“In your inner life you will not waste away,
even when your life has become
weighed down with years.”
~ Augustine of Hippo ~
When I worked in the Pastoral Care Department of a hospital that was designated a Level I Trauma Center (See: “We Are Not a Number” & “Wounded Hearts“), my duties were varied – praying with a patient right before their surgery, comforting a family waiting in the ER for their family member, rushing to any room that was involved in a Code, contacting family members for any patient who was brought in by Medevac Helicopter, or even sitting with anyone alone in the ER, looking scared and in pain. That last description was just about everyone.
In the rare event that I had a chance to try for some rest in the on-call room, I would prop my feet up and close my eyes until the beeping of my pager broke into my reverie. Either that, or the whirring sound of the helicopter blades as the Medevac neared its landing pad on the roof. Then it would be off the bed, out the door, racing to the trauma bays. “ETA – 10 minutes.” Just enough time to arrive at the ER, get suited up, ready for whomever was brought in.
Sometimes it was a motor vehicle accident or an ATV rider without a helmet vs. a tree, a drunk driver crashing into a building, a lineman electrocuted by live wires, a lonely person who jumped from a bridge or took too many pills, someone rescued from a burning house or a factory explosion. All sorts of traumas passed through the doors.
Staff included ER doctors, nurses, chaplains, phlebotomists, x-ray techs, security guards, physician’s assistants – all standing in their appointed spot in the small area that included two fully equipped trauma bays, waiting for the flight nurses or EMTs to arrive with their patient. I never saw anyone or anything that was unprofessional; the focus was always on each arriving patient and doing whatever possible to save their lives. The staff moved as a team with quiet precision.
On a particularly busy night, our latest arrivals were a young mother and her child from a motor vehicle accident; her husband and their second child were taken to another hospital near-by. Thankfully, the child escaped with minor abrasions and a concussion, and was already in a bed in pediatrics. The mother took more time to stabilize with some broken ribs, a fractured wrist, abrasions and contusions. Following our treatment, she was whisked off for a C-T scan.
Business as usual followed each patient – housekeeping cleaned the area, doctors signed off on computers, security locked up valuables and technicians moved aside their portable x-ray machines.
Suddenly the double doors from inside the ER swung open and the young mother was brought back in. Puzzled, we looked to the tech who wheeled her past us into the surgical suite adjacent to the bays. This operating room was normally used for those patients with injuries severe enough that there wasn’t enough time to make it to a regular OR.
Knowing she didn’t need surgery, someone asked what was wrong.
“This seems to be the only private area available. The other hospital notified us that the husband will be okay, but we need to tell her that her other child died.”
The double doors to the OR shut with a quiet whoosh. Through the window I could see the doctor take the mother’s hand as he leaned closer. Two nurses stood at the other side of the bed. With that terrible news delivered in the gentlest and kindest of ways – the kind of news from which you never recover – we heard a cry released from the depths of her being, the OR suite unable to contain the sounds of her grief.
It pierced our ears and our hearts. Then, total silence. Not one sound came from any of us – and there were at least 20 staff present – as we froze in place. For us, nothing else existed but the mother’s agonized cry. It tore into us, demanding our respect and mindful attention.
In that terrible moment, it seemed as if the cries of all parents who ever lost a child (the worst loss) echoed through time…through generations…and reverberated off the walls of this very place.
A doctor stood in his scrubs, head thrown back with eyes closed, fists at his sides. Two nurses held each other in a tight embrace; the woman from housekeeping held her mop in mid stride; a resident’s hand stood motionless above a keyboard, typing stopped in mid-sentence; a security guard turned toward the wall.
My eyes met the doctor’s, whose mirrored the pain. In a single movement, my back slid down the wall and I held my knees in my arms, the tableau frozen with her raw grief.
After what seemed like forever, but could only have been a minute, a voice overhead announcing the ETA of another trauma snapped us out of our absorption. The area became a buzz of activity as we picked up where we had left off, grateful for the respite offered by much-needed focus, occupied with our assigned tasks.
We could push all of this aside, but the mother could not. We could hug our own children that night, or call to remind them of our love, but the mother could only do that with one child, rather than two.
Once again, as medical professionals we were reminded that regardless of our technology or expertise or willingness to switch places in order to keep children from harm, all stories do not have happy endings. Once again, there was no good answer for the question on everyone’s lips – “Why?” It was beyond our human understanding. And it hurt. It hurt terribly.
But for a brief moment, in that hospital, there were no differences in skin color or language, in gender or faith tradition, in economic status or profession, in looks or bank account. We were joined through threads of pain and compassion, of despair and hope…and of love.
We were together. Interconnected.
Although no one moved, you could almost feel our arms reaching out to the young mother in her grief, comforting her, reassuring her. And if you looked closely enough, you could almost see the faint outline of a little girl kissing her mother’s cheek good-bye…
Be well, my child. Play and laugh and sing. Your family loves you and will always remember you. And even though we never met you, all of us with your mother that night love you and remember you as well. In the too-short time you lived, you mattered to so very many of us.
From deep in our hearts, we send you our eternal blessings.
Circles of Grace and Compassion. A Circle of Love.
Real development is not leaving things behind,
as on a road,
but drawing life from them,
as from a root.
~ G.K. Chesterton ~
It’s in the in-between
that the real magic happens.
The seeds are planted,
the roots take hold…
and we blossom into who
we were meant to be.
~ Kristen Jongen
I’m not good at this in-between time. That’s where I am at the moment. Since a health scare prompted me to take a “time out” from working as Director of a Counseling Center in a small, private college in late December, I’ve been on hold as far as contributing to the Gross National Product.
And since patience never was one of my strong suits, I’m none too happy with not getting up at 6:30 every morning, coming home at 6:30 at night, having done my part to save the world.
Some of you who follow me know that I expected big things from my health care professional retreat to Assisi, Italy this month (“My Pilgrimage to ????”).
While there, I expected nothing less in the town of St. Francis’ birth than for the heavens to open and rain wisdom down upon my thirsty soul, giving me detailed instructions on where/what/when/how I would be doing for the rest of my life. Give me my Divine Missive and I will obediently carry it out to the letter, and beyond.
I want a lightning bolt to strike the ground directly in front of me with the answer to my impatient question of, “Now what?????”
My therapist has respectfully suggested that perhaps my imagery of a lightning bolt striking directly in front of me might need to be modified.
Let me explain.
Since my husband’s illness prevented us from going on retreat, my pilgrimage was one of hospitals and doctor’s offices and bedside vigils. Now that he is slowly recovering…I’m ready for the lightning bolt.
I can still hear my therapist, Dr. G, saying, “Theresa, I don’t like that image – the lightning bolt.” He’s trying to be polite and professional. That works for awhile. “That’s too much like a defibrillator!!! You need to use something more calming for the imagery – like a sunset, or a sunrise.”
My feet came off the floor as I burst out laughing. He and I have been through a lot together (…bless him…), ever since I first met him and, barely having sat down, informed him, “You have 6 months for me to get through this ‘whatever.'”
He tried to be polite and professional back then as well. “Theresa, perhaps putting a time limit on the therapy might add more stressors to your life?”
Don’t you just hate it when people are right???
Perhaps putting a time limit on my in-between time will also add more stressors to my life. And stressors are what sidelined me in the first place.
So now I have to let go of one of my all-time favorite symbols – my lightning bolt – and attach myself to something (unlike the defibrillator paddles) more soothing, more peaceful, less shocking, less startling.
Something without a sense of urgency or that won’t be seen as an intrusion; something that will simply allow answers and inspiration to come forward slowly, in their own time, bringing me to a “new and stronger Theresa.”
[Whew! Is this the kind of stuff I tell my patients/clients/students?]
So naturally, I start thinking.
[That’s another thing my therapist has observed; when he presents an idea, I “run with it like a German Shepherd, dragging my owner behind me.” I’m not sure if that was praise or censure, but I’m still going to run with it.]
And in thinking, I recall my time working in the trauma bays of a near-by hospital (“Of Hospitals, Loss and Love” and “Wounded Hearts” ), when a man was brought in with extensive burns from electrocution. The palm of one of his hands was the exit point of the bolt of electricity, and it had blown open a hole where you could see blackened skin, tendons, muscle and blood.
Burned. Charred. Unrecognizable.
This is what I was praying for? Asking for? A lightning bolt?
Maybe not such a good idea.
So here I am in the in-between time,
impatiently waiting for a lightning bolt beautiful sunset to remind me that all good things come to those who wait. To have patient trust in whatever has been written for me, even before I was born.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.”
Do I return to a college campus, where students struggle to carve out an identity (“An Adolescent’s Christmas with the Infant of Prague“)?
Do I open a private psychotherapy practice?
Do I volunteer in an international setting?
Do I venture forth as a motivational speaker?
Do I continue my blog?
Do I finally write the book I’ve always wanted to, something to uplift and inspire and offer hope?
Or do I simply continue as is, taking care of my family and myself, working my way through the grief of the vast losses that took hold of my life in the past 14 months (“Remembrance II” and “Who Will Remember?”)?
What is enough? What is too much? Where do I belong?
I’m not good at the in-between time.
The time between who I was and who I am yet to be.
The time between chapters…between birth and rebirth…between death and resurrection…
But above all, I am a listener. A co-journeyer.
The seeds have been planted, the roots have taken hold, and I have only to blossom in another setting, with another offering of my self.
I will wait in the quiet. I will listen for the whispers. I will keep watch for the soft glow of the banked embers that is the fire in my soul.
I will open and stretch to the golds and oranges of the welcoming sunrises. I will rest, bathed in the muted purples and pinks of the sunsets.
I will be still and know that I am.
And that will be enough.
Come. Who will journey with me?
“This is a brief life,
but in its brevity it offers us some splendid moments,
some meaningful adventures.”
~ Rudyard Kipling ~
While working in hospice, I was fortunate enough to come across a valuable resource by Michael Stillwater and Gary Malkin entitled “Graceful Passages: A Companion for Living and Dying.” The book and 2-CD set has become a part of me, its 12 different messages a balm for my spirit. I have already shared my favorite, “Walk On,” and would like to share another beautiful selection.
Letting Yourself Be Loved
by Lew Epstein
No one has ever prepared us for this experience.
We think it’s the end – no.
It’s another beginning.
It’s knowing that you’re loved, knowing that you’re loved.
It’s not easy, letting yourself be loved —
because we’ve learned to judge ourselves —
we’re always judging ourselves.
But I learned to listen that I was loved.
I was loved!
And then I would forget that I was loved.
Those were the most painful times for me —
forgetting that I was loved.
So you’ve let yourself be loved while you’ve been here.
And you’ve judged yourself.
And you’ve forgotten that you were loved.
And you became alone…but you will always be here.
You are blessed. You are forgiven. You are an angel.
You have to listen that you’re loved and you have to forgive all the time.
Listen that you’re loved and forgive, all the time.
You are love.
Farewell my son.
Farewell my daughter.
Farewell my father.
Farewell my mother.
Farewell my sister.
Farewell my brother.
Thank you for letting me love you.
Thank you for letting yourself be loved.
God bless you.
Lew Epstein, whose loving words live on in the hearts of all who hear them,
made his graceful passage on March 28, 2003.
“The world breaks everyone
many are strong in the broken places.”
~ Ernest Hemingway ~
A Farewell to Arms, 1929
This essay is a far cry from what I normally post on Soul Gatherings,
but as a former Director of a College Counseling Center,
I cannot help but be aware that all across the country,
first year college students are streaming onto their campuses.
That adjustment is difficult for students and parents alike.
Some tongue-in-cheek, but no less real,
situations and their recommendations can be found below.
10 Signs That You Are Too Attached to Your College Freshman
You are too attached to your college freshman…
1. When you bring your sleeping bag and camp out in your son’s/daughter’s dorm room for the first 2 weeks of classes because you don’t trust his/her roommate with the multiple piercings, black lipstick/nail polish, and vegan diet …
a. The college experience does stretch a person’s comfort zone, and offers each student the opportunity to explore new cultures, different lifestyle choices, various religions and new belief systems. Respect for diversity, acceptance of those who are different and tolerance for being human can be positive results. Push your boundaries.
2. When you call him or her each morning to get them up in time for their first class…
a. It’s your son/daughter’s responsibility to know their class schedule and show up on time, well-rested, and prepared…not yours.
3. When you empty your retirement fund to purchase a new Cadillac Escalade SUV (loaded!) so that he/she can come home every weekend…
a. Homesickness is a common issue for many freshmen, but coming home each weekend does nothing to help a freshman adjust to campus life. Encourage your son/daughter to remain on campus to attend an athletic event, go to a movie with a group of friends, or volunteer their time in the local community. This makes for a much healthier and easier transition for both students and parents.
4. When you drive 2 hours to accompany your son or daughter to the dining hall, after they called you crying because they don’t like to eat alone…
a. Socialization is an important part of college life, and there are many ways a freshman can find someone to share a meal. For example: go with their roommate, ask the RA (Resident Advisor) if they can accompany them, or ask the student sitting alone in the dining hall if you can join them. Other students are lonely, too.
5. When you text or call your student every 10 minutes, asking if they’re all right…
a. Your student probably is alright. Anyway, they may be in class and unable to text, at dinner with friends, speaking with their coach, taking an exam or doing research in the quiet zone of the library. Arrange a mutually agreed upon time that you can connect with your son/daughter each week, such as Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights at 9 pm. Obviously, reach them any time in an emergency.
6. When you’ve got your student’s Facebook page open on a computer while you’re at work, alert to every time one of their posts comes up on the news feed…
a. Whether or not an adolescent should friend a parent is a separate issue. Take the opportunity to remind your son/daughter that whatever thoughts or pictures they post on-line is essentially public domain, and this can all come back to haunt them. Employers, graduate schools, colleges, jealous peers, stalkers, predators – the audience is huge, as are the potential consequences.
7. When you call off work, book a hotel room near campus and bring your laptop in order to write the research paper that is due in your student’s major 2 days from now…
a. Your student gets a syllabus the first day of each class with class assignments and due dates. It is his or her responsibility to be aware of these and to manage their study time well. Just as they’re not getting a paper handed in on time has consequences, so, too, does having someone else write it.
8. When you retain an individual concierge for your son/daughter to answer their questions, solve their problems, run errands, etc., salaried with a toll free phone number and 24/7 availability…
a. There is a wealth of support available for your son/daughter on campus. When questions or problems arise, encourage your son/daughter to reach out to the Counseling Center, Residence Life, Security & Safety, the Health & Wellness Center, Academic Skills, the Office of Diversity, Student Activities, Campus Ministry, or the Academic Advising Office for direction, answers or advice.
9. When you take a one day course on voice mimicry so that you can impersonate your son or daughter’s voice in order to discuss his or her grades with a professor…
a. The Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits parents from communicating with faculty about their student’s academic performance. (Yes, even though you might be paying the tuition.) Keep an open dialogue with your son or daughter about how they are doing in their classes. Also, allow them to make mistakes without harsh criticism, otherwise they might completely shut you out of the information loop. Adolescence is all about learning to make good decisions, along with learning from ones that are not-so-good. Anyway, I’ve never met anyone who is perfect; have you?
10. When you call your son/daughter on Sunday morning and they answer the phone, obviously hung over, and, after a stern reprimand from you about underage drinking, you actually believe him/her when they stutter that it was a sanctioned experiment for one of their classes.
Each year as the result of alcohol abuse, 1,700 college students die from alcohol-related causes, 2.8 million students drive while under the influence of alcohol, more than 696,000 students are assaulted by another student under the influence of alcohol, and 11% of drunken students vandalize property, and almost 2% of students attempt suicide because of alcohol or other drug use. (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism)
Alcohol consumption is also associated with poor academic performance, contributing to failing tests, missing classes, falling behind in class work and higher drop-out rates due to poor grades.
Talk to your student about the importance of smart choices while on campus and the potential negative consequences drinking can have on their health, safety and future. This so-called “right-of-passage” is anything but when it can result in addiction, assault, or even death.
“Sorrow prepares you for joy.
It violently sweeps everything out of your house,
so that new joy can find space to enter.
It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart,
so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place.
It pulls up the rotten roots,
so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow.
Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart,
far better things will take their place.”
“The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.
The paths are not to be found, but made,
and the activity of making them
changes both the maker and the destinations.”
– John Schaar
The young father walked down the hall, each of his daughters holding one of his hands. He looked to be in his thirties and his daughters, perhaps 3 and 5 years old. They were dressed like little princesses – dresses with skirts that puffed out, patent leather shoes and white socks with embroidered flowers and ruffles. Their mood matched their father’s – quiet, determined, serious. It was almost as if his energy flowed into theirs and they became one. You could barely hear their footfalls in the long hallway, the lowered lighting bathing them in softness from behind.
Late at night, a special visitation, they were on the Trauma-Neuro floor of the hospital where I worked. They were on their way to see their wife and mother.
In her thirties, she was in her prime – physically fit from the bicycling that was her passion. Each year, she bicycled several times a year for different charities that were close to her heart. Today’s was for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where they provide care and find cures for sick children at no cost.
Late at night, a special visitation, her husband and two daughters were on their way for a visit.
Earlier that day, as everyone was packing up and leaving the successful Bike-a-Thon fund-raising event, the young mother was struck by a small panel truck that barreled through an intersection without brakes. Med Evac flew her to our trauma center. But it was too late… In spite of all that modern medicine had to offer, massive head injuries left this young wife and mother brain dead. Her family was here to say good-bye before she was removed from life support.
When gathering her things together before her family arrived, I looked at her driver’s license, seeing her smiling eyes and the words “Organ Donor” stamped on its front. She would still be giving of herself after death, and several of her organs were already designated to people across the country.
Late at night, a special visitation, her husband and two daughters were on their way to say good-bye.
As I watched the small family enter her room, I couldn’t help but think of all that she would miss of her daughters’ lives – kindergarten and grammar school, getting their driver’s license and experiencing their first kiss, senior prom, graduation, college and another graduation, their weddings, the births of their own children – gone forever in an instant. A tragedy unfolding in the privacy of her hospital room…
Trauma-Neuro was always quiet at night; those with severe head trauma were often kept in a medically-induced coma while their brain swelling was monitored. I walked toward the only other person near-by – a young resident who had been looking at the wall of monitors behind the nurse’s station. He stood still, staring off into nothingness. Tears welled in his eyes.
I placed my hand over his clenched fist that rested on the counter.
“I shouldn’t be like this,” he ground out without even looking at me, wiping a stray tear from his cheek with his free hand.
“How can you not be?” I offered quietly. “You’re exactly the kind of doctor this family needs right now.” I hesitated. “You’re exactly the kind of doctor medicine needs.”
As he dropped his chin to his chest, I felt his fist relax, as we stood together, both hearts weeping.
I heard a muffled “thank you” and looked up to see the young family standing just past the nurse’s station. The man’s eyes filled with tears, he slowly turned and walked away, his back stiff as he held his girls’ hands. As they walked down the hallway, passing through the shadows, a soft light bathed them in a familiar shape – wings??? – before they exited through the door.
Time stopped. A mother who bicycled for charity, breathing with life support until her family said good-bye and her organs were harvested; two little girls in ruffles and bows, their lips quivering with an unnamed fear; a young husband and father walking toward an unthinkable future in agonized disbelief; and, a physician who now understood that not all stories have a happy ending and that sometimes the simple one word question – “Why?” – is so terribly vast and complex that any acceptable answer defies human comprehension.
At that moment, I heard the soft strains of Brahms’ Lullaby echoing from the hospital’s public address system to announce the birth of a new child in the maternity wing.
As one life ends, another begins in the eternal cycle. An ending to be mourned and a beginning to be celebrated. Second chances made possible by the gift of life from a selfless woman.
I celebrate all of you for coming into my life – the mother and father, their daughters, the doctor…and yes, even the new baby. I keep you in my heart awash with blessings.
Interconnected. Circles of Compassion. Circles of Grace.
When you close your doors,
and make darkness within,
remember never to say that you are alone,
for you are not alone;
my God is within,
and your genius is within.
And what need have they of light
to see what they are doing?
~ Epictetus ~
by Maya Angelou, 1994
I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.
Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.
I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world,
not yet one common man.
I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.
Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
Ah, but a man’s reach
should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
~ Robert Browning ~
The bitterest tears
shed over graves
are for words left unsaid
and deeds left undone.
~ Harriet Beecher Stowe ~