THE YEAR I TURNED TWENTY-FIVE, life began to seem blurry. Maybe it was that the neatness of the number twenty-five made life go fuzzy in comparison. Maybe it was that someone had told me the brain fully matures at twenty-five and I finally grasped how little everything makes sense even after you grow up. Maybe it was the latest heartache or the fact that I was working as a summer chaplain intern in oncology, where my patients were living and dying at the same time.
Or perhaps it was that in May one of my best friends was hit by a motorcycle while biking. I saw her go down in front of me. For the briefest moment an image came to my mind: her empty room, her empty bed, a stack of poetry books she would no longer read, wind whistling through hollow places. But she got up and crawled to the side of the pavement; she sat down with her hands covering her ears. My own hands shook as I sat next to her. Riding in the front of the ambulance, I felt a quiet numbness that I later understood was fear. We sat in the emergency department for the next three hours watching Friends play silently on TV, guessing at what Monica and Chandler were fighting about. No concussion, no nothing, but somehow I could not get the fact that everything was okay to sink into my own head. Where is the chaplain? I kept wondering.I was calm that night, but in my sleep I bit my lip until it bled. In the morning it looked like a bee had stung me.
Weeks later that same friend and I constructed a cucumber trellis out of bamboo poles for a garden I had planted by chance. I had scattered seeds to the wind without reading the backs of packages, and the cucumbers and squash and kale came up healthy and green and shouting into the void.I could not make sense of all the dichotomies.
It was not just that my patients were dying, but that they were dying alone. Or that they were the ones dying and leaving other people alone. Or that they were dying in pain, or that they wanted to die, or that they would have given anything not to die but did not have the right things to give or God wasn’t really in the business of bargaining anyways. Or their deaths were beautiful and painless. Their spirits left their bodies peacefully, and everyone sighed over the prayers I offered in commendation. So rarely.
Some days I felt happy. I took in the slight chlorine smell of the atrium fountain and the trees growing up toward the glass ceiling, the sun that came through in small parcels of light, resting on tables and chairs and happy and sad and utterly distraught faces. A pudding and Oreo parfait from the cafeteria, and how quickly the north pavilion elevators came, rising story after story in a large gold box whose doors opened onto a view of the Long Island Sound. A patient who was ecstatic to be going home after three weeks, now happily engaged in a conversation about whether the pain or boredom had been worse. Another who described the turtle-shaped urn she had picked out for her ashes before regaling me with comical stories of her dating life.
Chaplaincy was magnificent, and then suddenly it wasn’t. Fog smeared the city, a name was erased from my patient list—an unexpected death. A patient who had waited for hours in the emergency room described the feeling of bugs crawling all over her. Big and small ones, ones with furry feet, scuttling across her corneas, dissolving to dust on her tongue. Suddenly I would have the urge to stick my fingers in my ears and plead with them, with the patients and God and myself: I can’t help you anymore. I’m so sorry. I just can’t help you. The way the smell of blood bloomed in a room like some noxious flower and I felt something inside me screaming along with the patient’s son or partner or mother, No, this can’t be happening. Put the blood back. Make it stop.
After my first twenty-four-hour on-call, I fled the hospital on shaky legs, carrying a paper towel bundle of cuttings from a supervisor’s plants. The sky was pale blue, clotted with cream clouds. A line had already formed inside Dunkin’ Donuts. People were ordering lattes and egg and cheese croissants. Everything and nothing had changed. People are dying in there, I wanted to point out to people walking by on the street. I don’t know if you realized, but in the hospital right there on the corner people are dying. At home I cried on my roommate’s shoulder. She made me toast with marmalade and sent me to bed. After napping, I planted my cuttings, I walked around the house listlessly, I watched too many episodes of Jane the Virgin.
The night before, I had stood silently next to a woman as the medical team tried for half an hour to bring her husband’s heart back to life. She urged them over and over not to stop, and finally they gently explained that if the heart stops beating for too long, the brain is irreparably damaged. They were sorry. She touched her hand to her heart. She fell to her knees. The medical team shuffled out as she began to sob. She clung to my arm as she apologized to her husband’s body over and over, to his CPR-bruised chest and cracked ribs, to his tube-scraped throat. That night she went home to an empty house. She turned on the lights as usual, put her keys in the blue, ceramic bowl on the entryway table. Blue ceramic bowl. The words had a new opacity.
There was also the man who shot himself in the chest. I know I stood there for too long after his death had been called. His chin was tilted back, his long hair falling from the table. There was blood everywhere, pooling on the table and the floor, smeared across the team’s blue gowns, but all I could think was that he was very young and good looking and he didn’t really look dead. He had a story, but I did not know it. The fluorescent lights took on a shocking blaze, illuminating: a stained gray T-shirt, cut in half, a nurse tracking bloody footprints down the hall.
When I was younger, I thought that even if something terrible happened, we would have some supernatural sense of peace, or angels would come to us in our dreams and tell us that so and so was okay. Or, if that did not happen, we would look up and see a small white bird perched on a tree branch, or we would look down and see a flower. I did not consider that there might come a moment when life was not redeemed, not in the small picture and not in the big picture.
Maybe the problem is that my garden is not doing well. It has been a hot, dry summer, and the garden has not had enough water. I left for a few weeks, and when I returned, I found my beans crawling with fuzzy yellow bugs. I got a pair of clippers out of the shed; I tore the bean plants down and threw them into a black bucket, along with a dozen rotting tomatoes and a squash plant that had died just as it began to flower. I could not understand, though it was I who had not watered it, why this small thing which I’d loved so much had been taken from me. When I came back a week later, two flowers had come up alongside my withered tomato plants: a single sunflower and a single stem of pink blooms that looked something like a hollyhock. The sunflower had pink and yellow petals, a hybrid I had never seen before. I could not understand them, where they had come from or why. I considered the sky. I shrugged and walked away. I came back and took a picture to send to my mother.
One recent morning in that small enigma of a moment that lies directly between waking and sleeping, I saw an image of an apple. I felt the heart-drenched way one feels when weeping, though I wasn’t. Couldn’t you have had more grace for us? I found myself saying. Couldn’t you have loved us more? Even if none of those things in Genesis ever happened, why did we have to tell ourselves a story in which God turns us away over a piece of fruit?
A patient with schizophrenia once told me that he had terrifying dreams, that the devil spoke to him and told him to do terrible things and that demons lingered in his apartment. Perhaps he was just out of high school. There was an unparalleled earnestness with which he sorted through the tangles in his brain to ask me how I thought he could go about distinguishing the voice of God. The room we were sitting in was small, the stiff pleather chairs almost knocking knees. The door was ajar so that the security guard at the front door could see was happening. The patient leaned slightly forward. Do you think God is here with us now?
Heather Burtman, originally from Wisconsin and Ontario, is a master’s student at Yale Divinity School. You can find more of her work in Letters and the New York Times Modern Love section.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.