Hold My Hand

One of the things I have been doing, particularly since graduation and finishing my internship, is working per-diem as a hospital chaplain. “Per-diem” is by the day, as needed; what it means is that I have a job, working anything from one night a month to several nights a week, at the Big Hospital that is 57 miles, mostly interstate highway, from the ol’ Sand Hill where I live.

It’s a long drive, one that I have become well acquainted with over these last two years, over two units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the Big Hospital, and two years of parish internship at a church in a town halfway between home and hospital. It is, as I am fond of saying, not a bad drive in the good weather… and not a good drive in the bad weather.

When you drive the same stretch of highway over and over, you get to know it in an intimate way: that particular overpass where the sun is right in your eyes at certain times of the day and year; the wide curve by the bog where the geese nest in the grass verges in the spring time; the patch of wildflowers that turn a road cut purple for a few short weeks; that one stretch of nondescript road, halfway between somewhere and somewhere else, where you inevitably remember whatever it was you forgot that you are going to need at your destination. (For me, this stretch is I-295 through Bowdoinham, ME. Sorry, Bowdoinham.)

Dead dog on the highway… Median cats are growling at me,
I turn my lights on brighter…. I’m counting through the night ride.

You notice the road kill: deer, turkeys, smaller creatures beyond identification. The skid marks. The bent guardrails. The deep rut marks in the grass verges. The occasional twisted piece of plastic or metal on the shoulder, surrounded by glittering shards of broken glass.

One more life for the taker (chickenman… chickenman…)
One more song for the maker (chickenman… chickenman…)

Some weeks ago, I was heading down to work and noticed the aftermath of an accident I’d heard about on the radio earlier in the day. Only the bent guardrail and the fresh ruts in the grass remained, mute testimony to the power of physics to transform a life – or to end one.

one more life for the taker (chickenman… chickenman…)
one more song for the maker (chickenman… chickenman…)

There are basically three things that will land a person in the emergency room, and we learned about them all in high school: biology, chemistry, and physics. I think about this a lot when I am on duty, and when I am on the road.

Physics is falling off of things, or onto things, or into them. Physics is also behind the pager shorthand for all the kinds of collisions: bike vs pedestrian, car vs bike, ATV vs tree, sled vs rock. It’s brutally succinct, this communication: agent vs object, along with some patient identifiers that are protected by privacy laws, but it gives us an idea about who’s coming to the door.

An aside: Please do come to the emergency room if you’re having a medical emergency, or if you think you might be having one. If you’re really not sure, go to Urgent Care if there’s one near you, and they can help you figure it out. If you come to the emergency room, and it turns out that you are not having an emergency, you will probably be asked to wait behind the people who are (or might be) having an emergency.

Part of my job includes reassuring folks that if they are waiting, it’s a good sign that they are less sick than the person who is being rushed through.

Part of my job includes waiting, with family and friends as well as patients, while they find out how bad their day just got.

Part of my job includes just being there when things are very bad indeed.

one more life for the taker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)
one more song for the maker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)

Four years ago, I did not foresee the possibility that chaplaincy would turn out to be my vocation. I was pretty well convinced otherwise. The universe is full of surprises, not always pleasant ones, but this curve in the road has led to an unexpectedly good place for my ministry to unfold.

Sometimes I am asked, “What do chaplains do?”  and that is a surprisingly tough question to answer.  We do a little bit of a lot of things, and much of the value of a professionally trained chaplain is in the things we do not, or should not do: we don’t proselytize, or push our own religious views on others – that would be a violation of professional ethics.  We aren’t there to fix anything, or to present medical news, good or bad.   We are there to accompany folks through the process of being in the hospital, to listen compassionately and without judgment, and to help patients and their families figure out how their experience fits into the rest of their lives – which includes, but isn’t limited to, any religious or spiritual beliefs and practices a person has.

It’s a fuzzy edged job in a science-driven system.  We try.

darkness into darkness, all the carnage of my journey
makes it harder to be livin’
(he said) it’s a long road to be forgiven… 

one more life for the taker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)
one more song for the maker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)

Lyrics are quoted from the Indigo Girls, “Chickenman”

* * * * *

Edited to add:

I am on call tonight. I posted this before I left home.

On the way down, I was the middle vehicle in a near-miss with a flock of turkeys. No accident happened. This time.  All is well, or at least well enough for now.

one more life for the taker…
chickenman, hold my hand….

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One Response to Hold My Hand

  1. Gemma Lily says:

    Beautiful and true words 💗

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