Jesus had to tell Simon Peter three times, “Feed my sheep.” I can only think this is because 1) Peter was a slow learner, 2) Peter didn’t really like sheep, 3) feeding sheep is harder than it looks or 4) all of the above.
What do sheep do when there is not a blade of grass left in their usual pasture? They find another place to feed. They do not call Door Dash; they just move on. So it was on a Sunday that I wanted to be spiritually fed, and inspired and to have some aspect of my faith illuminated. But as the song says, “you can’t always get what you want,” which is why I walked over to the hospital to visit a patient. This may seem counterintuitive as the hospital is also a place of pain, suffering and sorrow. But this sheep knows that pasture well and knows there are spots of tasty grass all over.
If we think about it, we know our hearts have been fed in the most unlikely of places: taking out the garbage we see a hummingbird; changing a baby’s diaper we get a heart-melting smile, standing in line at the DMV we have a stimulating conversation with a complete stranger. So I know from experience that somewhere in the hospital, I can find hope, love, joy and faith in action.
As I walk I am thinking about a line in a Mary Oliver poem:
Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.
I had shared it with the parents of a J., a 23 year-old woman who has been in a coma for six weeks. Her father said to me, “Thank you for that, I needed it. I am starting to lose hope.”
There is no explanation for this coma. It came on after two days of headaches. The best they could do was “auto-immune encephalitis.” They ran what seemed like millions of tests but it remains a mystery.
But one thing is certain, there is a current of love, hope and faith circulating in J’s room. Her mother and father have flown in from the East Coast to be with her. They take turns sleeping there at night. They are both there for the day shift. J.’s sister comes to visit, her aunts come to support her mother, her uncle comes to support her father.
I love visiting this room and these people. I even love visiting J. because there is some inexplicable connection I feel with her. I sit by her bed and talk to her for a few minutes every time. As the weeks roll by and there is no change we think of different things to get her out of her coma.
She is an Enneagram Type 2, The Helper. Type Two’s love to help people! I crouch next to her bed and because she works in radio, I say, “J., I need help with my audio editing. I want to ask you many questions about it. I think you can help me.”
Nothing. Of course I was hoping for a Hollywood scene where she gasps, sits up in bed, fully conscious and articulate and asks, “What seems to be the problem?”
Her parents play her favorite music, hoping even if it doesn’t instantly wake her, at least it is somehow familiar and healing.
I share with them what my dog trainer friend said when my terrier Max was mauled by a pit bull. “Don’t talk to him in ‘worried baby talk’ because he will sense your worry and then he will worry about you and that will impede his healing.” After she told me that I’d say to Max in a confident tone, “We will get through this Maxxie and all shall be well.”
So we are careful how we talk to J. I say to her, “When you are back, we can talk about your editing software!” Not “if” you come back, but “when.”
Everybody at one time or another, have or have had situations in our lives where we are waiting for things to come back to life. We hope. We pray. We speak confidently in spite of what we are experiencing. How long do we wait? I don’t know, except to say, “Keep room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
But here is the sticky part for J.: it’s unimaginable that she could spring out of this after six weeks and it’s just as unimaginable that she would die. I can’t bear the thought. When I can finally stand to talk about it, I speak with a wise friend. I quote Mary Oliver. She listens carefully and then says, “Perhaps the real Truth is simply, ‘Keep room in your heart. Period.’”
I’m trying to do that, so on this Sunday J.’s mom and I giggle about making cocktails even though her ancestors come from the Jain religious tradition and they don’t drink alcohol. I joke that I chose Christianity because the Old Testament sounds like a Michelin four star French restaurant. Deuteronomy goes on about “meat, grain, wine and strong drink.” Then there’s Jesus the Divine Sommelier, who is always drinking, sharing, blessing and creating wine. We include J. in our conversation even though she can only blink occasionally with one eye. I tell her that I will share a Margarita with her when she gets her stomach tube out. Her mom laughs.
We are being all jokey because the next day she and J. are scheduled to be air-lifted back to the East Coast to another big hospital where their family and friends are waiting. So this will be my goodbye even though we talk about our paths crossing again.
Then comes that moment where I know I must leave. I give a hug to J. and then to her mother who says, “I want you to take the plant! We can’t take it with us. The jet is very small.” We are both fighting back tears and she hands me the plant which is not one plant in a pot. It is six plants artfully arranged in a big ceramic planter. It is beautiful. She puts it in my arms. It is stupendously heavy.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go get your car and I’ll bring this out front?” she asks.
“No, no, I can carry it,” I lie. I know I have to leave now or I will really lose it. “I will think of you all every time I see it,” I say. My heart is full.
“Good,” she says.
The next thing I know I am waiting at the light in front of the hospital to cross the street to campus. I feel like my arms are going to break off. Why in God’s name is that WALK sign taking so long? At this moment I realize that the only way to make it back to my car is to walk and stop and rest, repeat.
I use the technique I used when I used to do long distance running: just make it to the _____.” So I just made it to the stone bench, to Drumheller fountain, to the stairs past Red Square, to the “W” sign. Each time I put down the planter I prayed for J. and her family. I shook out my hands, windmilled my arms and thanked God for these amazing people. They couldn’t possibly know how much they fed me.
And so we wait. We keep going, we stop, we rest, repeat. We feed one another along the way, all the while, keeping our hearts open. Period.