Gloria’s hair reminded me of Goldilocks. She had tight, perfectly golden, set curls. She looked exactly how you might imagine someone named Gloria would look. She was 65-years-old, plump, with rosy red cheeks. She had on white fuzzy slippers, and a pink terrycloth robe.
I was six months pregnant at the time, and spending the summer working as a hospital chaplain in Chicago. I worked three eight hour shifts a week, and every other week I worked a night “on call” shift. This meant from 4:00 p.m. until 8:00 a.m. the next day I was at the hospital.
The night I met Gloria, the emergency room had paged me for patient after patient, the ICU had a patient who wasn't going to make it until morning, and there was a CODE RED!
I was just exhausted. I had two kids at home, one of which was a 20-month-old, and I was stuck “on call” for the night. I had finally made it through multiple emergencies and just barely fallen asleep when the pager went off. I rolled out of bed, threw on my white coat and glasses, and I headed to the third floor.
A nurse on the unit had paged me, so groggy and tripping over my feet, I made my way to the nurse’s station. I asked her to brief me on the situation before I went in to the room. She told me that Gloria needed to see a chaplain. The words “near death” did not come out of her mouth, nor did “emergency”.
I walked into Gloria’s room. She was sitting in her bed. All limbs in tact. No sign of blood or loss of consciousness. She was sitting, waiting for me to get there. I could tell immediately that she was not in a critical state. Gloria’s heart had not stopped. Gloria’s life was not at risk.
My internal debate began.
It was 2:00 in the morning, after all. This time of day is reserved for critical cases. I wondered why on earth the nurse had paged me. Couldn’t Gloria have waited until at least 6:00 a.m.? Didn’t she know I was trying to sleep? Didn’t she know I was tired?
But the nurse must have thought it was important enough to page me.
Gloria had a desperate smile on her face. I was about to tell her I’d be back when the sun was up and we could talk more in depth at that point. But before I could get any of that out, Gloria began.
She had back surgery last week, and tomorrow morning she would be moved to the rehabilitation floor. She was full of nerves about how the next day would go. As I talked to Gloria I started thinking about ways I could quickly calm her down and get myself back to bed. I was frustrated that I had been woken up in the middle of the night to sit by Gloria’s bed and reassure her about the morning.
As I was tempted to just get through the conversation, I realized I was being incredibly selfish.
Gloria was scared about recovery and pain and what her new life would be like. She did not need to talk. She did not need words of wisdom. She did not need to listen to me read Scripture. All she wanted that night was someone to sit beside her and hold her hand as she cried out to God. Over and over again she cried out, “God, I need you here. God, I need you here. God, I need you here”. For over an hour she cried this prayer.
There are times you don’t know what to do. There are times when you can't find the words to say. In those moments, be present. When you have nothing to give, be present. Gloria taught me that night the importance of presence. The importance of an extended period of time of being in the presence of another human being, without a smart phone, without perfectly crafted words of wisdom. Nothing we have to offer is more valuable than the gift of being fully present.