct. There was a tentative quality in what I heard. I think sometimes Jesus is tentative: his spirit always managing to live in both the divine and the human world, without taking sides. He commanded me in a gentle, invisible, determined way. Yes, that is better. There are those that have been put on locked units for hearing voices; conversely, the voice I heard gave me the keys. The voice I heard was coming through the patients I have been meeting. Perhaps you know of what I speak? For this is a long legacy of one whisper that came down from a horrible day on a hill.
Two years ago, I began volunteering at the Gerstenburg Center in Palm Beach County as a pastoral care volunteer. Although I had attended the Harvard Divinity School and graduated with a masters of theology in 1990, I had not used that education for twenty years. Often, as the years went by, I thought my choice a mistake. Perhaps, as Marjorie Thompson suggests in her book, Soul Feast, I was “anxious over what God might demand of [me] if [I] got too close. Maybe God would ask [me] to give up certain relationships, life dreams, or things [I] enjoy.” I was 27 when I graduated. Dependent on my parents, who had generously paid for my education, at the time, I felt beholden to produce something more than prayers. A religious career seemed impractical — 401Ks repellant to speaking of blessings.
These days, the word “spiritual” is palatable and welcomed, spreading like wild fire through twelve-step groups that fill church basements like gatherings of early Christians, but who uses the word “pious”? The image of a “pious Christian” is nearly always bad, someone prim, prudish. As Thompson writes: “Our caricature of a pious Christian has eyes rolled heavenward and hands permanently joined at the fingertips. Indeed, many would rather be taken for secular humanists than pious Christians.” I see this, on an etymological level, as a deepening schism in our modern world, the spirit being blocked by ring tones. I don’t feel Christ is a dirty word. I wish my little Episcopal church in Tequesta, Florida, to be as irresistible as a treatment center. But, perhaps zealous piety is too idealistic.
As I look back at my impossibly young self, I see there was another reason I did not become a priest in my twenties. I was immature. I could not draw on depths to help others in a priestly manner, or more frankly, I could not help in any manner. I was, embarrassingly, shallow. My faith had not been tested. I had not come through doubt. Nor did I know grief.
Psalm 34: “O, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8). I sipped, but I did not commit. I needed to dance in the wrangles of the world. I did. Although definitely fascinated with religion, I left academe and wound up in the Mall of America, working for Brooks Brothers, eventually in various locations, as a salesman and manager, for twelve years. In 2008, I turn 45 and qualify for that nearly extinct commodity, a small pension, to be collected in my dotage. I have applied to the Yale Divinity School. Southeast Florida’s Bishop has blessed my call. My discernment committee has formed. A board of priests awaits with a list of piercing questions.
At 40, one January evening, returning home late from the mall in Florida, after submitting my first manuscript of poems to over three hundred competitions for over fifteen years, my answering machine blinked its little bright red light. There was a message from Louise Glück, soon to be Poet Laureate of the United States, that she wished to select my manuscript, The Clerk’s Tale, for the Bakeless Prize. Did I really work in haberdashery? Yes. Would I be willing to work on edits with her over the next six months?
I had been sitting in a small room for years with green shag carpet from the 70s, working on a desk that consisted of two saw horses and a door from Home Depot, and a typewriter and an antiquated heavy crashing laptop, waiting for someone to knock on the door. Here was the knock. I welcome my guest with eager hospitality. For days I lived in a beautiful, calm shock. In public, I was quieter than I had ever been, stunned by a long held prayer manifesting itself into the world, something from the mind and soul was being incarnated into the visible. In private, over the telephone with my new poetry friend, words came in a torrent.
This turn of events led to three major grants, and for the first time in years, I was able to step down from the circus-frenzy of retail scheduling. I worked three days a week to keep my benefits, but was able to, as the French say, “reculer pour mieux sauter,” translated, it means, to back up and assess the view before leaping. In a rare moment in my life, everything seemed quite clear, I recalled my old intentions, the years spent at the Divinity School, a door opened in my mind: I picked up the telephone and called Hospice.
For the last two years I have been whispering into the ears of the dying, and they have been whispering back to me. I have been bringing my own broken spirit to the altar of these divine appointments in the little rooms at the Gerstenberg Center on my day off from Brooks Brothers. I meet with Chaplain Frank Cebollero, and he gives me a list of patients who need to be visited.
No matter how carefully I read the face sheets, each room surprises: a black woman my age, with, what she herself calls, “full-blown AIDS,” speaking frankly about sex and broken relationships, a mother who doesn’t speak to her, her need for human touch; an elderly woman who did not speak to me for months, her wisps of gray hair top-knotted, her mouth caved in without teeth, until one day, she looked at me directly, and told me how her husband beat her; a customer of mine from Brooks Brothers, who came with his navy blue slippers and pajamas neatly folded — an observed formality that took my breath away; a young man named Ed, with two small children, frightened, but believing, not understanding why God was calling him home quickly — what would happen to his children?
Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics enter Hospice. We, the nondenominational volunteers, are not encouraged to proselytize, but to hold a hand, read a chapter from the Bible or the Koran, or even, sometimes, a poem. Priests hired by Hospice cater to all faith traditions. Hospice is a welcoming, churchy circus of trapdoors.
On July 26th, 2007, Dr. Gail Gazelle wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine:
Introduced in the United States as a grassroots movement more than 30 years ago and added as a Medicare entitlement in 1983, hospice care is now considered part of mainstream medicine, as evidenced by growing patient enrollment and Medicare expenditure. In 2005, more than 1.2 million Americans received hospice care, and between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of Medicare decedents that had been enrolled in hospice programs increased by almost 50%.
The amount of priests has not kept up with these numbers. When I began to volunteer, I saw this almost immediately. I began to think, of course, about my own singular, circuitous life. Perhaps thirteen years in an Episcopal prep school, a seemingly dead-end graduate degree, twelve years in retail, a first book published in middle age, a priest could make. Why not?
There were many well-meaning, personality-driven fundamentalist volunteers willing to file your nails and speak to you about being saved, but not enough trained clergy. Not everyone wants a revival tent next to their oxygen machine. There are no Catholic priests on staff and only one Buddhist.
Fundamentalism makes me uncomfortable. Forcing Jesus on people feels arrogant to me. I am a person imprinted by a Connecticut mother and a Connecticut college. Still one must respect the land where one lands and certainly Florida is not New England. Florida is home to mega-churches the size of shopping malls led by former football coaches and Pentecostal churches in soaped store fronts next to hair salons. As I move among my fog-horning brethren in Hospice, I see I have led a somewhat unconventional life, somewhat gypsy-like, bookish, frequently observing rather than holding forth, always at home in the foreign. Yet, I have always cleaved to conventions that worked, perhaps as a source of stability. Even though I am a minority where I volunteer, I have begun to feel my decorous Episcopal understatement has a place at Hospice. Rowan Williams writes, “There is no one way to be a priest.” By extrapolation, then, there is no one way to assist the dying, some will beg for speaking in tongues, but some might prefer a middle-aged, tall, bespectacled man, with thinning hair, a tattered bible in one hand, who has found wisdom, on occasion, in holding his tongue.
Personal anxiety and hesitation have visited me. What am I afraid of? There is much I don’t understand. Intimate relationships have not always been my strong suit. But each door I open at Hospice, I move closer to something brightly intimate.
There, in the broken places, good-byes filling the sanitized air, I knock, I listen, I leap.