Monday, January 24, 2005

The Book of James

The RN said on the phone that the family was ready to see me. They’d said at first that James is Holiness minister and that he had plenty of spiritual support and did not want or need a chaplain.
When I arrived I found a vibrant, active home in dire need of paint and furnished with – whatever - including homemade shelves nailed into rickety boxes. Painted with what was handy, the shelving system in this well worn home was stuffed with everything from kitchen things to linens. It was a mish-mash home that seemed to have one rule: damn the decorating, full speed ahead. I was escorted into the very back bedroom where James was enthroned in an older model electric chair with a joystick on one arm. He was one of the darkest men I’ve ever seen with a craggy face and hands that felt like leather gloves. He offered me his left hand because the right was disabled in a stroke about 30 years ago. His daughter told me with considerable pride that daddy never would concede to the stroke but set out at once to lick it and invented ways to go on with his manual labor. I admired him as soon as soon as our skin made contact. That thick slab of a hand grasp mine and I looked into the very face of honesty and integrity. Behind James was a faded photograph of a handsome minister in the robe and sash of a holiness preacher and the walls were lined with a picture gallery made up of children, grandchildren and great -grands. James’ deceased wife had the honor of several portraits all frayed and boxed in five and dime frames. I made the rounds asking about each picture until I got to a clipping of Karlov the wrestler and I said, “And this must be a picture of you.” I peeked a look around to see if he was laughing and saw a grin sneaking around his weathered cheeks. The next item was one of those mechanical Santa Clauses with a saxophone. I suspected that back in the day he had gyrated to Jingle Bell Rock or something. I think maybe his batteries had weakened a week or so after Christmas several years ago and he had an honored place in this room because some grandchild had given the gift. James was still grinning when I pointed at Santa and said. “And that’s me.” He laughed out of his belly and the one eye that was not weeping and cloudy brightened from the deep joy the joke brought to the surface.

My first goal, as with any patient was to convey the sincere respect for life experience and the Spirit of Christ that lives within. I made a special effort with this man because he was marginalized by many more factors than his status as a dying man. First, he needed to know in his heart that I respected his faith practice. The holiness tradition is often regarded many as “low church” and the faith of the unwashed poor; not a well thought of belief system among the well-bricked main line denominations. It was also important in my mind to let him know in as gentle a way as possible that I respected his experience as a man of color. I figured that genuine respect was not something he would have often received from white men in his time. But mostly, my theology as a Quaker demands that I respect him as a bearer of the Light of Christ. We don’t demand that one receive some ritual baptism or say words of acceptance so common in the protestant church. We believe that Christ dwells in the heart of every person.

My second goal was to hear the story that I’d hoped he’d know that I treasured. A man with as many scars on his hands and arms as James has many more on his heart and I wanted to hear about them. They speak of grizzled humanity and a life full of living. I tire quickly of whining rich people whose compulsive achievements gild only their financial portfolios and who suffer in only the trendiest ways. Their accounts grow full on the backs of men like James and their eyes avert away if they must look upon his suffering. But the Kingdom belongs to this dark-skinned man according to the teaching on the Mount.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar

Joyce is an 80-something woman whose face and smile still reflect the beauty drawn out of her by the law of nature that dictates that everything wears out. Her lips are still full and sensual and her hair is almost perfect in even its pure white condition. Her bones are covered with soft skin from what I can tell by holding her hand. They’re prominent now rather than hidden by feminine padding and strapped upright into a wheelchair. One of those alarms that consist of a clamp, a cord, and an obnoxious buzzer droops between her shoulder and the blanket on her bed. I suppose it’s there to warn the staff if she drifts too far from her designated spot.

Joyce is sagged over the foam pad that keeps her in her chair and over in a corner of the room is another sagging human; head drooped to the chest and tied safely in facing the wall, never rousing during my entire visit with Joyce. Once again, the nursing home gives me a sense of overwhelming despair even in this one which is uncommonly beautiful.

When I met Joyce on my first visit I also met her long-time buddy. The two of them were two thirds of one of those Swing era trios with close harmony and bouncy music. I asked Joyce and her friend if they were called “The Andrews Sisters” and they laughed a sparkling kind of laugh that girlfriends enjoy in the moment of a private joke. I added my Santa Claus basso to it and we filled the hall with musical joy. Since then, whenever I feed my Andrew Sisters CD to my car stereo, I think of her. “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B” makes me strip the age from Joyce in my mind and I see her and her buddies swinging to the mike and get down close to it -cheek to cheek as they meld harmony into one glorious sound. I can picture her sensuous lips shaping the air into the silly poetry of “Pennsylvania-Six- Five Oh, Oh, Oh” and the kids at the dance sing with them as they shake off the horrors of World War II. God, why am I so down about this withered presence I see tied to a chair? I don’t want her to go away. Maybe it’s my own mortality that I’m facing – again. Maybe I’m dying with my patients and my own experiences are promising to melt into the soil of the grave like hers.

“Does it surprise you that someone my age likes the Andrews Sisters? I sure wish I could hear you sing, Joyce.”

“Come on along, Come on along to Alexander’s Rag Time Band. Come on along. Come on along, it’s the best band in the land. Da, da, dadada, Come on along…” Joyce gave me a sample of her lead voice and she swayed in her chair as if she were on stage again. We were both laughing by this time. She ran out of the words she remembered just about the same time as me. We laughed her to sleep and I sat there and held her hand grieving her dieing as she slept slumped over her pad.