By Christopher Smith, nSJ
On the morning of our first day at Calvary I was terrified.
I had been dreading our hospital experiment for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I was scared of not knowing what to say to a person who is dying and suffering. I imagined that, “It’s gonna be okay,” wouldn’t quite cut it. I was especially afraid that, since I’m a brand new Jesuit, someone might ask me a theological stumper that my limited experience couldn’t satisfy. Last but not least, as an extremely clumsy and awkwardly proportioned person, I had visions of dropping patients and somehow breaking them.
We arrived at the hospital and, after a day of orientation, we began working with CCTs (who function as nursing assistants) to bathe patients, serve meals and feed patients, and change bedding. We began each morning by taking the blood pressure, temperature and other vital signs of the patients on our floor. On my first day on the floor, the first few patients that I worked with were mostly unconscious; one who was conscious was a little irritated that it took me a few times to measure his blood pressure… but I would be too. Eventually, I walked into the room of a woman who would deeply touch my life and shape my experience at Calvary.
This woman welcomed me as soon as I walked into her room. She mostly spoke Spanish, but she also spoke some English, and her bright eyes and smile communicated more than her words. She was very kind to me as I measured her vitals, and was patient as I nervously jabbed her with my thermometer—reassuring me throughout. She asked me about what I was doing at the hospital. When I told her I was a Jesuit novice, she said, “Oh you can’t be a priest… the women need you.”
I instantly felt a connection to this lady, and returned to visit her every day - several times a day when I had down time. Over the course of our relationship she told me all about her life: her husband had been a professional soccer player in South America, and she traveled all around the world with him before settling in the NYC area. Each day she would show me pictures and tell me all about her children and grandchildren. When I found out that she was a devout Catholic, I offered to wheel her down to Mass in the hospital chapel. You would have thought that I had offered her a luxury vacation. She began to enthusiastically accompany me every day to Mass. She told me that she hadn’t been to Mass for weeks. To be perfectly honest, I had taken my own privilege of going to Mass every day for granted, and some days at the hospital I just wanted to keep working. Seeing the love and faith of this woman, however, as she struggled through immense pain, I was struck by the joy she exuded.
In the beginning of my time at the hospital, my days with the woman were delightful. We laughed and smiled, and she corrected my Spanish while I helped her with her English. I would have had no idea that she was sick if I hadn’t met her in a hospital for terminally ill cancer patients. Over time, however, the effects of her illness started to become more apparent.
One morning, I walked in to find her screaming with pain. She was in end-stage pancreatic cancer, and her pain was so intense that morphine couldn’t dull it. My first instinct when I was with her was to leave, and initially I did to go get her nurse. As I was walking out of her room, she stared me straight in my eyes and begged me not to leave her and to get her help. When I came back, I had no idea what to do, so I just sat beside her and held her hand. This previously stately and composed kind woman was before me, gnarled into a ball on her bed howling in pain, and begging for it to stop. I desperately wanted to say something to comfort her. I knew I had to. So, I said softly, “It’s gonna be okay,” to which she responded, rightly, “It’s not okay. I can’t do this anymore.” All she needed from me was my presence, and just being there with her was enough. She didn’t need an eloquent speech, or lofty pious discourse or even an elegant vocal prayer. She just needed to know that there was someone who cared and someone who loved who would stay with her.
After that day, she went downhill rapidly. She started to forget who people were and where she was, and became restless and unintelligible. She asked me why God was letting her suffer so much. I wondered the same thing. Every day, nonetheless, she received the Eucharist when I brought it to her, as she had done nearly every day of her life.
During the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius instructs retreatants to pray for the grace as they accompany Christ in prayer through the Passion: “To ask for grief with Christ in grief, anguish with Christ in anguish, and interior pain at such great pain which Christ suffered for me.” One day after work, I sat in prayer and prayed with the Passion. As I imagined Christ on the cross saying, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me,” in an instant I saw the woman hanging on the cross. I realized in that moment that God had granted me the grace that I had so piously begged for during the Exercises—to be with him during his agony on Calvary—at Calvary Hospital.