Sitting in the noon light of the atrium, he locks his eyes on mine and says, “27? You look older.”
The chatter of thirty lunching employees quiets to an indistinct drone.
“You know that’s not a nice thing to say to a woman.”
“Hey,” he shrugs. “I tell people, I gave my arm to live forever. I’m a demi-god!” He bears his teeth in a grimace-smile.
I try not to glance at the half-sleeve that billows like a flag from one shoulder, empty.
“How’s that working out for you?” I spike at him.
“Great. Look at me!”
We face off over a lunch table full of groceries and receipts. Hadi (a Persian name he claims is pronounced “hottie”) runs errands for the hospital employees as part of an initiative to improve quality of life for busy medical professionals.
I look down at my lap full of dry-cleaning, worry the hangers into a neat stack.
“So you think I look old?”
“No, you look—I was kidding,” he shuffles his papers. “I mean, I’m trying to look older here. That’s what this is about,” he motions toward his spotty goatee. “How do you think it’s working?”
I stare at him. The volunteer pianist, who comes at lunchtime to entertain families and staff, tinkles “Blue Moon” in the corner.
“You look 65. Congratulations.”
He licks his lips, smirks. “So you have some outstanding charges from your shoe repair, and I only have your old credit card on file.”
I hand him my card and stare at out the window. His body leans over the iPad, as if willing his phantom arm to hold it in place. He pecks at the touchscreen with his index finger.
When he’s finished, I scuttle into the bathroom and lock the door. Under the harsh fluorescent lights, I notice a starburst of tiny fractures in my skin, expanding from the center of my brow. I lift my forehead in a surprised expression, try to stretch out the kinks.
Not wanting to visit my insecurities on the patients, I drag out my lunch break as long as possible. I google the ages of my favorite actors and try to discern the imperfections in their peachy, elastic skin. I slouch at my desk and send out a flurry of insecure text messages to my sisters and mom.
“What exactly did you mean,” I write to my sister, “when you gave me that moisturizer that claims to fight both acne and wrinkles at the same time?”
Finally I follow up with a patient I’ve seen twice over the past few weeks. He lies puddled in his bed, his body swollen shapeless with some yet unidentified disease. Under his chin sits an omnipresent vomit bowl the color of Pepto-Bismol.
“Mr. Callihan?” I say quietly.
His eyes are shut, lids cinched tight in discomfort.
“Yes?” He mumbles and squints up at me with great effort.
“I’m Caroline, the chaplain. I came to visit you last week.”
“How are you feeling today?”
He flinches, as if responding to an invisible kick or punch. A blue vein pronounces itself on his forehead.
“Not so good.”
“Yeah?” I shift my weight. “You look like you’re in a lot of pain.”
“Yes. They gave me some nausea medicine, but it hasn’t kicked in yet.” Mr. Callihan sucks in a breath. “I’ve just been here for so long.”
“I know. Must be very discouraging.”
“Yes. If I could just relax.”
“What helps you relax? Would music help?”
He stares at the portable toilet in the corner of the room. For months he’s been using a bedpan; I wonder if the physical therapist left it as a visual goal.
“I used to like music, but now it hurts.”
“We have some lavender aromatherapy balls in the chapel.”
“It just makes me more nauseous.”
I search the dimly lit room for inspiration and give up.
“Sounds like the world’s just lost its color.”
For the first time this visit, he turns to me. His cloudy, prophet’s eyes search my face and then brim.
I reach for his hand, which is all bone and vein, despite the swell of his belly, and cold as marble.
When I pray for Mr. Callihan, he whimpers. I hear soft, moaning noises like a blind puppy lost under a house.
I pray harder. I squeeze his hand and grasp for the best words I can find. I want them to hang in the room after I leave, my syntax and vocabulary a colorful bunting strewn around his dark room.
But the prayer comes out stammered, unsure of its next step. “Give him strength and comfort. And take away the pain and the nausea and . . . any discomfort he may feel. Help him to know that you’re here, even when it doesn’t necessarily feel like it. And surround him with your love.”
It’s quiet hours in the ICU when I leave. I pad down the hall, past the sharp smell of fecal matter and a housekeeper sweeping a mop across the tile in slow, weepy arcs. I notice my face is clenched tight. I rub my eyebrows as I walk, try to release the tension.
That night I tell my fiancé about the visit. “The disciples walked around healing people all the time.” I feel concern score my forehead in parallel rows. My chin wobbles. “I don’t understand why I can’t.”
“You can’t fix everyone,” he says, touching my cheek, “you can’t.”
We follow a scarred and battered king. What made me think I’d finish this ministry fresh-faced and dewy as a babe? When did I decide that how I look is more important than what I do?
Maybe the cost of discipleship is tendered in premature grays and wrinkles. Maybe my body won’t stay an empty canvas. Maybe it will be a crinkled, frayed map of love the people I have loved—and the people I’ve failed to. I think of Hadi, how I didn’t listen to his own story. I was too busy defending my vanity against a one-armed man.
I try to remember this as I watch myself age. My face is one of my best and only tools for communicating compassion. When I see a new gray hair, I try to trace it back to the time I woke at three a.m. to the death of an eighteen-year-old on a joy ride. When I see a parenthetical fine line framing the corner of my mouth, I remember a man suffocating from COPD who wanted to be saved. When I see a growing crevice between my eyebrows, I remember Mr. Callihan. I couldn’t fix his body, but I cared for him, and he knew.