This is the second entry in my hospital chaplain series. In it, I’m revisiting some of the experiences I had while fulfilling my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit at Overlook Hospital (Summit, NJ). To orient yourself as to the purpose, the context and tone of the series, it’ll be helpful to read the first entry “A Story about Holding Hands.” The following entry is a truncated account, and only touches on some of the events and the surrounding issues. I hope, though, that this short piece draws out some of the reader’s own struggles and that it helps point the reader toward some possible ways of processing them and finding hope.
I could never get used to visiting the Intensive Care Unit. The lighting in the area was dimmer than in the rest of the hospital, everyone spoke in hushed tones, and there was heaviness about the room that was so palpable it felt like I was wading through a thick emotional humidity when doing my rounds in the unit. I didn’t necessarily dread visiting the ICU; I just had to prepare myself for it. In fact, in a way, I looked forward to doing my rounds there. The unit offered an experiential landscape that I’d never previously explored—one that was not replicated anywhere else in the hospital or in my life.
There is one particular visit that occupies my thoughts even to this day. I remember stepping through the ICU doors thinking I had mentally prepared myself for this round. Even so, I took a moment to assess the room before visiting the first bed. It seemed pretty much the same as every other time I had visited. The nursing station was off to the left in the large space, and the beds surrounded it in a semicircle. The positioning of the beds made strategic sense as it gave the medical professionals a full view of the entire ICU as well as easy access to each patient. Besides this, the sounds of the beeping machines and the ventilators, the quiet conversations, and the general seriousness of the room were all familiar.
I circled around the nursing station, and started walking to the first bed. As I approached and got to a point where the curtains were no longer obstructing my line of sight, I noticed a young man laying on the bed. He was about average height and build, and he did not look emaciated, but everything else about him told me he was terribly sick. His face was very pale and it was covered in what looked like a thin sheen of moisture, most likely a mixture of sweat and oil. I’m not sure if he was unconscious or if he was sleeping, but the features of his face were locked in an expression of profound pain.
Standing to the right of the bed was a middle-aged man of Middle Eastern descent. He was about my height with a sturdy build. His hair was thinning, but he still looked dignified. He was dressed well in a brown, wool blazer and comfortable slacks. He was also holding the patient’s hand. I quietly asked one of the nurses the age of the patient and his condition. She whispered that the patient was twenty-four and he was dying from leukemia. He was also the man’s son. Only twenty-four? I thought to myself. I’m only two years older.
When I slowly approached the other side of the bed, I noticed there was an expression locked on the father’s face as well, but it was an expression of deep sadness and helplessness. It was a look that could bring tears to anybody’s eyes, and it broke my heart. By any measure, the father did not look like a weak man. In fact, he looked very strong and had a gentle but commanding presence. But that’s what made the scene even more heart-wrenching. In those last moments with his son, this imposing man did not stop gazing at his face. His eyes looked agonized and apologetic, as if he was trying to communicate through them, Son, I am so sorry that I wasn’t strong enough to help you, to protect you from this. Why did it have to be you? It should have been me. Seeing all the strength and the hope erased from the eyes of a father looking at his dying son was not something for which I had prepared.
After a few minutes, the father noticed that I was standing there. He slowly looked up. I introduced myself as the hospital chaplain. It took a moment for this to register, but once it did, there was a clear shift in his eyes. The sadness and weariness never left, but from deep within, I could see something rising in his eyes. It was rage. It was subdued, but it was visceral. Trembling, he managed, ”Why would God let this happen to my son?”
Immediately, my mind went into a frantic search for some kind of relevant, apologetic concerning the problem of evil or some sort of comforting verse, but I drew a blank. I just kept staring back at him apologetically. He didn’t break my gaze, but he stopped trembling, and the fire faded from behind his eyes. When he saw no answer was forthcoming, he slowly lowered his gaze back to his son.
I took that as an opportunity to discreetly flip through my bible to find some helpful verses I could share with him. I eventually found one, but by that time, I realized this man didn’t want an intellectual answer from me. He didn’t want an explanation; he just wanted his son back.
In those moments as his son’s life slipped away, it looked as if he was reliving the times he shared with his son, like when he first laid eyes on him as a newborn, and how this tiny, slobbery mess produced a joy in him like he’d never felt before. He probably remembered making a vow in the midst of all that new joy that he would never let anything happen to his son. Inevitably, other times past flashed through his mind, like times of tickle torture, tucking him into bed and kissing his soft cheek, the jitters and drama of prom season, teaching him how to hit a baseball, fights and shouting, hugs, dreaming about seeing him get married, family vacations, sending him off to college, his first day of elementary school, helping him with homework, and seeing him grow awkwardly in junior high. But I believe the prevailing emotion the father was feeling was that of guilt. I broke my promise, son. I couldn’t protect you. It should be me. I could see those words pounding relentlessly on his broken heart, and it showed in his eyes and his burdened shoulders.
It was clear to me I could be of no help, and that I would only serve to rob them of precious time together if I engaged them. So I said a silent prayer for them, and then slowly started walking toward the exit of the ICU. But on my way out, an ICU nurse stormed past me into the hall. Visibly upset and crying, she marched down the hall. At one point, she cried out, “This is not fair! He’s too young.” It seems I was not the only professional who was losing it in the ICU that day.
I’ve thought long and hard about that day, and many times, it’s caused me to question the reasons and methods of the God I trust. I’ve scoured entire tomes to try to find an intellectually satisfying understanding of how the current state of the affairs in the world could be justified, and I have not found anything that comes even close to resembling an answer.
The only thing that’s brought me any kind of peace is Jesus. And I don’t say that as a freak or to be trite or obtuse. I say that because he really is the only one who’s given me any kind of peace regarding all of this. It’s interesting because Jesus actually doesn’t bother providing an intellectual response to the problem of evil. As God incarnate, you would figure that would be one of the first things he addresses. I mean, it’s the quintessential problem of the human experience. But Jesus doesn’t philosophize about it at all. Instead of using words, he uses his body, and hurls himself as a target for real injustice and evil. And then, in a completely unanticipated move, he overcomes the most ancient and implacable of enemies—death. It’s as if he is trying to say to us, Look at me. I am not a God that is far-removed, decreeing orders from a throne on high. No, I love you. And that’s why I’ve drawn near and died. I have done what I have done because I want you to know that I know. And my promise is that one day all of this will come to an end. I will undo evil and suffering.
At the end of the day, I am with the son’s father on this. I don’t really want an explanation. I just want the nightmare to end. I just want all of this to be made right. My hope—and I believe it is a firm hope—is that one day all of this will be undone and made new. I know humanity didn’t fabricate Jesus. In fact, from what I can tell, when I look at Jesus, it is clear that he made me. In Christianity, I see a profound paradox that captures the essence of the intersection between my heart and experience with the person of Jesus. This paradoxical truth can be expressed in this way: It is utterly incomprehensible that the infinite God of the cosmos would become finite and draw near and die, yet it is precisely this truth that is most comprehensible to the deepest cries and longings in our hearts.
I believe this intersection exists because Jesus is in fact the concrete fulfillment of our deepest dreams. Indeed, at times, the hope I find in him seems quite frail. In fact, I just experienced how frail it could feel several months ago. But when I was at the very bottom, when all hope seemed lost, when everyone around me was at a loss for answers, he was in fact the only hope I could find in the all the darkness that surrounded me. Yes, I admit, the hope seemed like a flimsy thread. But it was the only thread available, and it held.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” – Revelation 21:1-5