“Please, I need a chaplain to visit Mr. S. I just gave him really bad news.”
“I know he prefers the Catholic chaplain. Does he want to wait for him, or should I come now?”
“Come now. I just gave him really, really bad news.”
Yesterday at 12:15 pm, just as I had gotten back to the Chaplain office from a morning of rounds, I received a phone call from a young doctor. There was pleading in his voice, the repetition of “really bad news,” as if incanting the phrase would change the prognosis.
I stuffed some pretzels in my mouth to tide me over, then scrambled through the long hallway and several stairwells it took to get back to Mr. S’ room. I had visited him not an hour earlier. He had asked for his favorite Catholic chaplain, so I settled into a sprawling conversation with his roommate. Eventually, Mr. S joined in, as his roommate revealed that he had cirrhosis of the liver despite having never been an alcoholic.
“Agent Orange, that’s what did it.” The two men, conscripted for the Vietnam War at 17 and 23, locked eyes, a connection built on trauma.
Mr. S told me and his roommate that he had been fine for 40 years before the cancer came, first destroying a lung, which had to be removed, then his prostate. Now, it had spread to his brain.
“If you talk to your doctor, they’ll give you money for the Agent Orange.”
Money, because there’s nothing else to be done for the bodies of young men sent out to fight a useless war against an ill-defined “enemy.”
“Thanks,” his roommate said. I let them talk as I wished them well and told them I’d keep them in my prayers.
“Please come. I just gave him really bad news.”
There was no chart note, but I knew that Mr. S must had received a message from the Angel of Death. That pleading, the young doctor’s voice cracking and helpless.
As I impatiently waited for the elevator to carry me up to his unit, I tried to recite the serenity prayer, but I couldn’t remember it very well:
“God, grant me the courage to accept the things I cannot change…
God, grant me the courage…
I came into the room as a nurse called him to tell him he was going to go home soon, home to die with his family.
I told him I had come as soon as I heard, that I wanted to make sure he knew we were praying for him, that his favorite chaplain would get here soon.
Through tears, he said, “I’ve suffered all my life only to have it end like this!”
I told him I could sit awhile. He asked me to leave him alone, trying to collect himself and distract with whatever midday television program he could find.
I reluctantly left the room, checked in with his nurse, then frantically caught up with the Catholic chaplain, who I almost ran into in the stairwell. I practically sprinted back to the Chaplain office, fighting tears and breathlessness, searching for air behind my surgical mask.
I walked down the dark abandoned hallway of my floor – outpatient offices closed for the weekend – and felt the weight of the nothingness, my inability to accept that ultimate thing I cannot change.
Last night, I collapsed onto the couch and watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette for the first time. Parts of it feel almost outdated now, two years after its release, but I found myself swept up in her discussion of punchlines as the dishonest middle of the story.
She says that the stories we tell create meaning. They give us a sense of control over our lives. But they also obscure. When you tell a story for entertainment value, you cut off the hard parts, the parts that don’t resolve, the parts you can’t laugh at or moralize.
For Gadsby, a career spent cutting off her story of marginalization and trauma meant a failure to resolve her circumstances, and a failure for others to embody the pain of those circumstances for even a brief moment of tension. Gadsby asked her audience to dwell in the tension.
I work with a population of people who are rarely allowed to share the ends of their stories. “Thank you for your service” is the punchline of military service. But in this case, the American public sets the punchline so we don’t have to embody the complex story.
Veterans so often cut themselves off from telling the truth of their struggle: their pain, isolation, marginalization, and estrangement. The guilt, the flashbacks, the crying in the night. It’s not entertaining to hear about an utterly broken man. Even less so to discover that we – our country – broke them, then told them to never talk about it in polite company.
We liberals can tell each other confidently that civilian deaths and the mass bloodshed of war are unequivocally wrong. But rarely can we admit that weaponizing young men and women for the purposes of that war is also wrong.
For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.
As Gadsby suggests, when you indoctrinate a society to believe that some people aren’t deserving of humanity, you inevitably turn that dehumanization back on yourself. The oppressors and the oppressed are two sides of the same coin. When we teach that some people are subhuman, we dehumanize ourselves. We create barricades of shame out of fear that the mob will eventually turn on us. And it almost always does.
The people we use as tools of supremacy, whether soldiers or police officers, are traumatized and re-traumatized by the very purpose of their positions. They are disembodied “weapons” taking a shot at subhuman “bad guys.” And nobody wins.
Mr. S is at home now. I don’t know if he’s living or dead. But I can say with sorrow that, no matter what he did or didn’t do, he was forced to live in the unresolved middle ground – the mutually dehumanizing punchline – of both oppressor and oppressed. He was not allowed to finish his story.
In his last words to me, I hear the echoes of Christ himself: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” the punchline of Easter weekend, the middle without an end. But Jesus gets to finish his story, and it is a revolutionary one. It’s a story in which the end is not simply the recognition of pain, but the total transformation of death into life again. By completing his story, he re-selves himself. No longer occupying the middle ground between God and human, Jesus becomes something wholly other. He becomes himself.
Mr. S will die. That is the end of his embodied story, at least for now.
We can’t change his life, but perhaps we can listen to each other’s stories. It’s time to become ourselves, to take back our mutual humanity, to see beyond the oppressive and violent dichotomy between hammer and nail.
Lay down the identities that make you a tool in the power game. Lay them down for Mr. S’ sake. Lay them down for humanity’s sake. Then lay down by the water’s edge and write down your story.
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