Congratulations to Misty Kiwak Jacobs, whose essay “BLACKBERRIES” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2022 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.
Or ever the silver cord be loosed…Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7)
I first heard the hospital referred to as a charnel house from a Buddhist chaplain, her eyes black and sparking as the coal the angel pressed to the prophet’s mouth. Charnel house: place of blood and bone, vessel of impermanence, shelter of consequence, of mortality and catastrophe. Like when houses burn down, and a woman might report a vision from the back of an ambulance, her polka dot dresses on the third floor rising in flames. Where the breeze of cooling infants’ breath blows over stacks of baptismal gowns, tiny satin monikers of faith tucked away in a starkly rational place.
Another chaplain, a Quaker named Kevin, and I tentatively attempt friendship texting one another pictures of the unexpected or the lovely or the absurd: “Remember you are in a hospital,” written in yellow marker across a south-facing hallway window, glowing against storm clouds on the other side.
Sometimes a father sits in a recliner, plump and alert. And a chaplain with prayerbook and holy oil might question the nurse, thinking this must be the wrong room. I have the right room. “He will die shortly,” she says. “He wants it like this.” His adult children in mandated shields and gowns as if within amniotic sacs, behold their father shuddering, shimmying out of life as if it were too tight. And the nurse rushes in, swish of gown like taffeta, tipping the chair to prevent him from slipping to the floor. From dying on the floor. And in the din of negative pressure, I shout prayers to accompany, to comfort, to send, but alto voce, overacting like Charlton Heston on a windy mountain top.
A white sheet in a crumpled pile near the elevator door. I take a picture, send it to Kevin, “He is risen; he is not here!”
On the prison unit, even the cruelest men cry for their mothers at the news they are dying. Here one might tell a child rapist he is beloved. Suspension of disbelief. Elsewhere eager transplant teams assemble and then disassemble, dispirited at the persistence of a beating heart, abandoning a stricken nurse, a liminal child; ensanguined sounds so smooth, like a lullaby, or like slow movement through still water.
I sit, bereft, before the black-eyed chaplain. The charnel house is not an aberration, she says, but life. Truth. What is so frightening at the edges, in the shadow of the roiling and brutality, she says as she brings her hands together, diminishes as you move into it. If you are Episcopalian, you think, No thank you. You think, Cuckoo bananas. If you are a former Catholic you think, She must be a witch.
Entering through the emergency room on a particular day, your first point of contact—a man in a sweater like assurance or a woman sensibly dressed—will begin the work of pulling down the world. You will be escorted, invited, removed: family room sounds hospitable, holy, set aside. Here a doctor will report that she went peacefully. Have you ever heard otherwise? And the doctor will insist there was nothing you could have done. You will never hear otherwise.
And this room contains multitudes: a tiered cart laden with food (but if you are poor or Black the cart may not come), a mother who may play hostess, standing to serve coffee, you accepting coffee out of politeness, but drinking none (you know you’ve been exposed, you can’t remove your mask). A granddaughter retreats back to the body to paint her grandmother’s nails a vibrant pink, a pink so startling against so much clinical white that you never stop thinking about bright pink nails lovingly painted on cool dead hands, so beautiful.
“She mentioned the smell of the schnitzel,” the mother says in the heavy accent of her mother, “She was not feeling well, so I was cooking for her. She called down the stairs to say the schnitzel smelled delicious, and then she died.” It being our task to interpret the holy I say, “She died knowing she was loved, that you cared for her.” The mother nods, offers me a pastry. The father in the corner repeats intermittently, “She was a good woman. She was good to me.” He weeps. Less graceful choreographies within this room include collapse, or wailing, or thrashing rage or the guttural, bellowing moan that marks the severing of the temporal.
Kevin texts me a framed landscape of a rainbow hung on the wall over a garbage can. “Hope on E3.” A friendship forged in fire, he will later describe us.
We had lived in the Northeast five years before we noticed, or could differentiate, one green from another, flower from weed, when a berry patch revealed itself on our side of the woods like a color blindness test, this versus that. The second year after we noticed, my husband dragged a fallen tree from the woods, split it into posts to stake the bushes, tied hemp string across to hold up the canes.
And all obituaries read peacefully as if there were a dearth of adverbs for the body’s end—lexical denial—like when a son refuses the last rites because My father is not dying. So instead I hand the son a fancy muffin and a juice he twists open like bone crack, and within the accounting of one fat muffin I say, I’m sorry, your father is dead.
Alone in her office the Buddhist speaks and I dissolve. We are both stardust blowing in the roiling center. We are beings made of stardust breathing stardust. Everything she says is true.
And after hours of silent ministrations for the living, fluff of pillow, fill up water cup, sweatshirt slipped over orphaned body, over widowed breasts from which a child (now dead) once nursed, dainty foot into stiff hospital-issue shoe, the prayer for a slaughtered family may begin, Dear God, this is unspeakable. . . and the mother interjects,
Yes, it is unspeakable; call and response, amen.
Chart note: Patient attained mystical union with God. And peacefully.
I am 11 months a hospital chaplain in the pandemic when pain like fire begins to thrust through the top of my head, collapsing me, over and over, rendering me just another body among bodies laid out, blood and bone, multiple chaplains bedside, nurses coming and going. A text to my husband, “I’m in the ED. Please come,” which he assumes is not meant for him, a misdirected note, one chaplain to another. Workaday.
Now in the mornings when I wake, I knock the koshi chime, the element fire, a parting gift from another chaplain, its ring the sound of anger dissipating like smoke. Then when I can, I go out to the berries. I navigate through the fierce canes, thorns drawing blood that does not trigger a trauma page, snags in my clothes that are not imminently fatal, scratches that do not require two or three hours in a small, blank room with a family on the worst day of their lives. Sometimes I take a small basket with me, sometimes I cradle them in the hem of my shirt, staining it with juice like dark blood. A clean, white bowl in the fridge fills slowly with blackberries.
And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to the God who gave it and miles away mounds of silver cords lie tangled in the service elevators, ever pulling downward, downward to an elegant Quaker luring a hawk out of the charnel house, waving a white sheet and whistling, whistling. The hawk ceased thrashing and followed the chaplain out.
Progress note: The hawk survived.
By Misty Kiwak Jacobs
Misty Kiwak Jacobs is a native of Arizona living in Upstate New York. She studied Russian and Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and earned her MDiv and Diploma in Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School & Berkeley Divinity School in 2020. Misty is still at YDS, working on an STM in Homiletics. Her writing has appeared in The Sarah Lawrence Review, The Red Rock Review, Earth and Altar, Minerva Rising and Letters Journal, among others. She is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. You can follow her at www.AWordPlease.org.