In my work as a Hospice chaplain I hear many confessions. Often they are what one might expect. They are the typical things; the things any of us might lament. They are often the yearnings to have spent more time with loved ones, the desire to have listened better, to have appreciated more, to have settled for less. Rarely, seldomly, one hears the true deathbed confession--the truth which has been denied, the wrongs which must be righted, the words, bubbling forth in a torrent which cannot be silenced, or words whispered in hushed tones, always watching to make sure I don't sink to my knees with the weight being entrusted to me in the spoken truth.
In my work I am constantly reminded of death. The urgency to live is vital. Death whispers to me constantly. It is a reality I live with. For the most part I believe I live well in spite of, or because of the reality of death at every turn, for when death is often in your view, when the last breaths of the dying are the bread and butter of your vocation, you can't help but become enraptured with the idea of life.
My work is sometimes lonely. I hear things which I cannot repeat. I see things I do not know how to explain. I drive long lonely miles with NPR as my sole companion (heart ya, Terry Gross, really...let's do lunch soon...). And then Thursday comes. And I remember that, just as the motivational speakers might yell, "There's No 'I' in 'Team'" (although as my husband points out, there is a "me").
On Thursday, on every Thursday, I join the other two chaplains in my agency for lunch. It is our weekly communion of double cheeseburgers and Asian chicken salads. The body of Christ shared over fast food meals. Our talk varies from inappropriate, quirky Hospice humor to soul-searching questions about the nature of God.
G. and M., my partners in crime and my comrades on the front-lines, have both heard me into being and allowed me to rage at that which is wrong. We are a motley assortment, three different denominations, three different life histories. We have been thrown together in our shared callings to minister to the dying, and we have not shirked our responsibilities, even in the face of encroaching "efficiency and productivity standards," and corporate micromanaging. I believe that in many ways, they are what keep me from throwing my hands up and running from this death-facing ministry. They are what remind me that what I do is sacred and holy.
And so it was today that we gathered for lunch. Our Thursday lunch. We shared the office gossip. We told of our cherished patients. We made a few jokes about catheter bags and enemas (Hospice humor at its finest...).
And then, as I watched my colleague M. sort through the french fries on his tray, ostensibly searching for the most perfect one to dip in ketchup, I asked, "Do you have a french fry issue?" And he smiled and said, "I can't help it. I'm anal-retentive. I save the small ones for last. I like them best." And G. smiled and said with a twinkle in his eye, "I'm a little compulsive too. I count the cars on trains when I'm stopped at a railroad crossing." And I said conspiratorially, "It's okay, I put a dot next to the word in the dictionary after I look it up."
We smiled in conspiratorial glee as we marveled at our eccentricities. We shared of our most obsessive-compulsive habits. We marveled at the lengths we would each go to to find order in our world. And in that naming, we realized our deep desire to hold control of our own universes for a brief moment. And we laughed again at the unpredictabilites of the grips of death. And we knew we were not alone.