Notes of a Chaplain

A few summers ago, I was working as a Chaplain at a Catholic hospital in Charleston South Carolina. We were all assigned floors of patients to check up on. The nun in charge of placing us took a while to discern where I should work but decided I should work in the building on campus devoted to cancer.

I spent the majority of my time in the dialysis clinic, a huge room that had about 20 over-sized beige armchairs, clustered in twos or threes. I was overwhelmed at first, how would I help establish a sense of privacy and care in a huge room with nurses, chemo and blood hanging everywhere? Since I did not have a door to knock on, I decided my approach would be to ask if I might sit on their porch for a bit. They could let me know if they were up for visitors, and they did.

Each day I came to the clinic I became more aware of the holy ground I was on, and the gift it was to be granted porch time. There were patients that had family filling up the room, others that always came on their own, CEOs, ballerinas, rock stars, truck drivers, dads, grandmothers, and kids. There was a young woman Cynthia, a few years younger than me who was dealing with her second bout of cancer. Cynthia and I developed a pattern of checking in, and she admitted to me later that if I had been wearing a collar or carrying a bible she would have not been open to a visit. She told me about: the good and bad doctors, her dogs that she did not have to pretend she was well in front of, the sermons she read when she was sad, the man she fell in love with, and how she worried about losing her job and apartment because of all the appointments. Cynthia told me how she did not want to have her mom take care of her again, which made her fiercely independent, and how her brother would call and visit, keeping her company through the hours of treatment and pain.

One day Cynthia asked me if I thought gay people got into heaven, admitting she was really worried about her brother being disqualified. We had a long theological conversation about it, what qualified as Christian, about what did certain biblical passages mean. She had been burdened by this, and by the end of our conversation she felt like he would qualify.

Then there was Jennifer, who told me about being given six months to live by a doctor and then going to the hardware store to buy light bulbs, and how infuriating it was to read that the bulbs had a 9-year lifespan. I was imagining how challenging that moment must have been. I asked her what she did in that moment, secretly hoping she took a baseball bat to all the light bulbs that had the gall to have a life expectancy beyond hers. She laughed at my alternative hardware store scene and told me how she could do one better because she outlived her death sentence.

Once you passed Angel, the secretary/gate-keeper of the dialysis center, there was a level of real, where there was no pretending. No one was there because they wanted to be, they were there because they had to be. That summer, I was reminded of the power of listening, and was humbled by the trust given whenever anyone decided to share their story.

Sue Flynn, Ministerial Intern