On the days my mother goes into work, the driver who shuttles workers between the parking garage and the hospital hands her a mask as soon as she boards the bus. When she arrives, she changes into hospital-issued scrubs right away. Before entering her patients’ rooms, she must go through all the careful steps of putting on the garments designed to shield her from infection: gown, gloves, mask, eye protection. When we first found out that the unit where she works would be converting to take COVID rule-out patients, I sat with her and watched the video the hospital assigned her to view on the process of donning and doffing personal protective equipment. Tie the gown in the back. Seal the mask around the bridge of your nose. When you’re finished, slide it off your shoulders, roll it all up into your gloves, and throw it away. Be careful not to toss it too vigorously into the trash can, or you’ll risk aerosolizing the viral particles.
She tells us she’s safer than the grocery store employees who have to interact with the constant stream of community members without any of these safeguards against contamination. But even though her work doesn’t put her in serious physical danger, it’s hard in so many ways. Her patients are often medically complicated—that’s why they’re at such risk for the disease in the first place. She can’t check on them easily because she has to don all her equipment before she can open the door. Many of them, especially those who have dementia, become distressed and disoriented by the hospital setting. All of them are alone—their only line of contact with their families is through updates over the phone. As she hurries to meet a hundred different needs, the impossibility of satisfying them all forces her to exist in the awful place of knowing that she can never make everything right for the people she tends.
If there’s ever a day to press into the frustration we feel when our own weakness brushes up against the world’s great brokenness, it’s Good Friday. As a little girl, I loved the joy of Easter Sunday, but I also found something my heart needed in the sorrow of my church’s Good Friday service. I was drawn in by the aching minor chords of the songs, the darkness that deepened as the altar candles were snuffed one by one, the echoing thud of the pastor’s Bible at the end, the silent shuffle out of the sanctuary. Even though the day is steeped in sadness, I’ve always sensed that the sadness is a kind of gift—not just because of the joy that follows it on Sunday morning, but because it creates a space where we can acknowledge that our world is not well, where we can sit with our collective suffering, and where we can grieve what has been lost.
When I first planned to write this article, Ruth and I thought it might be a wrap-up. That was back before the announcement that the rest of the semester would take place remotely and we thought we might be returning after Easter. Now, as I dwell in this dissonance between life and death, between the unfolding of spring and the rising rates of infection, I don’t have the words to tie up this experience neatly with a message of meaning and assurance. I could tell you that everything will be okay in the end. I could remind you about the beauty of the natural world: the tulips tunneling through the soil, the forsythia bush that burst into bright-yellow blossom outside our living room door, the chorus of frogs that sings through the night. Yet as we face the pain that pervades our communities, I wonder if that’s not what we need in this moment. Instead, I invite you to join me in lament:
For the elderly men and women who are isolated in nursing homes
For the families struggling financially
For the weariness of healthcare workers
For the individuals whose mental illness is worsened by fear and isolation
For the mothers who bear babies into a world gripped by danger
For the loneliness of those who lack family support
For the ever-present reality of racial disparity that this crisis has brought into focus
For the way the powerful take advantage of the vulnerable
For the immunocompromised people who live with the constant threat of death
For the children trapped in abusive homes
For every life that this pandemic will take, and the loved ones left behind
During one of my mother’s most difficult shifts, she was assigned an older woman whose health was failing fast. At one point, she noticed the woman singing a prayer to herself—“Lord help me, Lord help me.” So my mother began to hum along with her, entering into the melody that twisted out of this woman’s pain into a kind of beauty that rose beyond the walls of her little hospital room to join the songs of Heaven. And this, I think, is the goodness of Good Friday: not that God erases our suffering, but that he descends into the midst of it, sending his voice into the brokenness of our world to reharmonize our hearts toward hope.
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