You Are With Me

Post Author: Joy Caires

Please note: This piece is about the daily life of a hospital chaplain working with children, so there are stories included of the illness and death of babies and children.

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.

There are times when my work is one of joy. A call to the side of a mother I have known for months asking a blessing for the long awaited trip home. I celebrate as a teenager, emerges laughing from baptism in the physical therapy pool. I read stories and offer comforts unique to the chaplain. I answer the curious questions of seekers, dispel myths, and tell jokes. I e-mail former patients who have left this place healthy and hungry for the world. I am continuously astonished by the volume of love the human heart can hold. The world becomes a testimonial – the hospital wards a witness and my calling, by turns a blessing and a burden.

At church I find myself a fish out of water—a priest, but not the priest of this parish or that parish. I am a priest, whose ordination anniversary stands in the singular. I am a priest, not yet 30, who has seen too much and bites her tongue when a colleague comments that my job is “cute.” I wear a collar every day, band, not tab. I curse God when a favorite relapses—and I trust that God does not take my words personally. I keep my faith alive because I sense that the ache of my heart is only dwarfed by the ache of God’s own. Likewise, when I celebrate I also sense that the joy in my heart is only dwarfed by the joy in God’s own.

God does not promise that we will never suffer; rather, God promises that we won’t be alone when we suffer. So, I stand with the suffering…walking in the valley of the shadow of death. And in the valley, I find a question—how long can I walk here? I wonder if that is the question that plagues all of us? How long, o Lord, how long? So, here I am, the day ahead—will it be long enough for the fullness of glory and the depth of despair? The answer, somehow, is always “yes.”

My pager goes off in the night, and my lips form around a “yes.” I throw on a clerical shirt and get in the car. An emergency c-section and a dying child wait at the end of my journey. I race to the hospital—I would rather baptize the living than the dead.

Joy Caires is an Episcopal priest serving as a pediatric hospital chaplain. She is a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School.

Image by: Nevin Ruttanaboonta
Used with permission
10 replies
  1. Jen says:

    I was sent to this article by two friends just after I took a position in the ER of the local children’s hospital–my first position after ordination. Even after a short time, I can identify with both the joy and sadness that you write about.
    I’m not sure about baptizing the dead, at least not yet. But I can tell you, that, as an Anglican, I never expected to find myself in a setting where my “parishioners” are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and, yes, sometimes even Christians. It is an incredible blessing!

  2. Sarah S says:

    Joy – You have so much deph and clarity when you write! The part that made me cry was about how chaplains do not always fit into church congregations – we have such a misunderstood and lonely job at times.
    And yet, as your article reminds me, we see so much pain and sadness that mixes with joy.

  3. Theresa says:

    This is a beautiful article. I am a clergyperson who was on the other side of the equation when my twin daughters were born much too early and we spent close to five months in the NICU. Thank you for your work and the heartfelt way you describe the joys and the sorrows. As a parent, it meant a great deal to know that the chaplains, nurses, and social workers cared for our children and prayed for them as well.

  4. Laura S-R says:

    I am a part-time chaplain and can relate to much of what you wrote. I especially was struck by your mention of the “theological no-no” of baptizing the dead. When I first started CPE, I swore I would never baptize live infants, much less the dead, b/c I come from a believer’s baptism tradition. Now I have baptized several dead babies, usually fetal demises. I can no longer believe it is a theological no-no (for me at least). There is so much Spirit and divine grace in those moments that I have to believe God aches with the parents and wants us to provide comfort and hope by whatever means possible.

  5. Teri says:

    I too did CPE at a Pediatric Hospital, and I have a small taste of this as well. As I read your opening, I couldn’t help but think of some of the patients I spent time with that year. Thank you for bringing them back to me so I can continue to pray.
    However, the whole business about your job being “cute”??? I am impressed that you can bite your tongue. I would be so tempted to retort that I’m not sure I would have a tongue anymore.

  6. Beth B. says:

    Wow does this bring back memories. I did my CPE in the pediatric and pediatric intensive care units of a hospital last summer. It was heart-warming and heart-wrenching all at the same time. I have no photos, but I don’t need them to remember “my” patients, or to still pray for them.
    Thank you for this.

  7. maria says:

    Oh dear. This was very much, and not at all, what I needed to read today, being ill and a little more vulnerable than most days…
    But I thank you out of the bottom of my heart!
    This was so beautiful, painful, poetic, hopeful and true! May God bless you and your oh so important (though cute ;o) work!

  8. Jack Hinnen says:

    Joy, your post gives me a sense of kinship in an otherwise lonely place to be. Suffering often brings my faith to the forefront and I go ’round with the questions again. And wasn’t Jesus acquainted with grief? The next time I’m walking through the shadow of death, I’ll think of you. Thanks for the inspiring words and I pray you continue to provide that presence that people need so badly in the good and the bad times.
    Had to smile at your comment about folks calling your job “cute”. Should you be interested, I posted about the difficulties of being “cute” in a church setting, feel free to check it out.


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