In my apartment the next morning, I wake up to find the candle flame nearly extinguished. Later in the day, I head to Inwood Park in Northern Manhattan, famous for its stand of "old growth" native trees. Walking among them, I see a fallen log. I kneel down and scoop a handful of the reddened wood, which is slowly decomposing. It crumbles in my hand as I lift it to my nose and breathe in the lush earthy scent.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
The signs are everywhere. Something to celebrate. The air feels fresh. The ground is moist from frequent showers.
Wandering a week ago in lower Manhattan, I notice an open gate leading into a community garden: the Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden to be precise.
A light breeze sets the trees in motion. White and pink blossoms sway, drawing me closer. I enter. One winding path leads to another. Passing by gorgeous vignettes of Spring in full bloom, I wonder, "Where did Winter go?"
I.I. Rabi, a Nobel prize winning physicist, was once asked something along the lines of, "How did you get to be who you are today?" Rabi grew up in a Yiddish-speaking neighborhood in NYC. His father was a grocer. He shared this story. "When I was growing up, my mother would never ask me, "Izzy, what did you learn today?" Instead, she'd say, "Did you ask good questions?"
Back in the garden, my questions dissolve as a brilliant collage of color stops me. Daffodils and tulips rise up amidst an array of flowers I cannot name. Just then, a man passing through also stops. Together, we stand, silently transfixed.
In Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, he describes an "impossible meeting." Two strangers meet in the "middle of nowhere" and trying to shake hands, one man's hand slips like a shadow through the other's. The reader cannot tell, though each character has a solid opinion, of who is in the past and who is in the future.
It's a lot like this in my work as a clinical chaplain. The only measure of healing is in relationship. Conditions and responses are interwoven. As a healthcare provider and before that as an astronomer, I ask questions, which help to identify and record measurable outcomes. At the same time, healing is experiential. Try to grasp or explain it and the healing opportunity slips away.
Visiting a client last week who is living with HIV and preparing for discharge from the hospital, I attune to the surroundings. He is recovering from surgery on his arm. The shunt placed there years back for thrice weekly (3x/week) dialysis treatments is no longer usable. His arm, bandaged in white gauze, puffs out like an eerily illuminated cloud. Seeing me and surprised, he smiles broadly.
He shows me the Get Well balloon his grown niece brought with an image of two band-aids overlapping one another at a slight angle. He tells me with fire in his eyes, "It's a sign! It's the cross."
I look up at the balloon slowly losing air.
He says that he sees what is hidden even as his eyesight slowly diminishes. He shares stories from earlier in his life. He says that in "my country" (in South America), he welcomed strangers into his home and that this made him very happy. He pauses. His eyes widen. He asserts, "I'm not afraid to die." Unspoken between us is a silent truth. We smile. I extend my hand. He offers his. We talk more. I direct him to his primary doctor and his case manager, respectively, to further explore specific concerns regarding treatment. I make notes after leaving, which help me to coordinate next steps with the team of care providers.
That evening, I light a candle to mark the anniversary of my grandmother's passing, a woman my sisters and I called Bubby. She spoke six languages. What spoke to me most was how she'd lean out the window of her sixth floor apartment and wave to us as we came or went.
I feel a drop of water. Soon, what begins as a light sprinkle shifts to a stronger flow.
Following the winding path, I find my way back to city streets. Just as I arrive home, the skies now completely darkened, lightning flashes across the sky and a thunderous roar startles me. I hurry inside.
Alone in the dark, I sit beside the window until tiredness overcomes curiosity. I curl up on the couch and close my eyes, then open them as a few tears spill out.
It's the first time I've cried in weeks.