THE CHAPLAIN Series

 

The Dying Activist

       

      In the last days, God, says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…your young women will see visions, your old crones will dream dreams.                                                                                                                                  – Acts 2:17(revised)

                The chaplain didn’t like “cold calls.”  A cold call meant going door to door, introducing herself and attempting to strike up a conversation with one sick stranger after another.  In the trade, these were referred to as “initial visits.”  On some such visits, folks obviously did not feel well enough to chat, but others appreciated the diversion.  Only rarely did someone exclaim, “Oh wonderful, a chaplain.  I’ve been wanting to talk theology with a clergyperson for days.”

                Today, Lydia experienced one long string of uneventful initial visits, none of which included deep reflection on the meaning of life, the resurrection, or forgiveness of sins.  Mostly it was, “How do you do?  I checked in yesterday and hope to be discharged tomorrow.  Thank you for coming by.”

    As the day was drawing to a close, Lydia dropped in on a new patient, and found a dying activist.  The woman knew she would soon be dead, and she wanted very much to tell her life story to someone, even a chaplain. Lydia was transfixed by the woman, whose commitment to re-molding the world seemed as strong now as it must have been in her youth.  This woman had labored for civil rights BEFORE the 1960s.  She marched against the Vietnam War along with her son who had just returned from that war.  As an older woman, she worked for the Equal Rights Amendment and hoped that her granddaughters would understand the importance of keeping up the fight.  Now, it was the Grey Panthers and lobbying with the American Association of Retired Persons. She never let up.  But she was very old and her systems were failing.

    Lydia was exhausted just listening to the woman, but she didn’t want her to stop telling her story.  The patient reminded her of her friend back in the Midwest who had died that summer.  She reminded her of several old friends, all gone now.  The chaplain stayed late just to hear the end of the woman’s tale.  It had been a good “cold call.” The patient seemed content.  Now the chaplain must go.

    On the drive home, Lydia reflected on her talk with the activist. She remembered her own past, envisioned what could have been, or might yet still be. True, Lydia had been a minor activist, but her perspective on life had changed over the years.  Her world was much smaller today.  She was less likely to contribute time and money to worthy efforts.

    “Because my time is almost sacred and my money is already spoken for,” she would rationalize.

    So it would take a pretty big issue – a Really Big Wrong – to get this chaplain out on a picket line again, the spiritual Presence commented, sitting in the passenger seat.

    “Even then, I’d rather stay home,” she answered with a glance.

              Lydia had to admit the magic of life had faded.  Did becoming a crone really mean that fun and excitement had to be shelved? She had once lived a bit on the edge, believing there were plenty of tomorrows to recuperate if something went wrong.  Work at the hospital had taught her, however, that life was fragile and tomorrows in short supply.

    “Perhaps, when I’ve fulfilled my current responsibilities, I can get involved again,” she sighed.  “Tonight, I have to pay my bills, argue with the kids, and clean up after the dogs.”

    And that’s pretty much how it went. She fixed one daughter’s computer, took the other clothes shopping. There was school work to review and laundry to fold.  Even the dogs required a early evening visit to the vet for ear infections and nail trimming.

                On returning home, Lydia received a call from her son who reported that his friends at a local bar had jumped him the previous night, taken away his keys, wrestled him to the ground, and wouldn’t let him ride his motorcycle. 

                “Oh my,” Lydia replied.

                “Yeah, the bartender drove me home in his car and the doorman followed riding my bike.  I went over there (the bar) just now to thank them for taking care of me.  Wow. I was wasted.”

    “You’ve got some good friends,” the mother answered. “Interesting man. Interesting answer to prayer,” she sighed, as she hung up the telephone.

    You asked to keep him safe, the Presence offered.

    “If only you could keep everyone’s sons safe,” she answered. “But thanks. I really mean it.  Thanks.”

    When she went to bed that night, Lydia prayed for her family but also for the dying activist she’d met that afternoon.  Was the prayer for the woman at the hospital, or for herself?

    No doubt Lydia’s life was consumed by her chaplaincy and her family.  She was trapped eight to ten hours a day inside the hospital.  Her isolation from the community was becoming intolerable. At home, she was equally trapped, rushing about, living through the lives of her children, with no outside life of her own. 

                Before attending seminary, Lydia had been a labor organizer and had been active politically, a woman involved with issues, causes, and people.  Some of the people were even healthy and expected to live for years.  Often they talked about current events and social policy.  They attended lectures and luncheons and labor rallies.  Lydia’s hospital schedule and on-call responsibilities did not allow for much of that now.  She was lonely and frustrated. 

    “I have but one earthly life to live,” she said to the Presence.  “Am I making the most of it?  Am I meeting my responsibilities? Am I making a difference?  Am I learning something here that I can make better use of elsewhere?  Is there something more I should be doing for myself?”

    We’ll have to give it some thought, came the response.

    That night Lydia experienced an intense “secret rooms in the house” dream.  She had dreamed variations on this theme before. The design of the house was different, for instance, sometimes featuring a modern, stark white, wall-less structure; sometimes a dark Victorian mansion; or even an old, dilapidated frame house, 1950s vintage. There were always dozens of rooms in the house never before explored.  Dusty and full of cobwebs, they only needed major cleaning and re-decorating to be marvelous.  Lydia would begin the Sisyphean task, finish one room, and watch the webs reclaim that room as she moved on to the next.

    Tonight’s nighttime drama was different.  Lydia didn’t move from room to room as she usually did.  Instead, she stood inside a dark, old castle peering out a window.  Beyond the glass, gambled medieval animals with wings: magic cows, magic hogs. Ravens.

    Thou hast to escape the tower if thou wisheth to experience the magic, came a Voice.

    As Lydia turned from the window, a staircase appeared. She descended the cold stones to a lower level, where the form of a blacksmith stood against the red glow of his forge. The man looked up, nodded, and clanged his hammer against the white hot metal held between his tongs. Lydia stared, letting the sound, the smells, and the heat envelop her. The blacksmith hesitated, then jabbed the tongs into the darkness.

    Moving in the direction the man had gestured, Lydia uncovered another hidden staircase, this one leading to a labyrinth of subterranean rooms.  Each character from her daytime family and professional drama had a private room in this ancient, underground structure, each with its own candle, dusty desk, and rickety typewriter.

    “What are they doing?” Lydia asked.

    They’re writing their own scripts, the Voice explained.  You have but a minor role in each of their dramas.  There is more life to live, Lydia, but it is up to you to write your own play, and make yourself the major character. 

    Lydia awoke.

    Get your life back! said the Presence sitting on the side of her bed.

                “Not yet,” she answered.