Today was my last day of CPE. We gathered in the Alumni Room, the wood-paneled library where we met on our very first day back in September, and spent the first part of the morning speaking some final words in turn. I talked about how I can no longer access the feeling of looking around the room and seeing strangers. These men have become so dear to me, and so familiar. We've been through so much together. They are my brothers, every one of them.
I started to cry when I said I would have to make some kind of special plans next Monday; otherwise the day is going to stretch so miserably empty! It's been deeply sustaining for me to spend one day a week with others who are walking a road very like the one I'm on. Especially since my rabbinic program is geographically dispersed -- we come together at certain times of year, we study together in various ways, but I don't have classmates where I live -- it has been truly wonderful to have fellow-travelers.
Many of us said that this has been among the best experiences of our lives. I think everyone agreed that it's been life-changing. Most of us were there because we were obligated to be; our seminaries or superiors or ordaining bodies required it. None of us expected to love the work, and each other, the way we did. I certainly didn't expect to find holiness in the halls of that hospital. And I can still remember the day of my first on-call, a million years (or nine short months) ago. I met two old college friends for a soda in Albany beforehand, and we sat on the strip of grass outside the hospital. I was nervous, so afraid I might not be able to handle what would come...
My colleague Steve will be going on a pre-ordination retreat in the fall, and he spoke this morning about how someone told him that would be the most stressful time of his life. "Get real," he said in reply. "I've sat with parents who don't yet know that their child has been killed...Nothing I go through in the ordination process will compare with that." He's right. No matter what stresses lie ahead of me in the months and years to come -- and I can be pretty type-A, so I'm no stranger to stress -- the work I've done in CPE puts my petty stresses and frustrations in perspective.
Because here's the thing. God is present with each of us. God is present any time we meet each other truly. God is present when we are born and God is present when we die. I've had the profound honor of escorting an untold number of strangers through some of these passages in their lives, and I have come to know deep in my bones that God is with them, God is with me, no matter what. This work has been a deep, deep blessing. Ma nora ha-makom hazeh indeed -- how awesome and holy is this place, the place where we come together in our vulnerability and our commonality, our fear and hope and love.
The day seemed to speed up as it went on. I gave everyone copies of chaplainbook -- that was a pleasure, giving the work to the people for whom it was written. (It's rare that poems have so direct an audience.) Several family members arrived to join us -- as did Clara, the one other woman in our cohort, who had to drop out in January for personal reasons and who I hadn't expected to see again! (That was a joy.) We put on a skit that gently satirized the program and our relationships with one another, which elicited much laughter from the chaplaincy residents and staff. And then we gathered for lunch (glorious halal Pakistani food) and the awarding of diplomas.
At the little diploma ceremony, Harlan made reference again to the Wizard of Oz, which he'd used as a frametale for our journey on the first day of class back in the fall. I didn't realize then how appropriate a metaphor it is. Each of us is the Scarecrow, with more brains than we know. Each of us is the Tin Man, with all the heart in the world. Each of us is the Cowardly Lion, filled with boundless courage. And each of us is Dorothy, able to find our own way home when the journey ends.
Saying goodbye to my colleagues was hard. We'll try to connect again, but it won't ever be like this -- the common context of walking the halls together day after day will be gone. We'll relate in terms of what we did together once upon a time, through the prism of distance and memory. The tapestry of our togetherness is ending today, and it can't be replicated. Often when I leave a retreat at Elat Chayyim I feel like it will take me a while to really re-enter my ordinary life, and like I'm not quite the person I was before. I felt that today, but more so. At Albany Medical Center I've taken risks, had conversations, said prayers, walked paths I couldn't have imagined before. And CPE is over.
As I began to walk toward my car the enormity of that loss, of this change, struck me, and I started to cry again. On my way down the long hall a woman I didn't know saw me crying, and stopped me to ask, "are you okay?"
I thanked her, and said that I was all right. "Are you sure?" she asked. I nodded, and found it in me to really smile, and drove the hour home.
If you want to relive my journey, you can read all of my CPE/pastoral care entries here.