Sunday, October 21, 2007
Today I, with two other volunteer hospital chaplains, spoke to an incoming class of volunteers about our experiences: what we do, why we do it, what it's taught us about ourselves. Both of the other volunteers had very moving medical stories of their own. One went through the agony of almost losing a spouse to heart disease ten years ago -- of being convinced that this was the end of a beloved partner -- before a last-minute transplant turned everything around. The spouse is fine now, although no one expected that outcome during the crisis.
The other volunteer chaplain has donated a kidney to a relative, and routinely tells patients -- even those with terminal cancer -- "There's always hope. The doctors don't know everything."
I was very moved by their stories, but I found myself pondering the nature of hope. I think good pastoral care is a matter of discerning genuine hope from false hope. As a Christian, I believe in the ultimate hope of the resurrection, but I know that Good Friday has to come first. As chaplains, we're taught not to pray for seemingly impossible cures, to pray instead for acceptance of whatever the future brings.
Sometimes the seemingly impossible happens, but if it doesn't, other things are still possible. Acceptance, reconciliation, love. The successful completion of the "five last things," the last statements we need to make and hear in this life, whether to or from others, ourselves, or God:
I forgive you.
I love you.
At the moment, I know three people in various stages of cancer. One is in hospice now, engaged in making final arrangements and saying goodbyes. Another has been stunned by, and is trying to come to terms with, a recent recurrence. And the third is in the "we hope the remission holds" stage.
I suspect that the three of them, if asked, would describe three different kinds of hope:
Hope for a peaceful end.
Hope for a sudden turnaround.
Hope for current conditions to continue.
I suspect, too, that these are the three main varieties of hope for all of us, in all circumstances. When things are going well, we hope they won't change. When things are going badly, we hope they will change. When it's clear, at last and despite all our efforts, that they can't get better, we hope that our exit from whatever we're leaving -- the life, the career, the marriage -- will be as calm, graceful, and painless as possible.
At each stage, we need help moving to the next, recognizing the appropriate thing to hope for. This is part of what chaplains do.
During this week's hospital shift, I visited with a patient who's had "a wonderful life," and who expressed gratitude for many blessings. The patient was ready to die, if that was what God required. The patient's spouse was not ready to end more than four decades of marriage. I listened to the patient's litany of thankfulness, and handed the weeping spouse tissues. I tried to affirm both of them.
Later, I stopped by their cubicle and learned that the patient's symptoms had been far less serious than the couple had supposed. They were going home. Both of them were beaming, and I could see the relief in the patient's face, no less than the spouse's.
I wonder if we ever really stop hoping for the miraculous turnaround. I can only pray that when this couple runs out of medical miracles, they will find faith, and acceptance, and comfort in their love for each other.