There were about 15 of us sitting in an Interdisciplinary Team meeting in a small conference room in the basement of the South Tower. Our group had grown over time, and we almost now lacked elbow room, bringing in extra chairs for latecomers. This was the team which served as a community for palliative care caregivers, ranging from physicians to social workers to nurse practitioners, among others.
We went through our patient list, giving and receiving input from one another. And then a short but profound comment was made by our medical director. “In the work we do, when we witness the death of a patient, we are on sacred ground. This is where Heaven touches Earth.”
Little did I know that I would witness “heaven touching earth” several times during the day. None of them involved death, but all of them were meant for me.
The first happened shortly after I entered the building--before the meeting. Christy, the cafeteria worker, always passes me in the hallway as I make my way through the corridors to my office. Usually, we say “hello” or “good morning.” It’s our ritual. But today was different. She stopped me and said, “I have to share something with you!”
“My daughter told me about this. Her daughter was outside playing, and happened to fall and skin her knee. She came in and was crying. Her mother tried to comfort her. She replied, ‘Oh, it’s OK, Mommy. Great-grandma already gave me a hug!’ Great-grandma had passed away earlier that year.
“Christy, that’s amazing!”
“Oh, that’s not all.” Her eyes widened.
“She told my daughter that she also saw a man, a man with a white beard.” I thought to myself, she’s going to say that her granddaughter saw God. “She never knew her great-grandfather. He died before she was born. But grandpa had a white beard…and she said that both of them were with her when she fell, comforting her.” Heaven touching Earth.
This took place about an hour before I sat in that meeting. I think God was preparing me for the day.
After I left the meeting, I went back to the office to prepare my visit list for the day. Amazingly, when we usually have between 10-20 palliative patients on any given day, that day we only had one. So I decided to spent some time rounding on one floor, the one that included oncology patients.
I stopped by the first room, but the nurse was caring for the patient. So, I moved on to the next room and visited a woman who was preparing to go home and begin her chemo treatment. She was in a good frame of mind and very hopeful. I then backtracked to see if the first patient was free. She was. I washed my hands, entered her room and knocked on her wall to let her know I was there.
“Come on in!”
“Hi, Connie. I’m Chaplain Pat. I’m just doing my rounds today and thought I’d drop by and see how you’re doing.”
“I’m great,” she replied. She was a large woman, and she was sitting in the chair next to the bed. IV lines were attached to both arms, and she was watching television. When I sat down, she turned down the volume.
“How is your spirit today?” This is a question I frequently ask. It avoids the boxing in that institutional religion sometimes provides for people who want to be identified in a particular way. Not that this isn’t important, but I want to go deeper than this.
“My spirit is good.” I already knew that she had terminal cancer, but she didn’t know that I knew.
“Tell me a little about yourself.” I gently leaned forward toward her.
“Well, I have seven children. All of them are mixed race or have special needs. My husband, when we would see another child who needed loving, would say to me, ‘How in the world can we take on one more? We just can’t afford it,’ and I would remind him, ’God always provides.’ I shop auctions. Do you know that I just bought a washer for $20? And now I can give it to someone who needs it.”
“How do you find these things?” I inquired, a bit confused and baffled.
“You know those storage units? Sometimes people don’t pay their bills, and then the contents of the unit gets auctioned off. What’s really fun is that you might buy a box, never knowing what’s in it, and boy, sometimes you get a real treasure!”
She kept sharing about her auction exploits, but my mind went to another place. “God always provides.” I had been carrying the burden of trying to figure out how to meet our financial needs. We were doing everything we could to be faithful, and it felt like it wouldn’t take much for us to go over the cliff. “God always provides.” I became a bit tearful and grabbed the box of tissues on Connie’s tray table.
We wound up the consult, and I thanked her for her words of wisdom. “You know, sometimes God works on both sides of the equation.” She smiled and then turned up the volume on her television as her lunch arrived. Heaven touching Earth.
I stopped by the nurses’ station and sat down behind the desk to chart the visit. As I was charting, I overhead the desk clerk say to one of the nurses, “I am so tired.” Carol is usually one of the bright and welcoming faces on that floor. I took note of that comment and completed my charting.
“Hi, Carol. I overheard you say how tired you are.” My eyes met hers.
“Yeah. It’s like I’m exhausted. My body, my mind, and my spirit.” She looked down. I motioned to her to meet me at the copier, sensing that she needed a private moment.
“May I pray with you?”
“Oh, yes. Please.”
I took her hands in mine. “Oh, God. Be with Carol today. You know all about her burdens. You know what is weighing on her. We were never meant to carry those things that only you can bear for us. She may have concerns, but please lift the weight of those concerns off her and give her your peace. Amen.”
“How did you know how to pray for me? It was perfect.”
“I knew because I do the same thing!” And then I gave her a long hug and said, “When you begin to feel yourself taking those things back on again, you just say, ‘Pffft’ and lift them up in the air to God!”
As I walked away, I heard her practicing, “Pfft...Pfft...Pfft…” Heaven touching Earth.
Note: All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.