Last Christmas week, Kate and I stayed in Manhattan for a week, doing touristy things with a City brimming with tourists. This city of 10 million people all walking around looking at their screens, connected with someone, somewhere but oblivious to the people right around them. I thought to myself that for all our material abundance, we are starving ourselves of the basic human connection that makes us actually go.
We humans are an embedded species. We have to have contact with people to thrive. If you put a man in solitary confinement, it is simply a question of how many weeks before he goes insane.
Kelly Corrigan volunteers at the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit at the hospital near where she lives. These are the preemie babies that are 5 lbs., 3 lbs. Once a week she changes into scrubs, washes her hands and arms all the way up to the elbow for a long, long time.
Her job is to hold babies. She says that most of the mothers just can’t afford to be at the hospital for the entire time their child is in the NICU, so far from being threatened that another woman is holding their child, they welcome people holding them.
She puts those babies on her chest and she rocks them or she just sits quietly in the dark. As you might imagine, babies rest differently when they are held, babies rest better when they are held. It is a primordial thing.
I don’t think that ever goes away. I went to visit someone from the church that was in the hospital and they were very sick. A lot of different things were being tried, no one on the staff actually knew if they would be effective. I get to the room and they were lying on their side in a fetal position. Their spouse had gotten in bed behind them just to hug them and hold them from behind, no doubt as powerful as any drip that was being administered through the IV.
Kelly holds these babies in the dark because she needs to make a connection with her compassion. She does it because her best friend at mid-life died from cancer and she walked her friend through those 40 months as she slowly deteriorated. There is such a helplessness in the face of the process of dying.
I know when I was a chaplain in the emergency room, it can be overwhelming emotionally and spiritually because some of the things that you have to deal with are so filled with tragedy and senselessness, I found myself instinctively walking up to the maternity ward in the middle of the night, walking crying babies up and down the hall, soothing them, knowing that they would actually live.
Kelly had to do something with the pain that she felt when her good friend died. Almost subconsciously, she needed to care and she needed to care about something she could save this time. It is the deeper emotional and spiritual logic that makes us humans go. We have to save something.
This is what she says. “Once a week I take off all my jewelry, slip into a shapeless blue polyester volunteer coat, clip ID tags to my lapel,… and buzz myself into the NICU. Standing at a wall of metal sinks, I scrub up to my elbows for a full minute, enjoying the smell of the soap and the sound the brush makes against my fingernails. I dry off, gown up, and walk the nurseries, listening for babies in distress.
… In the beginning I was worried about offending the mothers, Surely, they would not want an anonymous woman holding their fragile angel. But they do. They all do. Few can afford- financially, logistically, or emotionally- to be at the hospital day after day when a baby needs to stay in in the NICU for months. Most have jobs they have to go back to, both for the paycheck and for the health insurance. Many have older children who need meals and rides and attention. Other families live so far away they can only come ever other day. Some moms are teenagers who go to high school or community college. And a handful of moms are drug addicts who will never come back to collect their babies. Even those, maybe especially those, want their babies to be held.”
…I hold the babies like Bette taught me to, attentive to their micro movements- tension in the forehead, a swatting motion, rooting in my chest. I pore over swirls of hair, on their forehead and cheeks and arms…
…The lights are dim. The nurses whisper.
The monitors chirp and ping. The babies rest. My long big-lung breaths stretch underneath three of theirs.
… last week a baby boy with a swollen head and a shunt near his temple found my eyes and locked in. We stared at each other blinking back and forth, each blink longer than the last, until he could hold his lids open no longer and the rows of his glossy eyelashes came together like a Venus flytrap. Bette, who had been watching from across the room, nodded at me and winked. He rest on my chest for the next hour, my heartbeat, my warmth and humanity an incalculable improvement on his indifferent crib.
“Close silence- that’s all they need” she whispered to me.[i]
It is how we honor people and continue the love that we were blessed to know and receive from them.
Holden Caufield, one of American literature’s best known protagonists to High School students, says that he has this recurring dream that he is in a great field of rye. All around him children are playing, giddy about the grasses growing nearly as tall as they are, running and hiding from each other, playing game.
Only they don’t know that there is a cliff behind them. They don’t know that if they run through the grass, not watching where they are going, they could accidentally run right off the cliff. And that is what his job is. His job is to watch the children and when one of them starts veering towards danger, he has to catch them before they get to the cliff. He is the “Catcher in the Rye”, the title for J.D. Salinger’s classic American novel.
What a humane spiritual impulse… When I think of Jesus, this is primarily what I think of. Our first scripture says that when he saw the crowds, “He had compassion on them”. He didn’t try to wow them with his miraculous power. He didn’t embellish his celebrity. He didn’t try to cash in on his wide popularity. He was compassionate. He made a connection with people, with a wide swath of people.
In our second scripture, one of the lepers sees Jesus and says to him, “If you so desire, I can be healed…” And Jesus replied, “I so desire, be healed.” Lepers were feared. People thought they were contagious. They avoided them like people with AIDs. They avoided them like Ebola patients.
This guy is isolated, cut off from others, alone spiritually and physically. Jesus notices him. Jesus engages him. Jesus reaches out to heal him. What a humane and courageous gesture of ordinary solidarity.
We are entering a season of the year when we step away from the intensity of the work schedule that can be so definitive of the week in the fall and winter, so I remind you of what is important how and where you find your deeper meaning for the shortening time you have left.
I hope for you close silence with your people taking in the wonder of fireflies lighting up the valley, fishing together at dawn, listening the world wake up around you, teeming with the promise of life.
May you unplug and re-connect emotionally to your family and your friends, around food, just being together. May you get them and help them heal where you must and bloom them where you might. And become blessed as you go. Amen.
[i] Kelly Corrigan, Tell Me More(New York: Random House, 2018) pps. 190-192