During my most recent hospital overnight, I did not sleep. During the early part of my shift I did my usual things: made rounds of the six ICUs and the E.D., visited a couple of patients who had requested to see the chaplain, spent my dinner break reading a back issue of the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, made my second set of rounds. Just as I was getting ready to head up to U511, the little cubicle room where the on-call chaplain sleeps, my pager vibrated at my hip.
For the sake of confidentiality, I can't share the details of the call. Imagine that someone fell ill suddenly, and was unresponsive by the time the ambulance arrived. Imagine one family member after another hearing the news and descending into grief. Imagine a burly priest driving in at two in the morning to offer the Sacrament of the Sick. Imagine the difficult decisions of organ donation and life support. Imagine the long crescendo and decrescendo of goodbyes. Imagine that the night went straight through 'til morning.
At some point in the timeless interim between night and morning I had a conversation in the long disjointed hallway. The young woman asked how long I had been doing this work, and how I was able to do it without crying. The first question has an easy answer: five months. The second one is harder to quantify. In my usual life I cry at the drop of the proverbial hat. I cry at movies. Often I cry just listening to music that moves me. But when I'm doing chaplaincy work, I don't weep. I tap into something I can't quite name, and it strengthens and roots me. I still empathize; I still imagine how I would feel if I were the family member by the bedside. But I don't break. I don't know what it is, but I'm thankful for it.
It was strange and startling to feel the light in the hospital begin to shift as dawn broke. It was stranger still when the empty overnight halls filled back up with the bustle of daytime: doctors and nurses, orderlies and med students, administrators and visitors. At eight I ceded the on-call pager to the chief chaplaincy resident, and went to class. When I went back upstairs on my lunch break to check on the family, the day-shift nurses didn't know me.
At the end of the day I drove home. That night I got a long night's sleep, so physically I've recovered
from the all-nighter. Emotionally, though, I feel it has changed me in subtle ways that continue to reverberate. A little bit like my first (and to date
experience with the chevra kadisha. That kind of vigil is awe-inspiring.
I think I understand now why so many people say CPE is the most valuable part of their seminary experience. The things I'm learning sound stilted and trite, put into words: how to offer company in times of fear or sorrow. How to witness something difficult. That illness and death provide doorways into holiness and grace. That we have obligations to those who leave, and even greater obligations to those they leave behind. That sometimes there is nothing we can do to ease one another's pain -- but doing that nothing can be the most important work in the world.