Standing on Sacred Ground
“Oh no,” I whispered, staring into the eyes of a favorite patient’s photo. Just five days earlier I’d spoken by phone to her husband. Then the photo smiling back at me from her medical chart had been in full color. Now it was in shades of gray, indicating that my patient had died.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. She had multiple medical problems, and her health had declined over the preceding months, but it saddened me still. I would miss seeing her in my clinic. This patient brightened my day, and I was always touched by the tender way her husband cared for her.
I read the last few chart entries, piecing together her last few days, and discovered several family members were with her when she died. And while I was glad she was not alone in the final moments of her life, thinking of the grief her husband, children, and grandchildren must now be experiencing saddened me even more, for this is a grief I know well.
“I have to stop watching this,” I told myself, finally turning off the television and looking around the now familiar room. I should have said it sooner. A lot sooner. I was crying. Again.
For seven weeks I’d watched the news coverage of my once vibrant, now ravished city in a near obsessive fashion. Hurricane Katrina may have devastated The City That Care Forgot, but it was the non stop barrage of tragic images and stories that broke my heart. Can I really consider myself barraged when the one who kept turning the news on was me? I don’t know. I only know I was separated from nearly every friend and family member, and somehow watching the news made me feel connected, less alone—or so I told myself. So I watched it incessantly. And my spirits were lower than they’d ever been.
It didn’t help that during those seven weeks nearly every aspect of our lives (and the lives of everyone we knew) had been filled with uncertainty: How would the city we’d loved our entire lives recover, and how long would it take? Would New Orleans ever be the same again?
When could we go home? Did we even have a house to return to? Would we have to relocate?
I'd not worked since the storm; was I still employed, and did I have health insurance? And since I was seven months pregnant, in what hospital—and in what city—would I deliver? And did anyone have maternity clothes I could borrow, because I’d somehow evacuated with none.
The ground beneath our feet was shakier than it had ever been. And it’s no exaggeration that I was an emotional mess.
Can I blame hormones?
I climbed out of bed and threw on clothes. It didn’t matter what I wore—at nine months pregnant, comfort was the goal. I drove the short route to my uncle’s house and entered without knocking; they were expecting me. Still out of work and with no idea when or where I’d return, this had been my routine since returning to New Orleans two weeks prior. I entered, kissed everyone hello, and walked down the hall leading to my grandmother’s make-shift room. Her courageous, two-year battle with cancer was ending, and she was home with Hospice. Well, almost. Thanks to Katrina her own house was uninhabitable, but she was out of the hospital and surrounded by family. And for this, we were grateful.
It’s funny, the details from that time—both random and significant—that are still etched in my mind: Family members and food. Specific songs that filled the room. Pieces of conversation. Holding hands and lingering hugs. Laughter and tears. And it’s amazing that years later God is still speaking to me through the little details that comprised those days.
I kissed my grandmother’s cheek and sat in the chair beside her bed. We all knew the end was very near. Her time awake had decreased significantly, and her eyes, when open, were cloudy and unfocused. So I will never forget the moment she suddenly looked up, her eyes uncharacteristically clear as day as she focused on something in the distance. Her face came to life and a beautiful, joy-filled smile spread across it, and in amazement I watched as she lifted her hand and waved—to someone only she could see.
It was nearly eighteen years ago that my family and I watched my grandmother take her last breath, but each time I think of my patient’s passing I am transported back to that room. I still recall the way my heart broke open as my grandmother stepped forward, forever crossing the threshold between this world and the next. But now, what I remember even more is the joy and life in her eyes as she smiled into the distance.
I’d love to tell you I saw it clearly then, that grief had not precluded me from recognizing the beautiful and Holy ground on which we were blessed to stand that day. But it’s taken God’s Grace and many years for me to fully receive the gift hidden within those sorrow-filled moments. Only now do I appreciate that, for just a moment, only a thin veil separated the finite world around me from the infinite one to come. And on that day I witnessed my grandmother peer through that veil, greeting all that awaited her. Sitting by her side, sorrow filled me as I held her right hand in mine for the very last time. But today, peace and hope anchor me as I recognize it was God who held her left.
I knew of God then. But I didn’t know Him. Yet now I can see He was not offended by the distance of my heart. Rather, when every piece of my world was unsteady, He allowed me to glimpse the surety of the world to come, even though I couldn’t recognize it at the time. When everything around me was in ruins, He brought close the beauty of the world I was actually made for. When every circumstance of my life felt out of control, He grounded me with what really mattered: love and family. When my heart was broken with grief for both my grandmother and my city, He allowed the baby I carried to be His very real promise of new life. And when the ground beneath my feet was crumbling, He came close and allowed me to stand on Sacred ground.
I pray as you read this that the ground beneath your feet is solid. But if it's not, I pray you see and feel Him as He comes close. And as always, I'm praying He breathes life into these words.