My mom had heart surgery on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022.
We arrived at the hospital early that morning to check in and get her prepped for surgery. Within those first few hours, the hospital’s chaplain came by her room offering to pray with us. Both atheists, my mom and I politely declined the offer and then smiled at one another. Then I thought to myself how odd it was my mom chose a Catholic hospital for her surgery.
My dad was an evolutionary biologist. As a child, I remember celebrating Charles Darwin’s birthday with his colleagues. I have little memory of religion being present in my life until attending the Jewish Community Center for summer camp as a young child. I wasn’t Jewish, so the religious component, for me, was more about not being a part of the group rather than the beliefs and traditions that guide so many people’s lives.
In elementary school, I attended a Catholic church service with a friend. Following everyone else’s lead, I took communion with my friend not realizing I should not have done so. After the service, my friend’s mother scolded me and I remember feeling so confused about why what I did was wrong. Although I know church is a welcoming and loving community for so many people, that wasn’t my experience as a child.
When I was in middle school, there was a brief time when my mom took us to a Unitarian Universalist church. She was searching for a community and thought the congregation might provide that for our family. We attended sporadically for a year or so, but ultimately it didn’t stick.
There were other brief interludes of religion or periods where I searched for religion in my life. But it’s never provided the security, guidance, or comfort for me that I know it does for so many people.
So, as I sat in the waiting room during my mom’s surgery, I could appreciate (but also felt slightly annoyed) that the chaplain again approached me at least two more times throughout the day asking to pray with me. Both times I, again, politely declined.
Then, after being told my mom successfully made it through the surgery and I would be able to see her shortly, I saw the chaplain walk in and out of the waiting room three more times.
At this point I had been in the hospital nearly twelve hours and was one of only three people remaining. It had been a very long day. I was exhausted, hungry, and now believing my mom was ok, I was ready to go home.
Most of the other procedures happening that day had ended a few hours previously. The other strangers I sat with all day, all of us waiting to hear that our loved ones had made it through surgery, had gone home knowing things went well and they could relax.
The only ones remaining were myself and two sisters waiting on their dad.
Several minutes prior to the chaplain walking through the waiting room those last few times, the sisters and I heard the code blue alarm loudly through the overhead speaker. We anxiously looked at one another unsure of what was happening. When the chaplain entered the waiting room for a fourth time and this time with a doctor by her side, my heart sank.
The chaplain and doctor walked quickly to where I was sitting and urgently sat beside me. The doctor began explaining there were complications and my mom’s heart had stopped twice. They were taking her back into surgery to see what was causing the problem and hopefully make any necessary repairs. The doctor was somewhat brazen and direct, but I also understood her priority was my mom and she was simply a messenger in this moment.
After she left, the chaplain, still sitting calmly and lovingly by my side, took my hand and asked again if she could pray with me. I smiled at her with tears in my eyes. I couldn’t muster the words to again politely decline her offer. She understood what my silence meant and said she would be back with an update as soon as possible.
Now alone in the waiting room, my immediate reaction was to attend to everyone else's needs. But this time, facing an uncertain future for my mom, I recognized the importance of asking for what I needed. I contacted loved ones, arranged for my kids, and finally, asked a friend to join me. Throughout the day, I had stubbornly declined previous offers from friends and loved ones to sit and wait with me. But now I knew I could no longer be alone.
I pride myself on being independent and not needing help, and also know this is one of my greatest weaknesses. At that moment I knew I didn’t want to be alone any longer. I also knew I had to think about what I needed and ask for what I needed as I waited for my mom to come out of another surgery. At this moment, I had to be willing to ask for what I needed to simply keep moving through the experience.
As I waited for my friend to arrive, the chaplain again came and sat next to me. She, again, asked if she could pray with me. And again, I politely declined.
She then took my hand, looked at me with her kind eyes, and asked if there was anything at all she could do for me.
I knew she now understood prayer was not my language. It was not what would comfort me at that moment. And yet, she wanted to bring me comfort. Her goal was not religious-based – it was human-based. She wanted to simply care for and support me in that moment in the way that I wanted and needed to be cared for and supported.
And again remembering that I no longer wanted to be alone in this moment and that it was ok to ask for what I needed, I looked up at her and quietly asked for a Diet Coke.
Those closest to me might tell you Diet Coke is in fact my language. You could even call it my religion. My unconventional solace.
The chaplain nodded and immediately left to find me a Diet Coke. She returned shortly after with my liquid comfort and then continued to check in on me as the night progressed. Although that night was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced, I will always cherish the chaplain’s kindness and appreciate her support of me in those long hours.
On June 7th, my mom peacefully passed away. The chaplain's role transitioned from praying to being a reassuring presence. I saw her nearly every day I was in the hospital over those three weeks. Her unwavering support, devoid of religious expectations, left an indelible mark on my memory. In the face of tragedy, I learned the importance of vocalizing my needs and accepting support, even from unexpected sources.
Journey well, my friends.