What is my mission here? What is anyone’s mission here? And where can I get a Hawaiian shirt to borrow?
My brother-in-law had a massive heart attack the other day, and I flew to Massachusetts to help my sister take care of him. The doctors saved his life, watched him for a couple of days, and then sent him home. As he waited to be discharged, I went down to the pharmacy to get his meds. It took a couple of trips because the pharmacist was trying to figure out the price.
When I got back from what I hoped would be my last trip to the pharmacy, I stepped into the hospital room and sat in a chair behind the bed to wait for the nurse’s permission to take him home. I noticed my sister was no longer in the room, but when I saw the bathroom door was closed, I assumed she was inside. A Red Sox game was playing on the television which was odd because my brother-in-law prefers golf to baseball, but I assumed the golf game hadn’t started yet.
As we watched the game, I made small talk. I commented on how hot it must be on the baseball diamond, and speculated on the history of the baseball bat, and wondered out loud about the diameter of the bat in relation to the diameter of the ball, and told an amusing story about visiting the Louisville Slugger factory in St. Louis during the city’s annual interfaith festival.
My brother-in-law isn’t the talkative sort and being in the hospital made him even less so. But after about 10 minutes of my jabbering, a voice from the bed said, “What is your mission here?”
This was not the kind of thing my brother-in-law would say. For a moment I wondered if being at death’s door had put him in a philosophical mood: “What is your mission here? What is my mission here? What is anyone’s mission here? On Earth. In this all too brief lifetime?” Again, this isn’t the kind of thing my brother-in-law would say which explained why he said it is a voice decidedly not his own.
I stood up and looked at the guy in the bed. It wasn’t my brother-in-law. I was in the wrong room, babbling to the wrong guy. But still: “What is your mission here?” is a strange question. At least it might have been had I not been dressed like a Catholic priest.
In honor of my rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, I have limited by wardrobe to black and white for decades. That day in the hospital I was wearing black slacks, black shirt, and a white tee-shirt that, against the collar of the black shirt, looked like a priest’s collar, assuming you didn’t look too closely.
I had walked into the room so quickly that the man in the bed never got a good look at me. All he saw was a priest coming to visit and chatting stupidly about baseball.
My mission? This was the cardiac ward in a Catholic hospital. People were dying here. Many of them Catholics. When Catholics are dying, they call a priest for Last Rites. Maybe he was dying. Maybe he didn’t know he was dying and in comes a priest so maybe now he thinks he’s dying and I’m here to deliver Last Rites. What extra suffering did I cause this man?
All this dawned on me in an instant, and when it did, I stood up and said, “I have no mission here. In fact, I’m in the wrong room and you’re not person I expected to see. I’m sorry about that. Bless you, my son.” And I walked out.
“Bless you my son” just popped out my mouth. Do Catholic priests still say, “Bless you, my son” or “Bless you, my child”? I have no idea. I watch a lot of old movies with lots of Irish police officers and Catholic priests, and it seemed appropriate.
Anyway, I found my sister and brother-in-law in the next room and drove them both home. I told them what happened, and my sister thought it was funny. My brother-in-law has a poor sense of humor, but then he had almost died, though if that had happened to me I think it would have improved my sense of humor. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill me makes me funnier.”
I have to go back to the hospital pharmacy this morning to pick up more meds. I plan to borrow a Hawaiian shirt to wear over my black pants.
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