It’s 1:30 AM. I’m just home from the ICU, where tonight, for a few moments in time (or was it out of time?), I remembered again that here at the hospital I am on holy ground. All the insanity of the hospital world, which much of the time makes so little sense, stood still for a sacred instant and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, as us, in every person present, each in their own unique way.
We knew not when our day began that we would, at its end be gathered to send one of our sisters on her way. Who knows how the Calendar was arranged, that called each of us to be in that place, in that moment, together. We marvel at the Wisdom that arranges the solar system, that ordains that the death of winter is followed each year by the resurrection of spring; how much more mysterious is the Divine Order that called these particular em- bodied souls to come together at this same instant. Interspersed with her extended clan that was gathered to see her out of this world were those of us from other clans, who, called to play our part in her drama, had an unspoken sense of our Divine Assignment. Despite all our machines, all our medicines, all of her family’s prayers, the shell in which her spirit had for so long lived, could no longer contain that which longed to be free. As the vigil continued, her spirit, her Divine essence slowly slipped away from the body that had in the recent weeks imprisoned her. Her moment of freedom was greeted by the sobs of her children; the wailing of the women filled the ICU. We closed doors to contain the sound but the heartbreak could not be contained.
Our long/brief journey together was coming to a close. How appreciative I am that after many struggles to understand and to try to change the other, our hospital system and our African clan had within the last week found a way to peacefully co-exist — no, not just co-exist, but respect, perhaps even appreciate each other. I give thanks for the perspective that our Ethics Committee guest speaker raised that allowed me to find the ears I needed to hear the words they could not speak. I am grateful for the curiosity that led me to research the world from which our immigrants had come, so that I might have some context in which to hold our differences; grateful for the compassion I had temporarily lost finding its way back into my heart; grateful for my willingness to become a stranger in their strange land instead of forcing them into my somewhat familiar world.
When I opened myself to who they truly are, I resonated with their devotion to the same God I love but which they call by the name Allah. I recognized the invisible bond that connects us to each other. When the son spoke of the need to just be in the room with his mother, I knew we are One — the same Spirit expressing as and through each of us. Were it my mother in that bed, I would not leave her side no matter the rules, the scorn, the pressure to do otherwise. I KNOW that love they feel. I know what it is to lose a mother, a father; they cannot be replaced. The day – today sorrow may lessen but the hole in the heart never goes away. What grace for me to be reminded, to see before me the love I have also lived. My heart was stretched, made larger by the gift of their presence in my life. I cannot just go on to the NEXT patient, the next family. There have been too many of late and I have not allowed myself to stop, allowed myself to love, allowed myself to grieve. Right now, just for this moment, I have to remember that knowing this family has changed me, has touched my heart. I have to put it into words that I can read on the days when there is no time to really feel, so that my heart does not become hard from the engorgement of unshed tears. There must be time to stop the doing and just be; stop the forward movement and just sit still, even though to do so feels like I risk being crushed by the incredible weight of all the shared and unshared sorrow. The image comes of trying to outrun a blizzard that has no end. At some point — this point — I must just rest in this protected place from all the snow still to fall, by embracing the storm I have already survived. Perhaps in this shelter, I will find respite, a place to be nourished before again trying to outrun the elements.
For these few weeks we have walked the path together, this clan and I, and it has been a rocky road much of the time. But tonight we sat by the side of the road and rested together. They have allowed me to serve them and I am humbled by the privilege. They have forgiven me, forgiven all of us for our earlier transgressions. In the midst of their deep, deep sorrow, they too seem to know that we are One.
My prayer is that I never allow myself to forget what I feel right now, what I have felt this past week as day by day, I have committed myself to just serving them. They have showed me the beauty of humility, they who humbled me with their quiet, gentle strength. As an assertive woman, I have allowed myself to sit at the feet of these who have mastered selfless love and found in them that which would serve me well to learn. They never backed down from what they needed to be in integrity, never allowed us and our silly rules to interfere with how their love HAD to be expressed. Yet, always they were gentle. Instead of forcing us to know their strength, they wore us down with their quiet perseverance. Instead of flaunting their knowledge, they disarmed us with the wisdom of their ways. And miracle of miracles, somehow our willingness to hear them, to try to find a way to meet their minimum requirements, opened their hearts to us. As they began to trust, the staff began to trust them. A new compassion was birthed in our ICU and I was privileged to be one of its midwives.
As we prepared for the end, I learned that it is the Muslim tradition to never leave the body unattended. The man at the mortuary that handles most of the Muslim ceremonies here said they are usually quite tenacious about that. I had experienced their tenacity and was determined that we find a way to give them what they needed. When the charge nurse needed to prepare the room for another patient (because there is always another patient), I offered the chapel as an alternative. She called the nursing supervisor who graciously agreed. When the mortician said they could not accommodate the family’s presence until after staff arrived at 7, I negotiated an agreement to bring someone in two hours early so we could empty the chapel before the calm of the hospital night surrendered itself to the hustle of a new day. As I took each option to the family, as they felt their needs honored every step of the way, another miracle — they decided on a different course of action. Wearied from their five-week vigil, they determined on their own that if two of the men could stay and accompany her body to the morgue until it was put in refrigeration, the remainder of the family would go home for the night. They would reconnect with her at the mortuary when the sunrise brought a new day — the day in which, according to their custom, her body would be buried.
Each of the staff in their section of the unit, was touched by their process — each in his or her own way reached out and wanted to help. Our clan united to support the passing of one of their clan. We were indeed all One. Gone were the past resentments, relinquished to the commonality of our experience of love and loss; of suffering and surrender; of grasping and of grace. Our clan gathered round the monitor, gripped by the drama unfolding in the ever changing numbers, the depth and breadth of the lines, while just a few feet away, their clan surrounded her body, offered their prayers, hearts breaking as the answer continued to be not the one they truly desired. Most members of our clan saw themselves in someone of the ‘other’ group as they might have seen themselves in one of us, had not their focus been only in one direction, toward the one they loved who lay dying. No longer did we reflect to each other the lowest and basest of who we are. Instead in that shared moment we mirrored each other’s Essential Goodness and all of us were baptized, some of us healed, by the Holy Water of their tears, mingled at times with our own. For a brief, shining moment we were an island of peace, the Peace that passes all understanding, in the raging sea of our normal lives.
I have no illusions that the cranky, grumpy, complaining witch that can too often be me died with this patient tonight. But I also know that just as a mind expanded by an idea can never return to its original shape, neither can a heart, expanded by an experience of compassion, humility and grace ever be the same. Tonight I experienced and embodied the gentle pleasure of being responsive only to what the other, the beloved other, needed. It was a priceless gift in and of itself. It was its own reward. And yet as I drove home I could hear my Creator saying, Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant. You too are my Be- loved in whom I am well pleased.