Through This Present Mourning
I'm a student hospital chaplain. This pivotal year of my life in ministry will be defined forever by COVID-19. I signed up for war when I was 17. I'm three weeks away from 35 and being a Navy-then-Army veteran, eight years into my civilian life, at the "front lines" of a global pandemic; it's surreal, to say the least. Everyone is holding their breath, waiting for the bottom to fall out. Hospital staff are on edge. I've prayed the Lord's Prayer more in the last two weeks than I ever have in my whole life (said twice, it's roughly 40-ish seconds). There's high anxiety everywhere I turn, not least of all within myself. I am not the only chaplain in my department coming home at the end of the day, exhausted. I've slept the last two weekends almost straight through. In the hospital halls, I feel like I'm 16 again, knowing as only a military kid could on 9/11, that war was coming, but not knowing how, or when, or what role I'd play in it.
Yesterday (April 1), it all came home to me. I'm an introverted "Yankee" from a Pennsylvania German family, living in the rural Deep South where people insist on touching each other in greeting. I'm fairly convinced that strangers don't exist in this semi-rural community I've found myself in for the last decade. My unique challenge as a chaplain student is not in having physical boundaries with people, but in having physical boundaries with others that are about as permeable as the granite hills of my home state. Social distancing? Pfft! I got this. Lifelong social distancing champion, right here.
On a more serious note, this means that when I do let other people spontaneously hug me, or when I hold a patient's hand to pray, it is done very thoughtfully and with a great respect for what appropriate touch can mean in a ministerial sense. I'm probably one of the few students my very boundaries-oriented supervisor wouldn't fuss at for wiping away a patient's tears, or for opening my arms to a family member for a brief hug. I know the Spirit guides me in those moments of appropriate touch because if left to my druthers, six feet of distancing would be the social norm.
Then yesterday, I was at work for all of 15 minutes before I was called to one of my units for a death. I knew it was coming; I had visited with the patient's wife at the start of the week for about 20 minutes. I walked into the room and when she saw me, she started crying harder and before I could much more out beyond, "I'm so sorry," she was asking me to pray with her and her daughter. They both held their hands out to me. I looked at those hands — one belonging to a woman who had been married to her beloved husband for 13 years longer than I've been alive, and the other to a daughter of about my own age who had lost a father she'd known her whole life. I took those hands. I prayed. The wife talked to me for a little bit after, sharing beloved memories, while I kept my hands shoved resolutely down into my pant pockets so I didn't touch anything else ... except for my phone, which I pulled out to play the patient's favorite song — "Amazing Grace" — sung by one of the only contemporary country singers I know and like. The wife stood beside me during that song and listened with her eyes closed, tears streaming down her face, her hand never once leaving her husband's arm. When I finally went to leave, she reached for me for a hug. I could not turn away. I did not want to turn away. I have never felt so conflicted.
I left, touching nothing until I disinfected my phone, until I washed my hands. I mourned the entire time I did so. I did not expect myself to mourn social distancing, but in the context of ministry, I now suddenly do. I mourn the fact that this virus is so easily, so effortlessly transmitted. If it were just me who could be potentially affected, I would follow my leper-touching Savior's example without a second thought. I didn't visit another patient yesterday. I stayed home today. I have been in mourning. As a survivor of sexual assault, I know as well as anyone how deeply touch can destroy what is life-affirming within us. As a survivor, though, I also know just as deeply how powerfully touch can heal us. The Word Made Flesh spoke his miracles into existence, but in many (if not most) instances, God Among Us also conveyed his power by touch. This is the whole reason why I am a Christian — of all the faiths I've explored in my life, it is only in Christianity where the Divine became fully human, lived a fully tactile human existence, who hugged and touched and let his best friend lay against him at their Last Supper.
I have come to realize in my time as a student chaplain that God will often mysteriously work through me, through my humanness and embodied presence; often, I leave a room and wonder if the person or people I just spent time with saw me, or God. I'm still working out that particular theology and way of expressing it (and also, for the record, I'm quite certain my "me-ness" gets in the way 9 times out of 10). So saying, though, I mourn an approaching Palm Sunday and Easter season where the "right" thing to do is to deny a woman who just lost her husband of 43 years the comfort of God hugging her in her grief, through the flesh and bone and strength of my own arms. I could not deny her in that moment, but I know I should have. And I can't stand that; I am angry at this insidious virus for what it robs us all in both human and Divine connection.
How am I dealing with the "age of COVID-19" spiritually? I couldn't tell you. I have no words of wisdom or inspiration, no optimism to share. I was in denial for about two weeks (denial in that I went into "military mode" and squashed my feelings about it down) and I've just hit the grieving phase where I have no choice but to feel what I've tried to wall off. I am coping by growing things, by watering my newly acquired spearmint, by touching my baby basil and smelling the fragrance it leaves behind on my hands. I admire my thriving potted petunia, which I never knew until now was a creeping sort of flower. I wait not-so-patiently for my fiance to build me a quad of raised gardening beds. I brave mosquitoes just to sit outside in my pole barn, on my tucked-away acre of pines, Confederate jasmine, and kumquat trees ... all the while missing my Allegheny Mountains, my grandfather's birches and Douglas firs, the twisting country roads of my childhood. In a global pandemic, the only place I want to be is home. I worry about my grandparents in much the same way as I did on 9/11, when their rural Pennsylvania community shared the trauma of New York City and the Pentagon. I worry about my younger brother, who is actively serving in the Air Force and is also a medical resident student in one of our nation's pandemic "hot spots." I long to spend time with the woman who calls herself my "mom" and the man I think of as a father, but know that I can't share a dinner or an upcoming Easter service with them, because, for different reasons, they're both part of high-risk populations. I long for my best friend who recently moved out of the house we shared together and up to North Carolina. We had plans to spend my birthday together ... my birthday, which is one of the predicted pandemic "peak dates" for our country.
I had Holy Week marked in big, bold writing on my calendar. I love Easter (as much for Jesus, as for its proliferation of rabbits). Speaking of rabbits: I had plans with my pastor to bring one of my three pet rabbits, my goofy Giant Flemish, to our church's second Easter Egg Hunt. I had taken him last year and I've never seen a rabbit so enjoy being the center of children's attention. That is a rare gift in a rabbit and I had just begun to make good on plans to share his sweet nature with others, when my entire community got put on pause. Our whole way of life has been narrowed down to two choices: six feet apart, or six feet under.
The first half of my adulthood was defined by 9/11 and my identity was shaped by the uniform I wore for seven years after. I now sit and wonder what impact this second pivot-point in my life will have — how will a global pandemic shape my identity as a chaplain, a pastor, a Christian minister? I do not believe I am called, primarily, to the work of a chaplain, but my work as one has, is, and will always be the foundation of my pastoral life. The only meaning I can make now, the only spiritual wisdom I have to impart to myself, much less anyone else, is the verse that keeps tumbling around in my mind as I pray and cry, cry and pray: the words of Mordecai to Esther. Maybe ... just maybe ... I was made a chaplain for just such a time as this.
I mourn. I cry. I ramble and scramble through emotions that change about every five minutes. I might be a chaplain, but I'm not much different than anyone else right about — at least, not among those I know. Death and suffering is here. Death and suffering are coming. Too many in my state, in my country, in my world will play the unwilling roles of Mother Mary and watch in forced separation as a loved one dies. The tomb will be full.
But resurrection is coming.
Resurrection always comes.
One day, hopefully before my residency ends, I can let a grieving woman hug me without feeling like I should immediately baptize us both in bleach. Joy, we are promised, will come with the morning. But, to get to that future morning, we must first go through this present mourning. This year, we have no choice but to experience every agonizing moment of Good Friday. I often ask patients if they think that God cries with them. Once they very visibly work through the surprise of thinking of God like that, I almost always get told "yes." So, let us weep with God.
I know I am.