Eight days ago, after my dad went into cardiac arrest and was brought out of it by a quick-acting nurse named Jennifer and a team of doctors and medical professionals, I sat in the ICU waiting room looking around at the other people waiting to hear news of the ones they loved. In times of distress, I find comfort and clarity in closely observing my surroundings, and so I watched the strangers as I waited for news of my dad. I was particularly struck by a man I probably wouldn’t have noticed in the regular world unless I’d happened to read the suggestive pun emblazoned on his t-shirt. In that room, though, my eyes returned to him again and again. He kept swiping his work-worn hands over his face, but the tears came faster than he could wipe them away. At one point, he hid his eyes from view and my heart broke for him and the way he treated his grief like a secret he had to hide from the rest of us in the room. I wanted to go to him, put my arm around him, and cry with him. I refrained, though, telling myself that he already had two people there to comfort him and plus wouldn’t such a display of emotions just further embarrass both of us? After all, I was taking surreptitious swipes at my own face and making a valiant attempt at composure in the face of my own fears. I had nothing to offer but my empathy and I thought that wasn’t enough.
In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the near-magical powers of clerical collars in opening up communication between strangers. Having just recently finished reading the book, I thought about how I wouldn’t hesitate to approach the man if I were wearing a clerical collar. I’d be an eavesdropper on his heartache under the auspices of heaven. Sans collar, though, I figured I would probably just be seen as a weird stranger with inappropriate personal boundaries, and so I sat in my own chair on the other side of the room and watched him cry through my own teary haze until it was time for me to go see my dad.
I’ve thought of him countless times since last Tuesday, hoping that he received the news he wanted and that the person he loves enough to cry over is alive and thriving. His grief and my own impotence in the face of it has stayed with me. I could excuse my inaction by saying that I was going through my own pain and worry at the time, and that would be true enough. But I know my heart wanted to reach out to him and that it was only my fear of being mistaken, misjudged, and uncomfortable that held me back. I wish I had had the courage to ignore everything that hindered the tangible expression of my concern for him and simply tell him that I see him and I honor his pain. I wish I had had the courage to reach for his hand and connect with him as one fragile, scared, sad human to another. But I didn’t. And now all I can do is hope I’ll be braver the next time I see a stranger in pain–less concerned with myself and the impression I will make and more concerned with simply loving those in need of love. After all, one does not actually need a clerical collar to sprinkle the world with bits of the divine.