The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
“Fear. Because I was afraid,” I replied. “That’s what finally brought me in – fear.”
“You made the right decision,” the cardiologist said, warming the diaphragm of his stethoscope by briskly rubbing it in the palm of his hand. He placed it on my chest and continued, “You’re in the right place.” He warmed the instrument with each application. His voice was confident, assuring.
That was a few days ago. Today I am occupying a corner room of the DEC Hospital in Fredericton. Leads from my chest keep me on a short leash. They connect me to a monitor over my bed. I follow the graphic pattern racing across the screen. My heart rate is in green while my respiratory rate is in white.
“It wasn’t indigestion after all,” I observed with a smile. My cooking had been acquitted and my reputation as a chef remains unsullied. Perhaps men are slow when it comes to matters of the heart. I am. I figured that I was a failure in the kitchen! Fear is a critical part of our ability to survive – my ability to survive! Sensing real danger and acting appropriately is an instinct that has served our species well. It led me to the Out Patient Department at the DEC four days before Christmas.
My cardiologist was right: I was in the right place!
His question remained with me, better: my answer to his question remained with me. The quiet of my room and the quiet of each passing day afforded me the opportunity to lie peacefully and reflect. Perhaps I was a bit glib in my answer to the doctor, like whistling in the dark. As I considered my fear I began to weigh it, assess it. Of what was I afraid?
Was I afraid of yet another sleepless night? Exhaustion after five restless nights at home urged another path. The unknown, lurking in the shadows – did this hold me fearfully captive? Perhaps it was the possibility of my imminent death that frightened me. I thought about this, but no, that wasn’t my fear. I weighed this as a source of my fear and dismissed it. God is the steward of my heart – of my life! – here or there I am his! My fear had more to do with my lack of sleep and suffering the dull ache of incessant pain.
With the diagnosis made, I found my fear subsiding. And to my surprise, I found something else.
I lay on my bed, saying the Beads. My forefinger and thumb fed beads through my fingers one at a time. “Yea, though I walk through the valley…” With each successive bead, the mantra became more familiar: “Thou art with me…” The petitions began to stir my consciousness. I was near a pool – the Pool of Siloam – and with each agitation of the water I considered Jesus’ question, what did I want him to do for me. He asked the question often of those in his presence.
With fear abated, what did I want Jesus to do for me?
The beads continued to slip through my hand, one by one, selected and advanced by thumb and forefinger. “What would you have me do for you,” I repeated, once, twice, three times. The pattern repeated. The response fell in silence. I had not courage enough to say. But his question was not dismissed in haste. The silence allowed the question. My petition began to emerge and take shape.
I have not prayed to become better. “Better” as a goal seemed somehow to be other than what I really wanted. My becoming better was little more than an incremental change finding satisfaction with minimal expectations. Prufrock had measured his life with coffee spoons. Becoming better would remove me too suddenly from this place, from my present, suggesting another place, and another time. Escape provided no attraction – an empty prayer! I am in this place, and I am here now.
Is it as clear to you as it is to me, dear reader that becoming better is not becoming whole? My tomorrow is not preferred over my today. Today is my failure. Home is not preferred to this unit. I dared not deny my failure and the failure of my heart. No, here I was. More beads trickled through my fingers.
What was going to happen would happen in the failure of this moment. I will find Jesus here. I’m not going to find him somewhere else! The redemption I will find, I will find here in the quiet of this CCU, and now. As for my healing, I will find Jesus’ anointing salve for my soul here, now. Simply becoming better will only deny my shadows and the slender light in my room and rush me into tomorrow, or perhaps the day after tomorrow – or even later, somewhere else. I sought not to become better, but to become whole! It was important that I remain where I was, in the present – and to discover Jesus in the midst of my receding pain, fears such as I had, and the loneliness that filled my room. Jesus’ presence was here.
Jesus’ presence in my present moment transformed this space where I faced both my life and my death.
His presence in my present circumstance brought Shalom and made my living or dying irrelevant. My present became the moment of discovering Jesus in new and unexpected ways. It opened my eyes immensely! I discovered that more than life or death, it was the touch of Jesus that I needed. I found it here.
My nurse offered to wash my back the first night I was admitted. I had declined her offer – too afraid of the intimacy, too fearful of the closeness. Later, in the darkened room I knew I longed for what I feared most – was I trying to keep Jesus at bay? The knowing carefulness of the nurse persisted, beyond her surprise at my initial refusal. Another’s hand on my back, warm and caring was life-giving! Bending as a supplicant on the side of my bed, I felt the washing away of fear and loneliness, sin and disease – by a hand that had a healing touch.
Jesus’ touch persisted with a nurse searching for a pulse in my feet. Cradling my feet with her hands, her touch reminded me of when Jesus’ feet were held, caressed, washed and dried in Simon’s home. He knew His disciples’ need of his touch more than they when at supper with them he knelt so that they would know him better.
Was I the beneficiary of a careful touch because I was good? Did grace touch my life because I am a Christian or because I am an Anglican or because I am a priest? Was anything withheld because of my sin? No. The touch of physician or nurse, the touch of redeemer or saviour, remained as ever it has been in every generation: the knowing intervention to the timeless question that reveals grace and the presence of God where a matter of the heart displaces fear.
Written in the Coronary Care Unit of the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital, Fredericton, on a laptop borrowed from the Paramedic Association of New Brunswick.
Copyright © 2004 James T. Irvine