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?”