Monday, December 18, 2006

The First Four ED Sonnets

I wrote sonnets yesterday when I probably should have been doing other things (like answering e-mail: sorry about that, Lee!). Gary likes these and thinks I should post them. They're pretty rough, but Gary said, "Well, that's part of the point, right?" I told him that sonnets were small bottles in which to hold big moments, and he said, "That's well put. You should post that description on your blog." So I have.

Rereading these, I realize that they may not sound very pious or spiritual or however a chaplain's "supposed" to sound. There's a definite accent that many (not all) chaplains seem to acquire -- inhumanly calm, serenely faithful, slightly otherworldly -- but I've never been able to pick it up.

Oh well.


Signing In

First stop’s the chaplain’s office, a small space
with sink and closet, sign-in book, and shelves
piled high with treats for patients, and ourselves:
tissues and crayons (vehicles of grace),
ten kinds of prayer cards, plastic rosaries –-
in Easter colors, made by volunteers --
a stack of Bibles. This is where my fears
begin each week, the panicky unease
about what’s waiting for me. Never mind.
I’ll find out when I get there. Here’s the slip
of paper that will purchase a small snack
if, later, I need sugar to unwind,
kill time, or celebrate. And now the trip
downstairs. Breathe. In four hours, I’ll be back.


Emergency Trauma Family Consult Room

This hallway leading to Emergency
goes on forever, free (this time of night)
of patients, but I look ahead and see
an open door -- that room -- the spill of light,
and now I hear soft sobbing, step inside,
say, “I’m the chaplain; can I help you?” “Yes,
you can, dear.” Resolute and dignified,
she tells me that the doctors cannot guess
her husband’s outcome, if he’ll even live.
“It’s bad,” she says. I know. This room is where
we send them when it’s bad. “I’ll check, and give
you any news I learn,” I promise her.
We pray and hug. She’s tear-wracked and adrift.
This is the worst way to begin a shift.


Room 2

The code room’s chaos, even if contained,
a sea of feet beneath the curtain drawn
for privacy. The staff stay calm. They’re trained
for this. (At least here: I remember one
nurse on another floor who said, “I can’t
deal with the drama. Codes just aren’t my thing.”)
I wait and watch outside, bide time -- don’t want
to be a pest -- pray for encouraging
news for the wife, if any’s to be had.
And here’s the doc, a nice one, purposeful
but kind. “What news?” She grimaces. It’s bad,
I think, but then she says, “He’s critical,
but stable. Vitals good.” “Good! May I tell
his wife?” “Of course.” For now, we’ve side-stepped hell.


Nursing Station

The wife’s incredibly relieved. I muse
on how this place destroys all everyday
proportion, old perspectives swept away,
“he’s on a ventilator” better news
than “nothing worked,” both fates you’d never choose.
The choices here are grim, the least delay
of death a gift. The wife says, “No, don’t stay;
so many others need you.” That’s a ruse
we often hear, polite dismissal, but
she means it. Late, I sign the ED board
in marker: “Chaplain: Susan, 5 to 9.”
The charge nurse says, “We’ve got a kid who cut
herself. The mom’s got problems too.” “Oh, Lord,”
a medic groans. I’m on it; this one’s mine.


  1. Anonymous10:29 AM

    Very nice work Susan. Says soooo much more with less.


  2. Deborah Roggie11:45 AM

    Susan, these are lovely--the language, the story they all tell.... Thanks for posting them.

  3. Anonymous2:58 PM

    I agree. These are amazing!

    And I wouldn't worry about acquiring that serene other-worldly air you were talking about - it sounds to me as if you are already getting to the ED with exactly the kind of attitude that your many different sorts of hospital people are seeking just by being yourself.


  4. You said they didn't sound very pius, which is what is so beautiful about them. From these, and the stories you're telling, I think you do a wonderful job of showing how to meet the patients where they are. That's a social work concept, but one those in ministry follow, or should, in my opinion. I don't remember anything about sonets, but these are beautiful whether you know the form or not. Good job!

  5. I agree with everyone else!

    Thay're wonderful... You should start collecting them... Then you can be the first chaplain/sci-fi/poet...

    What a great new niche!

  6. Wow! Susan, those were beautiful! If they sounded all pius and other worldly I don't think they would have been as effective at making me feel things.

    Now I need to go study up on sonnet form and see if I learn to do some.


  7. Hey, thanks everybody! I'm glad you're enjoying them. I do plan to write more, although we'll see how quickly that happens (and if I run out of steam halfway through).

    John, your comment about my "niche" really made me laugh. Yes, I do inhabit a bizarre little ecological nook, don't I?

  8. Hi, Susan. I'm a new reader (found my way here via Making Light), a former hospital chaplain (and hope to be so again, at some point), and a writer of poetry (my most recent chapbook collects poems that arose out of my hospital chaplaincy experiences), so this post is really right up my alley.

    These are terrific sonnets. But what I love most about them is not any given turn of phrase, but the way you've encapsulated the way it feels to be on-call. How the smallest moments or details can feel larger-than-life. Of these four, the second one resonates the most for me...

  9. Thanks, Rachel! Your blog looks wonderful, and I've added it to the "chaplains" section of my sidebar (once a chaplain, always a chaplain!).

  10. Hi Susan,

    I'm a new reader too (Rachel directed me here), and these are incredibly beautiful.

    This is the worst way to begin a shift.

    Lines like that, two meanings in a final word, one prosiac and one wrenching... the whole of the experience sounds like that, daily details and life-changing passages side by side.

    I have a feeling serenity is just another name for keeping on going, still awake and able to talk. There's a stubborn assurance and a refusal to back away in all of these -- This one's mine -- and I admire it.

  11. Maybe they aren't pious, but they are real. I write free-form myself, but you managed to somehow evoke the imagery of really good free-form in sonnet form - something that really astonishes and amazes me. It has the rawness that free-form does, yet the pure elegance that a true sonnet holds. My hat's off to you.

  12. Thanks again. I'm getting to these slowly.


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