One chaplain’s journey: teaching, hospice, and humanities
Forest Park, Illinois, United States
|Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash|
Auburn University was an easy choice for a graduate student with two preschool youngsters. Teaching medieval literature was the draw. Later, a divorce necessitated working as a project manager in sub-contracting. When the Lutheran campus pastor in Ann Arbor wanted me on the property committee, I declined. Instead, I inspected the roof and provided an estimate.
He asked about the transition from Chaucer and Beowulf to contracting. My answer was brief and somewhat vague, concluding with a remark about having God-given talents to teach. When we next spoke, he handed me a folder with all the teaching positions with Lutheran in the title. Sitting in the stacks on the floor of the University of Michigan library, I read about Chiang Mai Thailand, then taught there for three years at Payap University. The next move was to a seminary in Chicago for further study in Hebrew, Greek, systematic theology, Biblical studies, preaching, worship, pastoral care, electives, internship, and ordination.
Initially uncomfortable with pastoral care, I kept at it, read, consulted mentors, developed skills. The time came to move on from parish life, an easy decision to become a full-time chaplain at a 17-bed long term care facility. My greatest fear was the locked Alzheimer’s unit. I had cared for aphasic stroke victims, but this was so utterly different. How could a chaplain who relied on words give care?
A local hospice had beds in our facility; when their chaplain was at a distance, a nurse asked me to provide care to both patient and family. After we were together for three deaths this crusty-on-the outside and extraordinarily compassionate-on-the-inside R.N. remarked, “You’re pretty good at this death stuff. You should do it full time.” I took her advice, found a position in hospice, and quickly got my bearings at Loyola University Medical Center. The budding skills acquired in the years of ministry came to fruition.
Next, a friend told me about a supervisory opening at a large hospice in Philadelphia; this meant another change and opportunity for more professional and spiritual growth. This position had a reduced caseload (I took low-income neighborhoods and pediatric cases) and had the new challenge of providing management and support for a team of four chaplains.
Five patient snapshots . . . my first visit was on a cold and windy November day and I remember the setting and circumstances. A second-floor walk-up in a renovated city building. The patient was in his thirties, end-stage AIDS, a pleasant and gentle fellow who had been estranged from his parents for several years. At the end of our fourth visit, he told me that Mom and Dad wanted to see him, asking me to be there when they showed up. That went well, my visits continued weekly for seven weeks and he died at home in the middle of the night.
Other patients are fixed, with names, in my memory. Donald was another gay man with AIDS. I met his partner, a factory supervisor. We three got along with ease and joy. Donald had a favorite sandwich shop in the neighborhood, so I called before lunch to get his order. We ate, shared life stories, had some serious talks about regrets. He died while I was in outpatient surgery, and I was sorry not to be with him . . . and overjoyed to experience the love shown at his homegoing service.
Baby Susan was born with a rare lung disease and we met when she was two months old, with a life expectancy of six months. The young parents and I met over three months, sometimes separately as they had very different ways of handling anticipatory grieving.
The call from our hospice RN came mid-morning, and I was only 10 minutes away. I found two ways to give care . . . listening to the parents and holding Baby Susan while they called friends and family.
Timmy was an active pre-teen, a popular kid in his Catholic school, a basketball player and a good student. Glioblastoma. His parents eventually trusted me enough to take an hour break for quiet time or a meal with their daughter while I sat upstairs. A call from his nurse came in the late afternoon. “He probably won’t make it until morning.” Sitting vigil with the parents for six hours, leaving them with Timmy so I could sit, mostly in silence with his sister. Around 1:30 a.m., telling his parents that he was gone. Opening the bedroom window and explaining. Waiting with his father and walking outside with him when the funeral director came. Karl insisted that I would say the funeral Mass; I tried, to no avail, to explain that he should call his priest and then talk to me. “You have been here. You’re doing the honors. It’s settled.” The service went well.
Ms. Maybelle, a wide and larger-than-life woman of color with short-cropped salt and pepper hair, glasses perched low on her nose, attitude, and the most joyful countenance ever encountered. First visit, I asked a routine question about her connection to a faith community. Her answer was a blast, short, direct, and instructive. Next visit, I asked if she was sure that she didn’t want me to contact her pastor. “What part did you not hear? You are my pastor, so move on to something else.” I followed her orders without hesitation.
Miraculously, her abdominal aneurism cleared up and she was discharged from hospice. On my own time, I continued to visit. Buying her food, putting it in her upstairs fridge when bad knees kept her from coming down. Shoveling her snow and mowing her lawn. Arranging a dinner by cooking a roast at home and warming it at her house, fixing a salad while potatoes baked. The pleasure of conversation during our shared meals. I was with her at the hospital the morning of her surgery for a pacemaker. When she referenced me as her son, the hospital nurse looked confused. We saw each other until I left work as a hospice chaplain and went back to my original career. We wrote each other for over a year.
When I first taught an elective philosophy course, Death and Dying, I followed the outline of a historical/comparative/cultural study. And with care I sprinkled anecdotes from my prior work, having learned that people die as they live . . . well-adjusted or laden with family baggage, guilt, fear, anger. I reflected on my personal experience with the death of my father when I was eighteen. And in humanities, philosophy, and literature courses I was able to approach parts of the material with a deeper understanding of the importance of respecting the practice and beliefs of any culture, no matter how different from my own and from the culture of the majority of my students. Learning to be fully present with people in their dying and then learning how to live with my own sadness and still get up every day grateful and full of energy, I celebrated the richness of this work. Fortunately, I was able to carry this into my return to teaching.
On a Friday afternoon in Philadelphia, my last official act as a chaplain was to marry a delightful and absolutely in love couple who had been living together for twelve years. Lenny wore his best cowboy boots and Sandy was in a wheelchair with a bridal veil on over her robe. The brief ceremony took about twenty minutes, and I left after sharing a champagne toast. Hugs, kisses, and good-bye. A chapter in my life and a conclusion to the richest work that one could ever imagine. Whether sacramental, spiritual, or being fully present, this work was profoundly fulfilling.
TERRY MCINTYRE, M.A., M.Div., retired from chaplaincy and college teaching, lives in Forest Park, IL, and is currently a volunteer tutor and political activist. His career began and ended with college teaching and the years from 1995-2007 were spent in parish ministry and chaplaincy. Current interests include hiking, eventually getting to the Faroes Islands and to more Benedictine monasteries, learning from Thai Buddhist monks and laypeople about Theravada meditation, writing (mostly essays), and continuing to process a 35-day hospital stay for successful treatment of Covid-19. Frequently used words these days are gratitude and blessings.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 13, Issue 3– Summer 2021
Winter 2021 | Sections | End of Life