The day began as all other weekdays had this summer. I awoke at 5 a.m., a time so ingrained in me that I do not require an alarm clock. With a cup of coffee in hand, I sit in my favorite chair in the corner of the den. This is my favorite time of the day, thirty minutes of total and welcome silence. It is a time of simply “being”. The time of my “aloneness” flies by. Showering and shaving, my pace picks up as I dress, and then get our two year old dressed and ready for daycare. In the midst of the busyness of our daily routine I realize we are running late, an aspect of the morning rush that is becoming all to familiar.
The drive to daycare and my office is a thirty minute commute through acres of unblemished woods. Hundreds of cows grazing in green pastures pay us no attention. The scenic drive has been a gateway for my connection to and with Spirit.
This day, as I was about to learn was to be a very different day. Fifteen miles and minutes into our drive I began to have intense sub sternal chest pains accompanied with incessant belching, nausea and profuse perspiration .The belching and chest pains came as no real surprise as I have a hiatal hernia, a condition I have had for a number of years. Swallowing a second Prilosec I was confident the hernia was rearing its ugly head once again. The chest pain became an unwelcomed companion and chose to intensify rather than leave. I began to have a tingling sensation in my left arm and fingers. I became extremely anxious and was confident that I was having a heart attack.
In the “middle of no where” as folks in the south often say, I was faced with multiple dilemmas. My primary concern was for the safety and well being of our son Isaiah, who was thankfully sitting in his car seat and singing away. A roller coaster of thoughts raced through my mind; do I pull over to the side of the road and call 911 and then sound my horn until someone, a good Samaritan comes by, do I continue to drive and make it to the McDonald’s drive through and ask the staff to call 911 and stay with Isaiah until his other dad could get there; do I try to get to the daycare and then call 911. I called my spouse and told him that I thought I was having a heart attack but that I was going to try and make it to the daycare. Looking in the rear-view mirror I saw Isaiah who was now asleep. I began to cry and to pray. “God if it is time for me to be with you, I am willing to go, but first please I beg you allow me to get our baby to day care.” We both arrived safely there. My spouse had arranged for a staff member there to meet me outside in order to take Isaiah to his classroom.
The rescue squad was called and responded within a few minutes. Taking the position that I was indeed having a heart attack, the emergency medical technicians began to treat me immediately. With sirens blaring I was taken to the emergency room to our local hospital. Met by the cardiology team an assessment of my condition began. Bloodwork, xrays, EKGs , heart monitor, intravenous fluids accompanied with what seemed like 10,000 questions was the mode of operandi and all moving at the speed of lightening.
A visit by the cardiologist who recommended a heart catherization and that it be done immediately. I was anxious prior to his visit but his request only served to escalate my level of anxiety. Moving once again at what seemed like the speed of lightening many health care workers were doing all of the necessary pre surgical preparations.
As I signed the consent papers for the procedure, the nurse gave me some “statistitics”; one in one thousand people having this procedure may have a heart attack and die, one in one hundred persons may have a stroke. I am a person who prefers to “process” but there was no time to do so. I began to cry and wondered if I would become “one of the ones”, a statistic on the lower end of the scale of probabilities. I was concerned that I would not get to see our children again. Questions of “did I” or “what if” ran haphazardly through my mind.
I was on the “other side” and it was scary. I was in a difficult and uncomfortable state of being. As a chaplain I am the one who is to be a ministry of presence to those who are experiencing anxiety and other life issues. Without anytime to “process” I was placed in a position of vulnerability and dependency. As a priest this is not a role I was comfortable with.
I recall in one of my units of Clinical Pastoral Education that the supervisor often reminded those in his class that we give to others what we ourselves wish to receive. Well, I have certainly given of the gifts I have been blessed with to others, but being in the position of receiving those gifts was indeed a challenge for me.
The catherization showed that I had not had a heart attack and that my heart is in great shape. Further tests revealed a gallbladder filled with many gallstones which will require surgery.
So the good news is that I do not have any health problems with my heart and that the problem with the gallbladder can be corrected with surgery.
Perhaps though a somewhat deeper issue that I need to address is that of my reluctance to accept with gratitude the acts of care and compassion given to me by so many. It is difficult for me as a “caregiver” to be in the position of “care receiver”. Yet I know that Jesus who cared for all and demonstrated throughout his earthly life countless acts of love and kindness to others also allowed others to care for him. It was Mary who took the extremely costly oil of spikenard, one pint of it, to pour over Christ’s feet; and Mary who wiped those feet with her own hair. Jesus accepted this care.
During my sixteen hour visit to the hospital one of many doctors visiting me asked “are you under any particular stress?” My immediate response was “no not really” , but then I recalled and related to her that in July 27 of my patients had died and that thus far in August six patients have died. I also recalled that my partner and I had reached the decision to move to the mountains of North Carolina in the fall of 2015 and birth a small spiritual retreat center. To make this possible we also made the decision to have a living estate auction of our many collections of antiques accumulated over the years. So yes doctor, I guess I am experiencing some stress.
Having “stress” is the catalyst for writing this article. As God’s servants whether lay or cleric I wonder how many of us honor ourselves with the gift of self care. I am confident we teach and “preach” self care to those whom God sends us. In doing so we are also called to be models of self care, but are we? Are we dishonoring God when we do not take care of ourselves? Are those entrusted to our care able to see that “we walk the talk.” Can we be fully available to others if we are not open to God as fully as we can be which would reflect good care of self?
The Right Rev. Carl Matthews is one of the Convening Bishops of Christ Catholic Church. Part of his self care is through journaling or writing prose or poetry.