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Britt LubyMarch 28, 2024
Photo via iStock

“What are you doing?” the nurse asked me from across the hospital cafeteria. He was grabbing a late lunch. I was asking the cafeteria staff for a spare hot dog bun.

“Grabbing things for Communion,” I said. I held my finger up to my mouth, “Don’t tell the priest.” 

The lights flickered as I spoke. We gazed at each other, wide-eyed. “I think God already knows,” he said.

One hot dog bun, one bottle of cran-apple juice, a plastic purple plate, a red glass goblet borrowed from a colleague, an electric tealight candle, a colorful plastic tray and a brand-new Bible pulled from the shelf. This was the Communion table I was setting up for Room 37. 

Amelia was in Room 37. Her parents were there, too, her mother’s belly still soft from carrying her, her father’s face tired yet hopeful. She was a little over a week old at this point, and she had spent every single day fighting, fighting to breathe, because her lungs were affected by a congenital condition. Fighting to keep her heart beating, because her heart was so tired. Fighting to stay with her family because she could feel their fierce love—how could anyone not feel that fierce love?—and she belonged in their arms. 

Her parents are two of the most faithful parents I have encountered in my work as a hospital chaplain. Their Christian faith had been tested more than once. They had ripped their faith apart at the seams and filled up each tear with more love, more hope and more obedience. 

Now they were in a hospital room, yet another trial thrown at their feet. Their bedside nurse had called me. “The neonatologist just left,” she told me, “and they are crying. Could you come by soon?”

When I arrived, their tears had ceased. Amelia’s mom was gazing at Amelia and pumping breast milk. Her father was reading a book. They greeted me warmly, like a close friend, even though we had only known each other a week. Time moves strangely in the NICU, and a quick intimacy can develop when everything else is stripped away.

Amelia’s parents talked about the update the doctor had given them. As usual, they remarked that everything was ultimately in God’s hands. They told me how appreciative they were of the doctors and nurses. They spoke of their hope for a miracle, but they also spoke about their trust in God’s presence, however things unfolded. And then her father surprised me with a request. He stated, “This isn’t typically part of our tradition, Britt, but I was thinking I would really like Communion. Is that weird? Is that something we could do?”

As non-denominational Christians, this couple’s relationship with Communion was so very different than my own. If you, too, are Catholic, you know that Communion isn’t something you just do. It is ritual and rules and roles; it is sacred and beautiful and always done in a very particular way. For me, it is singular and universal, holy and very real, a connection to God and to God’s people. As a hospital chaplain, though, my job is to support the spirituality of patients and families right where they are. 

The sweetest part of Amelia’s father’s request was that he made it on Holy Thursday, the day during Holy Week when we wash each other’s feet and remember the Last Supper. I asked the them if they realized it was Holy Thursday. They didn’t know if it was morning or night, much less what day of the week it was. But they were delighted by this coincidence and even more eager to engage with this practice. “We can certainly have Communion,” I told Amelia’s dad. “Just give me a little time to put it together.”

And so, the hot dog bun and the juice. Amelia’s parents spiritual hunger was palpable, and these elements from the hospital cafeteria were the most accessible nourishment in the moment. Room 37 began to transform into the upper room where Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples. I handed Amelia’s father the Bible, and he started reading the story of the Last Supper. He read softly, his voice barely audible over the sounds of the ventilator. Amelia’s mother and I leaned closer to hear. The chaos of the machines keeping Amelia alive was still there, of course, but a stillness found us, too.

In that stillness, I knelt closer to Amelia’s parents with the tray. The little electric tea light flickered, but it could hardly compete with the bright lights of her hospital room. “‘Take and eat, this is my body,’” he read. We tore the stale bun and shared it with each other. “‘Take and eat, this is my blood,’” he continued. We drank from the same red cup. My hands were shaking as I passed the glass to Amelia’s mother. We cried, we prayed, we demanded that God show up for us. We said, Please give us a miracle, and we also said, Please don’t leave us here alone. My deepest prayer was that God would sustain this family through whatever came next.

Here is what came next: Amelia’s father said he planned to wash their other children’s feet when they got home that evening. Amelia’s mother pulled out her hands-free breast pump so she could get more milk for her daughter. 

Here is what came next: I cried in the car on the way home. I washed the feet of my husband, my son and my daughter. I kissed my children’s toes. I kissed them again at bedtime. I kissed them again after they fell asleep, and I went to check on them one more time, their faces illuminated by nightlights. 

Here is what came next: Amelia died. 

Holy Thursday is just the beginning of the Easter Triduum. What comes next—the death and the resurrection of Jesus—completes the story. We reach the summit of our liturgical year in these three days, but sometimes I feel like we are clawing our way to the top of a mountain. The resurrection feels far away, the climb painfully steep, and I know I cannot do it alone. And sometimes babies die on Easter Sunday, and there is no liturgical bow to make it feel right and just and beautiful. We reach the top, and we are still sweaty and weary. It feels impossible to catch our breath. 

I have spent enough time in religious education classes and graduate school theology courses to know that what happened in Room 37 was not the Eucharist. I know it was not an official sacrament. But it was something, wasn’t it? I know it was something.

As a lay Catholic serving as a hospital chaplain, I wrestle with the institutional church and my own spirituality daily. I worry about doing things “wrong” and getting into trouble. So I felt anxious when I prepared that Communion tray. The flickering lights in the cafeteria—a warning sign from above?!—only added to my anxiety. 

When my colleague in the cafeteria said, “God already knows,” he was right. But not in the way I initially assumed. God knew the fear in Amelia’s parent’s hearts; God knew of Amelia’s beautiful soul; and God knew that I yearned to help these parents engage their spirituality on a hard day. God knows what comes next. 

God was in that room before I slipped in with that hot dog bun because God is always with us. Even when babies are dying. Especially when babies are dying. Our ceremony was a reminder that God sees us and loves us. Our ritual was an example of what God calls us to do all the time: to break bread, to hope, to care for each other on our hard days, and to celebrate the presence of God in the midst of our suffering and fear. To nourish one another as God nourishes us so that we can continue our march to the summit. 

Here is what continues to come next, for me: I sit through Maundy Thursday mass and imagine Amelia sitting at the table with Jesus. He holds her, he washes her feet, he feeds her, and he invites the rest of us to do the same.

Patient names and room numbers in this story were changed to protect their privacy.

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