Who Blesses Whom

Isaac was a unique, funny, lovable guy, albeit frustrating at times. He had a way of wiggling his endearing, stubborn soul into your heart like I imagine a little brother would. He was a man of few words, but he could always communicate what he wanted in any given moment. He would stare at me with his glass-blue eyes and baby face and wrap my heart around his arthritic fingers in a moment. Isaac had lived at Hickory Ridge for all of his adult life, well over thirty years. He had his favorite staff people, his mother, his friends in the community, and those who had been his roommates throughout his life in our facility. He was a happy man, but he did struggle. His health was fragile. He was born with Down syndrome, a heart condition, and significant kidney troubles and had developed severe arthritis as he aged. I was not only privileged to know him throughout the last few years of his life but also to become a pastor to him.

Isaac was fond of teasing and irritating people. It seemed he was testing them to measure how invested they were in knowing and loving him. When he met me, he found that I had a great desire to know him well. For the first couple of years I attempted to know and support him, he would close his eyes every time I came to speak to him. As I lingered in front of him, trying to speak to a man with his eyes closed, he would cover his ears and begin yelling. I recognized this passive aggressive move; it had been a favorite of my little sister while we were growing up. She would usually break out her “can’t hear you, can’t see you” move when I was trying to convince her to take a bath at night. It frustrated me then too, but I did develop some strategies to overcome my invisibility in that relationship. My baby sister taught me to wait in the midst of those irregular arguments. All she needed was to know that she was calling the shots, making her own choices. I gathered that my friend Isaac was trying to secure a similar power. With this awareness, I learned to drop my agenda for acceptance and pay attention to who Isaac was. He was flirtatious, playful, and loyal to those he allowed into his heart. My bubbly, overly anxious, appeasing self was not the authentic me, and he knew that. He demanded that I meet him as I was. And so I did. I would sit alongside him, quietly watching him engage those he held dear. I practiced this every week for a few months until one day he stopped ignoring me. It was nearing the end of the class session he and I were attending. I was there observing him and a new individual so that I could gain insight into their way of interacting with people and communicating. I had gathered up my notes and was waiting for the class members to begin their exit toward lunch in the dining room. As I sat, I heard Isaac’s familiar beckoning holler. I looked in his direction and saw him pointing at me as he bellowed. I smiled and he laughed at my expression. He then motioned me to come over.

I had come to know the man well enough that I was expecting him to point to the handles on his wheelchair as a way of requesting that I help him get to the dining room before all the good desserts were chosen. I stood up, shook my head, and made my way toward him. If nothing else, I appreciated the predictability of our interactions now. However, my prediction was not on target this time. When I reached his side, I laid my notebooks and pencils on the table beside him. “Do I need to help you get the goods in the dining room, sir?” I smiled down at his bright face.

He looked at me, grinning so wide that his brilliant blue eyes were nearly closed by the lift of his cheeks. Again he raised his hand and called me closer to him with his waving index finger. I leaned down, complying with his request. As I got closer, he pushed himself up taller in his wheelchair and planted a joyful, wet kiss on my cheek. I felt myself flinch in surprise. I just looked at him with my eyes wide open. He then patted my hand and relaxed back down into his chair again.

I was confounded. What was different about today? How had I met his level of acceptability differently today than any other day? I think that he finally recognized my investment and decided that, perhaps, I needed a little investment from him too. I wasn’t sure where the change in direction originated, but I was exuberant with what felt like a conquest of his stubborn will. I did not know then, but I do know now, that the conquest was never mine and had little to do with his acceptance of me. The next few days came and went, and I was offered the same display of affection during my time with Isaac. Even funnier than his simple display of care was his response to the smile it always brought to my face. He would watch and wait for me to smile in response to his offering of care. After I did, he would grin and relax back down into his chair. He had done his good deed for the day. He had worked to repair what was slowly mending within my spirit.

We continued this relational dance of give and take in the vernacular of acceptance and affirmation until one Friday when he was missing from class. In his place, I was met by his staff member, who was assisting another individual in her transition from one place to the next. I asked her where Isaac was, and she told me that he had been taken to the hospital early that morning because he was unresponsive when she attempted to wake him. I felt my heart skip a beat and sink. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and remembered my job in this place. I was a minister, a chaplain, a supportive presence. In my moment of dread, I could not address my own anxiety yet. At least, I could not address it with complete transparency. I asked her if a staff person had gone to the hospital with him. She responded that someone had gone, but the person was supposed to go off shift an hour ago. She wasn’t sure if anyone was there with him now.

“I can go check to see if they need somebody to wait with him,” I said.

“I’m sure that will make things easier for the supervisors, anyway. I’ll let you know how he’s doing when I get back.”

I saw her relief. I also felt the load lightened from my shoulders when I found a way to be near someone I loved as he was struggling. Cantankerous and finicky as he was, that man had become my friend and I loved him.

I hurried to the local hospital, anxious about what I would see when I was able to track him down. I have been a chaplain, and I understand that death is part of life. Death is not necessarily something to be feared by those who are nearing their end. Death seems most terrifying to those who are left behind. I was not ready to be left behind by Isaac, but I would never be the authority who could choose if that would be the outcome for anyone I loved.

I walked into his room and saw him sitting upright, legs wadded up in his normal pretzel twist position. He did look pail and tired, but he was certainly not gone. I caught the tears in my eyes as he turned my way and motioned for me to come closer to his hospital bed. I mirrored his smile and made my way over to him. He took my hand and pulled me into a big hug. I was happily surprised to be greeted with such excitement. I looked around and saw that no staff was in the room with him, but someone had been there. His backpack was sitting close by with a note pinned to the top. The staff person had written instructions for Isaac’s care. It was a short list detailing how to understand which gestures meant yes, which meant no, and how to look at his forehead to see if he were in pain. The closing line had the phone number of Hickory Ridge’s Health Services Coordinator and a final “Please tell him we all love him and someone is on their way to be with him.”

There was a round, bubble heart drawn at the end of the sentence. I assumed the staff person I had met in the classroom earlier had already let her know I was on my way so she could leave to be with her children. I am still amazed at how a force of so many diverse and different staff members can be so closely knit together by their devotion to the people we support. It is a miraculous side effect of the beauty inside the walls of our little universe. I’m forever grateful for the chance to be a part of this community, loved and trusted because time and tenacity have proven I am worthy.

I straightened the room a bit, singing “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” as I did. It is not the holiest of ballads, but it was one that Isaac loved. He especially liked to hear me sing it. I sang and gathered all of his things together. I moved the pinned note to a more prominent place, attached to the bottom of his vitals monitor. It would be hard to overlook there. Once I finished, I sat next to my friend, turning my chair to face him easily. I leaned forward, offered my smile, and asked, “Are you hangin’ in there, my brother?”

He looked at me, nodded, and uttered an easy, “Yeah.”

“Are you feeling a mite better now? You had us worried this morning.”

He smiled, nodded again, and repeated, “Yeah.”

“Is there anything I can do for you while I’m here? I can’t do a whole lot, but I’ll offer whatever I can.”

He smiled, and then he did something I had never seen him do before. He put his hands together, fingers stretched out long and touching each other to form the quintessential praying hands that Christians see throughout worship publications in all corners of our tradition.

I looked at him with confusion. “You want me to pray?”

I must have had a terrible expression of puzzlement on my face because he threw his head back and let out a loud belly laugh. Then he looked back at me, nodded, and said, “Yeah.” He pointed to his forehead as he answered.

I knew he had spent his early years as a member of the Catholic church, but I also knew he had not practiced his faith with a priest for years because he preferred to spend the time allotted for Catholic services in our community visiting with friends or his mother.

I struggled with how to uphold his faith and still offer him something. “I’m not Catholic, nor a priest or anything else like that. I can only offer you a Baptist prayer for right now and a promise to find a priest or Eucharistic minister to come give you what I can’t. Will that do for right now?”

He smiled again, patting my hand as he nodded. He repositioned himself in his bed, straightening his posture and leaning his head toward me. To see his face with such an invitation to a practice of faith overwhelmed me. I was certainly going to give him some semblance of what he needed until I could find a proper clergyperson for him.

He held his straight posture, closed his eyes, and pointed to his forehead. I placed my hand on his cheek and he opened his eyes to see me again.

“I will do my best. You tell me if I need to fix anything, okay?”

“Yeah.”

I waited for his eyes to meet mine again before I made the symbol of a cross in the center of his forehead, as even we Baptists do during celebrations of Holy Week. I spoke the words of genuine prayer from the depths of my being. “God bless your beautiful soul. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

His grin grew even bigger as I finished.

“Did I get it right?” I asked him to make certain I had not offended with my unrefined attempt to bless a soul I loved so dearly.

In his way, he smiled, nodded, and said, “Yeah.” Then he patted me on top of my head like a child who had reached her goal and pleased the teacher. In that moment, I felt the most conflicting jumble of humility and empowerment that I had known in my recent practice of ministry. I watched Isaac settle back into his bed and fall into a restful sleep, and I was grateful to have had the time with him but even more grateful to have been able to engage in that sacred moment. I was not certain how valuable faith practice was to Isaac because he had never made it a priority in the activities and schedules of his daily life. I had assumed I was just a friendly, persistent, caring presence to him without any attachment of religiosity. How mistaken I had been. He asked for a blessing that I felt unprepared to give, he received my clumsy attempt, and he settled into a peaceful rest. In that brief interaction with my dear friend, I learned how to be his pastor. I was ordained by a tangential invitation into a holy moment. Isaac knew who I was to him; I just didn’t understand what he expected from me. The humbling part of the process was the invitation and the instruction that walked me into that ordination.

I had extended a blessing that day, and I did not even have the resources within myself to offer it. I was only able to bless and be blessed in return, with the guidance of the man who chose to commune with me as we, together, engaged in a sacred moment of submission to our faith. I surrendered to the minister I am called to be. I chose to provide the best support I could in that instance, and in doing so I chose to continue walking an uncertain path in which those I support actually help me to define my offerings of care. In his instruction to me and in the invitation to pray, Isaac relinquished the distance between us, finding comfort in the trusting prayer offered by a minister who loved him. We each found our peace in the midst of a clumsy interaction, heartfelt friendship, and a simple prayer that reminded us to trust in the faith that sustained us both.

This post originally appeared as a chapter in Engaging the Sacred: Relational Spirituality as Pastoral Care by Kate Anderson.

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