Tuesday is my day to volunteer as a chaplain up at the hospital. Some days, my visits are unremarkable; conversations are brief or ho-hum, though I feel I'm offering something helpful when I stop by a patient's room. Yesterday was unusually satisfying.
In the cafeteria before I started my rounds, I found a seat in the crowded room with an elderly woman who was perusing a sheaf of papers while eating her lunch. I caught the word "grief support" at the top of one page and, in the course of our chatting, mentioned that I was volunteering there as a chaplain that day. She asked me if I had met her United Methodist pastor and from there the conversation quickly unfolded into the story of her husband's death very recently. He had died suddenly of a heart attack while she was away from home for a couple of days and her son found him dead on the floor of their home. "I've watched friends and relatives die long, slow deaths from illness," she said, "and I'm glad he died as he did. He would have hated being sick. But I miss him."
Upstairs on the ward, an elderly man awaiting the next test in a string of tests told me about his wife who is experiencing increasing dementia and the effort to find a place where the two of them could be together without his having to be her primary caretaker and what a relief it was to have found such a place nearby. He was more concerned about her than the illness that had landed him in the hospital. It was nothing compared to her struggles, according to him. Yet he has a life-threatening condition. "I miss who she used to be," he said, "because now all she does is sleep."
Peeking into the next room, I found a bright-eyed young woman in bed, big grin, big bandage on her right hand. Her parents were with her and she told me what had happened. It seems that there was this power sander in the wood shop classroom and she was working on a piece of wood and it slipped and she sanded her hand pretty much right down to the muscle and nerves. But they were all receptive and eager to talk, as it was a long time before she could have surgery to graft skin back onto her hand. We chatted for a few minutes, then I excused myself to visit the person in the next bed, same room.
Groaning, this youngish woman told me about the terrible pain she was experiencing and how she had been plagued by it for several days. It was kidney stones, she said, and all she could do was live through it. But what kind of pastor was I, she asked, as she was looking for a new church to attend. I told her I was a Unitarian Universalist and asked where she had been going to church; she mentioned a large community church over on the mainland. I volunteered to go look up the addresses of some local churches that might be easy for her to reach when she was well and started out of the room toward the pastoral care kiosk where we keep such lists.
But as I passed by the "sanded" girl, they stopped me and said, "are you the pastor of the church that's building a building on the highway? We're thinking about coming to visit." So we chatted a bit more about that when I returned with the church information for her neighbor.
Down the hall I encountered a familiar face but couldn't think where I'd met her. She was with an elderly woman who appeared to be quite feisty and inquisitive. The younger woman recognized me and introduced herself as having visited my congregation a couple of weeks earlier; she was the live-in companion for the elderly woman, who had just had a test that had taken the starch out of her and needed to be rehydrated. Overhearing our conversation, the elderly woman burst out, "I'm a Unitarian, a die-hard Humanist, and I'm darned glad to meet you! I wanted to come to church last Sunday but didn't feel up to it because of prepping for this darned test. But I'm coming the next time you're preaching, darn it!"
What a day! This little hospital has only about 25 beds and often there are reasons why I don't stop by and talk to every patient---a nurse is with the patient, or family members are carrying on conversations and I don't want to interrupt, or the patient is asleep. Because there's no pastoral care office or place to hang out and wait for opportunities to make contact, we usually just make a couple of passes down the halls and consider that enough.
But this day was unusually rich in that every room I visited contained someone with whom I felt I made a personal contact. That's such a rewarding way to spend time. I felt useful and inspired and connected by the hour or so I spent there.