12:20AM Saturday morning.
I hate the sound of my beeper. It's my least favorite sound in the world. I would listen for days to a band called "Fingernails on Chalkboards" if it meant I never had to hear my beeper again. Most people don't even know that beepers exist anymore, but I assure you that every couple of days at least one hospice chaplain has his sleep interrupted by a screaming beeper.
Telecare: "A patient's family is requesting a chaplain visit. The address is..."
Me: "What? Sorry, can you repeat that again? I zoned out for a minute."
I change out of my flannel pajamas, a 30 minute drive upcoming. The winter winds of Southern California are raging again, gusting at about 50 miles an hour. Semis are struggling to stay in their lanes. The local radio station, playing Christmas music 24/7, spins out "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" for perhaps the 700th time this season.
"They'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long long ago."
What does that mean anyway? Who tells ghost stories during Christmas??
It is a steep and dark driveway. At least they could've put a streetlight out here. I am greeted at the door by a a middle-aged man, the patient's son. He is an only child and his mother is dying. She has Alzheimer's and has been in bed for 4 years. His father is still around, but he has emotionally checked-out as a way to cope. There is a hired caregiver who has been with them for the last 4 years, who is also having a hard time watching her die.
I walk back with him to the bedroom to meet his mother. She is propped up in bed, snuggling with a large stuffed monkey, asleep but breathing unevenly. There is a small Christmas tree on the nightstand next to her and a picture of Jesus on the wall behind her. Silent, we watch her sleep for a couple of minutes. I ask the son if he would like me to pray for her. He looks a little uncomfortable but says it's what she would want. Now the caregiver has come back in the room and she looks eager to pray with me.
We gather around her bed and each place a hand on her.
"Father we entrust your servant into your loving hands. We know that you are in charge of life and death, that you have numbered her breaths and the steps she will take. Would you be preparing a place for her with you. Please be speaking into the places of her soul that only you can touch. We don't always understand things about this life. We don't know why death has to come. But we ask for peace. Would you be comforting the family as they keep vigil with her. I ask for the peace that transcends understanding."
Peace. If you call a chaplain in the middle of the night when I'm on call, you're gonna get a prayer about peace. "My peace I give to you," says Jesus. It is as if the future world - the world of shalom - has invaded the present world, and we can live as though it is true already. The experience of the world of no-death is brought to bear on the world that can feel like all-death. But let's not kid ourselves. So much of it isn't true already. We grasp it...but it still slips out of our fingers. We can experience a peace in the midst of grief, but death still comes. Things still aren't right when we watch our loved ones die, when the holidays, supposedly a testament to joy and celebration and comfort, forever become a symbol of loss and emptiness and bittersweet memories. The future world is still mostly in the future.
2:45 AM Saturday morning.
Wearing my pajamas again, back in bed. Listening to my wife breathing softly. A cat sleeping against my side.
3:00 AM Saturday morning.
Are you kidding me??? I will go outside and skip this freaking beeper across the pool. We'll see what sound it makes then.
Telecare: "We have a death visit for you."
Me: "mmm yeah okay."
I'm taking graveyard shift to the next level. 60 minute drive on a different freeway. The winds are stronger. Debris and branches are everywhere. I think about how Jesus somehow managed to have peace in a boat in a raging storm while
the disciples panicked. He could not only still the storm; he could rest
in the storm.
God I miss my bed. When I get home again I'm going to hug it and tell it how much I love it. I'll promise I'll never leave it again.
I end up in the exact same neighborhood that my wife's office Christmas party was the night before. What are the odds? I knock on the side door of the nursing home, startling the night nurse. The family of the patient has just arrived and we are waiting on the mortuary.
The family is Korean and I greet the son and the wife of the patient. The wife doesn't speak much English. They are anxious and they pepper me with questions about the arrangements and what to do next. But they have taken care of everything. The son pauses long enough for me to ask how he is holding up. He chokes up for a second, eyes becoming red. He composes himself and tells me that he feels mostly relieved.
"I've been coming here every day for the past few weeks and my father was in pain. He was struggling to breathe. It was so hard to see. He just wasn't himself anymore. I'm so relieved he's not suffering anymore."
"Don't get me wrong. I've just lost my daddy."
There is a cross, with a heart in the middle of it, sitting by the patient's head. The family is Christian. We pray together, I pass on my condolences, check in with the charge nurse to make sure they have everything they need, and then I get in my car once again.
It is common for family members to feel relief when someone in pain dies. To sit and watch someone you love suffer is sheer agony. But that relief is temporary and is quickly replaced by sadness. That relief is not true peace.
People often define peace by the absence of other things - of war, strife, internal conflict. But if we wait for the absence of those realities in order to have peace, we will be waiting a very long time. My whole profession is built on the hard reality that the emptiness will come and the storms will rage. We will experience tremendous loss. The caverns in our souls will be so wide that we will wonder how anything could possibly fill them.
No, peace is not the absence of things. Peace is what fills the absence.