There are those spaces in life, the liminal times of transition and uncertainty, when nothing seems to make sense. I’m weary of abiding in such a space, trying to walk sure-footedly on quicksand, to smile and sound confident as I’m riding the tiger, tense and unsure where I’m going, not in control.
I don’t feel at home in San Francisco, but would I feel at home anywhere now? My work as a chaplain feels right, but I’m part-time per-diem, no security or benefits and, unless I can uncover an as yet unfound entrepreneurial path, I need to invest money (did I mention I don’t have any?) and energy in another degree to move forward. I would dearly love to be a Navy Chaplain, but I’m too old. I loathe that thought, that stipulation! I’m simultaneously longing for security and expansive possibilities. And the Big D (Depression, not Dallas), my nemesis for much of my life, is rearing it’s ugly fire-breathing head and giving chase, leaving me crippled with self-doubt, overwhelmed, running for the nearest cave of sanctuary.
What helps me at times like this is knowing how not alone I am. There is so much upheaval and change in the world now, fewer things to be certain of, and a great need for skilled transformologists to help us navigate it all. At my best, I am a skilled transformologist, even if in this moment I’m limping along as the foggiest of chaplains. And I know that’s why I feel so called to work with those in transition and end-of-life, to work with people on their own mortal quests, their journeys through change and grief. Everyday I am awed and amazed by where we humans find hope, by moments illuminated with the transfiguring power of love, by the peace that comes with acceptance and allowing.
In my short tenure as a chaplain, I have baptized at risk babies and tiny ones through whose rose-petal lips the breath of life never passed. I have held the hand of a 19 year old army recruit on a ventilator as the doctors explained to him there was no way to fight the strange fungus in his lungs, amazed that, as this brave young man’s eyes grew wider with comprehension, the word “death” was never uttered. How can we help someone die, how can we offer comfort and peace in their dying, if we can’t even say the word?
I have sung with bald chemo patients, attended Emergency Department victims whose suicide attempt has failed, helping them reach for hope in their anger at still being alive. I’ve reassured nurses struggling ethically with extreme measures demanded by family because the patient’s wish to die peacefully wasn’t written in a living will. What I have learned about medical intervention is this…just because they can doesn’t always mean they should!!
Today was a first. A cancer patient almost exactly my age, on learning the cancer had spread beyond any ability to cure (curing is not always possible…healing always is), asked me to do her memorial service. With both of us talking through tears and laughter, we discussed how to create the ultimate hippie beach funeral celebration. We can do this, folks. We can embrace life and death!
Leaving the hospital, I stopped into one of the oodles of Walgreen’s in San Francisco (what is it with Walgreen’s in this city?) to run a quick errand. I watched as one of the blue-vested managers took an old burlap pack from a raggedy man and set it behind the counter, a deterrent for theft. The raggedy man looked about my age, long-bearded with scraggley hair, a kindly dirty face and mis-matched frumpy clothes. The raggedy man muttered nonsensically, a telling feature of unmedicated schizophrenia, then looked at me forlornly, his palms turned up chest high. “And…why?” he said. I smiled at him. “I’m sorry,” I replied, knowing how it stings to be judged.
What the man said next brought me crashing and tender into the moment. He looked into my eyes and said “Mother, I want to come home.” He dropped his hands back to his sides and looked at me with an expression I’ve seen countless times in the eyes of a chastized puppy. “I know you do,” I said back to him, not breaking our gaze. Then he smiled. “I think I can do it this time” he said, so hopefully my heart fell open, free of the cage of my fears and doubts. I walked toward him, put my hands on both of his shoulders and caressed him in the only way I could. I looked in his eyes. I shook my head, “yes”. He turned and walked away, again muttering.
Walking out of Walgreen’s, back into my day, the raggedy man, now waiting at the bus stop, turned to me and nodded. As I walked past, he called out “I love you, Mother.” I paused, turned, “I love you, too” I called back, offering a small wave. And that makes sense. No matter what else is going on, no matter how it shows up, love always makes sense.