My partner and I watched as our two youngest daughters were baptized on a calm, warm summer day. The music played, the quartet sang and the minister shared with us about renewal and rebirth. We watched with a peaceful calm in our hearts as they each entered the water quietly and in a moment were changed forever. I really had joy in the moment. Not only was I proud of them, I also knew that their lives are in the hands of the one who molded them, who has known them since before time began.
Before their baptisms, my partner and I had the opportunity to stand and speak about our joy in the moment. I stood and told a story about a recent incident that occurred at work. I am an oncology nurse. Other nurses who work in happy places like birthing centers (not to degrade them in anyway) often comment that they could never work on our unit because it is so gloomy, and often too taxing emotionally. My experience as an oncology nurse has taught me just the opposite and has been quite different than I ever expected. I have found a quiet calm and peace – true joy really as I move among my patient’s on a daily basis.
Don’t get me wrong, the floor that I work on in a major inner city hospital isn’t always a happy place to work. While I don’t see dying on a daily basis, I see it often enough to have been touched by the experiences that people and their families go through during one of life’s most trying times. I have seen the frightened, scared faces, the wall of denial in someone’s eyes as real as any brick wall, desperation and bargaining, the anger and mourning of loss, the quiet acceptance of fate, and a calm, peaceful, serene beauty as a life is changed and passes through the veil of death to everlasting life.
Joy goes much deeper than happiness. While happiness is fleeting and dependent on the events of the moment, joy is not dependent on happy moments but is able to transcend every experience, no matter how good or bad, and bring us closer, even into the presence of God. When others can take everything that you love away from you, in the end, the only thing that we can control is whether we choose to find joy in the moment.
Where I work, there are always stories of people that are so heartbreaking. The young wife and mother with three children who suddenly finds out that not only does she have cancer but on a few days to live. A brother and a son who has just finished high school, is filled with life’s dreams, hopes and aspirations and finds out that the reason ha has been so tired for months is leukemia and suddenly realizing that all of those dreams and plans might go unfulfilled. A grandmother who has lived a good and long life and will be missed by all those that she loves, who quietly lies and calmly accepts the course her life is taking. There are also the stories of those whose actions and behavior have been the major contributing factor to their cancer, who wish and hope that they had more time before dying to make things right with those that they love and to come to peace with themselves.
Probably the most painful stories are the one’s where the dying person is all alone. Out of everything that I hope for in life, even as a nurse, the last place where I want to experience my last moments is in a hospital all by myself. It is often a cold place, too sterile for such an emotionally intense moment like dying. Imagine being recently told that you have precious little time to live and not having someone who loves you and cares for you to be there and help you through it all. We are all going to die. It is a fact of life. But to have to go through it all alone must be excruciatingly painful. While I love all of my patients and give them the best possible care that I can, not only physically but emotionally as well, my heart really goes out to those that are all alone.
I recently took care of a middle aged man who falls into this group of people. Not only is he alone, and diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, but he has other major issues as well. He is schizophrenic, bipolar and mentally retarded. Hardly the first person that you would ever think that would help light your way toward Christ or find real joy in the moment. You would think that at fifty, I would be well beyond making subconscious, quick judgments about people and their capabilities, especially given my experience as a transsexual woman. God only knows how many times I have been drawn up short by a word or deed by someone who I thought would never be able to teach me anything. Anyway, as I stood by his bedside and began infusing the toxic chemicals to kill the cancer that lurks in his body and is slowly sucking the life out of him, and not really paying attention to him but focused on the task at hand, he began to talk. And, as he softy spoke, I found myself stopping what I was doing and listening to the words that he said.
What he said was simple and plain. There was no pretense, no attempt to impress me with anything. He simply spoke from his heart and as he did my heart was penetrated. He talked about how his father and mother had died from cancer. He quickly added that they were in a much better place and that God was watching over them. He said that even at that moment, they were probably watching over him as “his angels.” He talked about being an only child and all alone. He changed the topic quickly, as he often does, leaving me to wonder where the conversation would go next. He said that we don’t often find happiness in the events of this life but can find joy in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. He went on to say, we can do this because we have the knowledge that we have someone there for us – someone who is waiting for us with open arms. And because of that knowledge, we finally find and deeply feel joy in the moment. He finally said, “You know, I know that my reward will be in heaven.” I looked at him. I really could not understand how he could possibly feel the way he did. Wasn’t he angry? Didn’t he feel like he had been wronged and not given a fair opportunity to have a happy and fulfilling life? Didn’t he understand that people often looked at him and laughed about how odd his behavior was?
If given the same set of circumstances in my life, I probably would not be lying there and confident in the knowledge that there is something better waiting for me and that all that I had experienced and suffered in this world had been worth it, because soon I would be in the presence of the Lord. All too often, my love for the Lord has been dependent on my present circumstances. Instead of being able to see beyond what was happening to me, to focus all of my attention on my final objective, I become enmeshed in the quagmire of self pity, anger and feelings of betrayal.
However, when I let go of all my expectations for what life owes me, I have found that I have been the happiest and have found the most joy in the moment when I have been in the service of God for the benefit of others. These experiences are not always happy ones. They are not always calm and serene like the baptisms of our girls. Joy often comes at the most unexpected moments, when life is at its worst. Somehow, God reaches into my heart and is able to shut out all of the noise, all of the distractions of all that is going on around me and for once I am able to focus on what truly matters. In that moment, I find joy in the moment and know that the experiences that I have had are all well worth what I have gone though in order to experience them.
My patient taught me so much. Isn’t it amazing that many of life’s lessons that are so poignant take place when you least expect them, from people who you thought unable to teach you anything and happen in just a moment of time?