The Christmas We Deserve — Holiday Hospital Part 7

This is the seventh in a multi-part blog about my 2 week stay at St. Vincent Seton Specialty Hospital. Here is an index to all of the entries in this series.

Chaplain Services

I just realized that I forgot to tell you about the hospital chaplain that I met I believe the first full day that I was at Seton Hospital. As I’m writing this blog, it is 16 months after the fact so naturally my memory of events isn’t exactly total recall. Much of what I’m writing comes from a combination of two sources: One was a file I created “calendar.doc” containing one or two lines of notes about what happened on that day. The other source is the series of Facebook posts that I’ve been linking. Somehow I forgot to put in the notes on Facebook that there were two chaplains that I encountered during my visit. Unfortunately I didn’t make any notes about their names and I can’t recall either of them.

The first guy showed up I think on my first full day. He looked to be about 40 years old and was a very outgoing and gregarious kind of guy. He was a tall handsome man with light brown hair and a permanent smile. For those of you reading this who know the Enneagram system of personality types, he was very definitely a type THREE. He sat down and we had a nice conversation.

I told him about my involvement in St. Gabriel Church and how I had a good prayer support system behind me. Somewhere along the way I mentioned that I had been an RCIA teacher for 30 years. A puzzled look went across his face. Then he admitted he didn’t know when I was talking about because he wasn’t Catholic. I don’t recall what particular denomination he was but I seem to recall that it was some sort of evangelical branch. It might’ve been Baptist but I’m not sure. I thought it was really bizarre that a Catholic institution would hire a Protestant chaplain. But given that there is a priest shortage, if you weren’t going to have a person who could deliver sacraments then any person of faith would be okay. Although it is a Catholic institution, the population of Catholic patients was probably on par with whatever the general population percentage is. So having a Protestant chaplain wasn’t totally crazy. Just surprising.

He had with him a large piece of paper perhaps 12” x 24” that was a kind of a poster that had a number of questions about my personal life. I seem to recall he had things like favorite food, favorite TV show, hobbies etc. The intention was that I fill it out and they would post it on the wall where the staff could read it and get to know me. I never did fill it out.

I seem to recall we shared a prayer and he would drop by from time to time checking on me. At one point I shared with him the story of my friends from Adafruit and makers community and how surprised and pleased I was with their support. I especially wanted to tell him the story of how Phil seemed inspired by the fact his well wishes had had a positive effect on my recovery. I described it to him as a well disguised bit of evangelization on my part. I wasn’t really out to convert Phil to Christianity. But the fact that I had opened the door to get him to consider some spirituality and its real-world effects I thought was an interesting story. The chaplain seemed to enjoy it.

At this point in the story we are at December 23. It was about this time that the primary chaplain went on vacation and he was replaced by another guy whose name I forget. He was kind of short and a bit rotund. Not quite as outgoing or gregarious as the other guy but still very nice. I do recall that he was Lutheran which is somewhat more Catholic-like then an evangelical. Lutheran theology takes the same nonliteral historical critical approach to Scripture and they celebrate sacraments such as communion.

This backup chaplain had been tasked with facilitating a ceremony to put the baby Jesus into the manger of the lobby of the hospital. There had been a sign posted saying that the ceremony would be at 5:30 p.m. on the 23rd. I made it a point to be up in my wheelchair to participate in the ceremony even though I really didn’t expect it to be a very uplifting or spiritual experience. It was just something to do in a place and a time when there was nothing to do but sit and wait.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

On December 9, 1965 CBS premiered in animated special titled “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. If you ask the average person the title of a show featuring the Peanuts characters that had to do with Christmas, they would probably tell you that the title was “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” thinking that it is the story of Charlie Brown and the Christmas that he had. In the actual title, the words Charlie Brown are not about the character himself. The subject is not Charlie Brown. The subject is Christmas. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is describing the type of Christmas that it was. It’s similar to saying “A White Christmas” or “A Merry Christmas”. One of the keys to this distinction comes from a sentence that one of the characters delivers (I believe it was Lucy) when they say “Of all the Charlie Brown’s in the world… You are the Charlie Brownieist.”

Charlie Brown is Murphy’s Law incarnate. He is a sad little character for whom everything goes wrong. His kites always get eaten by the famous kite-eating tree. His baseball pitching is notoriously bad. Every time he tries to kick a football, Lucy pulls away at the last moment and he lands on his backside. The plot of the story is about his attempt to be the director of a Christmas play. In an attempt to set the proper mood, he concludes they need a Christmas tree. His choice of a scrawny, dried-up, twig of a tree initially only serves to be yet another defeat for him.

Somehow in the end, mostly as a result of his right-hand man Linus quoting Luke’s version of the nativity story, Charlie and his friends managed to discover “what Christmas is all about”. It is a cautionary tale about the commercialization of Christmas. But moreover the story is a subtle reminder to keep Christ in Christmas. In its own way it’s much more powerful than the cliché bumper sticker quote “Jesus is the reason for the season”.

Although Linus reading of the Lucan Nativity is the catalyst that “saves Christmas”. In the end really it is all of Charlie’s friends who saved the day. Linus says “It wasn’t such a bad little tree. All it needs is a little love”. The love of Charlie’s friends transforms not only the tree but Charlie himself and Christmas is saved.

I’ve always identified with Charlie Brown. There is a bit of physical resemblance. At age 10 I had a burr haircut and a round face. But beyond resemblance I felt the connection to him. It’s not that I saw myself as a perpetual loser. I think it was more that despite all of his failures he kept persisting. His never say die attitude was something I embraced in dealing with my disability. Just keep persisting despite all odds. And like everyone, I’ve known my share of failure and sadness.

Finding myself in a hospital at Christmas time solely for the reason that the bureaucracy would not authorize my ventilator in a timely matter could easily classify itself as “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. I was cut off from all of the traditions that are at their core of what makes Christmas special. In my childhood we would go to grandma Osterman’s on Christmas Eve. Have Christmas at home on Christmas morning. Go to grandma Young’s on Christmas afternoon. In recent years we would do Christmas Eve at our house with my sisters bringing their kids and grandkids and then spent Christmas day at Carol’s house with her grandkids. The usual traditions of food, lights, decorations, presents, music, home were going to be nothing but memories for this particular Christmas. Although I had not been to Midnight Mass in many years simply because it was too difficult for my stamina, apparently I was even going to be cut off from Catholicism this Christmas with nothing but a substitute Lutheran chaplain for spiritual direction and celebration. I had spent hours preparing my custom-designed Christmas cards and although they arrived from the printer just before I entered the hospital, they were not going to be mailed until after I got home. Dad had set up our little Christmas tree in the living room but because he was never home, he rarely turned it on.

So this was the atmosphere surrounding the placing of a statue of the baby Jesus into the manger of the Seton Hospital nativity scene. This was a Catholic ceremony for which I was totally unfamiliar that had been scheduled and planned by an evangelical preacher who went on vacation and left the job in the hands of a Lutheran chaplain who had little idea what he was doing there or why he was doing it.

We all gathered in the chapel at the appointed hour. There was me, I believe a nurse or two, another patient in a wheelchair, and I believe perhaps one family member (not my family). Dad who is not at all religious stood by outside the chapel with my iPhone. At my request he was ready to record the events as if they were going to be something special or memorable. The chaplain offered prayers. I seem to remember there was a Scripture reading of some kind. I believe he asked for volunteers to either read the prayer or Scripture and I did so with someone holding the page for me. We then made our way out into the lobby where he placed the small statue into the manger and then invited us to sing some Christmas carols. Dad missed part of it because he was unfamiliar with how to shoot video on an iPhone. Here is the video that he shot that day.

My comment at the end of the video that just got cut off as dad stopped recording was where I said “I don’t think any of us should quit our day jobs to become singers.” It drew a couple of chuckles from people.

It would be easy to look at this entire situation as a horrible tragedy. A pathetic attempt to squeeze some meaning out of Christmas under sad, depressing circumstances. But somehow in the spirit of Charlie Brown it was all okay. It was a determined if feeble attempt by all of us to not let our circumstances totally rob us of Christmas.

In 1975, Greg Lake of the famous rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer recorded a song titled “I Believe in Father Christmas”. He recorded it first as a solo single and later appeared in the ELP album “Works Volume 2” in 1977. Lake wrote the music and lyrics were by Peter Sinfield. The song reached number two on the UK singles chart in 1975 beaten out only by Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. In a YouTube video I found, Lake said it was one of his most requested songs whenever he performed whether it was Christmas season or not.

It has been included in many Christmas compilation albums which is strange to me because for the most part it is a very atheistic look at Christmas. Lake said he wrote the song as a protest to the commercialization of Christmas. Lyricist Sinfield however said that the words are about the loss of innocence and childhood belief.

As I understand the lyrics, it’s about someone who was tricked into believing the mythology of Christmas and Jesus as a young child and who eventually grew up to reject the whole thing as a fairytale. Yet somehow the message of Christmas, peace on earth goodwill towards men, while unfulfilled still resonates with the author. He wishes the listener have “A Hopeful Christmas” and despite his disillusionment over the religious aspects of the season, the title still indicates he believes in “Father Christmas”. In 1975 when the song was released it pretty much exactly describe my feelings about Christmas. It was a time when I had turned away from faith and to the church and considered myself decidedly agnostic if not completely atheist. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that I returned to the church and we discovered my faith.

Whether I was in my agnostic period of time or now as a person with reawakened and rediscovered faith, I still like the song. Despite its rejection of the religious roots of Christmas the important part of the song for me has always been the final two lines.

Hallelujah Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.

To me that says that whether you believe in Jesus or not, Christmas is so powerful that if you can’t manage to enjoy it then it’s your own damned fault. Anyone who is so cynical as to not enjoy Christmas gets what they deserve. That sentiment has always embodied my personal feelings about Christmas whether I was a believer or not.

That sentiment is how I could look at that pathetic ceremony under pitiful circumstances and still find the spirit of Christmas.

As you will see in the next blog or two, I was surrounded by family and friends and presents on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It wasn’t the usual Christmas but it was Christmas nevertheless.

Here are the complete lyrics of the song followed by some links related to it.

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winters light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
They told me a fairy story
‘Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
‘Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve

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