written by Brooks Cato
When I worked for my dad in his veterinary clinic, folks brought in all sorts of critters: dogs and cats, exotic birds, iguanas, even a deer hit out on the highway. He did what he could, brought many of them back from the edge of death, but many he lost right there on the lip of the abyss. Country has a way of showing you death up close.
These days, I spend my days caring for a flock of parishioners, but I’m no shepherd. That title belongs to someone else. I’m more of a sheepdog. Usually, that means gentle guidance, keeping people out of places that will harm them and tending to them when they go there anyway. Usually, it’s easy to love my people. Usually, I can wrap my head around this work. Usually.
A couple of Sundays ago, I got a call from Susan that David, her husband, was under the weather. Wednesday came; David went to the doctor with a fever, got some meds, and went home. Thursday, the fever hadn’t broken, so he went back. His cough worsened: pneumonia. The last time he’d spent the night in the hospital was the night he was born! Friday came, and with it, a desperate call from Susan. He was being taken to a facility more equipped to deal with struggling lungs. And then another, minutes later. “No, they’re not going. It’s bad. I don’t know what to do.” The nurses gave permission for me to say last rites, and while I was putting on my collar and driving the short shot to the hospital, David died.
A nurse escorted me back to Susan, sitting in a chair and listening to a tall nurse. She looked at me and said, “I think I’m ready to wake up.” I knew we were supposed to be maintaining social distance. I knew that, but I figured I was already there, unprotected, and Susan needed comfort. I offered a hug and felt her shake as her face buried into my shoulder. “This is not a nice dream,” she said.
We couldn’t go into David’s room just yet. It was glassed off, and the curtain had been drawn to offer him some privacy and, maybe, her some small comfort, not having to watch him suffer through the end.
There was no intercom inside the room, and the staff was particularly careful. So the doctors and nurses scrawled notes on the glass in dry erase markers to their colleagues outside. I wondered how frustrated they must be, how many times one side had to read or write backwards, how many medical puzzles they could solve with such a bottleneck.
Finally, they finished their preparations, but before we could enter, the nurses brought us PPEs: surgical masks, gloves, and bright yellow robes. Susan recalled her wedding while a nurse helped her dress. Her mask went on, and I wondered if she wore a veil. Then, the yellow robe, and I wondered if she even liked yellow, if he liked seeing her in yellow. Finally, gloves, and I wondered if she was ever the type to wear evening gloves to round out a look. 56 years they’d been married, and today, dressed as she was in Resurrection Sunday yellow, we stepped toward his chamber.
There was a small vestibule that sealed shut when we entered, waiting to be let through to where he lay. Nurses in matching yellow and apocalyptic face shields stood watch, and Susan sank into a chair beside her dear husband. She said she’d taken thousands of pictures of him because he had such a handsome face. Even in the indignities of death, I saw what she meant.
She tried to kiss his cheek, but her veil frustrated the attempt. She stroked his head, asked after his rings. A nurse removed one, a cameo ring his father had found. I removed the other, his wedding ring, given to her to put on his hand by a priest 56 years ago, now removed by a priest and given back to her. She clutched them to her heart and said she’d soon see him again.
I traced a cross on his forehead and offered the prayer I’ve said at so many bedsides: “Depart, O Christian soul…” She said her love, she said her longing, she cried her tears, and the Easter-yellow bridesmaids escorted us to the vestibule.
Another nurse helped us remove our PPEs and offered hand sanitizer and a place to wash up. “Sing a song, maybe a hymn? Wash your hands the whole time.” Between the two of us, neither could remember any hymns, and by the time we’d almost settled on one, the nurse interrupted, “Ok, that’s enough, you can dry off now.”
Susan chuckled at our musical failure while the nurses gave us more directions, squirted more soap into our hands, and directed us to the sink at the nurses’ station, a busy hub with six or eight doctors, nurses, and other staff rushing around. Susan said, “Why don’t you just pick one this time.”
I started “Amazing Grace,” and Susan joined in, voice cracking where strength failed and memories swelled. The bustle stopped. All those people froze in place and watched while Susan and I sang so close to and so far from David’s bed. One nurse was on the phone, but she covered it with her hand and hummed along. Finally, at “was blind, but now I see,” the bustle began again, and Susan leaned in, bumping sides to mark the moment we both knew to be holy.
The tall nurse gathered our belongings and showed us to a rear exit to keep other patients away from us newly identified potential vectors. She held the door, but she didn’t leave. She expressed her sympathy to Susan, and her voice weakened as she tried to say that they’d done all they could. David charmed them all in his short time there, much like he’d charmed everyone in town, Susan most of all. I offered a prayer, and the nurse wept with us by that hidden door behind the hospital.
I gave Susan one last hug and walked her to her car. This was the last time we’d be able to see people outside of our homes for 14 days, and she had a hard road ahead. I went home to my wife to sit quarantine together. Susan went home to grieve in cruel isolation.
Once home, I lysoled the car, my keys, anything I’d touched. I washed all my clothes and settled in for a long and uncertain wait. And as soon as I caught my breath, the phone rang. Another parishioner calling about her husband and his pneumonia and the fears she faced as the hospital took him away.
Two days later, David’s test results came back positive for the coronavirus, the first death in our county. “I’m already cried out,” Susan told me over the phone. “I’m going in to get tested.” Her son called later that evening. With a fever, shortness of breath, and a cough, the hospital admitted her.
Back when I worked with my dad, we called on quite a few cattle farms. These usually made for lighthearted but hard work. But once in a while, something awful ripped through those herds. By the time we got there, a quarter would’ve died already and another quarter were on their way. The farmers always had the same look. Farmers who could repair a $200,000 tractor with some baling wire and a prayer (and many had) looked uncharacteristically helpless.
They loved their herds, and watching while not being able to do a thing broke more of them than not. They’d take off their hat, rub their hair the wrong way, and kick at the dirt. Or they’d cuss. Or they’d slump onto the nearest bale of hay and stare off into the middle distance. I’m not there yet, but I’m worried that’s where I’m headed.
I’m no farmer. And I’m no shepherd. But these are my people. Usually, it’s easy to love them. Usually, I can wrap my head around this work. Usually.
I don’t know what’s in store in the coming weeks. I don’t know how much this little village can bear, and I don’t know how much I can, either. After sharing the news of all this loss, a parishioner said, “You are our pillar.” Thanks, but I can’t bear that weight, especially not tonight. Tonight I’m somewhere between Job — kicking at the heels of the Almighty — and Jeremiah — weeping and wondering where the promised balm in Gilead has gone to.
My prayer tonight is this. That God will hear his people, and know our pain, and comfort us. There is beauty to be found here, even in the midst of pandemic. Dear God, help us to see it. And dear God, hold us close.
The Rev. Brooks Cato is a priest in the Diocese of Central New York. Originally from Arkansas, he now serves as the Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Hamilton where he finds joy in writing, chasing his dogs, and digging up rocks.