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Editor’s Note: As part of our “Comfort and Joy” Advent/Christmas blog series, Secular Franciscan Susan Burke shares how a reassuring presence can bring the greatest of comfort.

The first time I met Richard at the door of his hospital room, it went like this:

“Hi, I’m Susan, one of the chaplains, and I stopped by to see if you’d like a visit.”

Silence.

I could tell he was in a lot of pain, but he had heard me.

“You have choices,” I said. “We can just have a conversation about anything you like. We can have some prayer. Or you can tell me to go away.”

Silence. Then, with an effort, “I—want—you—to—go—away. . . .”

“And come back in 20 minutes.”

I did go back, donned the papery yellow gown we must wear when patients are in “isolation” to avoid infection, theirs and ours—in this case, no mask or gloves were required—and sat down.

Richard, it turned out, could be a cantankerous patient, but he and I clicked. Born in the same year, 1943, we understood what we had lost and gained over the years, in this culture and in ourselves. We both had a somewhat dark and dry sense of humor.

We got along so well that he insisted I meet his wife of 30 years, whom he loved dearly. And, yes, if I wanted to pray with him, too, that would be swell.

I did meet his wife, who faithfully cared for Richard with her presence and support in the planning for the next step in his obviously terminal journey. Richard was released, then readmitted, then released again, and readmitted, in the frustrating process of trying to get him near home but properly cared for.

I always happened to be on duty when he came back, and we resumed our conversations about family and life. He even showed me his wound.

What turned out to be my last visit with Richard was in late September. He wasn’t doing well, and I asked if I could read Psalm 139 to him. He gladly agreed, and I held his hand as I read. After I finished, he looked at me and said, “Thank you sooooo much.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied, thinking he meant the psalm.

“Thank you for holding my hand without those stupid latex gloves on,” he said. “It meant so much to me to touch another person’s hand, flesh to flesh.”

I realized I’d been wrong, the gloves had been prescribed. But the comfort Richard got from my error, which I’d committed at every visit, and the joy he gave me in return, was grace all over.

Question for reflection: How can you focus more on others during this Advent season?

Susan Burke_headshot

Susan Burke is a Secular Franciscan, a per-diem chaplain at a medical center in Virginia, and a spiritual director.

Featured image taken from Wikimedia – Creative Commons

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