Scandalous Sacredness: Until the End of Time
This article is Part II of the Scandalous Sacredness: A Note from the Chaplain Chronicles series.
To view Part I, click here.
“Doubt is Christian participation in the weakness of God, the weakness of the cross”
— E. Frank Tupper
My mentor told me, time and time again, that one day I would have a patient that got to me. My supervisor and several senior nurses told me it’s inevitable for anyone in a caring profession. They tell us to be empathetic and try not to sympathize; however, we are always warned that we will sympathize with a patient and end up “carrying them home” with us. Their situation would follow us home. You would eat dinner with them, brush your teeth with them, pray with them, sleep with them. And they might even rise with you into the dawning of a new day, appearing in the mirror as you fix your hair. Their pain, their sorrow, would creep up on you in the midst of your daily dealings that couldn’t be any further away from hospital life. And just weeks shy of an entire Summer Unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, it finally hit me.
I met a woman on the renal unit; we’ll call her Ms. Cloud. Ms. Cloud had Huntington’s Disease amidst a host of other health problems, yet she was hospitalized due to Huntington’s complications. I was making my final afternoon rounds on the unit, as a nurse approached me saying that Ms. Cloud was in need of a visit. The nurse then proceeded to tell me how sweet and personable Ms. Cloud was, and that her story had really impacted her. She went home feeling so sad and heartbroken. The nurse described Ms. Cloud’s story as “sultry sorrow.” That image has never left me. If there is anything that has cultural power in my heritage, it is music and song. Not only is music what feelings sound like, but song carried my history in the oral tradition, song carries our depth in jazz and the blues, and song carries the double-consciousness of our pain, praise and lament in hymns, prayers and sermons. The oral tradition touted the significance of the storyteller, yet the power of the storyteller who can tell stories through song is considered a gift given by the Giver of all good gifts. The song of this patient’s life reverberated with the nurse in such a way that its power pervaded her very life: even days later, the song still echoed in the walls of her heart so profoundly that she admitted that this woman sounded a melody in her heart that she can never forget. Holding in view this image of the monozygotic nature of beauty and tragedy, I went to be with Ms. Cloud.
Ms. Cloud was a young African-American woman who seemed full of life, but the life was dim. She was incessantly shaking and rubbing her right arm. Her arm was flailing about, as if a puppeteer was manipulating her limbs. She could only look at me from the side; her body would not cooperate with the commands of her mind. She’d rock from side to side, her body in perpetual motion; a still moment was not possible. Her gaze was mostly locked in one direction; her voice was soft, welcoming, yet heavy with the weight of her heart and mind. The atmosphere was palpable, as if her words could be touched. She spoke with the strain of a two-year-old grasping all of her mental powers to name mixtures of emotions, and to share the orchestra of her feelings alongside epics of epochs when her days were brighter, if bright at all.
Ms. Cloud wanted sunshine. She had begun talking immediately, having little time for introductions. I am reminded each day of the principle that when a Chaplain asks someone how they feel, that Chaplain should be prepared for the truth. VERY rarely have I ever asked that question and received a superficial answer. I’ve heard a plethora of answers ranging from “not dead, but I’m dying” to “I ain’t doing” to “better than yesterday” to “terrible” to “okay”. Ms. Cloud told me the truth straight from the gate. She began with a list of complications, an expression of loneliness, pain, and isolation. She had pinned so much up inside it began to operate parasitically inside of her. Festering family issues burrowed their way from her gut, loneliness constricted her heart, even her tears would only fall one at a time. Ms. Cloud was in pain. She asked for prayer to be healed, and when I asked her what healing looked like, she replied “Just some sunshine, if only for one day…some sunshine.”
She had lived out her days in an abusive love affair in Southern California, here love carried needles with heroin, cocaine, weed, and angel dust. Passion and desire took the shape of a punch to the head, an empty apartment, night sweats, vile verbal abuse, and bruised arms from slaps and syringes. Her lover’s lighter fluid was ignited by a grind of flint and flicks, of steel and sparks, taken in vein. She had no family, no real friends, no contact with them for over 2 years: only the color of bruises reflected in the face of the man who claimed to love her. She ran away with him, and then ran away from him. She returned to the east coast to a family that couldn’t recognize her outside of her yesterday’s identity. She inherited Huntington’s from her mother, of whom she was the sole caretaker despite her unhelpful brothers and sisters. When she began to show symptoms, her family was convinced that it was merely withdrawal and that she would be strung out again, that she was strung out again. When her mother died, they conveniently passed by her home, “forgetting” to pick her up for the funeral. She whispered that her mother was the only one to truly care for her, the only one who truly understood her. Ms. Cloud was the odd one growing up, always the odd one. Her heart breaking beneath the pressure of years gone unredeemed, and her prayer was for sunshine.
“I have no words, only heartache,” she says. “God took my mother too soon,” “everything happens for a reason, I’m just waiting on mine” as if a reason would justify, as if knowing why would make it any more bearable.
I found myself home, struggling to pray. I was angry with God. I was pissed at God. Every intellectual fiber of my hidden atheistic arrogance burst to the forefront of my God-fearing heart, and as I washed dishes in the silence of my apartment, I broke down. I slammed the Tupperware container on the tile of my kitchen floor and as it clanged upon impact I stood tensely waiting for the pool of water that blurred my vision to finally fall. I gently reached for the dishtowel, dried my soapy hands, and moved toward the open space between the bar-top and sofa, laying down using the sofa pillow to hush my rage, I screamed into the pillow.
I screamed until my lungs were tight from emptiness, I screamed until my stomach reached my throat, every vehement disagreement with classical theism, every weakness I associated with believing in “God,” every doubt I conceived or consumed, every disagreement with the idea of an omnipotent God who did much too little, every fundamentalist sermon I had ever heard and vehemently disavowed, every inadequate vision I lived with: all erupted in a fit on the floor. I gripped that pillow until my hands hurt from squeezing — this one got to me.
I went to visit Ms. Cloud the next morning. As I approached her room, painstakingly monitoring my emotional fluidity, I heard singing. Ms. Cloud was singing. I walked in and was greeted with laughs and a smile that enchanted me. Ms. Cloud said, “I got some sunshine! God heard us!” and it was at that moment that my eyes seemed to float on a sea of leaking liquid glass. I spent the next hour listening to how Ms. Cloud got some sunshine, “I don’t know what God be up to most times, but I do know he loves me. I don’t exactly know what that looks like, but I know it feels like sunshine.” She loved listening to music. As I prepared to leave, I opened her Pandora app and discovered she had a Justin Timberlake station. The song in queue was Until the End of Time. As we jammed together, the sacred made itself known in the chorus.
“If your love was all I had
In this life
Well, that would be enough
Until the end of time
So rest your weary heart
And relax your mind
‘Cause I’m gonna love you girl
Until the end of time”1
She asked me to read a passage of Scripture and pray with her before I left. Timberlake and Beyoncé inspired me with a remix of Scripture. I read for her how Jesus told His followers, “I will be with you always, even until the end of time.” 2
Ms. Cloud made it personal, “Yes, God will always be with me, even until the end of my time.”
Less than 2 months later, I received word that Ms. Cloud had died.