DAY IN THE LIFE OF A HOSPITAL CHAPLIN – an extract from my journal
Her name came from a fairytale, but hers did not look like a happy ending. There was no prince charming on hand to whisk her off. Her toes and feet (now gnarled and swollen) would not fit any glass slipper. It had been her birthday last week. I had learned this from the person who had been visiting her, when I had stopped to introduce myself. She had been here a while and likely to be detained a bit longer. The visitor had said she was a neighbor and that her adult children didn’t visit. I didn’t ask why, as it might come across as judgmental, or add to her pains.
I know (I thought) , I will get her a belated birthday card and send via the ward through the post. In doing so, I would serve two purposes , try to establish a relationship and to bring some normality back to her life. I suspect that receiving your own personal post to be something refreshing when you are incarcerated in hospital for a while. I chose one from the unused stock from my mantelpiece at home– one which was happy upbeat – or at least I thought so.
I arrived at a subsequent visit a week later. The birthday card had not reached her. I asked the attendant nurse if he had seen it. He told me he didn’t know, as he was ‘only Bank’ meaning he was not a regular member of staff. He finished what he was doing. I thought he doesn’t care. He came back 15 minutes later with the unopened card in his hand. It appears that it had been sitting in the office for a while. No one had thought to pass it onto her.
I sat and watched her try to open the well-sealed envelope with her arthritic fingers. I waited eagerly for her smile. No smile came. She made several unsuccessful attempts to put the card in her old knitted, cardigan pocket. She squashed it and the pink envelope into her pocket. Rising to stand , she looked at me and said ‘thank you , anyway….’ . She walked off. It was the ‘anyway’ that told me (cross culturally), that she might not be happy – either the card came too late, didn’t meet her full expectations, or the effort it had taken to retrieve it (and to put it away), had exasperated her, reinforcing her declining abilities. Had I been the conduit of a painful reminder of the latter?
I sat waiting, hoping she would return and that she might talk or share. She did, but chose another seat on the other side of the ward. One , where I believe she purposed that there would be no space for me!
I waited a respectful few minutes (so that she wouldn’t interpret my own departure as a sign of my upset). I said goodbye to her and the other patients sitting nearby. She waved me off with a back -handed wave, eyes averted. I winced inside, the others, oblivious to the snub which had just transpired.
It is said that ‘if in caring relationships the offering of ourselves through a visit or touch or verbal response is mis-timed or unwanted , we may be perturbed by any upset carried to the other and the sense of rejection we may inwardly feel. (Kelly (2012): 13). I felt it. I am beginning to understand the real face of depression, flat, emotionless and disaffected. I am realizing how much of ourselves we bare in these encounters. Reaching out to another, involves taking risks. Who would have thought it eh? Risk management in chaplaincy visiting? ‘Attentive waiting with another, is a truly draining and intensive activity’ (op cit p30) that is, simultaneously being quietly present and unobtrusive, yet intimately active, constantly processing what is heard seen and felt (emphasis added).
Would I put myself through this and make myself vulnerable again? Needs must. It goes with the call and territory. Our kind gestures as professional ’spiritual visitors’ , may never be reciprocated, but reach out we must. These people are very poorly people, the rejection on their part to us, not necessarily done by design or intent.
Linda J Clifford-Hayes