If I Could Be a Car…

“If you could be a car, what kind of car would you be?” I cannot remember who was being asked, but it was one of those NPR radio interviews of some notable actress or writer who was fast enough on her feet to respond, “I’m not sure about that, but I do know what kind of car I wish I had.”

I first started out with a 1999 Toyota Camry during my first years on the job at a hospice. That seemed like an appropriately conservative but reliable choice for all those miles I would have to cover. It was not flashy but nor was it beat-up looking. No one commented on it one way or the other, at least not until I collided with another car and the hood of my own popped open as I espied a tiny flame as the hood sprang open. I sprinted out minus my medical charts and notes. I knew from disaster training that seeing fire means leave at once or you might never be able to leave at all. Sure enough within minutes if that, the now vigorous flame had its abundant offspring all over the vehicle. I had to cajole a medic to drop me off at a train station so I could make the fifty-mile trip home in the crisp November night. One of my husband’s coworkers picked me up at the other end to drive me the remaining three miles, shivering and in shock.

Minus a car as well as the other items, I knew I had to temporarily get a car right away and worry about calmly buying a suitable car later. I decidedly was not in any shape to do any serious car shopping. So I settled for the first used car I could find, which turned out to be a 1994 Mustang, jubilantly blue, sitting for sale at my local gas station. The car, which was sporty enough despite its age to warrant higher insurance, inspired reactions from patients, families and various personnel. I noticed for instance that when I approached a security guard at a gated community in the visitor’s lane, unlike prior occasions, he very carefully checked my work badge before hesitantly waving me on in. There I was, a real hot- roddin’ chaplain, potentially a threat to the premises.

When I visit a patient for the first time, the burden is on me to make the kind of impression that will put her or him at ease about acting her true self with me and talking about what she really wants to talk about. The Mustang did not help in that regard. Once I got past the gate, a family member came out to meet me at the lot and said, “That’s your car?”  It seemed my credentials and/or credibility were now being called into question. I proceeded to gracefully walk into the home as if a gilded carriage had just dropped me off.

And so if I could be a car, how would I look? I immediately think about cars having interiors as well as exteriors. My interior is sturdy and durable but somewhat worn from the toll of life’s trying episodes. Excess baggage clutters the back seats, but I always make room for passengers, even ones with their own cumbersome baggage. The exterior has a brilliant inviting sheen. The headlights search out truth and meaning but their toned-down lights do not glare into anyone’s eyes. Anyone care to try me out and go for a spin?

A Student Prank

Usually my stories are true, but one time as a gag I wrote a fictitious dialog, putting one over my chaplain school supervisor and the other chaplain interns. I dated the dialog April 1st, but nevertheless they were fooled. The heart of the program at the school (called Clinical Pastoral Education) was for students to write word for word as accurately as they could remember, some of their visits to patients. Afterwards with our supervisor, we would analyze the dialogues and look for ways we could serve patients better in the future. As the true dialogs I wrote are too full of embarrassing flaws from me as a rookie chaplain, I now share this invented story to amuse you and to give you a taste of what it was like to be a chaplain intern.

                               The Dialogue

(Context of visit) I was on my regular rounds at Cornell University Medical Center when I visited Norman. The patient was seated on his bed, with a bandage near his elbow. As I enter, he is reading A Farewell to Arms. I notice a fixed look in his eyes. One of the social workers had told me that Norman is a “strange bird.”

Karen: Good morning. I’m Chaplain Kaplan.

Norman: Oh, are you and Charlie Chaplin related? Then you’d be Chaplain Chaplin. (K: I laugh. that SW had something there.) You won’t believe why I’m in here. It’s kinda ridiculous really.

Karen: No, no, not at all. Tell me your story.

Norman: You’ll think I’m pulling your leg. It’s not important enough for being in a serious hospital.

Karen: Not important enough?

Norman: I’m here because a cat helped itself to a portion of my arm for lunch. (K: I grimace  and say, ooh, ouch!) Now see that?  Here I am now having to comfort the chaplain.

Karen: (Oops. What went wrong here? I was trying to reflect back his feelings and show some empathy.) Oh, it’s not that. I…

Norman: Well, I’ll give you another chance. (K: How nice of this clown and out loud I say, “Oh, I see.) Anyway, this arm hurts like hell. And you know what? I’ve been a major patron of the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals for many a year. But after what that worthless scrawny tabby did to me, that’s it.

Karen: That’s it?

Norman: No more donations from Yours Truly to the SPCA. Not from this victim.

Karen: So you feel betrayed. Bit to the quick. Angry.

Norman: Sure! There should be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Humans.

Karen: (Is this guy for real? I laugh. I join in the fantasy.) I wonder how many dogs and cats would join?

Norman: (Is this girl for real?) This has gotta be the most unusual conversation I’ve ever had.

Karen: (as he dozes off, I make my getaway.)


In my next post, I will follow up with a theological analysis and an evaluation. No, no, just joking.


A Contest between Prejudice and the Angel of Death

My husband Steve will do just about anything to obtain a hard copy of the Tuesday science section of the New York Times. If we are at the airport and the Times is sold out, he will search newspapers abandoned in the terminal’s seating areas or left behind in the plane. Now that’s devotion authors would maybe not kill for but do at least one hundred pushups for. Today I am glad to have my copy in hand, because an article about the racism that doctors face reminded me of a related issue I have confronted in hospice care. The main point of the article was that doctors tend to focus on how to avoid being racist, but not enough on how to handle the reverse, when it is the patient who is prejudiced against the doctor.

I may never know when a patient is prejudiced against my gender, race or religion, but I have faced patients who have confessed to me their prejudice about someone else’s race or other characteristic. Unfortunately, this most often has to do with race, but sometimes I get comments about religious groups, gays, the wealthy, and even party affiliation and geographic location. I feel very ill-at-ease during such conversations, but if the patient is unwittingly referring to me, I can be amused by the irony. Oh my, a liberal right under their nose under cover!

Ordinarily, if people disparage minority groups, I speak my mind if I feel physically and emotionally safe doing so. But with hospice patients I have to balance accepting them with all their moral failings versus considering what harm they are doing to myself as well as others they still affect, such as a home health aide of color. Be that as it may, in the face of the demise facing them and the current trials of the disease, those concerns drown out anything I have to say about that anyway. This is no cop out on my part; the times I have tried to voice disagreement I might as well have been speaking an unbreakable code.

I remember when a patient herself, Miriam, expressed her prejudice but at the same time consciously struggled with it. She was an Orthodox Jew, thus she did not recognize the ordination of female rabbis as legitimate. Since I knew beforehand that she was Jewish, I identified myself as a Jewish chaplain as I approached her bed for the first time. At first she was not sure she would or should talk with me, but her need to talk about her beliefs and her final days to a willing listener got the conversation rolling. With nary an Orthodox rabbi in sight, she settled for what she could get. As if in an aside to God she looked at me doubtfully and said, “I guess at this stage in the game it’s alright to have a woman rabbi visit. I’ll give it a try.” While hers was not the most enthusiastic reception to my identity, when it comes to a hospice patient, I will go more than halfway (about 2/3rds of the way give or take). With this help from the Angel of Death to clear a passage for Miriam and I to connect in an authentic way, she proceeded to lighten the burdens on her soul.