Sermon – 7/28/209 The Push of a Thin Silence

Fred Grewe

The message on my phone said it was a high priority. The
hospice case manager had called to request I visit Peggy right away because she
was talking suicide, the folks at her facility were all worked up about it –
and they wanted me to “fix it.”

So, because talk of suicide should never be ignored, I
postponed my other planned visits for the day and drove the hour to Peggy’s
Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF). It’s really not a bad facility as far as SNF’s
go. Older than most, worn around the edges, but the place has a homey feel and
a caring staff.

I had met Peggy several weeks prior and found her to be a
streetwise feisty woman who simply did not want to be warehoused in a SNF.
Sitting cross legged on her hospital bed wearing a purple baseball cap wrong
round, and huge glasses on her round gaunt face that made her look like Gollum
from Lord of the Rings, she had told me then “There are many broken
promises in a place like this, and they usually end with ‘I’ll be right back.’”
All that Peggy really wanted was to live with her dog and be allowed to smoke
cigarettes – both of which were not allowed at the SNF. Requests, by the way, I
do not deem unreasonable for a woman dying on hospice care. But in our safety
driven, policy laden world of care facilities, Peggy’s voice was not heard.
Being no fool, Peggy knew what buttons to push to assure a hearing and suicide
talk is one of the most effective.

When I found Peggy she was in the Activities Room waiting to
get her fingernails painted. She and several other residents were foraging
through a tan plastic tub filled with used bottles of polish looking for just
the right shade of pink while waiting their turn. When Peggy saw me, she
smiled, and wheeled her chair over to a nearby table where we could talk a
little more privately. It was a long plastic fabricated folding table the kind
used by any number of institutions. At the far end of the table was another
woman sitting on a wheelchair silently sobbing. Sobbing’s not the right word –
it was silent howl from deep within her soul that was unmistakable,
unavoidable, and deeply unnerving.

With some effort, I tried to shift my attention from the
woman in the throes of the unknown soul suffering and attend to the task at
hand – giving my focus and ear to Peggy. As it turned out, Peggy by this point
had made her peace with being at the SNF and promised she would neither commit
nor talk about suicide anymore. She had been taken seriously and that seemed to
be enough for now.  

As Peggy continued to talk about various residents at the
facility, the inadequacy of the cuisine, and other annoyances of her diminished
autonomy, truth be told, I was only half listening. My attention was seduced by
the unknown woman in the wheelchair at the far end of the table. Her voiceless
pain sucked me in like some irresistible black hole of emotional grief. She
looked as if she had been in the wheelchair for many years. Her body shape had
adjusted to the chair, she was heavy, and appeared to have some sort of mental

But it was her silent howling that pierced my own soul. It
terrified me. I desperately wanted to look away and ignore her but I couldn’t.
Frozen in the mental and emotional tangle of – she’s not our patient, I’m here
to care for Peggy, I don’t even know this woman, her pain scares the hell out
of me, there’s nothing I can do to relieve it anyway – finally an employee from
the facility came to attend to the sobbing woman which only added to the
absurdity of the whole situation.

He had one eye with a black patch over the other socket
where his second eye once resided. His saccharine efforts to appease the
sobbing woman were insultingly patronizing. His first maneuver was to bring a
calendar with the promise of taking the tormented soul trapped in the
wheelchair to a local children’s museum for a fun outing in several weeks and
he suggested she could mark the days off until then (like a prisoner confined
to a cell waiting for either death or discharge). When that did nothing to
abate her pain, he then brought a new package of Christmas cards and stated he
needed help putting them into the provided envelopes (obviously some simple
task to distract her from the pain of the present moment). 

I couldn’t take anymore. Her pain, his incompetence, and my
own fear of inadequacy all conspired to emotionally suffocate me. I bid Peggy
an abrupt farewell, and with the tenuous promise of returning next week,
escaped to my car in the parking lot.

Liberated from the silent suffering in the Activities Room I
was faced with my own voiceless pain.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I couldn’t get the image of
the tortured silent soul in the wheelchair out of my head. Had she always been
institutionalized? Had she ever been loved? Had she ever been held, been made
to feel special, made love, felt ecstasy?

And I thought about my own life. How I had been cocooning in
my work and apartment for the past year after thirty years of marriage ended in
divorce. My own incompetence and inadequacy driving me to hide in my own cave
of grief.

As I sat in my car sucking for air with tears flowing, for
some reason I thought of the biblical prophet Elijah. He too had been fearfully
hiding in a cave when God captured him by a silent voice. The sacred text
describes how Elijah experienced a powerful wind, earthquake, and engulfing
fire – but God was not in them. Then came what is described in the Hebrew as kol
d’mama daka,
the voice of a thin silence, and the frightened prophet hid
his face out of reverence, walked to the cave’s entrance, and heard God
inquire, “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?”

That question pushed deep into my own soul. As I struggled
to ferret out the emotional earthquake I had just been through – I thought
about my life. While the silently sobbing woman in the wheelchair might not
have many options for a flourishing life, I do. I still have time to love and
to be loved. Maybe her voice of thin silence was the voice of God calling me
out of my own cave of grief? Is it time to awaken to life? My life? Will I
accept the divine gift given …the push of a thin silence?