When I visit parishioners in a rehabilitation center or nursing home, there is often a roommate in the bed next to theirs. (Not in hospitals – these days, almost all hospital rooms are for one person.) These double rooms always have two televisions and usually, both televisions are on. On different channels! Still, the two roommates seem to also talk quite a bit and have gotten to know each other pretty well, since there isn’t usually much to do in between rehab sessions or meals.
The roommates often seem to become entertainment for each other. Some things parishioners say to me about their roommates are better left unsaid. But there are a few I can share here.
One parishioner, “Jenny,” was in rehab with a broken hip. I went to go visit her. Her roommate had visitors, but I could see she had two broken arms in slings criss-crossed on her chest. Jenny quipped to me, “We’re like a matched set. I don’t have no legs and she don’t have no arms!” Apparently, Jenny would work the TV remote for her armless roommate while in return the roomie could walk around and fetch a nurse or a belonging for Jenny. (Her arms were in slings but her fingers could wiggle out from the casts.)
A man, “Sam,” had a roommate who could banter like a sitcom star. Sam and “Raymond” could’ve been Felix and Oscar in their own Odd Couple: Rehab series. From the moment I walked in the room, the three of us were having a conversation. I would try to talk to Sam and Raymond would interject with snarky comments and remarks, then Sam would snark right back. This was bromance. I was a little sad to think Sam would eventually go home to an empty house.
Then, Raymond seemed to realize, all of a sudden, that I was a woman with a collar on. A priest!?! And he was suddenly fascinated. He asked me a million questions and couldn’t stop telling me how wonderful he thought it was. He was completely sincere and enthralled. I’d never had this experience with a man over 80 before.
Finally, Raymond left for a test and Sam and I could really talk.
Today, I brought a birthday card to one of our dear older ladies, “Torrie.” On Sunday morning everyone had signed the card. When she saw it she breathed in a little and let her eyes wander over all the notes and signatures, taking it all in. She smiled and said, “When you leave, I’m going to show it to her” and she gestured to her roommate.
We talked and laughed with her daughter, who was there. We talked about her birthday party, which I would have to miss since I would be having a birthday lunch with my family that day, too! “Happy birthday to you!” Torrie said. And then I got out my prayer book and anointing oil, put my hands on her head and said the birthday blessing and a prayer. When I was done, her roommate spoke through the curtain pulled across the room,
“Please. I would like to be anointed, too.”
This was not a request – it was more like a command. So I nodded to Torrie and her daughter and went around the curtain. The woman looked small in her bed. She was probably a grandmother, and seemed Filipino. Her straight, black hair was bobbed and lay neatly on either side of her face. I asked her what her name was.
“Mila,” she said. (I’m not sure if this is how it is spelled.) Then she told me:
“At my church, I anointed people for healing. In the back of the church, we did it.”
She was asking me to do for her what she had done for probably dozens – if not hundreds? – of people. So, I traced my oily thumb across her forehead and prayed aloud for her. She put her hand on mine and said,
“Thank you. Thank you.”
I’m a trained priest, with four years of graduate school and many hours of internships. This is my seventh year of ordained ministry. But when I anointed Mila, I knew I was anointing someone with much more experience in ministry than I have.
I talked some more with Torrie, and then I had to go. I put on my coat and said goodbye to Torrie, to her daughter, and to Mila. As I went out the door, Mila said,
“Happy birthday to you!”
Ministry – and life – is full of times to be surprised by the ordinary. It’s hard to go into a nursing home, but there are stories in every room and every bed, and gifts to be given and received.