The Rosary And The Rabbi

It was not a promising start. I had left a voicemail in Spanish with a new patient on hospice and her family. The patient’s daughter sent me a text message in Spanish saying I could visit whenever I wished. I called back, and after I said in my obviously flawed Spanish who I was and that I could come now, she said, “I don’t understand English.” Yikes. Was my Spanish all that bad?

But when I replied that I was speaking in Spanish to her, she giggled and the conversation at last had a future, however fragile it might be. So I considered it a victorious leap past the communication barrier when she agreed that I could come over right away.

The patient, who I will call Margarita, was seated on the couch, and her daughter Gabriela sat next to her as she put my Spanish comprehension to the test with a complex story of woe. A couple of other family members were present as well. I then turned to her mother, who had not said anything or even looked at me much during this lament. Because Gabriela mentioned that Margarita went to Spanish Mass at a church around the corner, I asked her mother if she would like a prayer. It just so happens I come prepared with prayers written in Spanish for such visits, including a prayer for caregivers (which caregivers sometimes scan into their phones because they like it so much), and the prayer for the Rosary. Margarita found it worthwhile to tune in to me and take the energy to communicate since I brought out the magic word Rosary as one of the prayers I had on hand. At my request, the family found a set of white rosary beads for her to hold.

I felt comfortable enough saying the words themselves of this prayer in these circumstances, but as a rabbi I could not make the sign of the Cross or say “amen,” so I felt I first had to let on that  I was not Catholic, but not only that, I was–were they ready for this?– Jewish. This only added further spice to the spectacle of a gringa like me with fractured Spanish reciting a prayer of utmost sanctity alien to her own beliefs. But they were alright with this, grateful for a spiritual presence that could cut through their linguistic isolation at this time of acute need. As I started to say the words, “En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo…” I saw that Margarita could say much of the Rosary by herself by heart. I only had to resume here and there to prompt her along. She teared up at the emotion of expressing this prayer, and I saw the others brushing off their own tears. And as I was engaged with this task, I thought about how odd and how glorious it was that we could transcend language and religion and nationality and race to provide this salvation of release and of God’s comforting closeness.

My Fractured Spanish and Patient Power

Power gets in the way of compassionate care. The very words, “compassionate care,” smack of a power differential between the caregiver and the patient: Me Tarzan: healthy and something to give you. You Jane: weak, vulnerable, dependent. I cast about for ways to make the patient and me more equal, partly because that is what I wish in order to honor them as a sojourner on the path of life, and partly to put them at ease. Bad enough I am ordained clergy, authority figure par excellence and sometimes viewed with suspicion or distaste.

What I tend to do to level the playing field is at least offer choices. Does the patient even want a visit in the first place? If so, do they prefer conversation to prayer, or just quiet? Hold hands or not? I take note of my physical presence and minimize any implied superiority by sitting rather than hover over the bed. Most importantly, I let them set the agenda for our interaction. It is their choice whether to talk about Trump or trauma, stock tips or taking stock.

I recently got hired by Center for Hope Hospice in New Jersey because I can speak Spanish, among other reasons. I do not speak like a native or anywhere close, for sure, but enough to relieve the suffering of those who need to pour out their hearts. So here I am, a Jewish chaplain, hired to speak Spanish with Catholics! During some of these visits, clients sometimes step in and help me with my Spanish skills. I then joke and praise them for being my “profesor de español.” They laugh and are pleased to help, often continuing to offer other tidbits such as a grammatical correction. This is great for both of us: I get a Spanish lesson, and they get to take the lead in at least one respect.

In general, when I speak my fractured Spanish, I am deferring to the client, giving them the home team advantage. Perhaps too, English may have the connotation for them as “impersonal,” “cold,” “official,” “uncaring” or even “threatening.” As I put myself at a linguistic disadvantage, I may be receiving intimate and profound stories clients share that otherwise would have gone unheard and their unexpressed pain left in solitary confinement.