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December 21, 2004

"And now there is merely silence, silence, silence, saying all we did not know." - William Rose Benet

I have posted this here already once before, but with the dark-but-not-gloomy mood I'm in tonight, it felt appropriate to re-post. It describes a formative event in my birthing as a caregiver. It also marks the beginning of the creation of the tools that help me pastor now, through the darkening days of my own cancer.

As chaplains, those of us who drew the dreaded and loved 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shifts in Richmond's downtown MCV hospital were required to conclude our tours of duty by logging the night's activity in a notebook, to be read by the day staff in case follow-ups were needed.

Normally filled with names, times, conditions and activity reports, this is the report I wrote one particular Thursday afternoon about 7 years ago:

It started with noise, in the way that Wednesday nights are often noisy. The code beeper came to life, demanding attention, signaling to those of us who are chaplains and therefore forced to listen that somewhere in the hospital someone was dying, or dead.

There was noise as I arrived. Nurses and doctors huddled around a newborn, shouting orders, yelling for this or that medication. A mother, asking questions that had no good answers, questions like "What's wrong with him?" and "Will he be alright?" More noise as monitors sounded alarms. More noise as the father's labored breathing gave background to the shuffle of activity around the little one. Then, finally, more noise, as a deep voice cut through the cacophany, "Time of death, 1:32 A.M."

And then silence.

You call yourself a chaplain, Dan, don't you have anything to say? Where are your words of comfort now? Where is your precious faith now?

There was another chaplain with me. He was useless, too.

We quietly steered the couple, the mother and father, to a family room. I opened my mouth to start to say something, anything, to speak to their pain, but what words are there for a time like this? There is only silence. Only silence can communicate what a mother feels when she loses her 9-day old son.

We sat in silence for half an hour, then an hour. One of the other of us would sob out loud occasionally, but even that was cut short, as if in reverence for the silence, for the empty, hollow, quiet place that was now forever part of their lives. Even a hundred healthy children could never fill the empty place that was now in their hearts. Part of them would always keep silence now, even in the happiest of times.

And what was there for me to say? I was powerless in the face of such amazing grief. No words from a textbook or verse from the Bible can make a dent in a pain so big, so sudden.

Finally, I slipped out of the room, to find the nurses. They had wrapped the baby in a blanket, clean and blue. They had combed his hair. It is part of my job to bring the parents their child, to hold for the last time. Numbly, silently, I took the child that would not even see ten days in to them.

There are times when keeping silence communicates more powerfully than a million words or songs or cries. There are times when the only thing you can give to someone is your silent presence, your sharing of their pain. Sometimes silence says that there are emotions too deep for words, too primal, too much a part of who we try to hide to ever be expressed aloud.

And so I was there, with them, silent in that awful, terrible room for as long as they wanted to stay. Where could I go? Where could I run from silence? I had shared with these two souls the most terrible, most defining moment of the rest of their lives. I had been with them to watch their child die.

Later, they left. I finished my shift in silence, waiting for 8 A.M. to arrive. Tears would fall from time to time, and I never moved to dry them. If I spoke, it was only in response to questions, and even then my answers were nothing more than excuses to be silent again. Silence has that kind of power, a power I had never seen before.

Somehow, I drove myself home and got safely into the bed.

It is a terrible thing when it is too quiet to sleep. I lay awake, staring at the pillow where my wife's head would have been if she were home, should have been if there were any justice in the world. I lay awake staring, praying that she would never leave the place she holds in my heart. It is too big a place to be empty, to be silent. Funny how I never seem to tell her that. Funny how silence can teach us the things that are truly important.

Sometimes silence can be a cave to hide in, an excuse to never take risks.

After a while, physical and emotional exhaustion took over, and I fell asleep.

I almost never remember my dreams, but that morning I dreamed of a white room, and a blue blanket, and I was trying to scream or cry or yell, but all I could dream was silence.

And we all go in to them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker, 1940

Posted by Dan at December 21, 2004 11:55 PM

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