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Hospitals. The places where ghost-like beings saunter through unsightly cream-colored hallways. Their impassive visages that stare back at you with vacant, glassy eyes. In my opinion, they’re just masks, no true reflection of the individuals wearing them. I see them more as an escape from the forlorn truth, because people are afraid to show any real emotion in situations that hospitals generally force you to contend with. The deaths, illnesses, loneliness.
I suppose I may view hospitals with a biased eye. I’ve always felt as if by touching a handrail or an elevator button I would get some fatal, vicious illness. I see hospitals as a morose place of fatality. If the people here aren’t dead, they’re dying. Of course this is just my opinion, as I know there are many reasons for coming to the hospital other than dying. There is another common purpose of these sorts of institutes; saving lives. And that’s exactly what I’ve devoted my life to. But I do not save people’s earthly lives like a laudable doctor. Instead, I ensure salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. I am a Chaplain in Pastoral Care. Every day, I put aside my selfish germ-phobic fears and set foot into the hospital here in Philadelphia.
I have found through many years of experience that the night hours sow a seed of dread in patients, and panic delves into the hearts of many. I work the night shift from 7 pm to 7 am, so that I can be available to offer my consolation during the night hours.
Passing along the serenity of God is what keeps me going daily.
On November 20th, around 7:45 pm, I strode casually to room 445 and knocked on the door, never knowing what to expect in my line of work. A night-shift nurse passed me and smiled.
“How are you today?” I asked.
“Oh, you know. We Night-Walkers have the toughest shift.Good luck in there; She’s a handful.”
I thanked her and entered slowly. As I glanced around the room, I perceived no flowers on the bedside table, no get well soon cards, no evidence of visiting family or friends. I looked at the gaunt, elderly woman lying in the bed. Her eyes were squinted shut and her hands were folded across her abdomen.
“Hello,” I said warmly, waiting for her to take notice of me. I knew she was not sleeping. Her facial expression was much too tense for her to have been asleep.
“I’m sorry for interrupting. Are you praying?” I asked.
She opened one ocean-blue eye and peered at me.
“Ima tryin’ to die,” she said simply, and closed her eyes tightly again.
“But we haven’t even had a chance to talk.”
“Well go on. Say whatchya wanna say,” she stated.
“Firstly, I should introduce myself. I’m Natalie, the Chaplain for Pastoral Care. I’d like to pray with you.”
“Yes. Let’s ask the Lord to come get me now. I’m old. And sick. What more do I have to get done around here? I’m 88 years old!” I chuckled in response and said matter-of-factly,
“Well, I believe that if God were finished with you, then you would be dead.” She was quiet for a moment.
“Hey, Nat! Could you be a dear and get me a cigarette? These nurses have me on lock down.”
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Why don’t you tell me about yourself,” I said. She looked at me, clearly still upset with me for denying her a cigarette. She began with,
“Well, my life ain’t none of your business. But, I’m Agnes Adele Ponder-Gorney. Ponder’s my maiden name. And I’m 88 years old.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Yes it is,” she said. After a moment she said, “So you’re a chaplain, huh? Ya know, I would go to church every Sunday if I weren’t locked up in here. I used to be able go to every week. My Georgie’s probably up there right now rattin’ me out to the Big Man.”
“ Was he your husband?”
“Yeah,” she said softly, looking down at her hands. “Been gone 15 years.”
“Agnes, I’m sorry to hear that. I know God understands. And you don’t have to be in a church to pray to Him.”
“I do pray to Him here. I keep askin’ Him to come get me.”
“Why do you want to die?”
“ Ain’t that a little personal? But since you keep pesterin’ me, I suppose I’ll tell ya. Like I said, my Georgie is dead. My sister Elizabeth passed away right after him. And now all my friends are gone, too. I lost Deloris – the last of ‘em - a few years ago. I ain’t got no children. And the TV in here is too small!”
She was isolated. My heart melted like an ice cube on a summer’s day and I soon shared in her sorrow. I found myself searching for a way to coax this woman out of her shell; I desperately wanted her to let me in.
Noticing my silence she said to me, “Don’t let the door hit ya’ on the way out. Now where’s the TV remote?”
“Do you want me to leave?” I asked, surprised.
“Don’tchya want to?”
“Of course not. You requested me. I’m just here to talk and pray with you.”
“I don’t remember askin’ for you,” she said, crumpling her aged face as she tried to recall.
“So ya ain’t leavin’? Well fine. But don’t just stand there. Sit over there.” She pointed a shaking hand to a chair in the corner of the room, next to her bed.
“Thanks,” I said and sat down.” I was thinking. Despite your obvious wish to die, something’s kept you going all these years.” I wasn’t sure how she would receive my observation.
“Well ain’t you just a nosey little yahoo. But I guess, maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m here for a reason. So are you gonna pray, or what?"
“Of course,” I said and bowed my head.
When I finished the prayer, I glanced up to see Agnes fast asleep. I found a scrap piece of paper and a pen and wrote her a note. It read: Agnes, I’ll be back tomorrow. -Natalie
On November 21st, as the night sky gave way to the morning sun, the nurses heard room 445’s call light ring. A nurse hurried down the hall. “Yes, Agnes? What can I do for you?”
A very bewildered looking old woman held up a piece of paper. “Who in tarnation is Natalie?”
“A Chaplain here at the hospital. She prayed with you last night.”
“Oh, you know how my medication affects my memory. Can you get a hold of her for me? I need to speak with her again. It’s very urgent.”
“Her shift just ended. Do you want to talk with the day Chaplain?”
“No, I wanna talk to Natalie.”
“Okay. I can request for her to come tonight around 7:30 if you like.”
Agnes looked dismayed, and nodded. “Thanks.”
In the parking garage, as I meandered to my car, I heard my cell phone rang.
“Hi, Natalie. It’s Kate. You must have made quite the impression on Agnes. She requested to speak with you tonight. She wants to speak exclusively with you.”
“Thank you. Let her know I’ll be back tonight.”
I drove home, brooding over my conversation with Agnes.
When I got home, I was utterly exhausted as I was from my night’s work, but my child-like excitement over my upcoming meeting with Agnes delayed sleep.
At 7:15, I walked into the oncology wing of the hospital. I rapped 3 times on the door, of room 445, and entered.
“Hello, Agn-” My heart sunk. She wasn’t there. Terror filled my soul and I knew all was not well. A nurse walked in, her face was grim.
“Natalie, I’m sorry. She passed away this afternoon.” Tears threatened and I could feel my face flush.
“How can that be?”
“She was a very sick woman. I imagine that’s why she requested you.”
“Thanks for letting me know.”
“Oh, one more thing.” She dug in her pocket and pulled out a piece of laminated paper and a yellow sticky note. “She left this on her bedside table. It’s addressed to you.”
I took the papers and entered the small, austere break room, and sat down. The little yellow piece of paper said:
Sorry I’m not telling you this in person. Sorry we only got to talk once.I want you to have this. Think of me when you read it. And I know we’ll see each other again.
I turned my attention to the laminate. It was a worn, tattered piece of paper that exemplified its age. In Agnes’ handwriting it said:
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
I sat cherishing the moment.I had thought I understood Agnes yesterday, but in reality my perception was hazy and vague. Now, the veil was taken back from my eyes and I grasped the situation in its entirety. Agnes wasn’t solely with George, Elizabeth, or Deloris now. More importantly, she was with the Lord.