Hospital Notes #3: What a wonder to be wrong!

I was called to pray for a baby who was dying. When I am on call, I take the Pastoral Care Department cell phone home with me, so I had forty-five minutes to get to the hospital. I told that to the nurse, quickly dressed, and started flying toward I-95.

When I arrived in the neonatal intensive care unit Baby had already died. Her mother, seated in a rocking chair, was holding her. Baby had a seemingly giant hat on her head. Later when the nurses took it off it shrunk dramatically; no longer made large in comparison to Baby’s tiny body.

Grandmom was there in the room too. She was holding her phone up so they could see Baby. “They” were the half dozen or more women on a video call telecommuting their love to the moment of loss. Aunties and cousins at the house a few miles away; aunties, cousins, and great grandmothers back in Haiti; aunties who were not aunties but were there anyway as members of the family.

My initial reaction to their screenly omnipresence and the preoccupation of their handler was swift and stiff.

“Why don’t you put that phone away?” I thought. “Is this not a sacred moment? Can’t you just be present to your daughter in her grief? What is your problem? What is the world’s problem? How did we get plagued by this technology? Will anything ever change? How do I stop this?”

All these questions in a flurry of prejudice. I was able to wade through them, however, to get next to the chief mourner and whatever she was bringing to the moment. Mom was in her teens; but holding Baby, looking at death so intently, she seemed a centenarian sage. We murmured together while her mother carried the half Creole, half English conversation on the phone. Moments of silence punctuated our mutual gazing.

Eventually, it was time to pray. I addressed the disembodied voices and the two live bodies there in the room, but I focused most intensely on Baby’s dead one. I had a strong urge to ask if I could hold her, but for whatever reason I resisted.

“We’re going to give her to God now?” I said, only slightly intonating the question mark.

The aunties came to a hush on the phone. I prayed. I don’t remember what I said, but I hoped it echoed the sweetness I had received from Baby’s mother. When I finished, the chorus of amens coming from the phone’s speakers filled the room. I ended up holding the phone to speak directly to the virtual crowd.

“Thank you for praying for us. I am so glad you are there,” said one of them with such authority it must have been a grandmother.

My heart softened in their gratitude, and I hated their omnipresence less.

When the aunties and grandmas came with us to the car, I consciously repented of the prejudice that was still tagging along. I pulled a wagon for them full of the things accumulated by Baby in her ten days alive — a Christmas tree with a star that kept falling off, several stuffed animals, the tiny hat…

“What do I know?” I said to myself as I returned from the parking garage.

Not a lot. And this, my friends, is why I wrote you this story. Your ideas, my ideas, their ideas may be pretty great, but seriously, what do you know? Why shouldn’t the aunties be there? Defying the distance and destroying isolation? Why shouldn’t any number of things I wouldn’t prefer be perfect for someone else? Put more question marks on that!

And on that. And that. And that…

It is truly a gift to be in places where certainties become suspect. My job makes me go there a lot. How disorienting to delight in disorientation! For me it comes with a heavy pulse of wonder. When I find out I’m wrong, or mistaken, or hasty, or whatever I am when I notice that my conclusions are cumbersome here in this new place; and that I’m allowed to lay them down; the world gets bigger. More likely, I get smaller and the world, like that giant hat, shows itself for the wide-open wonderful place it always is — and the hearts and habits of all humanity dazzle in their gold flecked glory — and I am rightly sized — no bigger than I am — and I am a much better fit to most of those holy moments to which I am honored to be called.

Might we all find our way into the fractal-like expansion of our lives and those of whom we love? It might seem ridiculous after being so decisively down on prescription, but I will presume and bear the consequences of whatever future finds me in error. Get small, friends.

Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

– Matthew 19:13-14

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