I'm not a fan of blood and guts. I don't like violence in television or the movies (despite my fascination with medical dramas) and I hate horror films. I remember leaving Finding Private Ryan just feeling angry at the makers of the film for exposing me to it. Andrew - a longtime fan of the horror movie genre specifically and scary stuff in general - started early on in our relationship with previewing films that he suspected were too intense for me. That's right, just like my mother used to do when I was five. He learned his lesson when we were dating and I hadn't told him that I hated horror movies yet. I let him take me to some high profile remake, the one with the zombies and the people in the mall, so he wouldn't think I was a wimp. After I spent the whole movie hiding in my hoodie and then had nightmares for a week following the jig was up. I was relieved that it wasn't a deal breaker and haven't seen a horror movie since.
So you can imagine that my husband was a little, oh shall we say curious as to how I would handle working at his hospital, which among other things receives all the major trauma cases for our states and four others. I was curious too. Actually I was scared - broken bodies scare me on tv and I find contemplating other sorts of health disasters is also anxiety producing. Before this internship I wouldn't let Andrew tell me any stories from the neurology ICU - aneurysms and strokes freak me out. Don't even get me started on burns, or the stories he has to tell from the pediatric ICU. The list goes on. This was one reason I was attracted to this particular site for my chaplaincy internship. I think in many cases somewhere inside a fear is an invitation. I figured this hospital was full of stuff that terrified me so I should probably go there.
I'm not going to write particular stories or vignettes from my experiences with patients at the hospital here in this blog, at least not while my internship is ongoing. And I've had so many big moments, even now less than half way through, that it is difficult for me to figure out how to blog about the stuff I'm learning without illustrating it with stories about the people I am working for and with. Not all of the big moments are traumatic - some are just calm pastoral visits with people whose tenacity for life or courage in facing their death ring like a bell in my soul. Other stuff has been pretty intense by anyone's standards. Whenever a patient goes into cardiac or respiratory arrest and a code is called the chaplain on call responds as part of the code team. If the patient has family present than my role is to be with them, because no one else on the code team is there primarily for the family. If there is no family present - which is much more likely in my experience so far - then there isn't an active role for me. Yet I usually stay. Because in all the hustle and busyness of a code - the chest thumping and bagging and command central like feel of the thing - in all of that there is still a human being in there standing on that line between death and life. The medical personnel can't afford, emotionally or otherwise, to be present to that part. I can, and doing so is something that I don't have words yet to describe.
Here is what I can say: the hospital is this incredible thin space in the universe, a place where the lines between dead and alive, crazy and sane, knower and learner, minister and minstered-to, the sacred and the stuff of the gritty and real are really thin. People cross over back and forth from one to the other - those who work there and those who are there because they are sick. I find that when I am not at the hospital I'm not burdened, but what I do carry is a sense that the whole world is a little more beautiful and I am quite aware of my own vulnerability within it. Tears spring to my eyes a little easier. I need more hugs.
Oh, and there is nothing there for me to fear. Every time I go with trepidation into a terrifying situation I meet a human being - that's the great thing about being a chaplain(intern). The other stuff - the broken bones and breathing tubes, the crazy eyes and broken hearts, the terminal diagnosis, whatever, it's not as important as the person I get to be with. In fact the best thing is that I get to be the hospital employee(okay, volunteer but still) who helps patients remember this about themselves - in the whirlwind of doctors, nurses, pokes, prods, and financial paperwork I get to ask different questions and pay attention to the parts of the people in the hospital bed that are not defined by their diagnosis. I get to provide comfort if I can, a listening ear if they want, and if nothing else to bear witness to the thin-space moments in a way that other medical personnel cannot.
I struggle with anxiety sometimes, but it is rarely specific. This work gives me perspective on that abstract anxiety - when I enter a hospital room it is never about me and it is always about the deep and sacred humanity of whoever I am there to see. It's hard to give energy to my own anxious thoughts in the context of this work. And, lucky for me, I've got a lot of resources to go to when I need a hug.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Today is my oldest daughter's third birthday. We celebrated with friends, family, and cupcakes last Saturday, and she'll be off to daycare with treats to share with all her friends there by the time this message posts. My J is gorgeous, lively, full of words and songs and dance. She loves church, candles, LMFAO, her family and friends, and life with a passion that amazes me. My heart is so full with the gift of mothering her that sometimes I actually get all mushy and cry about it. In private mostly, but also sometimes when I tell her the story about how she became my daughter and I became her mommy. She will pat my arm and say "it's okay mommy. it's okay." And I will tell her that it's more than okay - it's so, so wonderful that mommy gets a little teary. My three year old then makes a sound that she learned from me. It's something like "mmmMmm" and I say it when I think she's talking nonsense but want to play along. Touché, my darling.
Those really are super happy tears. But there is, for me, a dissonance about the day she was born. Probably because while the day my first child was born was a definitive day in my life it was also a pretty heartbreaking day. On J's birth day I was completely unaware of sweet, new, particular her and instead was saying tearful goodbyes to someone else's child, a baby that we had for a while expected to parent. I ended up surviving that disappointment, and learning through it that being disappointed didn't change the ethic I had developed around how we would build our family. In an odd way I am proud of what happened in our world on the day J was born, and how the twosome of Andrew and I responded to it.
But J's birthday, while it is mine to celebrate with her as she grows isn't a day that belongs to me and my baby J. It's a day that belongs to J and her first mother, who I am certain cried her share of tears as she said goodbye to a child three years ago today. Her loss that day dwarfs my own.
I don't mean to sound melancholy or ungrateful. I imagine that as J grows and we build family memories around the celebration of her birth the memory of the wilderness that I experienced the first two weeks of her life, before I knew she was here, will fade. But in some ways I hope it doesn't. I loved that small baby in a way that I couldn't begin to understand from the moment I held her in my arms. My joy in that moment will never come undone from my sadness of the weeks before, or successfully disconnect from the loss that J and Z experienced when they lost each other. This is an appropriate tension. I want to be honest, and being honest means that J's birthday will never be uncomplicated gladness for me, and it may not stay that way for her. We didn't know it, J and I, but we were together in loneliness her first two weeks of life - she a small baby in a care home waiting for a family and us in our sadness surrounded by baby things, waiting for her.
It's weird, because it sort of hurts, but I don't mind thinking about all that happened starting today, three years ago. I love to remember it. I love to remember it all.