Today marks the 70th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and the 10th birthday of a boy I met while a hospital chaplain. In honor of the birthday, here’s an essay from a manuscript in development about my experiences of God and others in an urban hospital.
Dane was born on December 7, 60 years after Pearl Harbor. This little fact makes it easy to remember his birthday, as I have done each year since we first met in 2001. He had a relatively mild medical need that kept him in the hospital nursery for a while longer than typical for newborns. We met one day in early January when I made rounds through the nurseries. His bassinette was in the back of the room near the windows with a view of the park that ran along a major street. I think he liked that location a lot, but it wasn’t near enough for him to be in the center of the nursery action and that’s where he wanted to be.
Nursery rounds were quick unless there was a crisis of some sort. Usually, I checked with the nurse about what was going on and if mothers, fathers or grandparents weren’t around, I’d leave. Actually, even if they were around, I didn’t take up time they could be spending with their baby. Time with their babies was a precious commodity.
On that particular winter day, Dane, sweet little Dane, heard the nurse talking to me, the sound of voices a thrilling music to his heart. Maybe he was sensitive to someone new, and that he wasn’t getting attention quick enough. The nurse and I were talking and not responding to him at all, which only made him more insistent in his creative use of percussive noises. I eventually responded to his summons but not as soon as he would have liked.
He called to me with an insistent chirping. “Come look at me!” he seemed to say. “You! Yeah you over there! I want you to come over here. Come get a look at me … and let me get a look at another one of you creatures.” He started out low, amping up the volume until he achieved his desired goal: my presence close enough to him that he could sense that he had my complete and utter focus on him and only him! He would not be ignored! With gurgles, grunts and chatter that were more like peeps from a bird, Dane sounded out a Morse Code of complex, wordless, but heart-felt language.
As soon as I bent over the bassinette to make a proper introduction, he answered back with flailing hands and little staccato kicks that were only evident by the end of the blanket moving. A chaplain never turns down an opportunity for a conversation with a patient, especially one who is exceptionally enthusiastic. One of my littlest patients wanted someone to be with him and he had a remarkable ability to get what he wanted!
I pulled up a tall stool in order to settle in for a real chat, not a hit-or-miss type with only a cursory few words. No! That wouldn’t do in this case. Dane wanted a substantial visit and a substantial visit was what he was going to get. All bundled up in a flannel blanket and a blue knit cap, he looked like a korknisse, a cork ornament that looks like, well, like a baby!
I started right in on the conversation. He was delighted! Oh, if only every male (especially those over 45) were as enthralled when we talked. Dane watched intently, hanging on every word and each exaggerated hand movement and facial expression. It was a drama (or a comedy, perhaps) that he loved. “Keep talking,” his little wriggling body said. You see, we chaplains are trained to read body language and interpret nonverbal signals. Every one of Dane’s messages was one of utter glee at being the center of attention.
“Well, now, Mr. Dane. We are so glad you are here! Did you know you were born on a very important day? Of course, it’s important because it’s your birthday. Up until this year, before you came around, it’s been known as Pearl Harbor Day. You’ll learn all about that when you go to school, but that’s a few years off. You’ve got some time to chill, hangout and get a feel for things. It’s going to be a far better world with you in it. What do you think of things so far? I know you’ve only been here a few weeks, but you can get a sense of how things are. Is it all that you thought it would be? It’s only a short time before you’ll be able to go home. Won’t that be great? ….”
On and on it went for twenty minutes or so. I placed my right hand across the happy baby’s tummy, sort of rocking him, and letting him connect my voice with my touch. I cooed over him, telling him how wonderful he was, how perfect he was, what a magnificent creature he was. He moved in agreement about his own fabulousness.
It was silliness, perhaps, the sort of silliness babies tempt us to indulge in without thought or self-consciousness. We rush to make fools of ourselves over these fresh, precious creatures who remind us of all that is miraculous and wonderful. That was Dane.
Some might have thought it was wasted time to talk to a baby who couldn’t understand a word I was babbling, not when there was serious stuff going on elsewhere – an elderly woman near death, a young man recovering from an accident that had left him paralyzed, a gunshot victim struggling to live. My tiny parishioner Dane would disagree, and so would I. A chaplain has the privilege of representing Jesus, to be an earthly symbol of eternal reality. I was at least an attentive presence who took notice of him (not that he’d let me get away!) and came to be with him, simply enjoying him and grateful for the wonderful creation he is.
Dane taught me to be attentive to the murmurs of the hearts that are often unspoken. Although our words are so inadequate when we seek God’s attention to us, to our needs for his presence, I think God pulls up a chair and coos over us. He delights in us and can’t help but respond to us out of His compassion and love. God must hear our cries for relationship as I heard the chirps from Dane.
I have often wondered about Dane. How did his behavior in the nursery hint as his innate personality? Does he still have a magnetic way of drawing people to him? Does he seek out the presence of others? Does he find comfort in being surrounded by people who adore him? How was he impacted by his stay in the hospital? I pray a rich, full life for him and a constant awareness of God’s presence with him each and every day.
P.S. I did a quick search to see if anything could be found about Dane or his family. I am delighted to report that as a kindergartener a few years ago, Dane was a recipient of the caring award. That comes as no surprise!