27 July 2008

Aloha! Aloha!

Sunday evening and I'm learning how to breathe again after the First Day of the Week with all its attendant stuff.

On my voicemail this morning, a request from a woman that I ask her nephew to put her and the grandmother on his visit list. She did not leave his name or Dept. of Corrections number. She did leave her own phone number. I called and left her a message: "If you give me his name, I can give him your message." Next?

One of the Catholic volunteers had an angiogram last week and the news "wasn't good," he said this morning. "Three veins go into the heart. All of them have some kind of blockage, and one of them, the doctor told me he had no idea how any blood was getting through." George goes to Seattle again tomorrow to consult with doctors. Added him to the prayer lists.

Email and voicemail from one of the mental health psychs, asking me to see a man who just found out he has renal failure. Could I talk to him? I'd forwarded the email to a colleague who is here on Fridays and Saturdays when I'm gone, hoping he could do an initial visit. But the colleague was home with a sick wife and child, so I went to see the offender in the hospital. I asked if he'd understood what the doctors had told him yesterday, if he knew the name of his condition. "They told me, but I don't understand." Lucky for me, I'd googled "renal failure" before I went to the infirmary, just enough to know there's "acute" and "chronic." I told him his kidneys weren't working 100%, that he'd need to talk to the doctors about living with something that couldn't just be "fixed." He wanted to talk to his mom. I need to find her phone number.

Back to the chapel and there's another voicemail. "This message is for John Smith, DOC number XXXXXX. His mother died at ten minutes to ten this morning." Click. No name or number for me to call to verify the information. The offender has been moved to another prison in the last couple of days. His mother's phone number is disconnected. I look on the computer records and find notes that his mother had been at a hospital in Tacoma recently. I called their Medical Records. No record of a patient by that name dying today. Further investigation shows that his mom was elderly, had had a fall, was taken off life-support a couple of days ago. I write an email and send it to the man's chaplain and counselor at the new prison, giving what information I've found. From the notes, he's known that his mother was not in good shape, so this may not be news for him today.

So what does all this have to do with the title of this post? We do five Word and Communion services for the Catholics here on Sundays. We have a worship sheet in English and Spanish that comes out of Los Angeles, a new one every week with all the prayers and readings. It's very useful, and very portable, which is important because we have long distances to cover and can't be hauling books around.

The inmate population is very transient, so, needless to say, I don't train any lectors, nor put them on a schedule, and no one gets to see the readings until right before the service. I ask for volunteers to read in whichever language is comfortable for them. Sometimes it takes a bit of coaxing (remember what it was like when you were in school?) and sometimes people volunteer very readily.

There are sometimes funny twists on the readings which can come from typos or misprints in the worship sheets or from a seriously unskilled reader who felt called to read today. A famous reading from Exodus once had "Moses went up to the mountain of Go." The reader confessed afterwards he didn't know how to pronounce the word. He'd never run into it before. When I told him it was the "mountain of God," he laughed and said, "Here I thought the Catholics had come up with a new version of Exodus!"

And then there are days when we are in the groove of things, moving right along, word perfect, and the gospel reader stands and says, "Aloha! Aloha!" and the gathered assembly says, right on cue, "Aloha! Aloha!"

Well, why not? It's a greeting, isn't it?

PS: You're going to pray for George, remember?

16 July 2008

Why Vacation?

16 November 2005

I talked to man today whose 20-year-old son was killed earlier this month. The young man had been walking on some train tracks in Arkansas. Maybe he was high, his father thought. He was planning to go to college in February. His father is broken-hearted, trying to make sense of it. "Everything happens for a reason," he said. He didn't find much comfort in the words, and he already knew his son's death was not God's Plan A.

He was concerned about his anger that was simmering just below rage. We talked about the stages of grief. The intellectual knowledge may help for a bit, between the waves of grief.
One of my colleagues talked with five men last Sunday, each with some kind of emergency or disaster. Maybe with a population of 2000 I shouldn't be surprised. Maybe those are just the averages. Some days it seems a bit much.

Another man who stopped in today had good news. He'd gotten to see his son for the first time in ages this past weekend. He has been reading books on tape for this son and was so thrilled to have the human connection at last. What a contrast with the father who'd lost his son.


I found those few paragraphs in a tablet I picked up this morning, intending to do some writing while I took a friend on errands. I'd forgotten about that day. It happened almost three years ago. I remember at the time I thought I would never forget, but I do. In the past few months, several men have thanked me for helping through a difficult time: a parent's death, a child in the hospital, finding someone who'd gone missing during Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes the faces are familiar, sometimes the name, but more often, I am meeting a man for the first time.

I'm on vacation this week, but not away from my work email. From one of the staff came word today that a man's child had fallen from the fourth floor of an apartment building and died. It was hard not to get into the car and drive to the prison. It's one of those rare days when no chaplain is present. But I know that the staff in the man's unit is very capable and can make sure he gets the support he needs for the moment. I know that a chaplain will be in tomorrow and can meet with him.

I find it hard to take a vacation--though I know that life goes on and people will survive if I'm not there to remind them to breathe. It's not that I think I'm so crucial to the process. My concern is that people get good, thoughtful care. Bad news or good news cannot be rushed. The body has to physically absorb information before it has time to sink into the brain and the heart. We've all known people who are quick to say, "It's been a year already. Get over it." The men I work with hear, "She was your EX. Why do you care?" "You haven't talked to your dad in 20 years. Why are you crying?"

Although they don't like to speak of it, hope is a deep river underneath much of the bantering, teasing, and general guy-talk. Hope for love that really will last past a prison sentence. Hope for reconciliation when he's done the worst thing imaginable. Hope for resolution. Hope for the last word. Hope for something beyond the silences.

Taking some vacation makes me stop and ask what I'm hoping for, what I long for, what I need so that I can keep doing this work. Vacation reminds me that I need to breathe deeply, that I must know my own emotions and deal with them, that ultimately I must let go and not carry every story with me.

That's why I write. I give the stories a place to live on their own. That's also why I keep a book in my office of the names of those who have died who are related to the men I serve. That book of names is a witness to the stories both spoken and silent.

Vacation is the space between the lines.