Ask me what’s holy.
Two surgeons in scrubs were sitting at a café table in a side extension of the big public space called the atrium. The broad plates of windows behind them had been cleaned a little while ago. The smell of washing fluid still lingered. Nothing was on the other side of the glass but the night. The cleaning people could have coated the windows with black ink.
No one else was around. The area was for overflow of a lunch crowd. I was taking a shortcut through here.
The two men had not heard me approaching. They must have come straight from operating—those scrubs weren’t clean. The older man looked up at me wearily, too tired, perhaps, to pretend that I had not just seen him caressing the side of the younger one’s face, his fingers folded in, his fisted hand the opposite of the hand of someone throwing a punch. They were sitting very closely. I didn’t know either of them except as familiar faces I had spotted now and then on the day shift, never before together.
A silver thermos was on the table between them, with its one cup. Probably, what looked like unmilked coffee was not merely coffee. The surgery they had come from might not have gone well. I noticed both men wearing wedding rings. It was clear to me they weren’t married to each other.
“Hi, Reverend. How’s your night so far?” said the younger one. Their age difference was maybe about ten years. The younger surgeon was trim and smooth beside the shagginess of the elder, and he was completely at ease about being discovered. He was letting me know, with a smile, he took it for granted that a chaplain is not a carrier of gossip.
“My night,” I answered, “is having its ups and downs.”
The older surgeon looked up at me and I remembered that a couple of months ago I’d seen him in a restaurant, where I was having dinner with the man I had thought I would marry. The restaurant was some distance from the medical center, like all the places we went to. We had loved taking long drives to be somewhere alone.
Uh-oh, I had thought, spotting the surgeon.
He was hurrying by our table. He’d arrived late for a gathering across the restaurant, where several tables were pushed together for what was obviously a family event. Recognizing me, he briefly paused, saying hi, as medical-center people always do when we notice each other in the outside world. His eyebrows went up a little, I remembered. I think it surprised him I was having dinner with a good-looking man I was so plainly in love with.The smell of washing fluid still lingered. Nothing was on the other side of the glass but the night.
The last thing I needed was to be asked about that man. I knew by now how to push out the thought of him, and in that moment, I was able to, so that it didn’t leave a trace.
I shouldn’t have worried that the surgeon would mention him. “I heard they chopped up your department,” he said. “That why you’re on the graveyard?”
I have never appreciated anyone describing the night shift that way, and the younger man said quickly, “He’s sorry for how that sounded. He knows how to say things nicely, but he turns into a little troll when he’s way past his bedtime, poor baby. He can’t help it.”
That must have been a reference to a private joke between them. The older surgeon let out a hearty laugh, echoing in the emptiness, like the last drifting sounds of a bass at the end of a song. They went back to looking only at each other, forgetting all about me. I did a good job of hiding how much I would have liked to sit down with them, just for a minute, just to maybe hear an encore.
Ask me what’s holy.
To my disappointment, the surfer was fast asleep. I usually found him waiting for me. The nurse who was checking on him told me he wanted to be wakened if he nodded off before my arrival. We both knew to let him be.
“Look at him,” the nurse whispered. “He could be one of my grandkids. I’ll tell you all over again, every time I come in here, my heart breaks.”
The nurse was a supervisor, and someone I’d spoken to on every shift since my first night, mostly for brief consultations. She did not make a habit of talking about patients in terms of her own heart. She’d been an army nurse before she became a civilian one. She was a war vet.
“The colonel,” other nurses called her, sometimes affectionately, sometimes not.
On my shift the night before, she confided in me, personally, confidentially, in the hall outside this room. So our face-to-face by the surfer’s bed needed an acknowledgment. There had to be a moment of figuring out if the ground between us had shifted and we needed to deal with it.
There was something helmet-like in the short gray flatness of her haircut, something corduroy-like in the face so lined with wrinkles. I needed a signal from her about whether or not she wanted me to encourage her to speak privately, more than she already had.
She was done with it, she was telling me, with a look. She was back to being professional, nurse to chaplain, let’s carry on the same as always. I was the only person in the medical center who now knew that a year ago, suddenly, she became a widow. She and her husband had been married for thirty-two years.
His death was the reason she had applied to work nights. Her job before this was in a daytime clinic. She wasn’t ready to retire, and in the early shock of her grief, she felt hopeless about how she’d get through the next few years.
But she learned that by sleeping at home in the daytime, she could imagine that her husband, who had retired already, was puttering around in their garage; he was a woodworking hobbyist. Or he’d gone off to buy a new pair of shoes, or he was swimming at the Y, which was something he had planned to take up. She told me she had never known before what powers she had for creating a delusion, and then calling it reality—she had thought that anyone who was ever in a war couldn’t possibly have delusions about anything at all.
And she had asked me if I personally had any idea what it’s like to love a man you believe you’ll be spending your whole life with, and the day arrives that becomes the worst day you’ll ever endure, because all of a sudden, he’s not there.
As soon as she asked the question, she apologized for it. We knew she had not been speaking to me as someone she hoped to be personal friends with. She was someone talking to her minister, which she had temporarily assigned me to be.
Now I was whispering to her, “I wish I could have made it to see him sooner. Did that aide who promised to bring him tacos come through?”
The colonel peered down at the boy in the bed with the steely gaze she was well known for. It softened one second later.
“Don’t get me going, Reverend, on what all of them are bringing him. He goes off a liquid diet and they’re writing down requests, but yes, he had tacos for dinner. And a strawberry shake. And cookies. If you want to sit awhile, and he throws up, don’t feel sorry for him. Crank up the bed so he doesn’t gag, and hit the buzzer.”
“I will,” I said.
Alone with him, I couldn’t help wishing he’d stir. He slept in the daytime on and off, being interested in staying awake at night as long as he could. I knew that had already started changing. Sleeping through the days had meant not being aware he had no visitors.
He was fifteen. Pale downy hair was sprouting on the head shaved bald for what he’d lately been calling a few little minor repairs, no big deal. He seemed to want to think of his brain as an everyday gadget that had needed a little fixing.
There had been a great fear he would never again be able to talk. Or, if able to, he would have the abilities of a baby, or a toddler who might never understand what the alphabet is, or learn how to count on his own fingers.
Under the bedclothes his body looked whole, undamaged. Asleep, he could have been a teenager who thought it would be fun to be bald. He could have been anyone who would wake in the morning and swing legs to the side of a bed and place two feet on the floor, then stand and go have another day.
Before he was moved from the brain trauma unit to his private room, he woke and amazed everyone. “Hi! What’s happening? Where am I?”
There had been forms to fill out. He dictated the answers. Whoever typed his replies might have been the parent of a teen, for they ended up in his file with a verbatim dramatic flair. Did he have a religious affiliation? A church he went to? WHO, ME? HA HA HA! NO WAY! Would he like a visit from a hospital chaplain? GET OUT LIKE ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THAT?
But he was alone.
He had his own credit card. Without telling anyone, he flew east from his home in Southern California to visit a friend in a boarding school. He was not reported missing, as there was no one to make such a report. His own school thought he’d been away for the funeral of a family member. The maid and the cook in his household knew he’d be staying with a friend, but they thought he meant someone right down the road.As soon as she asked the question, she apologized for it. We knew she had not been speaking to me as someone she hoped to be personal friends with.
It was a Saturday night when the catastrophe took place. Years ago, that school had a custom of sophomores going out on their own to an old, abandoned granite quarry, for some hiking and climbing by the light of a full moon. It was a rite of passage sort of thing. At the top of a cliffside, proud of yourself for daring to meet a challenge, you waited to watch the sun rise, and then returned to the school as part of a legend.
Someone had the idea to revive the custom. The boys who set out for the adventure that night were different from those of the past: they weren’t popular with anyone except each other, and they did not belong to rugby or soccer teams, or any teams whatsoever. And they had phones to take photos and videos.
The surfer went along; he didn’t know what else to do with himself. In California, his friend had taken a class at an indoor rock-climbing school, so it wasn’t as if he was being reckless. He’d just follow the lead of his friend.
A ledge they were all standing on had collapsed. There were six boys. He was the only one to survive the fall.
His phone, in his pocket, was shattered. He had no ID with him. He’d been staying in the dorm of his friend sort of secretly—it took a while to find out who he was. And then his parents were hard to reach.
They had separated. The one who was in charge of him had gone through some sort of crisis, and had entered a private treatment center where they didn’t let patients have contact with outsiders. The other parent, who seemed not to know about that, was somewhere remote, working on a documentary with a movie production company. A message came to the medical center that the faraway parent was being plagued by bad weather, and was emotionally demolished about the news and sorry to not be around, but overjoyed that he’d made it out alive.
He was an only child. An aunt and uncle in California called to say they were working on making the trip to visit him, as temporary proxy parents. They would arrange to fly him back via private plane as soon as possible. But they kept not showing up.
He was out of Brain Trauma and fully alert when I first sat with him. He knew that what lay ahead for him was a residential care facility, where he’d enter into all sorts of therapies. He knew what had happened to his friend and those other boys. He did not let on he understood the extent of his injuries.
A social worker and someone from Psychiatry were assigned to him. He refused to talk about that Saturday night. Or about his parents. Withdrawing into himself, he seemed to decide the best thing to do was to imagine there’d been no such place as the quarry, and he never went up on rocks to see his first-ever East Coast sunrise.
No one at the medical center knew he was a surfer. I ended up with the credit for breaking through to him, but it didn’t have anything to do with me, beyond the facts that I kept showing up in his room, and once, I mentioned to him how he reminded me of someone I knew, someone I was personally fond of, older than he was, but not by an awful lot.It was a rite of passage sort of thing. At the top of a cliffside, proud of yourself for daring to meet a challenge, you waited to watch the sun rise, and then returned to the school as part of a legend.
The surfer gave me a goofy, lopsided smile when I told him the nickname of that person was kind of the name of a fruit. Maybe someday, I had suggested, I’d talk to him a little more about that person—but I never did. It seemed enough to him that I had used the word “fond” in a connection to himself.
The breakthrough happened because the colonel bribed him. I was not supposed to know about this, but he couldn’t stand not telling me. She had sworn to him that if he let me be his chaplain, she would make him the peanut butter pie she made at home for her grandchildren.
He had never heard of peanut butter pie before. Peanut butter pie was awesome. He was almost addicted to it. The top, he described, was solid chocolate. The crust was made of graham crackers the colonel put in a bag and hammered. Every couple of bites, totally randomly, he came upon, guess what, embedded baked-in mini Reese’s Cups. It was a genius of a thing to get to eat! I was not allowed to tell the colonel I knew about the pie. He was trusting me with a confidence. He didn’t tell me it was a test for me, but it was.
One night he asked me if it was hard to be forced to be celibate. I didn’t laugh. He meant it seriously. I explained that the church I was ordained in lets clergy do pretty much anything they want to, within reason.
Did I have a husband, or a boyfriend?
I had shaken my head. The truth.
If I had a boyfriend, would I bring him in, if he’d go out in the middle of night, so he, the surfer, could meet him, and see if he was decent or something, just to check?
Yes. I would do that.
When I was his age, did I know anyone that I, like, grew up with, and they were my only friend and they died?
I had not had that experience. Did he want to talk about it?
No, he was only being abstract, like the question just popped into his head. And by the way, it was interesting that, if I wasn’t kind of old, but not, like, old, just more like, grown up, I’d look just like Annie in Annie, for having kind of the same hair. He had noticed that. Did I know what he meant, that dumb movie, but the orphan girl was kind of all right?
I knew what he meant, yes, thanks a lot for putting that song in my head.
Right, that song. Tomorrow and the sun coming up and bet your bottom dollar. That song sucked. Was it okay to say “sucked”?
Sure. He could say anything he wanted.
It was something like a little after midnight when we had that conversation. The colonel strode in, looked around, and strode out, probably needing to see for herself if he was keeping his part of the pie bargain.
By then he was looking tired. He had started receiving visitors in the daytime: student nurses on their breaks, a guy in Maintenance who grew up in Los Angeles, teenage girls who came to the medical center after school as volunteers. I knew it wasn’t all about feeling sorry for him, for being so pale and broken and needy. It wasn’t about how he was connected to a tragedy that for a couple of days was all over the news.
I had heard that a TA show displayed photos posted online by a couple of the boarding-school boys, when their ascent up the rocks was beginning. They were laughing. The light flashes from their phones made it seem they were shining, as if brightly lit up by white flares.
There was something about him I hadn’t been able to describe to myself. I wasn’t sure what it was. But something under his surface was very, very strong. It was almost magnetic, in a way. I felt that his soul was powerful and unbreakable, as a wave breaks, yet still remains water.One night he asked me if it was hard to be forced to be celibate. I didn’t laugh. He meant it seriously.
He was really the one who took care of making a connection with me. I had said it was okay to say the word “sucked,” and there he lay, fighting with himself to keep his eyes open. He reminded me of little kids in Pediatrics insisting they do not need a nap, because someone’s coming for a story hour, or there’s going to be a puppet show or someone singing, and they don’t want to miss out on the pleasure of the waiting.
But then he looked more awake than he ever had before. For a moment full of dread to me, I wondered if he might ask me, Did I believe he’d ever be able to walk again?
“Ask me what’s holy,” he said.
I expected a teenager-cynical remark from a boy with a need to say something offensive. I would not have held it against him.
“Okay,” I said. “What’s holy?”
“Waves,” he answered.
“Okay again. What kind of waves?”
“The kind that come to life in the Pacific Ocean.”
His parents bought him his first board, a beginner one for babies, when he was nine. They weren’t surfers or even swimmers. The ocean was what you looked at from your deck and your windows. They had predicted he wouldn’t stick with this new thing, as he hadn’t stuck with anything he had asked them to buy him, like the camera that cost a fortune when he wanted to learn photography, and the four-wheeler he had wanted to ride in the hills. He never took the camera from its box. The four-wheeler, he stalled the first time he was on it; he never went near it again.
He didn’t know how he knew he belonged on a surfboard. You know how there are newborn turtles that crack out of their eggs in the sand and go right on a rush to the water, when they don’t even know what an ocean is, being like two minutes old? It was like that.
“I’m learning how to surf in my head now. I wanted you to know that,” he said.
When I left his room that night, I went to my office and turned on my computer, a desktop, wide-screened. I looked up surfing things. I learned these words: hollow, tube, clean, glassy, messy, point break, A-frame, peak. I went on YouTube and watched the trailer for The Endless Summer. When I reported that, he told me it was the greatest surfer movie ever made, even though it was so old, it was ancient. But on this night he didn’t even flicker his eyelids as I watched him sleep. Sooner or later he would be wheeled on a gurney, out of the medical center. I knew it was going to hurt to say good-bye to him.
I turned to leave his room. The theme music of !e Endless Summer had just come into my head, so I was walking the hallway to the sounds of those strings, rolling along, the guitars like voices, talking about air and sunlight and paddling out on a board, and how cool it was to be part of an ocean, watching and waiting for a perfect wave.
Right away, as if a radio played, and the next song came abruptly, way too early, I heard the swell of the background-music orchestra in The Hunt for Red October.
It occurred to me this might have been the film the librarian didn’t watch, because it’s all about a submarine.
I know that movie very well. Plummy brought it to my apartment on DAD. I only just then thought of it. He made me watch it with him something like three times. I had to poke him in the ribs to get him to stop saying lines along with the actors, even when the words were in Russian. It’s the best movie about a submarine ever made, he had told me, even though it’s so old.
“This is a strange night,” I was saying to myself.
I went all the way back to the room of the librarian. Her sleep-breathing was regular, easygoing. In the soft slack of her face she looked untroubled. I breathed a wish that her dreams were good ones.
I wrote a note on the whiteboard that’s supposed to be only for medical notes.
“See you before I go off duty,” I wrote, as if I had any idea what I’d say to her about the broken pieces of her soul.
“Love, your chaplain,” I wrote.
Excerpted from One Night Two Souls Went Walking by Ellen Cooney. Excerpted with the permission of Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2020 by Ellen Cooney.