The Girl Who Picks Honeysuckles

If you live in the American South like I do, this time of year is a boon for the honeysuckle. As a kid, I gravitated to a bush in my family’s backyard, where I managed to redeem only the slightest juice out of the stem. That’s the way it is, you know: a lot of effort for a little return. But if the sweet taste were all there was, we would banish the honeysuckle to the pile, along with other useless objects like twigs, and roaches. The sight and smell of the honeysuckle make the flower more worthwhile.

The other day I took some emotional time out on one of the floors. It was a particularly rough afternoon, with one of my patients writhing in pain and a nurse whose hands were tied because she wasn’t authorized yet to administer more pain medications. The patient’s friend begged the nurse: “Can’t you DO something?”

Each main floor of the hospital has a window on the end, with comfortable chairs facing a TV set. They resemble living rooms. Sometimes family members decompress in these areas, or give patients privacy if a procedure is being performed. It was in one of these places where I glanced down at the street level, and spotted a girl, maybe 10 years old, plucking from a honeysuckle bush. The bush faces a sidewalk that abuts a fairly busy street. The child seemed determined. No matter the number of speeding cars cruising by her, or the slight raindrops that began to fall, she descended on those thistles like a moth to flame. She seemed happily oblivious to her surroundings.

For a few moments, it was utter joy to watch her joy, providing me a gentle reminder that sweetness sometimes comes in the most unexpected times and unexpected places.

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Angie

Believe it or not, one woman inmate at the Muscogee County Jail has a better life behind bars than she had on the outside. That’s the story on Angie (not her real name). Mentally ill, she may be released for a time but then find herself back in when she doesn’t stay on her meds, becomes homeless and acts out in some way to get re-arrested.

Today when I was leading a discussion on the lower level with three other women, Angie paced the upper level and often shouted down to us from the railing. But not really at us. She has this far-away look in her eyes that suggests she’s communicating with something or someone way beyond. Inevitably, one of the other inmates will yell up to her to stop it. From where we sat, you could see into Angie’s room and watch her repeated movement of sitting on the lower bunk, standing, then sitting. Standing then sitting.

Yet as my CPE supervisor would ask me, “Where are YOU in all this?”

It’s interesting what I might bring up for discussion but he would want to know, why are you telling me this particular thing? What are you learning about yourself through it?

I must admit not only a fascination with Angie (what are the voices telling her?) but with the distraction itself. It’s a welcome distraction, for instance, when another inmate is telling me how she prostituted herself for drugs; or when another says, through tears, that her medicine makes her feel unlike herself and she’s afraid of what might become of her infant child if she stays locked up too long. Will her baby know her when she gets out?

Or when another woman confides she’s afraid of a sober life. She knew the tricks of her old ways, but not this.

Sometimes the stories are too much to bear, all at once, and so I focus on Angie and all her wackiness. If even for just a moment, I look away from the painful offerings brought to my lap and I say to myself, “Angie, girl, I would really prefer to be up on that railing with you.”

One Familiar Face

I met my father the other day. Not the real one–he’s at the beach–but a patient with a striking resemblance.

“I’m just an old fart,” he said. I laughed.

Like my father, he has a dry sense of humor; and he’s very sweet. As Daddy did year before last, this man has had a major surgery and come out the other side. It’s given him pause. He’s had other recent griefs that compound, I gather, his own sense of mortality. As we talked, a tear dropped from his right eye. I’m not sure one didn’t drop from mine.

The late great Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote often of the wounded healer–the idea that we all, as humans, can connect to one another through our mutual suffering. I have found that you don’t have to connect with words. In fact, my words sometimes get in the way. Sometimes patting a hand or offering a knowing smile, or even sitting in silence, communicates an understanding far deeper than speaking.

I thought I might meet Daddy one of these days. All those weeks of sitting by his bedside, passing the time, even reading books to him, gave me a vivid snapshot into the world of waiting, wondering loved ones. Will he make it or will he not? What will he be like, later?

I got a chance to comfort my father again. And catch the tears of a suffering man. What a gift that was.

Drain-o!

As meaningful as chaplaincy is to me, I’m finding it’s a challenge to know what to do with the emotional build-up.

I have visits with about 20 patients and/or families day; and I find that receiving all that “stuff” collects like the stuff in one’s bathroom drain. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Some visits are more intense than others. But in all the encounters, I’m one of the ones privileged to take in people’s stories and help them deal with their crisis.

Here are some things I do to manage all this receiving (in no particular order): pray; go to therapy once a month, whether I need it or not (yay, therapy!); talk it out with others; worship; cry; socialize; write; rest; exercise; and, when I am not reading material related to chaplaincy, I read un-related subjects of interest (yay, trashy beach novels!)

If anyone has any other suggestions, I’m all ears.

Last week I was floored by two cases, the commonality of which was that I was shocked by premature death. One patient was older than the other. The younger one, who had just gotten news of a grim diagnosis, died within two days from something seemingly unrelated.

In the case of the older patient, he and I had some meaningful discussions and I found myself rooting for him and praying he would pull through. He didn’t.

Sometimes I have in my mind the way I think things will play out, but then sometimes they don’t play out that way. (Yet another reminder I’m not Master of the Universe.)

Still, I find myself missing many of my patients.

Amid this heartache, I think we are put on this earth to help one another through. We weren’t designed to journey alone. This inevitably means we’ll collect some battle scars. Love will do that. The tough place, at least for me, is learning how to engage enough, love enough but then wash it through like emotional Drain-o. Let it go.

For better or worse, there’s no formula.