I Believe in Listening
I knew a patient at Hospice I will call Elizabeth. Quiet, diminutive, her face-sheet read: “Caucasian, 87, only daughter deceased, not demented, mostly unresponsive.” The chaplain on the unit told me the daughter had committed suicide but that Elizabeth did not know this. We were not to mention it. Occasionally, a granddaughter visited, which explained the stuffed animals around Elizabeth’s head, that competed for pillow space. Immovable as Lot’s wife, Elizabeth had fallen between the cracks, awaiting an ALF(Assisted Living Facility); she was to remain on the ward until a bed opened up. Part of why she was in limbo was her records had been misplaced. Her daughter’s exit did not help. Somewhere a file cabinet had something. It was thought she had worked for the government, a pension benefit might pay for things. Social workers searched like detectives. Not dying, she waited. I never saw her get out of the bed, she seemed to be part of the bed. No teeth and primarily mute, her wisps of hair top-knotted, she was a suitcase of herself.
I had been volunteering at Hospice for over a year. I was “in the process” at the time, discerning about becoming an Episcopal priest. I had an established long career in sales and management at Brooks Brothers. How could I leave? Go back to school at 45? Was God calling me? Why, on earth, me? Bishops and priests were asking. In retail, I could fold a cashmere sweater while selling a suit, admiring its weft and simultaneously process the return of a ten-year-old Christmas gift over the phone. Noise I knew.
But how do you hear God’s voice? Over several months, I spent time with Elizabeth. At the sight of me, her eyes filled with worlds like airplane windows. Someone was in there. I had been an acolyte at church, had gone on silent retreats, had had therapy, still silence made our initial meetings awkward and sometimes I nattered on as she listened to me. In her little ten by twelve room with the linoleum floor, the sealed plate glass window, a TV blaring, nurses and doctors coming in and out, the place buzzed like a spiritual airport lounge.
Then, one visit, unlike any other, Elizabeth spoke. Uninhibited, animated, she said that her husband had been a policeman and they had been married a long time, that he had beaten her, but she had stayed — like most of the women in the Old Testament. Her girlish voice shocked me. Then silence again. She smiled her gummy smile and said, “Thank you.“ Was God working through me? Or was Elizabeth confirming my call? I am still not sure who was the priest that day.
The following week, they shipped Elizabeth to a nursing home. I never saw her again. A year passed. I retired from the world of bow-ties. I drove across the country to a seminary in New Haven, where I put out my hand and said, “Spencer Reece, postulant for Holy Orders.”
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