A Question

This is one of many poems I wrote during my experience as a chaplain’s intern at Duke Hospital. I haven’t really known what to do with them–they just contain these little snapshots of the hopelessness, but also the grace, that is found in trying to minister to the sick and the dying.

the patient was eighty-nine years old
I bet on Sunday he is an usher in a big old church
with a grey suit and pocket square
but not tonight
tonight he was groaning, blind
ready to meet Jesus
a dying Ray Charles who’d lost his voice
and sunglasses

they phoned the chaplain
because the man might “hurt himself”

I could see why
his wrinkles tremored with the knowledge of pain
stretched across his crisscrossed
black skin, weathered by decades of memory
hardened by the near-misses and nearness of death

I sat and held his trembling hand
as he moaned like sandpaper:

I can’t keep on like this
I don’t want to keep on like this
I just I don’t I can’t      anymore
Prea—cher?                 he sang in a deep baritone
Prea—cher?                 What do I do?

my infant tongue flew up and stuck
to the roof of my mouth
the question shot within me
and bounded like an old-fashioned bullet
the kind that doesn’t go straight through

even as I write this now, the shrapnel
of his words cut and bounce under my thick skin
with a strange, piercing echo:

Prea—cher?                Prea—cher?
What       do     I       do?

 

 

 

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