Of Gospel Music and Birthday Cards

This job, as I have learned, moves from one unique circumstance to the next, and does so on the turn of a dime. (And that phrase alone should tell you something about how old I might be.) Today was no different and as I sit here pondering and reflecting on what I’ve gained, one thought comes to mind: One grouchy person has no power over me.

But alas, we should start at the beginning, with the morning new and fresh – and downright windy for a day in March. My chaplain work began with a hospice team meeting, one in which all the patients on the week’s caseload were discussed. After I open the meeting with a prayer, I, for the most part, sit in attentive silence, as the intent of the meeting is to review medical concerns and any needs to be addressed. Never fear though, as I do speak up when the need arises, and offer the chaplain’s perspective on a difficult patient situation or my insights as to how to reach a patient who is struggling with EOL (end of life) concerns.

My compatriots – consisting of nurses, social workers and an MD – are, after two months of my joining their team, still not sure how to take my contributions, as the previous chaplain who attended this particular meeting did not say much. So when I do offer a thought or two, I generally try to make sure what I am saying is worthwhile and essential to the patient’s care. More often than not I am met with confused looks or blank stares – but they are respectful confused looks and blank stares!. No matter how important spiritual care is to the hospice philosophy, the general public and general hospice staff still do not seem all that sure of the need for it. That challenge, it seems, is on-going and I am forever working to change the culture. But that topic is for another day. I digress…

Today’s meeting highlights consisted of mainly routine concerns about medications, extended care facility staff not providing good care, and patients’ family members who aren’t giving pain medications as often as they should because they would rather have their loved one “awake” and restless instead of comfortable and most likely sleeping. Yet another topic for another day. But mixed in with these typical patient reports were revelations of a phone sex operator living in a care facility we visit (not our patient), bed bugs in another facility, and a patient who on any given day is high from illegal substances. The chaplain me pondered these interesting tidbits, and considered how difficult our patients have it when dealing with a terminal illness or condition while also navigating the difficult circumstances they live in. The “regular every day” me was wondering how our world and society has gotten as far as we have, considering the less than brilliant minds we encounter every day. (But hey, even if you live in an extended care facility you still may need to make a living – why not a phone sex operator?)

All of these ponderings aside, the day was running as usual. My first patient visit went very well, as I was able to meet my patient’s spouse for the first time. Conversation was fruitful and I learned a lot about the patient I had been seeing for the past few months. As a chaplain, much can be gained from both patient and family conversations. Patients are only as forthcoming as they are comfortable, but family members tend to share much more because they want the best for their loved one. They also tend to share more because they do not know how to express their anxiousness about their loved one’s eventual death, and they are reaching out to anyone who will listen to their story.

Such was today’s encounter with my patient’s spouse. I listen more than I speak during my visits, allowing silence to linger, even when it grows uncomfortable. The uncomfortable space always seems to get filled, and usually with fruitful information. This time, that silence was filled with the explanation that my patient has never liked to be the center of attention, and has always tended to be quiet and unassuming. I also learned that my patient can seem extroverted when in one on one conversations, but in a group, will give control and focus to others. As I listened to the spouse talk, I recalled earlier conversations with my patient and this new insight fit with what I had come to observe thus far. Alas – a new tool I can use in future visits! This revelation brings to mind many questions I can ask my patient once I am visiting alone next time: How do you find peace amidst the chaos that goes on around you? How is God helping you through this – or do you feel God is missing? I am looking forward to visiting again for more conversation.

My next patient was a bed-bound person whom I have visited on multiple occasions. My first visit with her was interactive an definitely interesting, as she shared many details with me about her life as we talked at a table outside of her room during lunch. Despite having dementia and not being aware of the current time or place, she was able to tell me of her family history and the things she enjoyed while growing up. Over time, and leading up to today, she has grown weaker, is not eating and sleeps the majority of the day. Today when I walked in, she was awake – a wonderful sight! She immediately said, “I know you – you’re my mother!” As I sat down, I smiled in return and just said, “I am?” My ministry of presence, support and affirmation allows me to be whomever my patients need me to be. For a dementia patient, arguing against what they see and feel to be true is a losing battle. The compassionate care I can provide is done through letting her lead the visit and just being supportive. Today I was also able to feed her lunch, which only consisted of a few bites of food and a small glass of water. Nevertheless, it was an important part of her care and one I am humbled to be able to provide.

Over the next hour, she talked as if I were her mother and she was sharing her day with me. Her smile was beautiful, and she was enjoying having a visitor. The best, most fulfilling part of the visit was when I played gospel hymns for her and sat back while she sang with the music, tapped her toes to the beat and repeated, “Praise Jesus!” I could tell this brought her to a place of comfort and peace, which is exactly what she needed. When I finally ended the visit, I heard a string of Thank Yous, which told me she had received something truly special today. This was affirmation to me that I am doing what God has called me to do.

But on to the next part of my day…working in the hospital. This is where the birthday card portion of today’s entry comes into play. It’s my turn to get the birthday card for the chaplain whose birthday is coming up next this month. I also get to plan a small party for that person – and who doesn’t love parties? The thing is, the next person with a birthday is my boss. So quite a conundrum I have in selecting the appropriately themed card. Do I go with the traditional style card, with the usual “Happy Birthday! May your day be filled with…” blah, blah, blah? Or do I select something more my speed, which is generally slightly off color and funny? Of course, I went with my gut and got the funny card. I mean, really – don’t we all want our bosses to lighten up and smile more? And I think my boss has a good sense of humor.  -SIDEBAR-  A couple years ago during a meeting my colleagues and I were discussing the merits of the comedy The Big Bang Theory. I just shake my head at the absurdity of the show, and have never watched a full epidode, while my colleagues had been pulling me into endless rounds of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock.  Anyway, we were in a heated discussion about the show and I off-handedly made the comment that smart people don’t watch that show.” (I wasn’t being serious, it was a good-natured argument and we were having fun.) Little did I know that my boss, who had been standing at the other side of the room, was listening to our exchange. She then chimes in with, “I watch the Big Bang Theory.”  Bazzinga!  The room fell silent and I was emphatically put in my place, followed by tons of laughter directed towards me from my colleagues. Therefore, I do know my boss has a good sense of humor.

Anyway, so I now have this great card, which is funny and which I know she will like. As I hand it off to the first of several colleagues who will be signing it, I am met with a shocked look as this person reads the card. I am then somewhat scolded because of it’s inappropriateness. Immediately I am internally wondering if I made a mistake in my choice. But I decide to stick with it and reply that our boss has a sense of humor and I think she’ll like it. Fast forward 10 minutes and this same colleague comments to me how they would be offended if they received the card. Again, I pause, rethinking my choice. Again, I reiterate that I’m ok with the card and it’s fine. I receive a disapproving look before my colleague leaves for the day. (Mind you, I get along well with this person, so I’m chalking it up to a one-off.) As the card gets passed around, all who read it give a hearty laugh and I know I picked the right card.

But as the afternoon continues, I feel myself getting more and more annoyed. Why was this person being a grouch about the card? Why can’t people just have fun? How come one person needs to be a buzz-kill when it comes to humor and enjoyment? By the time I ended my day, I decided that since I don’t have to go home with that person, I will be in charge of my mood the rest of the day. Who knows what was going on with this person. Maybe it was a bad day for them. Maybe a bad week. Maybe their relationship with our boss is different from my relationship with our boss. Who knows? I did say a prayer for my colleague though. For whatever is going on in this person’s life, I hope God is able to bring some peace to it. We all deserve peace in our lives, regardless of what is going on. So whether we’re just going through our work day, slogging along from minute to minute or we’re laying alone in a bed just hoping for a visitor to stop by, may God place before us those who will help us to prosper and see Jesus just a little bit more clearly.