It was my second round on the leukemia floor at the cancer hospital when she said, “Well are you going to come in or what?” I passed by her room earlier; the one with motivational posters adorning the door, propped open just enough to see a crisply made bed and rows of photographs neatly displayed on the shelves. A young woman who looked to be in her mid-forties sat on the couch under the window working a crossword puzzle, drenched in sunlight.
“Oh sorry, I thought you were a visitor,” I confessed.
She told me that I was right, she was just a visitor because she had no intention of staying there any longer as a patient. I introduced myself as the chaplain and then she confessed, “I’m not very religious.”
“Neither am I,” I said, pulling up a chair beside the couch.
“That’s a funny thing for a chaplain to say,” she remarked. And so began our first conversation, and a friendship that outlives time and space.
Julie and I got to know each other pouring over her photo albums and laughing so hard at irreverent jokes that our sides hurt. The nurses and hospital caretakers made excuses to come to her room because in the words of one of the janitors, “You two are having too much fun!” She was right, we were having fun and that must have seemed strangely out-of-place: a chaplain, a cancer patient, and uninhibited joy.
But it wasn’t always that way. One night when I was the chaplain on-call, my pager summoned me to her floor. A concerned nurse led me to her room where I found her sobbing on her bed. I sat down on the couch by the window; no light poured in this time. The gravity of illness and all of its implications weighed heavily on her in the darkness of night. She was angry, confused, and afraid. I moved over to sit beside her on the bed and together we cried tears of lament.
The short time I worked as a chaplain I encountered some who scoffed at the work I did. After all, chaplains aren’t in the difficult and dirty business of saving lives. “Or are they?” I wondered. Not everyone understood that behind closed doors, people—whether religious or not—let their truest selves be known to chaplains. They often share their deepest fears; their bitter regrets; their greatest joys; their deepest sorrows; and their most guarded secrets. To be known fully by another human being is a healing gift, mutually given and received.
Back in the chaplains’ office after I left Julie’s room that night, I searched our drawer of religious trinkets. There were children’s books, rosary beads, wooden crosses, Hebrew bibles, a Qur’an and lists of religious providers to call on should someone have a need beyond our religious reach. Those items brought comfort to many people, but none of them seemed to fit Julie’s needs. So I made a split decision and broke a rule: I stopped at the hospital gift shop at the end of my shift and bought what seemed to be another inadequate trinket, a teddy bear. But it was all I could do, so I attached a message to it and asked a nurse to deliver it to Julie.
Several days later my supervisor called me into her office and asked me if I’d bought a gift for one of my patients, a professional no-no. “Yes, I did,” I nervously admitted. I explained why I’d done it, and even though I knew it could negatively impact my review I didn’t regret it. But my supervisor hadn’t called me in to scold me (although she did remind me of our professional code of ethics). Instead she told me that the bear was lost in the laundry. Julie was distraught because the bear was meaningful to her. So even though I’d bent the rules, the gesture had accomplished what the religious items did: it offered a tangible reminder that a person is loved and known by another. I was quickly dismissed to go replace the bear, the cost of which was to be covered by the spiritual care department.
Julie was touched, but not as much as I was by her friendship. Over the short weeks that followed, I got to know others who testified to what I already discovered: Julie was a fiercely loyal spouse, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. She was also a gifted ICU critical care nurse whose 26 year career was defined by the same level of dedication. Many of her colleagues claimed that she taught them everything they needed to know, beyond that which a book could teach. “Interesting,” I thought, because without even realizing it she’d been my teacher too.
That thought occurred to me again, just as I took a deep breath before walking into a crowed room to conduct her funeral. Julie died Dec. 22, three years ago. I was honored that she left me in charge of such an affair and even though I grieved her loss, I laughed to myself as I imagined what colorful thing Julie would say if I could tell her that she’d been a minister’s teacher. Then again, I wondered if she knew exactly what she was doing all along.
This advent season, I am reminded that hope came to a broken world in the most unusual way. A virgin birth. A king in a manger. A prince of peace in a war-riddled reality. Risks were taken and rules were bent to make room for love, even if it didn’t make any logical sense. That story is still being written. What will you risk for love this season? What rules will you bend to share kindness?
This essay was written in response to the #ShareKindness initiative on NBC’s Today Show. If you’d like to #ShareKindness by donating to the Julie Roche scholarship fund established in honor of her passion for nursing, please mail your tax deductible donation to the Julie A. Roche Nursing Scholarship, c/o Main Street Community Foundation, P.O. Box 2702 Bristol, CT 06011 -2702. To read more about Julie’s journey, head on over to her Caring Bridge page.