The woman I see first thing Tuesday morning has a common name like Cathy Brown. Her name tells me nothing about her. But her frown, arms folded across her chest and her refusal to make eye contact tells me everything. A nurse requested I see her. Reason: emotional distress.
Now when you think of “distress” it’s easy to picture someone weeping and waving their arms and hands, like a willow in a windstorm. But “emotional distress” can also be like a rock on a ridge: silent, unmoving, letting everything pass over and around but nothing gets through. Our conversation starts out in the usual way.
“How are you doing today?”
“What brings you to our fine establishment?”
“Surgery.” “Fine establishment” usually elicits at least a slight smile. But she gives me nothing. I feel myself floundering. Her frown deepens.
“What kind of surgery?”
“A fourteen hour one.” This is not going well.
“Wow. Fourteen hours. How are you doing with all that?”
“Fine.” God, no! We’re back to “fine.” Do I need more coffee? Am I having a BCD (Bad Chaplain Day)? Think, think! Fourteen hours. That’s a serious surgery. Maybe she’s here from Alaska or Montana. One final try.
“Did you come from afar?” Afar? What century am I living in?! This is getting very close to an interview which is highly frowned upon in pastoral care circles.
“No, I live on a farm out in Yelm.” Wait, what’s this? A farm? Doesn’t a farm mean animals?
You never know what is going to crack open the door of someone’s heart. You would think talking about children would do it. But that is dangerous because as much as we love our children, we also worry and fear for them. What if I die and leave them? Who will they grow up to be without me? If they’re already grown they can be sources of pride but also disappointment—many times both.
But animals? Animals don’t grow up, they grow old. They surprise and delight us. They depend on us and we depend on them. They love us unconditionally unlike children who will call us, “poo-poo face” in an instant. Or an adult child who will suddenly cut us out of their lives. We worry about leaving our animals but know that their lives without us won’t be long. And when they die, we grieve. Knowing all this I take a chance.
“Who’s taking care of the animals?”
“What kind of animals is he caring for?” She suddenly sits up, uncrosses her arms and looks at me.
“Well, there’s Spanx my horse, Penny my pig, the two calves Nancy and Nutella and my dog Ziggy.”
“Holy Smokes! Do you have pictures?” Now you can gripe all you want about the invasion of technology, but I’m telling you it’s a wonderful thing when someone can just a hand you a hard, flat rectangular and take you into a slice of their lives. For the first time she smiles.
“This is Spanx and Penny. They are very close.”
“Literally!” Spanx the horse is lounging on the ground with Penny the pig curled up against him. “What about Nancy and Nutella? Are they in the Spanx fan club?” She laughs and takes the phone.
“They all love each other!” She swipes through the photos and there is Penny curled up with Spanx and flanked by the calves Nancy and Nutella. Ziggy, obviously in charge, is in the foreground.
“This is like the Peaceable Kingdom!” I say. “You just need a lion and a lamb!”
“I had a couple sheep but they’re too much work.”
Thirty minutes later we are laughing our heads off about Penny’s unconsummated affair with a male pig who bullied her. “He was so mean,” she said. “He bit her.”
“Poor Penny! That’s just horrible—terrible! What did you do?”
“I ate him.”
The nurse comes in and stands on the other side of the bed. She looks uncomfortable and says almost in a whisper, “I’ve come to remove your urinary catheter.” Cathy shrugs but the nurse doesn’t move.
I say gently, “She’s wondering if you would like me to leave.”
“Oh, no. You don’t have to leave.” Then she starts flipping through the photos again. “Here’s Penny at the trough.”
If there was ever an excuse to get rid of a chaplain, having your urinary catheter removed is the perfect one. So I know she truly wants to continue this conversation. And we do, all the way up until the physical therapist arrives. I’ve been there almost an hour so I thought I should go. But we hadn’t even discussed her spiritual beliefs! In spite of that, I reach for her hand and take another chance. “Would you like me to say a prayer before I go?”
I turn to the PT. “You can join us if you like.”
“Oh, no! I’ll come back.” She is gone in an eye blink. We dissolve into laughter.
“Well, now you know how to get rid of a physical therapist,” I say. We laugh some more and then we pray. I don’t remember what I said—for sure something about healing and thanks for the animals. But I can clearly recall the laughter which I’ve always thought—along with tears—is the deepest prayer there is.