Sausage and Tomatoes

Another day, another opportunity to see where God places me in the world. And I have to admit, I wasn’t feeling it today. For some reason, I was just tired and not feeling up to visiting, listening and just being social in general. Might have something to do with not being able to fall asleep until 12:30am last night, but what do I know?

And why is it, on the days when I lack motivation, my morning time in the hospice office flies by, but on the days when I’ve got visits scheduled back to back, the day drags on forever? Is there some law of the universe that makes this happen? I got to the office on time, even after dodging some pretty crazy drivers who seem to not know the concept of how traffic signals work. My usual time in is 8:30am and after updating my computer and viewing new news about patients, checking voicemail and reading emails, all of a sudden I look at the clock and it’s 10:30am! What the heck?!?! Despite my lack of giddy-up and go, I got up and went…to my first visit.

I wish I could say each visit is fulfilling and worthwhile, and if you believe that, I have some land in Greenland I’d like to sell you. Sometimes visits are not productive, which causes me to re-evaluate the necessity of my presence in a patient’s life. Today was such a time. I’ve been visiting a tiny, grey-haired older woman, at the request of her son, who thought “mom could use some spiritual support.” Mom, on the other hand, really doesn’t understand why I’m there. Mom doesn’t want to talk about her faith, her life, or anything for that matter. Not to mention, she’s hard of hearing so conversation already takes twice as long. So for the past three visits, I’ve brought up about every topic I can think of which may interest her, and the only responses I’ve gotten are smiles, nods and the occasional, “Oh, I don’t know.” And while she will, at times, make comments about the other residents in her facility, the food, or the weather, none of these things warrants a chaplain’s visit or support.

So I find myself at a crossroads – continue visiting, despite the lack of interest, or discontinue visits and spend more time with the patients who want a chaplain there? Experience has led me to believe that family who request a chaplain “because mom/dad would enjoy/need it,” are really saying they, themselves, are the ones who need a chaplain’s ear. Yet, those family members are MIA when it comes to visits or accepting calls. The request for presence seems to be made out of a sense of guilt or anxiousness about the loved one’s decline. Maybe if the chaplain can make mom feel better, I will feel better about the fact that she’s dying. If wishing made it so… In the end, I decided to discontinue visits with this patient. Fortunately, since she forgets who I am after each visit and I need to keep reintroducing myself, I don’t feel it will be a loss to her. And I know God will continue to provide a support for her by way of the facility staff, the hospice nurses and her family.

So on to my next patient – an initial visit. These are often the most enjoyable, as they are a like playing a combination of the Dating Game and 20 Questions. Only, in the end I don’t end up with a date with an eligible bachelor. Instead, I learn invaluable information about my patient, and hopefully a bit about their faith and how it plays a role in their illness and decline. Today was no different. The lovely lady before me was 90 years old, but did not look a day over 70. Her brightly painted nails and ruddy cheeks belied her age, and it was a delight to be able to point this out to her. She, in turn, loved talking about her faith and her family. She receives wonderful support from her pastor and other members of her church, but asked for a chaplain because, in her words, “more spiritual support can’t hurt.” The best part of the visit happened when she shared how she had two boys, born 17 years apart. My jaw hit the floor!! I had to know how and why there were so many years between them. My patient told me the first was planned, but the second just kind of happened. When I commented that it must have been difficult having them so far apart, she replied, “Well, whether the two sausages are linked together or separate, there are still two sausages!” I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time! I can tell this patient will be a joy to visit. As conversation continued, she was able to reflect on her life and commented, “I’ve been around a long time, haven’t I? I’ve done so much.” I agreed and told her I would love to hear more about her life each time I visit. She agreed and I made plans to return soon.

My last visit was with a lovely octogenarian (plus some), a former farmer and former military man. His most pressing concern – one he shares with the majority of the older patients I see – is why God has allowed him to still be living. When someone is dying and they know and feel themselves declining, this question arises quickly. It has to do with suffering and how God can allow that suffering to continue. In life there are varying degrees of suffering as we make our way through the years. When we are in decline and approaching death, that suffering can be amplified because we know the end result is death and we just want it over as quickly as possible. For this man, he feels he should already have died, because now that he has outlived his siblings, there is nothing else he feels he needs to do. He touches on this at least one during each of our visits. When pressed though, he admits he does not want to leave his wife or his children. He is, simply put, questioning the “why” of his decline and suffering, and tired of living through it.

As a chaplain, and as a human, I have no good answer for him. Suffering is something we all go through in one form or another, and it cannot be avoided. But the question of why there is suffering in the world is a question the human race will struggle with for eternity. As a person of faith, I choose to believe that we live in a fallen world and because of the choices we made – and continue to make – suffering will always be present. Suffering will only cease when we choose to fully live and act in love, as God created us to. But again, I digress…

The wonderful highlight of my visit with this gentle man was his sharing with me his knowledge of growing tomatoes. Every day with lunch, he orders the same sandwich, and every day it comes with two slices of tomatoes on the side. No matter the day, when asked, the tomatoes are never ripe and always bitter. Today was no different. As he talked about the tomatoes he enjoys the most (pineapple tomatoes), he eventually shares a story of starting his own farm, and not having the money to afford equipment. Crops were planted by hand and harvested by hand. I learned today that seed corn used to be sold by the bag and bushel, but now is sold by the kernel. I learned that automation in planting and harvesting crops made the job easier in some ways and more difficult in others. Most importantly, my patient was able to say out loud that he worked hard during his life and he had done a great deal. For him, realizing this meant he has no regrets about his life, and he knows once his life is complete it was a worthwhile life lived. As a chaplain, I got to witness this realization and support it with affirming words and presence.

Sometimes the most important things happen in someone’s life amidst conversations about sausages and tomatoes. Sometimes merely witnessing to someone’s life can bring a sense of completion and peace. Sometimes, God is just that big that He puts into your lap the opportunity to learn something new and to affirm what has already been learned. Today was that day for my patients and for me.