I arrived at CPE yesterday to the news that we were short a chaplain: my colleague A., slated to be on-call last night, had been called away. The question came right away: "Can you take his shift?"
I remember taking days to psych myself up for my first on-call at Albany Medical Center. I was petrified, afraid I might be thrown a curve ball I couldn't begin to field. My first time I armed myself with references and resources, in case someone asked a theological question or wanted a specific kind of prayer I might not know offhand. That first night, baruch Hashem, the pager never went off; in lieu of navigating crises, I spent the evening having gentle conversations. I remember especially the long visit with a man of eighty-nine -- in for dizziness and shortness of breath -- who blessed me at the end of our talk. It was just what I needed in those anxious early days.
I relinquished the knapsack of books by my second night. My feet and back ache badly enough by the end of a night without the extra weight! But I got into the habit of bringing an overnight bag containing a change of clothes, and my weekday prayerbook, tefillin, and tallit (I like to davven the morning service in the chapel, if I'm able.) And I typically wear my green fannypack when I'm on-call, packed with the things I've found I need while walking the floors: a small English-language edition of tehillim (psalms), a copy of the Mi Shebeirach prayer, a moleskine notebook and pen, cough drops, a diskette for writing verbatim reports, a list of emergency phone numbers, instructions for navigating the hospital communications system, Sudafed, Kleenex, lip balm.
Yesterday morning, after a split second of reflection, I offered to take A.'s shift. Since it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, my little green bag was resting neatly at home, an hour from the hospital -- too far to drive for the crutch of the habitual. I would have to be present to whatever needs arose with only the words in my heart.
As it turns out, I'm profoundly glad I was at the hospital last night. I walked the long night journey with the family of a child who had been in a terrible accident. I was with them as they got the news, as he was rushed from emergency room to operating room, as we waited to see if the bleeding could be stopped. We moved up to the pediatric intensive care unit, and waited some more. After a brief bedside visit, I showed them the chapel, where we all joined hands and prayed. Then we moved down to wait near the radiology lab (at the end of two long basement hallways I had never before walked.) Then, back up to PICU again, for more waiting.
As of this morning when I left, the boy's condition was precarious, but he continued to hold on. And I? I am so exhausted I'm almost dizzy, but I also feel blessed and honored by having had the chance to spend the night with this family, to sit vigil with them and to support them in their first nine hours of the crisis that will consume them now for God knows how long.
It's almost unthinkable to me that I have only one on-call shift left. In these short nine months chaplaincy work has come to feel definitional; the prospect of being a former hospital chaplain leaves me strangely bereft. In a way, taking A.'s shift without preparing myself felt a little bit like graduation. I've come a long way from my first cautious and tentative steps into the swirling waters of the hospital hallways. These days, like Nachshon ben Aminadav, I dive right in. I trust the waters to part and let me through, I know there's an important reason I need to reach the other side, and I try always to be mindful of the wonder of walking along the ocean floor, step after astonishing step.