Next up in our SHE Serves series is Kitty Taylor. Kitty currently serves as Development Coordinator for the John C. Campbell Folk School (and SHE thinks you should come take a class). Her career path thus far has included many years as a library guru, a few years as a professional talker for two nonprofits, and one unforgettable year as a hospital chaplain. SHE credits the latter as the one that helped her find her niche as an essayist and purpose as a human being. SHE believes in stories, cats, me time, and red wine.
Do Unto Others
In 2011, I entered my year of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) with 6 months of trained experience and a lifetime of professional grief. I consider myself an expert at remembering pain. In many of those memories, I can even tell you what I was wearing. A red dress with paisley print on the night I knew a relationship was about to end. A deep maroon number on the night a different relationship came close to physical violence. A tea-length, navy blue piece with polka dots that got me through my first experience leading a funeral for a newborn. And one of my thrift store favorites, a different navy blue piece with pockets on my first weekend shift as the solo chaplain at Baptist Hospital (now St. Thomas Midtown).
I remember the last one because it was the first time I responded to a Code Blue page. That’s the one sent out to a select group of hospital staff when a patient has gone into cardiac arrest and requires immediate resuscitative efforts. There are paddles and shouts to “Clear!” Chests are pumped. Final efforts are made.
Sometimes they work.
Still learning my steps around the hospital, having been there for less than a week, I found my way to what was not the direct entry into the Cardiac ICU, but a side door that put me in front of a physician talking gently to an older man. We were the only three people in that space and being the third wheel, I stood quietly. Watched. Tried to prepare. I didn’t know the older man on the other side of the conversation, but I immediately knew he was the other side of my page.
I was the awkward witness to a stranger finding out that his spouse had died.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “Your wife’s heart just couldn’t take it anymore.”
I felt as much sadness as I did panic. The doctor would have to leave, attending to his next call or patient, and I would still be standing awkwardly in the immediate aftermath of death.
I didn’t want to be there. I felt unqualified, unworthy, uneverything. I had agreed to a year of doing this very thing and I wanted out before the end of my first week.
When I approached the new widower, I let those feelings of insecurity take the lead. I introduced myself, offered my condolences and follow-up services, and I bolted.
I left him alone.
As soon as I found a quiet place, I let myself have a quick cry for what I had seen and how I had responded. He deserved more than, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” (Side note: That’s a terrible line. One of the many that should be permanently removed from our conversations about death. Same for anything referring to wills that are not our own and reasons for everything.)
My next stop was the House Supervisor, the Registered Nurse in charge of keeping the hospital functioning during the hours outside Monday-Friday, 8:00-5:00. She was someone who was on my list of people to meet and it seemed like a good distraction from processing my chaplain disaster. What I didn’t know was that she was another of the chosen staff who also responded to a Code Blue so early in our conversation, she asked how it went. Reliving it so quickly was embarrassing and emotional. The tears came back. I couldn’t let him go.
“If you don’t feel like you’re done,” she said, “go back.”
She was right, so I did.
Wandering up to the floor where I believed I had failed was a step in both humility and courage. This time, rather than running from the chance to be chaplain, I was seeking it out. It was on, and with, purpose.
I found him in the waiting room, looking tired. It had been some time since our first meeting and though he might have been waiting on conversations with other people or maybe a ride, I imagine he wasn’t yet ready to walk out the door with his wife’s things, but without her.
I don’t remember my exact words, but I do remember taking a seat. Being eye-to-eye with another human being means something.
I don’t remember his exact words, but I do remember something about dancing. It was one of their things.
And he loved her. So much.
We talked and cried and even laughed a little. In the end, we shared a prayer. I knew it was okay to go then, that I had stepped enough outside of the insecurity to be present with someone who was no longer a stranger. He was every person who had ever known death, including me.
Throughout the next 11 months and 3 weeks, there were still plenty of wants to run away. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I went back. Sometimes I didn’t. But there were also plenty of times of when I found myself doing the work, staying in the moment, and trying.
There was a woman going into hospice who wanted to eat popsicles and talk about Heaven. There was a wedding that had to be moved to the hospital chapel because the groom, recently diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, would not be making it to Hawaii to live with his new bride. There was a 3:00a.m. call to intervene between a wailing woman and an exhausted nursing staff. There was a request for exorcism of a hospital room believed to be inhabited by the disgruntled spirit of its last resident. There was a Thanksgiving Day visit with a former pastor who told me that he wished he wouldn’t have been brought back when he, too, coded. There was that navy blue, polka dress at the newborn’s funeral. There was showing up, every day, never knowing what I would walk into, and walking into it anyway.
I miss it.
It’s a challenging transition to go from the rawness and intimacy of that sort of space into the world outside the hospital where we have a tendency to hide our pain. We rarely trust other people with the truth of who we actually are in a moment or a season, rarely trust the space of answering, honestly, “How are you?” (Side note: Terrible, Thanks for Asking is doing a fine job of counteracting that problem and Nora McInerny is a boss babe SHE. Same for Option B and Sheryl Sandberg.)
If there is one thing to take away from those twelve months of service, it is this: wherever you are, presence and support matters.
From the hospital room to the library desk to the nonprofit where I now track donations and call myself a professional friend-maker, someone, somewhere, is going through something. Next year’s annual report, which will list contributing donor names for the 2018 calendar year, will be the first time one of our regular students sees her name standing alone. Her husband died in 2017 and the Folk School was one of their things.
So many other someones will have experienced divorce, disease, depression, discrimination, disaster.
Grief is everywhere and how we respond makes a difference, even when, and maybe most importantly when, we don’t want to.
My very own Richard from Texas, a.k.a. my CPE supervisor through that year of service and the best mentor I’ll ever know once told me, “People don’t always remember the words you said, but they do remember the quality of the visit.”
I think that’s true. What a widower offered that night to a solo chaplain in a navy blue piece with pockets was a second chance I will never forget.