“How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
(Landscape with Clouds, Guatemala, my photo)
The “man” in Bob Dylan’s song…sometimes I think of that “man” as God. We, from here below, sing with melancholy and with pain to God, “How long will it be until you see that we are tired of suffering? How many more deaths will it take until you bring us all to heaven? How can you allow it all to happen without batting an eye? … The answer is blowing in the wind.”
I thought of this song when I witnessed my first “patient death” at the hospital. I was just two weeks into training as a hospital chaplain. It was around 10 AM on a Sunday morning. The phone rang, and a nurse said to me matter-of-factly, “Patient so-and-so is about to die in room so-and-so. Can you come up to comfort the parents?” I thought, “No, I can’t. How can I comfort them? Their son is about to die.” But I said anyways, “Sure I’ll be right up.”
The patient was middle-aged. His parents were standing at the side of the bed weeping and stroking his face. His body was there, but I wasn’t sure whether his spirit was. A few minutes later, the doctors entered. They did a few simple tests, and one of them said straightforwardly, “I’m sorry, but, at 10:20 AM, I declare that so-and-so is dead. The chaplain is here to be with you.” The doctors left. I stayed in the room with the parents, but it felt as if I was alone.
A few minutes of silence followed. I’d yet to say a word. The mother looked at me and cried out, as if shouting directly at my heart, “Why? How is it that a mother has to see her son die? Why did it happen like this?” What could I say? More silence. I muttered quietly, “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” The father moved to find a chair. He looked dizzy, and he buried his head in his hands. He wept bitterly for several minutes. More silence.
I mustered up enough strength to say to the mother, “Is there something that might be helpful to you right now?” She quipped back, “Yes. Get me my son back.” I looked at the ground and thought, “Yes. Faith moves mountains.” I turned my gaze back towards the bed, but the son was still dead. “I’m sorry,” I stated resignedly. More silence. In time the mother gazed at me and said angrily, “Well, I guess a prayer will have to do then.” I took the mother’s hand. The father wasn’t about to stand up from the chair. He wasn’t with us, really. No one was, really. Nonetheless, the mother and I went up to the bed, and I prayed. We stood around some more, and it seemed like my presence was no longer welcome. I excused myself and gave the parents some time to be alone with their son. “I am the one who really needs to be alone,” I said to myself. As I closed the door to the room and walked down the hallway, I could hear the mother’s moans echo from wall to wall.
About half-an-hour later, I met the parents outside of the dead patient’s room. We did the paperwork, and they left. Almost as soon as I sat down at a computer to “chart” what had occurred, another page came in. The nurse said on the phone matter-of-factly, “Patient so-and-so is about to die. Can you come to comfort the family?” And so on…
That day was a rough day. Three months later, I see that my shifts aren’t always so dramatic, but they often are. “How many times must a man look up/Before he can see the sky?” Isaiah writes, “The grass withers, the flower fades: because the wind of the Lord blows upon it: surely the people is grass” (40:7). In death we see how insignificant we are, and, as counter-cultural as it may be, I venture to say that a healthy understanding of our insignificance is a good thing. We might try saying to ourselves, “I won’t live forever. I will die.” We might repeat it–many times. Death stings. It cuts our pride. It belittles us. Death endures despite all the scientific advancements, despite all the relationships we’ve built, despite all the obstacles we’ve already surmounted. Death wins.
Before becoming an intentional Catholic, I used to say to myself, “I am not going to die.” I couldn’t handle it, so I denied it. Was I a coward? Maybe, but perhaps I was also a realist. Some people said to me, “Yes, you will die, but life for others goes on, so make a difference.” I logically thought, “Great, so I can build up others’ hopes before they realize that they will die, too?” Meaningless. It seemed liked nothingness, so I preferred not to think of death at all…certainly not death for me, at least.
It’s true: Jesus changed me. It wasn’t a coping mechanism. (I already had one, you see.) It wasn’t the result of intense study. (Though I studied a lot!) It wasn’t a social thing. (I had a girlfriend and, maybe, at least a few friends…) It was an encounter. I met Him in the wind: in the wind that blew as I read the Scriptures, in the wind that blew on my heart as I went to Mass, in the wind that blew on my memories as I reflected on life, and in the wind that blew on my soul when I first discovered that God is above me, below me, behind me, and before me.
At first, it was just the possibility of God… Maybe He is there. Then, it became the reality of God… He is there. What happened to me? I thought about it frequently: “How is it that I have become so religious?” More and more, I felt that it was less because of me and more because of God. St. Augustine says, to paraphrase, “I am made for God, and God will leave me restless until I rest in Him.” God took me from Alpha to Omega. I eventually resigned, “You’ve won. Game. Set. Match. I give myself to You.”
In the hospital I do wonder why God doesn’t intervene to save the patients I meet. I don’t understand it. I don’t think that I ever will understand it. The answer is in the wind, and I’m not the wind. Death still humbles me now as it did before, but the difference is my acceptance of its reality and my conviction that, because Jesus rose, death doesn’t have the last word. Isaiah’s 40th chapter doesn’t stop with the wind and the grass:
“Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
Those that I’ve accompanied at the hospital at moments of death, they “utterly fall,” but, their strength will be renewed. I’ll see them again, and we’ll walk together on a journey in which we will never grew weary. Death’s sting will be a distant memory. The mother, the father, the son, and I will cry again–not out of sadness but out of joy, for He will raise us up on the last day.
David Inczauskis, n.S.J.