Another picture, wispy blond hair brushes a smooth forehead, glitter bedecked lips part, she is looking up toward someone, mom perhaps, a favorite toy. The top of her princess dress frames her neck, and I know it spins around her legs in a dizzy dance. She was buried with a tiara. I’m in the next picture; a small boy and I grin at the camera. He is dressed in camouflage pajamas. His eyes are bright. A tube is taped across his cheek and goes down his nose, into his belly. It feeds him on days when he can’t bring himself to eat. He was transferred to another hospital…last I heard he was still alive.
This time, a card – a Christmas picture of two teens tacked crookedly at my desk. His face is round from the steroids used to calm his inflamed intestines. He smiles without teeth in a shy way. I haven’t seen him in months, but every time I chew bubble gum I remember the months he could not eat and the gum he chewed instead. At my desk I am surrounded by letters, pictures, and a poem sent by a friend who knows me all too well—“I felt I was a child instructing the grown-ups, / Giving advice like paper dams on a violent stream.”
I am a hospital chaplain. Prayers, games, and tears are the economy of my day. I baptize the dead—a theological no-no but in the midst of tears can anyone say “no” to a families request for their dying child? I bless the intubated. I offer reassurance, but more often, there is none to give. My smallest parishioners are weighed in grams; my largest are sometimes older than me with congenital problems best solved in a pediatric hospital. I drink lattes on my way to work, a bribe to leave my room, my warm, safe place where death is something that happens to pets and grandmothers. Read more