“Help me, I am all alone.”
Astor* lies in a reclining wheelchair, surrounded by community members, seated in an assortment of more standard upright wheelchairs, all gathered for the 9:30 Friday morning prayer. A crystalline rosary interwoven between fingers rests upon her belly. Folded hands rise, up and down, up and down, with each breath.
In between intervals of familiar responses, Astor murmurs: “Help me. Help me, I am all alone.”
Today, the last Friday in March, I am assisting another resident as he leads the Divine Mercy Chaplet, a meditative Catholic prayer using the beads of the rosary as a guide. The prayer, recited by devotees throughout life and especially at the moment of death, is believed to invite God’s gentle guidance, to facilitate the deceased one’s journey to God. In younger years, Astor found this prayer to be a comfort. And today in her calling out, I gently remind her of this comfort, reassure her that she is not alone. She focuses on my eyes, quiets and with the others begins again to recite the meditative response: “Have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
I am a Healing Touch Practitioner, an engaged Christian, a practitioner of Buddhism. What I have learned from these three traditions, over the years, has become enfleshed in my healing ministry as a chaplain serving in a long-term care facility. Oftentimes I cannot tell where one tradition begins and one ends. I borrow from each as I travel with those to whom I minister on their road of wholeness, healing, and calm.
These three traditions, over the years, have become enfleshed in my healing ministry as a chaplain serving in a long-term care facility.
What practice will speak to their heart? What will give the greatest comfort? What are their sources of meaning and how can I facilitate a connection to provide hope or healing?
Before heading home, I was notified that two residents from my floor had been put on “observation.” They were exhibiting signs of dry cough and fever. I was not told who these residents were, but I was told to “look for the purple bags” outside their doors.
The bags. This week, purple. Last week, orange.
Our facility had just weathered a three-week storm of norovirus, a nasty stomach flu. Whenever residents were found to be symptomatic, staff hung an orange bag outside their door. A symbol of the latest scourge and a practical necessity. The bag contained personal protective equipment (PPE), items a caregiver would need to don before entering the room: masks, gloves, gowns.
Our facility calmed in mid-March. For an entire week, not one door bore an orange bag. But then on that Friday, the purple bag made its first appearance. Purple symbolized the possibility of Covid-19.
“Don’t worry,” I am told by my coworker, “it’s only a low-grade fever. It’s only precautionary.” Nursing staff don the items in the purple bags. I am dismayed when I see one outside Astor’s door. She is too weak, I think.
I go home. All weekend, of course, I do worry, in a distracted way. My mind plays out the what-ifs and the maybes, and buries itself in uncertainties and, speculative scenarios that take their cues from the latest news story from China, Iran, New York.
My mind plays out the what-ifs and the maybes, and buries itself in uncertainties.
The next night, Saturday, while in bed, fear enters my thoughts. In response I place the palm of my right hand on my heart, my left hand on my belly. I breathe in, peace. I breathe out, calm. I breathe in, peace. I breathe out, calm.
For a long long while, I lay still. I am aware of the rhythm of my breathing: in, out, in, out. The rise and fall of my belly. The heartbeat pulsing in my ear.
And I remember. In my mind’s eye I see Astor and her arthritic fingers knotted on her stomach, entwined by the rosary. I remember her quiet call for comfort, “Help me. Help me, I am all alone.” I remember lightly stroking her fingers, asking if she would like to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet with me. Her eyes met mine, she whispered, “okay,” and we began to recite the familiar words of comfort: “Have mercy on us and on the whole world.” I remember that she is still so weak.
And my prayer, that Saturday night, shifts. It gently shifts into a prayer of healing.
I breathe in, calm, I breathe out, healing. From a distance I send healing to Astor. I imagine her lying in her bed. I align my breathing with hers: slow, rhythmic. I ground myself. Lying in my bed, I feel the solidity of my body and renew my connection with the source of love and healing. I set my intention for the greatest good, for love. I breathe in, calm. I breathe out, healing. In my mind’s eye, in the depth of my being, this healing finds rest with Astor. I send loving-kindness to ease her fears. I send hope to calm her loneliness. I send mercy and her dear Mother Mary’s comfort to envelop her within Mary’s mantle.
My prayer, that Saturday night, shifts into a prayer of healing.
And when I am done and all is quiet within, I nod to Astor’s spirit, encircle her with a protective shield, ground her. I fall back to sleep.
On Monday, the purple bag remains. The observation continues. I assume nothing. I only know that I held Astor in love for a time, and the love was for her highest good.
As a chaplain, I seek to heal even as we are told to stay at a distance. We are told to don masks and face shields. We are told to not touch unless absolutely necessary, to maintain six feet, to visit no more than ten minutes. I try to respond with compassion from afar, attempting to close the gap of loneliness and fear.
Since that night in March I have had similar nights of uncertainty and panic where I’ve needed to call upon and engage the deepest essence of my spiritual practices. In our facility, the purple bags have given way to a dedicated isolation unit. In the presence of Covid-19, our staff have learned to be innovative to cover gaps. Some roles have become fluid. Each morning I serve as dining aide, passing trays, cutting food, and providing companionship to those isolated in their rooms, thirsty for human contact.
Not allowed on the newly formed isolation unit due to a shortage of PPE, I share with nurses’ aides and nurses my residents’ preferred methods for spiritual comfort and they, in turn, serve as chaplains: praying the Lord’s prayer, arranging for meditative CDs to be played at bedsides, standing vigil, providing a final blessing and assurance of God’s continued presence.
Off the isolation unit, the focus of my ministry remains one-on-one encounters: assessing for signs of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and spiritual distress as the days of staying-in-place continue. I provide pastoral counseling. I facilitate connections to residents’ sources of meaning, rituals, and preferred spiritual practices to provide comfort, inner strengthening, hope. Throughout the day I provide a listening presence to staff, tending to stories as each seeks balance, expresses grief, fear, and uncertainty in an often bewildering, fast-paced, changing environment.
Nothing, it seems, remains stable these days. Just as the various spiritual traditions woven together provide a presence of healing, so, too, as staff, we weave our myriad roles in the service of healing, accompanying our community so that no one feels alone.
Just as the various spiritual traditions woven together provide a presence of healing, so, too, as staff, we weave our myriad roles.
In my morning prayer, I sit on the back stoop. In the quiet, I hear within the wind the call of our suffering sisters and brothers, the call of the world: “Help me. Help me, I am all alone.”
I set my intention and breathe in: the warmth of the sun, the steadiness of the trees, the healing coo of the doves. I breathe out: love and power and mercy and depth. The mantra weaves back into my mind: “have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
* Please note, while drawn from true life, the names and some circumstances in this essay are modified to not reveal any one particular person.