“Help me!” she called out. “Can someone please help me?” I was sitting in a community room of the long term care home where I work as a chaplain, holding the hand of one of the residents when a resident on the other side of the room asked for assistance. We’ll call her Clara – her white hair cut in a short bob. I’ve never seen her standing, but I think she’s a rather short woman. Clara is hard of hearing and nearly blind, her eyes often lock on a spot of nothing in the middle distance. “Please, help me!” Her voice was insistent. Clear.
I hesitated. Residents often ask for help, and usually they’re asking for things I can’t do for them personally. I am not trained to take them to the bathroom or to change them into their pajamas. Sometimes they ask me to find their mommy or their daughter who hasn’t come to visit in years. I can’t help with these things either.
“Can someone please help me?” she called.
I didn’t hesitate for long. The nurse’s station was right around the corner, so I knew I could quickly find someone to assist with toileting, if that was what she needed. I stood up from my chair, walked over to Clara. I gently moved into her middle distance, squatting down in front of her. I tried to break her locked gaze with my face, my hand on her shoulder, my voice. “Clara, I’m right here. Is there something I can help you with?”
Her eyes didn’t meet mine. They stayed fixed ahead of her as she answered me, her voice as forceful and clear as if she were calling to someone down a long hallway. She spoke very slowly.
“I just need someone to assure me that everything is going to be okay.”
My heart broke and dropped and grew and healed all at the same time.
Clara, did you know that you just articulated the need of every one of your fellow residents? Clara, did you know that you just voiced the longing of every child, waking up scared in their bed after a nightmare? Clara, did you know that you spoke on behalf of all humans facing all the things that we’re facing? Clara, did you look into my heart? Did you know that I also just need someone to assure me that everything is going to be okay?
In the weeks since this moment, I’ve thought a lot about what Clara said. I’ve parsed out the existential longing in her stated need, asking her questions in my mind that she, with her cognitive decline, would likely not have been able to answer. Clara, tell me what you mean by “everything.” Clara, say more about what being “okay” would feel like for you. Do you mean “okay” just for you? Or for the world? Clara, do you have a timeline in mind, by when you’re hoping everything will be okay?
And Clara, tell me about the things that aren’t okay. I can guess some of them, based on the conversations we’ve had and based on what I know about the condition of your mind and body. But Clara, say more about what’s not okay. I’m listening. I’m right here.
In that moment in the community room, I didn’t think to ask these questions. But what I remember of the moment is this:
When she said, “I just need someone to assure me that everything is going to be okay,” it felt to me like a veil was torn. That’s how I described it later—a veil was torn. Was it a veil between heaven and earth? Or a veil between my vocation and her needs? Or the veil that hides our eyes from the reality that we are all deeply connected to each other as humans, no matter our age or ability?
Whatever veil that tore, I felt like I was suddenly and certainly on holy ground. Her wheelchair was a burning bush and I went from squatting next to her to kneeling all the way down on that sacred land. “Oh, Clara,” I said. “Give me your hand.” I took her hand. “Look into my eyes.” She glanced at me briefly. “I know that you are going through some very hard things right now. And not much feels like it’s okay.” I took a deep breath. “But in the end, it’s going to be okay.”
As I spoke, the words I’ve heard many times before were in my head. “In the end, everything is going to be okay. And if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” This is what I am trusting when I lean into my conviction that all things hold together in Christ and that nothing can separate us from the love of God. This is the gift that I tried to give Clara in that moment. She nodded, but just slightly. I continued to hold her hand for a while. “I’m right here, Clara.”
Could I have said something else? Perhaps. But I trust that my presence in that moment was what she needed more than anything else. After all, Clara didn’t say, “I just need to know that everything is going to be okay.” She said, “I just need someone to assure me that everything’s going to be okay.” I just need someone to assure me. I just need someone.
Sometimes, we just need someone. And the presence of that someone is the assurance that we are not alone. Come what may. In this moment, we are not alone.
We celebrate again this Christmas that the Word became that Someone and made his dwelling among us. May our flesh and blood continue to embody that Someone, blessedly assuring one another across middle distances and down the sacred hallways of each other’s lives with voices loud and clear: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
In other words, everything’s going to be okay.
Feature Image is used with the permission of Kathryn Vilela: a picture of her late grandmother’s hands