May 29, 2020

Guest Post: A Mere Lump of Humanity?

Today’s Post is by Adam McHugh

Note from Chaplain Mike:
Back in March, we reviewed Adam McHugh’s fine book, Introverts in the Church. Adam is not only a writer, but also a hospice chaplain. I wrote him and asked if he would contribute a hospice story because I thought it might be helpful for our readers to hear another voice talk about this personal and pastoral work.

Adam’s story takes the “philosophy” of my posts from earlier this week and puts a “face” on it. To me, it is especially poignant, for I met another “Jimmy” today on one of my visits.

Enjoy.

“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” [Jesus] said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” (Luke 14:12-14 (NLT)

A MERE LUMP OF HUMANITY?
by Adam McHugh

I sat at my desk on a Monday morning and perused the telecare reports from the weekend:

  • The patient needs a refill on meds.
  • I need to talk to a social worker.
  • When will they remove the equipment?
  • I colored three pictures today.

Without looking, I knew that the last call belonged to Jimmy.

Adam McHugh

Jimmy was the first patient that I met as a hospice chaplain, and I anticipate that he will be the most memorable patient that I ever meet as a hospice chaplain. The memory of our first encounter is emblazoned on my mind: the nurse, the social worker, and I ascend the stairway to the second floor of a bleak motel to Jimmy’s room, his permanent residence. Jimmy greets us in a black Homer Simpson t-shirt and shiny red shorts, eyeing me suspiciously. As we cross the threshold we are hit with a fog bank of cigarette smoke. Jimmy says few words, usually in broken sentences and non-sequiturs, while our social worker in her most gentle voice attempts to explain his medication to him and how to call hospice from his cell phone.  He nods his assents but looks thoroughly confused. This is not the first time this exchange has taken place, nor will it be the last.

This was one of the few times I ever saw Jimmy, even though he was on our service for several months. He was extremely uncomfortable around men and thus all of the hospice staff who attended to him were women. Jimmy’s story is filled with mystery, sadness, and profound isolation, yet his last months of life revealed glimmers of belonging, hope, and even a childlike contentment.

We were never able to identify a single one of Jimmy’s relatives, and he never spoke of his family or his past. He had no known friends, to the extent that we had to list his motel manager as his primary care giver. The source of his fear of men was unknown, though clearly traumatic. We could only speculate that in his life he had been hurt, physically and emotionally, by men. Some of his nurses spoke of him as a “man-child,” as his emotional intelligence was at the maturity level of perhaps an 8 year old boy. We conjectured that Jimmy had undergone severe emotional trauma at an early age, and though his body had continued to grow into that of a man, his mental and emotional capacity had frozen at that age. Others wondered if he was autistic, as he rarely made eye contact, spoke in monotone, and had limited facial movement. In the eyes of some outsiders he would have been a mere lump of humanity, misunderstood, anonymous, discarded, dying in an out-of-the-way motel.

But to our team, Jimmy became a son. During the 4 months that he was with us, we spoke of him more frequently than any other patient, often with a kind of fascinated laughter. He brought out the maternal instincts in our nurses and home health aides, who not only cared for his routine medical needs but also bought him a toaster and a small refrigerator and regularly brought him his eclectic lunch of choice, a vanilla milkshake and a fish sandwich. Nothing brought Jimmy as much joy as his toaster, the first he had ever owned. He had a phone conversation with his nurse Donna the day after receiving this gift:

Donna: “Hi Jimmy, whatcha doing?”

Jimmy: “Eating toast.”

Donna: “How many pieces have you had so far today?”

Jimmy: “Six.”

Our team secretary posted on her cubicle wall one of the many pictures he had filled in, from his Sesame Street coloring book. Jimmy treated the hospice phone number more as a friendship network than an emergency hotline, and he quickly became a hospice celebrity.  Most if not all of our telecare nurses and patient care secretaries were well acquainted with him, whose calls ranged from genuine medical concerns to how many pictures he colored in an evening. Our records showed that he called telecare over 300 times.

During the course of our time with Jimmy, he became more friendly and open. He began to learn that it’s possible to trust people, and I think he even slowly began to realize that he was loved. Likewise, we were also changed. His childlike simplicity humbled us. His authenticity and his unabashed willingness to express his needs challenged us.

That May we lost Jimmy.  I had the opportunity to lead an informal memorial service, which was more of an occasion for storytelling and laughter than it was for a ritualized service. The table in front of the room was adorned with the standard flowers and a candle, but also with a basket of the toys he had been given and a picture that had been taken on his last birthday. The picture even betrayed a slight smile on Jimmy’s face.

At this gathering Jimmy’s parents were not present, but there was the man from his bank, the one man that Jimmy had trusted over the years, and his nurse Sam that had loved him like her own son. She was the one who taught him what a “hug” was, and though at first he was extremely uncomfortable with this display of affection, by the end he would not let her leave until she gave him one. There were no brothers and sisters, but there was his doctor and social worker and team manager and secretary and chaplain, who all spoke of him fondly. There were no lifelong friends, but there were new friends who would remember him all their lives long.

It is not mere sentimentality to say that our team and others around him became Jimmy’s family during his last days. One of our hospice commitments is that parents and families come first, but this was one occasion in which those two groups beautifully intersected, and when we lost a patient we also lost a cherished family member.

Adam McHugh is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister, hospice chaplain, and spiritual director. He lives in Claremont, California.

Comments

  1. This was absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

  2. great story…

  3. Agreed w/ Marie. What a wonderful story.

    And it’s a challenging reminder to love those who may not have experienced love before, and realizing we are all in need of it.

  4. Wonderful story which brought back many good memories of my 20 plus years in community mental health. I have been blessed to know a few Jimmy’s, and blessed just as much to know the caring people in a small community who gather around wounded souls to show what love is. It is a beautiful thing to see ordinary people from all walks of life find extraordinary ways to love the unloveable and reach the unreachable. I hope we hear more from Adam in the future!

  5. Full of emotion and speechless.

  6. What if Christ was born with down syndrome or cerebral palsy? Why not? The extent that we are challenged by that thought reveals to what extent we cannot grasp the significance of the incarnation. Being able to see Jesus in a wheelchair at a care center last year changed my life last summer.

    • Wow, what a mind blowing comment dumb ox.

      Off topic, but… Anyone have any thought about what Christ’s genetic makeup would have been like?

      • Michael Bell asks, “Anyone have any thought about what Christ’s genetic makeup would have been like?”

        Yes, I HAVE, Michael. I think to myself, “Jesus is fully human so to be fully human he has to have a full set of chromosomes from a human mother and from a human father. We have no problem with the mother part, but what about the father part? Did God just “whip up” all the male DNA needed on the spot? I have other thoughts about this too, but this is likely not the forum to be putting those thoughts.

        What have YOU thought about Jesus’ genetic makeup, Michael?

  7. That was moving to read. Thanks Chaplin Mike!!!

  8. What a precious story! Have learned a lot from a few Jimmies in my life! Beautiful memories!

  9. Thanks for sharing this story, Adam. I could picture Jimmy well. I am glad that he had your team to support and love him.

  10. God bless and keep you in your ministry, Adam.

  11. Thanks for sharing this beautiful and poignant account. We all need to be reminded of the beauty and power of unconditional love. Thanks for challenging me to try to have more of that kind of love for others.

  12. Very moving and challenging. Thank you.

  13. All I can say is Thank You

  14. Glorious story. Touching. I’m a mom of six children. Three of my children have disabilities: my almost 10 year old son has cerebral palsy; my almost 12 year old son has the developmental skill level of a four month old and my 10 year daughter has to deal with skinny brittle bones that break so easily.

    I have learned more from these 3 children about God (and my other ones too) than all the most learned people in the world.

    Sitting with my almost 12 year old reading to him for hours day with him leaning against my chest, I sense God’s peace. Even though we don’t know why he can’t walk or talk or sit or do anything without assistance (though he can roll really good and sleep in a lying lotus position) His life shows all Jesus, especially me.

    We all really miss out on so much good when we see typical people as “normal” and the rest as “abnormal.”

    We all are just people with all sorts of different gifts and talents and perspectives on life. All of us are important. We all are connected.