This excerpt is from April’s upcoming memoir, Something We Can’t Live Without.
“I am blessed! I am so blessed! I have joy in my heart! We have to shame the enemy, shame the devil!” A middle-aged African-American woman is standing by the window in professional clothes, a purple suit and a large gold necklace, pulling latex gloves out of a box, when I ask her how her spirit is faring. She smiles broadly as she unrolls the gloves onto her hands, asserting her joy in a knowing, powerful tone. I have introduced myself as the chaplain, and she has responded by launching into a small monologue about the intensity of joy that she experiences daily. I am not sure how I should be responding.
This woman is not the patient. She is the mother of the patient, and I do not see the patient in the bed at first. Tiny and frail, despite being listed on the hospital record as being thirty-five years old, the patient is nearly indecipherable from the mounds of flimsy hospital sheets. When the beady and vacant eyes peering from between piles of white become visible to me, I am startled and feel my body jolt slightly.
She lifts her head and props her neck onto a pillow. Her hair is knotted, frayed and wild, and her t-shirt, a limp, faded garment, is too large for her emaciated frame, exposing her shoulder and part of her breast, tattered with scars. She lays like a tossed-aside rag doll. Her lips are covered in sores.
I can feel the trauma emanating from this woman, and see it, as though trauma has nearly deformed her, dehumanized her in the most real, physical way possible. She does not feel human to me and I am frightened by that. When she makes eye contact with me I feel shaken, jolted into connection with the feral, wounded spirit inside her body. I feel vulnerable in the face of whatever it is that is happening or has happened in this room. I cannot explain my response except that the energy in the room seems to pulsate, nearly overwhelm me as I stand there. Something very wrong has happened here.
I don’t know if I am feeling something wrong that has happened in the room, or something that has happened to this patient, or something that has happened between this patient and her mother. But it is nearly paralyzing in its force, this sense that I have walked into a war zone, and I do not feel at ease.
“We are blessed!” her mother says again, calling me out of my trance. “Right, Fiona?”
“Yes! We are blessed,” Fiona responds in a small, shaky, high-pitched voice, her eyes turning from me and focusing on her pillow. She smiles feebly and appears to know this ritual, this affirming of her blessedness. She knows how to respond to her mothers beckoning. It is clear that she has done it before. The mother walks over to the bed and takes Fiona’s hand, clipping her nails with a meticulous, businesslike precision. It suddenly occurs to me that although I did not see any precautions for this patient around physical contact, the mother had been putting on latex gloves to touch her daughter.
I panic for a moment, wondering if I missed the notice on the door, worried that I am exposing myself to a communicable disease by not wearing gloves or a mask. Maybe she seems feral to me because... she is actually feral? Maybe I will actually catch a disease from her? I excuse myself to step into the hall for a moment, where I whisper to a nurse standing nearby, “Are there any precautions for this patient?”
The nurse looks at me, bewildered. “No, not at all,” she says. I nod and step back into the room. I wonder if the mother wears latex gloves when touching everyone, or if they are reserved only for her daughter.
As the mother continues to speak about her faith, affirming the blessedness of her life, I begin to feel an emotional sensation akin to hearing a sound system start to produce feedback. The sound starts small, gets progressively louder, until the thick, boundary-less noise renders you non-functional, holding your hands against your ears, trying to escape the room. I feel nearly paralyzed by the opposing realities in the room, the opposition of the apparent condition of the patient to the nearly crazed insistence of this mother that she was “blessed,” as her daughter lay there looking abandoned and cachetic.
As the mother continues to describe how good their lives are, how important it is to “think positively,” I start to recognize their religious place in the universe: the so-called “prosperity gospel.” This is a movement in Christianity that started in America, but then took deeper roots when exported overseas, to Africa, where it spread like the proverbial wildfire. It is often characterized by extraordinarily wealthy pastors who are supported by people living in slums who give all of their money to the church with the expectation that God will “bless” them - often, but not always, understood as financial blessings.
If there is any proof needed that religion can be Marx’s opiate of the masses, it is found in the prosperity gospel. This is where hope becomes a drug, a force of numbing to present circumstances, an exercise in fantasy instead of an honest engagement with despair.
I find it hard to be present to this in the hospital room, this deafening counter-truth, this side-lining of the patient in the bed who seems to only know how to be swept up into the waves of her mother, waves that insist on drowning her feeble voice.
What I want to say to the mother: You are not seeing your daughter.
Even as much as I know this denial may be what keeps this mother functioning, it is hard for me to join her in her pronouncements of blessings, lest I perpetuate it, lest I join in the blindness that refuses to see and name the shell of a human being crumpled on the hospital bedsheets.
Still, I am there as a chaplain, and the mother asks for a prayer. For all of her stated happiness at having a visit from the hospital chaplain, she seems eager for me to leave. So I will pray. We gather at the bed around Fiona, and I take her frail hand into mine. Prayer is often where a chaplain has the opportunity to gently name those things which are unnamed. Too difficult to speak to one another, sometimes suffering can be acknowledged aloud in prayer. And once it is spoken, it can be held, interacted with, acknowledged. It can cease to be a monster. This basic lesson of feminism, the power of naming one’s own experience, has been once again brought to the forefront of my mind in training to be a chaplain.
But in this prayer, what little I do name - fear, suffering, doubt - is immediately followed by the mother’s prayer of gratitude for God’s goodness. In this room, when truth is spoken, it is instantly cut off, spoken over, denied: the only faith welcome in this room is a faith in the mother’s perception of reality, and it is a faith to which I am powerless to speak.
I wonder what Fiona’s story is. I wonder if she could tell it. I will not get to hear her story: her mother is a near-constant presence in the room, and Fiona sleeps when she is gone.
The longer I am a chaplain, the more convinced I become that I live in a culture that silences the voices of those who suffer to the detriment of all. The longer I spend listening to patients, the more connected I feel to the “prophetic” tradition of religious ways, a tradition that is less about telling the future than it is giving an accurate description of the present. I begin to think of chaplaincy - the deep presence and listening to voices of the suffering, some of whom have never been invited to tell their story before - as a radical act of resistance in a culture where ease, comfort and stability are prioritized at the cost of truth, where the myth of bounty drowns the voices who would scream otherwise.
Probably because the “truths” being spoken in Fiona’s room were so at odds with who I saw in the bed, Fiona’s voice - or her lack of voice - is sticking with me. So is her mother. The next day, I am sitting at my desk, scouring Fiona’s chart looking for clues. What was that silent force that insisted, “something is wrong here?” Was it my intuition, or simply the reaction of a reasonably-privileged white chaplain when faced with the despair of poverty, racism, and disease? Was my reaction based in my experience of the room or in the abandoned, feral ghosts of my own past?
I want to save her, I text to Rachel, another chaplain resident, during lunch break. I want to do something but I know there’s nothing I can do.
Her chart holds no answers for me. I had expected to see an extensive psychiatric evaluation or at the very least, social work interventions; instead, all I see are notes about blood levels, infections, medications. Fiona has been here twice before and has not compliant with her HIV medications; thus, she developed AIDS several months ago, but has been compliant with treatment since then. There are no notes about her home life, her mother, or psychiatric concerns. But what is it that is really wrong with her? It seems as though the hospital is colluding with the mother, insisting that the tsunami of trauma I felt in that room was nothing more than a little ripple, a small challenge to be overcome, or... not really there at all.
What is it in you that wants to save her? Rachel replies, a standard response for anyone with even rudimentary training in CPE. I could almost predict it.
I don’t think I even want to save her, I text back. I think I just want to show her that I can see her. I want her to know that she isn’t invisible.
But isn’t that wanting to save her? Isn’t that me wanting to save someone from the kind of “hope” that renders suffering mute, that views despair as a threat that must be annihilated instead of fertile ground in which to take root?
Maybe I do want to save her. Maybe I want to save her because I am scared that the part of me that hurts the most - the wounded me - will be banished again to her prison cell when I leave this hospital work. I want to save her because I have learned how valuable my own wounds are - even as they heal and become scars - and I don’t want to go back to who I was before I started this training as a chaplain. I don’t want my healing to simply be a walking away from truth.
Maybe I want to save her because I want a different story to tell for my life. I want to save her because a huge part of me has been her manic, reality-denying mother, believing that if I just kept walking, kept going, the suffering parts of me would eventually die and only the healthy parts would remain. And I wanted those wounded parts to die. I wanted to pretend they didn’t matter.
And I want to save her because I wish I could have been seen, heard, and held at so many points in my life. I want to save her because I want to reach back and save the little girl who only by virtue of birth and circumstance – we’ll call it very good luck - did not end up in that hospital bed, unseen, unrecognizable, feeble-voiced and untouchable, insisting with those others with their manic voices and their latex gloves on the goodness of it all.