Tonight I worked my very last shift as a hospice chaplain. It is midnight, my shift ended 11 minutes ago, and I am writing a blog post while my thoughts are fresh. I'm planning on going deep into the night, just as I have so many times when I've been on-call. And then on Friday I'm going to resume my previous life as a morning person.
I'm wearing my badge around my neck, for the very last time, as I write this. As another nod to sentiment, I just returned from a late night Del Taco run, which I have done probably 50 times between the hours of midnight and 6am in the last 2 years. Many times I circled the drive-thru just because it comforted me to know that other people were working at that time of night. While most of you have been oh-so-selfishly sleeping in your warm beds during these shadowless hours, some of us had to keep the world running. Big Fat Chicken tacos don't make themselves, you know.
I also just left my last voice mail for the team I worked for tonight. I ended it with "Peace out suckers!!" No one will laugh when they hear it. Hospice workers just aren't funny.
It's all but impossible to capture the experiences, the feelings, and the interactions that have formed these last 25 months. There is no way that I can fully describe what it feels like to go to bed with a beeper (yes, a beeper) next to your ear, and have it scream you out of sleep at 3am, like a rooster who's been doping. And that's only the preface to the terrors of what comes next: "Adam, there is a family who lost someone tonight and they're not coping well. The nurse needs your help for spiritual and psychological support. Oh, and their house is 50 minutes away from you, in east L.A. Tell us when you're finished, because we may have another visit after that for you."
When I told people I was a hospice chaplain, they would give me one of two responses. Either they would be absolutely mortified and look at me as though I were an alien from outer space, or else they would be incredibly moved and give me a hug. One time an old couple bought me a bottle of Syrah and a 20oz Rib eye after they found out what I did. One time a woman scowled and walked away after she found out what I did. One time a child yelled "I hate you!!", stomped on my foot, and ran away. I might have made that last one up.
But the extreme responses I received from others only echoed the contradictions that I experienced within myself. Hospice has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Hospice has been the worst thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes I feel like I have seen too much. Sometimes I feel like I have seen exactly what I needed to see. I feel like my heart grew 3 sizes. I feel like I left pieces of my heart all over Pasadena, and Monterey Park, and Pomona. I had days where I felt like taking off my shoes because I stood on holy ground. I had days where I felt like putting on layer after layer because I felt naked.
I have holy memories, and I have haunted memories, and they mingle in my mind, like a wedding attended by two families who hate each other.
I remember the man who threatened to commit suicide at 2am, and how I kept him on the phone for over an hour until he promised not to do it that night.
I remember the woman whose heart stopped beating the moment I said "Amen."
I remember the brothers who got into a fist fight after their dad died.
I remember Livia, who I sat with for hours and talked about her childhood in Italy.
I remember the family who complained bitterly about my service, even though I gave everything I had to that visit.
I remember Katherine, who told me what it was like to grow up in London during the Blitz.
I remember the woman who told my supervisor, "Either he needs to learn some goddam respect or else get another mother*%$ing job!"
I remember the people who said "You have been with us in the most important time. You are part of our family now."
I remember the time I was called 4 times in an 8 hour shift, and how I spent the next 3 days on the couch, depressed.
I remember the old woman at a nursing home, who answered my "Good morning" with a brazen flip of her middle finger.
I remember the time when I sat in a nursing home with a grieving woman with early onset dementia who had just lost her mom. She asked me the same exact question every 4 minutes for 2 hours.
I remember the late night drives to the City of Industry, where very little industry happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. I remember the late night drives to the City of Commerce, where very little commerce happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. Don't go to the City of Industry or Commerce late at night.
I remember the first time I was the first person to inform someone that a relative had died. It was my very first death visit.
I remember Eulogia ("blessing" in biblical Greek), the 99 year old woman who had lived in her house for 80 years. Shortly before her 100th birthday her family moved her into a nursing home. When I visited her the next day, she saw me and immediately burst into tears and said "I didn't think you would know where to find me!"
I remember the time that I prayed for a man who had been unresponsive for three days. When I took his hand to pray, his fingers closed around mine. It was the last time he moved anything voluntarily.
I remember the two sisters - young, smart, attractive, and blonde, with dream lives in their crosshairs - and how they watched their mother succumb to breast cancer.
I remember the girlfriend of the dying man who sat by his bedside all Christmas eve and all Christmas day, when his family wouldn't come. They had been dating for 3 months. He was perfectly healthy when they started dating. They met at church.
I remember the men of older generations who didn't feel comfortable expressing emotions. They slowly died on the inside while their wives died on the outside.
I remember the time that I threw my beeper across the street and had to hunt for it in the dark for 10 minutes. I remember the time that I managed to turn off my beeper while asleep. I remember the last time I ever turned off my beeper. It was an hour ago.
The apostle Paul tells us to "give thanks in all circumstances," and as I penetrate through all the memories, all the late night drives, all the pop music I used to keep me awake, all the agony and the joy, all the holy and the profane, all the cursing and the praise, all the solitary walks around Pasadena City Hall, all the graveyard Del Taco runs and daybreak Starbucks runs, I uncover gratitude. I am grateful to be done, yes, but I am grateful for all of it.
Thank you for teaching me about pain. Thank you for teaching me not to run from it, but to sit with it.
Thank you for the sacred moments, when I was able to hold a patient's hand as he took his last breath.
Thank you for teaching me about death, that it is always awful and sometimes beautiful.
Thank you for opening my heart to family, who may war with another but almost always show up in the same room when they need to.
Thank you for showing me that my dreams and desires will not always pulsate within me.
Thank you for teaching me about depression, that it often shows up at times of transition.
Thank you for clarifying my priorities, for showing me what is significant in life.
Thank you for teaching me that my most profound thoughts fall completely flat in moments of life and death.
Thank you for making me a better person than I was 2 years ago.
Thank you for showing me that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
When you spend as much time around death as I have over these last 2 years, when every day on the calendar is Ash Wednesday, you learn that ultimately life offers no happy endings. Every life ends in sadness and grief and pain and silence. And all we can do is struggle and work, believe and doubt, hope and fall, run and wrinkle. Every person has both a victor and a victim inside of her. You have more fight and strength in you than you ever imagined, but you also have more weakness and vulnerability than you ever thought. Your bodies will decay and ultimately lose the fight, but you will battle valiantly and courageously. I have seen it time and time again from people you wouldn't think would be so strong.
When you work in hospice, you spend a lot of time with people who are waiting, suspended in that interim period between light and darkness. But whether in life or in death, we are people who wait. We anticipate a Day when the deathbed will be transformed into the cradle of resurrection, when the last gasps of death will be modulated into the cries of new life.
Until that glorious daybreak, we pray with the Church every night:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love's sake. Amen.
Goodnight. Thank you.