Thursday, July 9, 2015

Dark Moon Rising

As an initial part of my D.Min. coursework here at Seattle University, all students were asked to perform a critical analysis of formative points of our ministry from a variety of angles--the settings including social location and cultural context, the effects on our skills, and so on.

One of the formative points I selected for critical analysis was my first night on call as an intern chaplain for California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, where I did my Clinical Pastoral Education in 2009.  My written recollection of that night is rewritten here in its entirety six years later, edited only for mechanical issues such as word choice and syntax.

Seattle, Washington
July 9, 2015

A number of days ago, I served my first 24-hour shift as the on-call chaplain for the California Pacific Medical Center system. This meant that during the day, I would refer pages for a chaplain to the chaplain of that particular ward, and at night, I would be the only chaplain on duty and could respond to any page personally. The day was not particularly arduous, I simply passed referrals on to my fellow interns, residents, and staff chaplains. Some detective work and malfunctioning phone hijinks ensued, but nothing terribly dramatic.

That night, however, two patients died on my service. One of the two died in the evening, the other died in the middle of the night. Both times I was paged, and both times I spent a couple hours with the families. After all was said and done, I had gotten less than four hours of sleep that night. It took a toll on me, if in no other way but in terms of sheer physical exhaustion.

In the days that followed, though, I wrestled with myself on how much the deaths of these two people should affect me. On a fundamental level, I feel like it should affect me because I bore witness to the extreme pain of their families in the immediate wake of such a loss. John Donne once wrote, "Because I am involved in (hu)mankind, any man's death diminishes me," and on a gut level, I connect so much to that statement. This experience had to affect me, how could it not? But I also began to tell myself that on a certain level, I needed to be able to emotionally separate myself from what had happened.

I remembered an episode of the television sitcom Scrubs in which Dr. Cox, in explaining how another doctor was breaking bad news to a family, said of that doctor, "He's going to tell them the patient died, he's going to say that he is sorry, and then he is going to go back to work. Do you think anyone else in that room is going back to work today?" I still went to work the next day after my night on-call, and I still ministered to the patients I normally worked with on the dialysis ward as though nothing happened.  But something had happened.  Many somethings, really.

I've been told by friends who talk to me about their problems that part of the reason they come to me is because they think I (generally)  can offer objective advice when I need to. I would like to think that is so. But I also have realized that I have a bit of a ways to go in being able to sort out just how much I can, should, or am able to allow my instances of crisis ministry to affect me (and even this presumes that I have some degree of control over it).

And, in reflecting back on that night and how I can most constructively make meaning out of what happened, I remembered the passage from Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie" that I read to my intern cohort in seminar on the day of my on-call. In it, Albom writes about an Arctic First Nation Peoples tribe that believes that the moon is capable to receiving the souls of dying organisms before sending those souls back to earth in the bodies of new living things, and that sometimes, the moon is so filled with the souls of the world that it disappears from view on the nights of the new moon.

But, as Albom writes, the moon always returns.

June 22 marked the night of the new moon for the month of June, the first new moon after my night on call. I would like to think that at some point in time, whether on the night of the 22nd or on any other night, there was indeed something greater than us, greater than anything we ever knew, waiting to welcome these souls with open and loving arms. I would like to think that there will remain the connection I made to the families of the dead, likely sustained only by the fragile threads of memory. And I would like to think that when I expire, I will be welcomed into the moon, into the heavens, into whatever awaits me, as the world continues on, as the sun rises and sets, and as the flowers continue to bloom.

The following night, June 23, marked my next night on call. The merest sliver of the waxing crescent moon laid in wait beyond the city lights and the rolling fog.

I was never paged that night.

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