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Caring for Strangers: ‘His Wide Mouth Home’ Remembered

17 Dec

This is an essay about an essay. Rather, it’s an essay about a particular reading of an essay. Plus, it’s about the author of the essay who also did the reading. And it’s about me, too, I guess.

The essay is called “His Wide Mouth Home,” and I heard it on NPR over 18 years ago – July 5, 1999, to be precise. I know the date because I have the cassette recording from NPR’s All Things Considered for that day, hour one. Hour one had a number of stories about the hot summer and how to stay hydrated – apparently it was a scorcher that year – and then there was this essay.

The essay itself is pretty straightforward, and it fit the hour’s theme well. Jason Wetta retells an episode from his summer on the Galveston Sheriff Department Beach Patrol, when he was the first responder to a drowning. There’s plenty of detail and color and Jason skillfully evokes the scene – you can smell the coconut oil even before he mentions it. You can feel the heat and sense the presence of the murmuring crowd around the lifeless body – you can see them make way for the lifeguard’s approach.

The victim was a boy – Juan de la Cruz – only six years old. He didn’t make it, and you know he’s not going to make it long before Wetta spells it out. It’s a powerful story, a powerful essay – powerful enough that I went through the trouble of finding out how to order a copy so that I could listen to it again – and again and again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it over the years. Not regularly – I keep it in a drawer full of random tapes – and to listen to it I either have to take it along in one of our beaters that still has a working cassette deck, or borrow one of the CD/tape players in the house that the kids use.

I have only one other NPR story on cassette: “Ghetto Life 101.” It, too, impacted me in a profound way, but Ghetto Life doesn’t make me cry. “Wide Mouth Home” makes me choke up every time.

To begin with, Wetta’s words are powerful in themselves, but his narration brings them to life. He adds sound effects – like the oxygen tank’s intermittent pffft and the ambulance’s beep-beep-beep as it reverses into position – and inflection that draw you into the picture. In Jason’s retelling, you can hear the workaday detachment in the voice of the dispatcher, while Jason himself is thoroughly engaged, emotionally, even spiritually, in what happens.

There’s also the prefacing information that NPR’s Noah Adams relates – about the Dylan Thomas poem from which Wetta borrowed the title – and the postscript datum that the author had since become a Benedictine monk at St. Mary and St. Louis Abbey in Missouri. Adams’s comments before and after provide a frame for this tragically beautiful anecdote that help transform it into something sublime, something true and awful – something I needed to hear when I heard it.

The summer of 1999, when I first heard Wetta’s essay, I was in the middle of nursing school, juggling clinicals and exams while doing my best to keep up with my duties as a husband and father. I was also working as a nursing home aide by then, trying to boost up our rapidly diminishing bank account and maybe gain some real world healthcare experience.

But it turns out healthcare work – the job of healthcare, the “punch in and get your work done” side of healthcare – is a lot tougher than I’d ever imagined when I was applying to nursing school. There’s no way around it: Caring for strangers as an employee is not the same as caring for strangers as a volunteer, let alone caring for loved ones. If you’re paid, you’re beholden to the clock and to the requirements of the one paying you, no matter how sincere your intentions, no matter how passionate your commitment to seeing Christ in the sick and suffering.

There was something in Wetta’s story and how he retold it that gave me hope – gave me insight and perspective on the unnerving task of caring for strangers as a profession. There’s never enough time to do all that you’d want to do; never enough energy to respond the way you’d like to every call light; never enough attention to spread around; never enough you to give away.

I wonder if that experience on the Galveston beach deterred Wetta from pursuing a healthcare career and propelled him into the monastery. And I wonder if Wetta is still a monk in St. Louis – I hope he is. I hope he adds special prayers at the end of his Rosaries and Lectio Divina for those who still do what he did as a lifeguard. I hope he still prays for me.

And this old cassette tape. I’m going to figure out how to get it transferred to a CD so it’ll last longer. I’ll be listening to it for a long time.
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You can listen to Wetta read his essay by following this link. A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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“Death can be very beautiful…if we make it so.”
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“The Eucharist is a mode of being,
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Toting Christ

11 Dec

painting-of-the-eucharist-in-salford_large

“It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our soul in which He takes delight.”
~
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

My bus ride took me west on Lawrence and then up Milwaukee Avenue to J.F. Morrow and Sons. This was some 30 years ago, and I was on a quest for a holy thing.

I’d volunteered to become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion to the sick, despite being a baby Catholic convert. Frankly, I was amazed I was even eligible – I knew so little, I understood so little. But my parish, St. Thomas of Canterbury in Chicago, had many sick and home-bound members, and our lone priest couldn’t possibly visit them all. Moreover, the parish’s Uptown boundaries encompassed Weiss Memorial Hospital, so St. Tom’s was technically responsible for serving the sacramental needs of the in-patient Catholics there. My pastor needed help; I signed up.

After instructing me in how Communion visits were conducted, Father showed me where he hid the key to the Tabernacle, and then he set me up with the appropriate book of prayers and a pyx – that little gold disc of a container that priests and Communion ministers carry Jesus in. The one that my pastor gave me was standard issue – some kind of amalgam with gold plate and a bright religious design painted on the hinged cover. Probably he bought them in bulk – there were numerous ministers to the sick at St. Tom’s.

But that just didn’t set right with me. After all, I was going to be carrying around the Lord himself, and it was like we’d just met. So, I was thinking I ought to invest in a liturgical litter worthy of its occupant – or, at least, more worthy. These were my do-gooder days, and I had limited discretionary funds, but I scraped together what I could. Then, following the advice of my cradle Catholic friends, I made the trek to J.F. Morrow’s – the north side’s Catholic goods emporium.

To a neophyte, a place like Morrow’s is like an open-air bazaar in Marrakesh or Samarkand – enticing, exotic, and a sensory overload. There’s thuribles and monstrances, copes and candles, and piles of liturgical stuff that clearly had some sacred purpose – but for what? Who knows – and who cares? It was exhilarating, and my ignorance only added to the thrill. “Somehow, God is mixed up in all this,” I thought to myself. “And I’m a part of it now!”

Which is why I was there in the first place: I wanted to give back to the Church, and visiting the sick, comforting them, praying with them, bringing them the edible God, seemed like a decent place to start. The clerk directed me to the pyx bins, and I started pyx-2029597weighing my funds against my ardent desire to honor the Eucharistic Presence I’d be hauling.

Eventually, I settled on a simple 24K gold-plated design with a plain cross on the cover. It had a slight raise in the bottom, which I figured would make it easier to retrieve the consecrated hosts when administering Holy Communion. Nobody told me that I might’ve also purchased a silken burse with a loop of string to suspend the pyx from around my neck and under my clothing, close to my heart, for I would’ve without a doubt.

The pyx, though, was plenty. I approached the counter, handed over my cash, and left the store with my purchase – a mini-tabernacle – in an ordinary retail bag. For all anyone knew as I got on the bus to head back to Uptown, I could’ve been carrying greeting cards or a pocket calendar. Instead, I felt like I was carrying religious contraband – a little metal box that will soon enough contain Divinity himself. Me, a clueless convert, in possession of this exquisite, rarefied object. I could hardly contain my joy.

And that, in a sense, captured the gist of the astonishing labor I was intending to take up: Carrying the joy of the community’s Eucharistic celebration to those who were prevented from participating themselves, and then releasing it – like 10,000 balloons on a beach, like ticker tape over Broadway, but a 1,000 Broadways. There’s no hoarding involved, only transport – and then emancipation! What a privileged work – a Work of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated, and thus an endeavor surely associated with spiritual benefits…but only after we discharge our Detainee.

Now, decades later, and worlds away from my Uptown Catholic beginnings, I’m a registered nurse and a nursing instructor – and largely due to my experience with that pyx.

Every Sunday, I’d retrieve the Blessed Sacrament from the church – maybe five, maybe six consecrated Hosts carefully concealed in my circular treasure box – and then, prayer book in hand, I’d trudge over to Weiss to track down the Catholics there. At the time, I was convinced I’d eventually go to seminary, yet, watching the nurses go about their duties, I remember thinking, “If I don’t become a priest, maybe I could do what they do,” for what they did seemed itself pretty priestly. The floor nurses were constantly engaged in things I associated with ordained ministry: advocating, interceding, attending, encouraging, and, most importantly, acting as instruments of healing. They themselves didn’t order the treatments and medications – the docs did that. Even so, it was the nurses who fetched the medications and brought them to the languishing and the dying and the ones who really needed them.

Eventually, I went to nursing school and found out all these things for myself, but here’s pyxisthe funny thing – and the impetus for this little remembrance.

For many years, the healthcare facilities in our area have utilized sophisticated medication management systems to help cut down on errors and tighten up inventory. There are several such systems on the market, but the one that seems to dominate in our region is called… (wait for it)… Pyxis, put out by CareFusion. I’ve been getting drugs for my patients and my students’ patients from Pyxis dispensing stations for years, but the significance of its name never struck me before – how could I miss it? I couldn’t find any evidence that the connection was intentional, and it is true that “pyx” is simply Greek for “receptacle” – so maybe that’s the only touchpoint. Still, the Pyxis, just like my golden pyx, holds the substance required for recovery and restoration, and we nurses (like Extraordinary Ministers) return time and time again to replenish our supply of balms for those in our care.

Of course, more than the healing drugs we give our patients, it’s the presence and attendance and listening and compassionate care we give them that communicates the healing Christ. In so doing, nurses can be like Mary, carrying the Savior to the bedside inside their very persons – as do we all, particularly when we receive the Lord in the Eucharist. Communicated and sent forth, we’re all Marys, we’re all pyxes, we’re all harboring heaven. All that’s left is to let him go.
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Me Before You: On Disability, Suicide, and Guts

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta accompanies Pope John Paul II as he greets people at the Home For the Dying in Calcutta, India, in 1986. Pope Benedict XVI approved a miracle attributed to Pope John Paul II's intercession, clearing the way for the late pope's beatification on May 1, Divine Mercy Sunday. (CNS photo/Arturo Mari) (Jan. 14, 2011) See JPII-BEATIFICATION Jan. 14, 2011.

True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain;
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~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Of Christian Healthcare and Redemptive Suffering

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 St Camillus de Lellis 3

My God, I do not want to be a Saint by halves.
I am not afraid to suffer for Your sake.
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