I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord.
1 Timothy – Reading for the Day, Our Lady of Sorrows
St. Joseph by the Sea, where I had spent the last week in retreat was a perfect setting to renew my body, mind and soul. Long walks along the ocean, Mass every day, reading and eating terrific food in an atmosphere of silence, those were my days.
Friends still texted me. Sacred Heart Hospital, where I am a Catholic chaplain, is in the process of being taken over by one of the two health networks we stood between, a small Catholic, community hospital serving the very poorest of the poor.
Economic realities have forced this alliance. My friends were worried – whether I was retreating or not. Personal crises happened. A beautiful aide’s daughter was found dead. Another friend’s niece was born at 25 weeks and in very critical condition. All of these concerns accompanied me on my walks on the beach. I brought these needs and my weakness to our loving God.
Confession is part of this retreat. I made a very frank confession and received a cogent response from a not at all warm and fuzzy priest. “Do you want peace or do you want torment?” I picked peace. Decidedly. And peace flowed over me.
I woke up early the day after I came home, ready to go to my beloved hospital.
It is so much a home to me. Jesus is there in the tabernacle. My patients are there, my friends. People trust me to look after them. They look after me. It is a place of love.
I was dressed in my funeral clothes ready to be at least a face of love and support to my friend at the service for her daughter.
Part of what I do as chaplain is pray a morning prayer overhead. It’s a way for us to say who we are, a place of faith-based healing. I attempt to interject real petitions, sometimes even humor, an invitation to God to join us in our daily work. Today I prayed also through the intercession of Our Lady of Sorrows, it was her feast day, never one of my favorites.
I went to the cafeteria and was asked by my friend whose niece was born prematurely to visit the baby and her sister at a neighboring hospital. No other answer but, “yes.”
She told me what hospital, ironically the one that was soon to swoop in and acquire us. That hospital was directly across from the funeral home where I was planning on attending the service for my friend’s daughter.
I negotiated the hospital’s parking lot and found my way to the NICU only to discover the baby and mother were in another site of the hospital, close to my home.
I still was foolishly thinking, “I can do this. I’ll just swing by the funeral home, pay my respects, hit the road, and go to the other hospital.
For probably the first time, I encountered a funeral usher who was truly a crab ass. “Lady, you can’t go in there. Park in that overflow lot down the street.”
I patiently explained that I had an emergency. Could I possibly just park and quickly see the bereaved?
I was told in no uncertain terms that was unacceptable. I began to park in the other lot when I got another text from my friend asking whether I was with her sister yet?
Deciding to drive away from my other friend and all of my friends on her unit who love her too was a hard decision, but one I felt compelled to make.
After what seemed an interminable time driving, I finally arrived and traversed the hospital until I got to the extreme other end where the NICU was located. I entered the unit and before I even got a chance to introduce myself I was greeted with, “Thank God, you’re here. They are right this way." I assumed they noticed the big old chaplain on my ID.
The nurse who led me in told me the baby had just died. I walked into a curtained cubicle where a mother sat rocking, cradling her very tiny, dead baby. I knelt down and said, “Rosa, I’m Carolee, your sister sent me. I am here to help in any way I can.” I told her that my friend had said she would like her baby baptized. I asked if she would like that. “Yes, I want her baptized.” I said okay, “Let’s baptize Bianca.” “That’s not her name,” she said. I was surprised. Then the nurse told me the mother’s name was, Linda, not Rosa.
“Oh shit,” is what I thought but I knew her identity was irrelevant, only that she needed me and what God could do to help her.
I was still kneeling and I asked Linda what the baby’s name was. “I don’t have one,” she replied tearfully. I looked right into her eyes, and I said, “Linda, it will help you so much if you can give your baby girl a name, is there a name you would like to call her?”
“Grace,” she replied. Thank you God for letting me keep it together. As I baptized little baby Grace, I couldn’t help but think of my own daughter, Grace, born 27 years ago.
It was then that the young chaplain resident arrived. The one who I am sure the staff had expected when I waltzed in instead. She was obviously as confused as I was but I talked to her privately and told her what had happened. She thanked me profusely for being there and shared it was only her second week in training.
I then saw Rosa in the cubicle next door. Bianca was still alive but barely. Her color looked terrible. She was expecting me and we prayed. I actually just stood by this woman as she pleaded with God for her daughter’s life. I was next to her with my arms around her as a neonatologist clumsily explained her daughter’s precarious condition. Rosa looked dazed at the onslaught of information she was receiving.
A family friend arrived and I departed.
I had debated about returning to the funeral home where my friend’s daughter’s funeral was in progress. I decided she had so many people to love and support her I would bring love and food to her home where maybe I could be more helpful. I was also well and truly shot to shit. As soon as I got to the hospital I went to the little nun’s room and sobbed.
The rest of my day was spent performing duties which bring me great joy – taking food, toothpaste and sanitary napkins from the hospital’s Love Bank to the parish next door; seeing some of my beloved psych patients; changing used candles; preparing the altar for Mass.
My phone rang a little before Mass. It was Rosa’s hospital. Bianca took a turn for the worse. “Could I come?”
As I waited for my son to come and bring me, I went to Mass. I heard Father Hilferty’s wonderful homily on Our Lady of Sorrows. I asked our Blessed Mother to be with all three women of sorrow, suffering so very much today.
When I entered the NICU for the second time that day, another sobbing, suffering woman greeted me, holding her dead baby girl. This time I prayed in thanksgiving for life; for Bianca, and her parents, her dad, there now, clearly numbed by the ordeal; and for the sympathetic nurse, standing by the parents of her patient she so lovingly tended.
When my son picked me up he was kind. I knew I needed some time and privacy to process this feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows. I headed to our secret garden, a tiny bit of beauty at the top of our hill. I sat on the rough stone bench and wept.
For so long I have felt distant from our Blessed Mother. I didn’t use to – I nursed my own baby Grace as I watched the rosary. The milk and repetitive prayer lulled her happily to sleep. Events and my own sinful decisions caused me to be almost embarrassed to go to her. I knew Jesus was there to forgive me and love me no matter what but Mary was quite another story.
Our Lady of Sorrows is my least favorite manifestation of Mary. I know she deserves the love and respect the name brings but in embracing her pain I am forced to look at my own sorrow, and I would really rather not. Today though I am fervently praying to her to take care of the three women who met their sorrows today and all the other ladies of sorrow who have dealt with losing a child. Mary pray for them, intercede for them!