Music Group: Another Day in Paradise

“Well, this is what my life is like now.”

This is David.  He sits at the long table with me and several others.  He wears glasses with large lenses, he has a sprinkling of hair on the top of his head.  He has a bandage on the side of his neck, one of those split kind that are meant to hold the edges of open wounds together so they can heal shut.  It is not a large bandage, but not a tiny one either. On his right hand covered in tape is one of those plastic things they put in your hand or arm, so an IV can be inserted at need. It has a plastic end like a big, clear bead.

He, like everyone else at the table wears a hospital gown tied at the neck and, in some cases, tied half-way down the back.  For modesty, people can wear another gown over the one “covering their nakedness,” as the King James Version would say.  But often on my floors this second gown is missing and one of the things I, and other staff, do is to offer to tie gowns shuts at essential places.  For modesty.  For dignity.

David is bent over a rather tattered blue paper folder, the kind with a 3-hole tab in the middle to hold papers.  The pages in this folder are printed in large type, the better to see them, and have numbers at their bottom margin.  There are no pictures, except on the first two pages, the Title pages, you could say.  Here there are small black and white images of Tupac, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, Boyz to Men, Ben King, Marc Antony, Mahalia Jackson, Simon and Garfunkel, Tamala Mann, Beyonce, R Kelly,  Phil Collins.

It’s Phil Collins’ song David is talking about, “Another Day in Paradise.”  David’s voice is soft and so is mine when I respond.  He looks as if he could sit through this entire group without saying a word.  Not withdrawn or hostile, just half here and half inside himself, as if inviting the world to go on around him, pay him no heed.

“You were singing along,” I say.  “You know all the words.”

“I used to have the album,” he says.  Used to.  The song is a picture in words of a man walking by a woman on the streets who is asking for directions to a place to stay for the night.  Not asking for money for alcohol.  Not asking for money for drugs.  Not asking for money, at all.  Not asking for a handout.

 “Can you tell me some place to stay?”  she asks in the song.  A person looking for shelter.

I am often taken by the details in this song.  Phil Collins has “seen” these men and women, the way I would say God sees us.  Sees us into being.  Sees our need, our poverty — and our inherent dignity.  — As the source of that dignity, I believe.

The table is quiet.  The other men and women around it sit quietly, listening to us.  Our table is near the doorway of this large room with a few chairs against the far wall,  chairs bolted together.  Outside the door are the sounds of the daily chaos of a hospital floor.  People calling out, other people walking by rapidly.  Doors creaking, pagers going off, voices raised in direction, repeating directions, “Wait in your room.”  “The Doctor is coming.”  “Kevin, can you help me here?”

The man in the song is embarrassed by the woman’s request, maybe he is embarrassed at being addressed by her at all, and so he crosses the street, whistling to cover his embarrassment.

“Is there anything else you would like to say?” I ask David.  The silence is hard.

I am the man in the song.  I am embarrassed by the dignity of a man who says, “This is what my life is like now.”  Who says simply, “I used to own this album.”  And doesn’t ask me for anything in return.  Who doesn’t even ask to be heard.

I have the audacity to come into a room of people whose lives I cannot even imagine, to ask them who they are.  In doing so, hoping to suggest that God has not crossed the street to avoid their questions.  That God hears and sees them, as I hear and see them.

I ask a lot of the men and women I work with.  And they almost always graciously respond to my questions.  Because I am the woman in the song asking for directions.  And they see me and share their dignity with me.  They direct us to shelter.







Portrait #1: The Setting

I want to write, finally, about what I do, when I am Doing Something.  When I am working.  My friend, Lorie, gave me a small “Decomposition book” to begin what she calls “portraits” of my people, the people I work with and who, with great graciousness, work with me.  The word itself, “portraits” helps make the endeavor less intimidating, more discreet.  A portrait: a picture within a frame — not a book, not an essay.  Only what I see before me, nothing more.

It’s Friday, four days after Christmas,. The hospital census is low, and two of my four floors are closed. This has never happened before in my 5-year experience. Some med-surg floors are closed too, 5 and 8, I think. In the administrative huddle this morning, the hospital ceo seemed genuinely stressed, rubbing the top of his head as he discussed the possibility of further cost-cutting measures.

We have just been bought out (again) by a more financially-stable hospital group.  It is one that appears to value their spiritual care department judging by their website at least.  But I think we, like everyone else, still feel vulnerable.  When the dust settles, will we be cut or “down-sized” or re-organized or whatever euphemism will be used to balance a budget that inherently counts spiritual care as non-essential?  My professional future is at least as unpredictable as my health future. Maybe I should be getting used to this.

I like holidays and weekends and other out-of-the-ordinary times in the hospital. I can feel the hospital slow down at these times, as if it were a living organism, slowing to a walk from its usual run. There is just a little more room for greetings, gossip, catching up with people and letting my groups run over-time as people need, instead of as institutional schedules determine.

Oddly enough, it’s an at-home feeling.  As if I were moving around these clean, linoleum floors in my slippers and sitting down with people over a cup of coffee (as there is no caffeine on my floors, this is only a sweet dream).  As if we were gathered around a table in some large institutional kitchen – but gathered together all the same -12 floors above quieter city streets.  We, patients and staff, are also are on holiday.  This binds us with the outside world. We celebrate the holiday by being more casual, more relaxed.

At one point in my music group, as we listen to a recording of Tamela Mann singing, “Take Me to the King,”  Misty, a nurse on-loan from one of the closed floors, walks in and, unexpectedly, starts singing along.  She belts it out with Tamela, swaying as she sings, and then throws open her arms as if to embrace us all,

            “Take me to the King, I don’t have much to bring …Truth is, I’m tired, Options are few,

I’m trying to pray, But where are you?”

                          “But still my soul, Refuses to die,                                                  One touch-will change-my life”

We are looking at her as if she were a diva, come to us as someone’s unlikely idea of a holiday gift for the hospital’s psych floors. When the song finishes, she says, “Oh! I love that song!” We, patients and staff,  look at each other as if to say, “Did you see that, too?”

To bring us back to reality, Louise, to my right says in her most disgusted voice, “Pain pill!”  Silence. “I said I want a pain pill, is anyone listening to me? How many times do I have to say it?”

Instinctively I reach out to her and put my hand on her arm, her back is exposed beneath the worn hospital gown.  She is not mollified and raises her voice, “I said I want a pain pill, a pain pill. I get them three times a day. Where the hell is my nurse?”

“Who is your nurse?” I ask.

“I don’t know.  How should I know?” Behind her, out of her sight, Misty, points to herself and silently mouths, I am.

“I’ll get your nurse, ” I say.

Behind her, Misty says, “She’s bringing it now.”

“Hmmph,” says Louise, “It’s taking long enough.”  Then, after a long pause, “I’m not always this crabby, I just need my pain pill.”

“So lord speak right now,  Let it fall like rain”

Welcome to my world:  the sacred and the profane sitting down next to each other and not-having a cup of coffee together for the holiday.