Thinking Out Loud: An Ugly Gorilla Broke the Ice
When I became a hospice chaplain, I wasted no time getting stuffed animals (mostly teddy bears and beanie bears) into the arms of my patients. I had friends in the Tulsa area who would call me and ask, “Do you need any stuffed animals?” I always answered, “Yes, I do!” I would wash, dry, and put those little critters in an airtight plastic bag and freeze them for thirty-six to forty-eight hours. (I was told that this process killed any bacteria and germs on or in them.) Then they were ready for my patients.
I would introduce myself to these precious people facing death head-on and say, “Hello. My name is Chaplain John. I have a little friend who wants to stay with you.” Then I would pull out one of my cute stuffed animals and give it to them. Their faces would light up with memories of their childhood days. Sometimes these stuffed animals were loved as their best friend during the long days (and longer nights) of waiting for their time to pass.
One precious lady on my caseload was very near her time to die. She wasn’t eating, drinking, or talking to her family. They were frightened because they wanted to have a conversation before she went to heaven. I was asked to go immediately to see her, which I did. Sometimes, the hospice experience is slow and long, and I build a meaningful relationship with the loved one. Other times, it feels way too short. This time I was like a stranger in this home. So, before I got out of my car, I reached into the back seat and grabbed an old fashion, medium-sized, brown teddy bear. It was winter and I had the bear under my overcoat. I introduced myself to this lady, who was awake but not responding to anyone or anything. Until…that is…I showed her the “fury friend” that I was going to leave with her. The lady reached out her arms, not to me or her family, but to the little brown bear! She loved it as her family loved her! She started eating, drinking, and talking to her family! Several days later she passed away with that brown bear in her arms! Later, when I conducted the funeral service, the casket was opened for one last “goodbye.” There was that little brown bear in her arms. That’s when I got a little teary.
Another patient was a master sergeant in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He was a well-known veteran in northeastern Oklahoma. He personally knew the five-star general and supreme commander of the Allied forces, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and served under General George Patton, General Omar Bradley, and General Douglas MacArthur. For several years (on Veterans Day and Fourth of July), he was the Parade Marshal who rode in front during the celebrations! I always took him stuffed animals with a patriotic theme because of his great love for our country and his service. He dearly loved anything with stars and stripes and the flag on it. When he went home to be with Jesus, the family had all these animals surrounding his casket. And when they opened his casket, there was that tough Master Sergeant in his uniform with all his medals AND his patriotic dog – tucked under his right arm! I bawled like a baby for my precious friend and his much-loved family.
I had one little elderly lady that lived in the country. She dearly loved the previous chaplain and really didn’t like the fact that she had been reassigned to me. Her response? She gave me the cold shoulder. Each visit when I gave her a cute stuffed animal, she would say, “Humph” and toss it aside! After three months of this seeming indifference, I thought, “Okay, sister, you don’t like my cute stuffed animals? I’m going to give you the biggest, ugliest one in my stash! (Of course, this was done with all the love of heaven in mind, don’t ‘chu know!) I remembered that someone had donated a huge gorilla that looked like a dog chewing on his face, and he needed heavy-duty plastic surgery. (By the way, I have a couple of ladies who are “surgeons, who give my gently used donations some TLC. One of them worked a miracle on this gorilla, but he was still uuuug-ly!)
I remember like it was yesterday taking Bobo (that’s what I named him) to this difficult patient. He had all black fur with brown leather on the palms of his hands and the bottoms of his feet. He stood about three feet tall, his body a foot and half wide, and with scars all over his face. He truly was ugly. Honestly!
She was sitting in her favorite chair in front of the TV when I walked in. Her eyes widened as big as saucers, and she asked, “What – in – the – world – is that?” “This is Bobo!” I replied, as I set him in her lap. I placed him with his face inches from her face. She started snickering, then giggling, and then shaking with loud laughter! Tears started running down her cheeks! It was contagious. I started laughing with tears in my eyes also! Finally, after fifteen minutes of laughing so hard we were crying, she told me, “This reminds me of my first-born son, who had such a tough time being born that the doctor had to use forceps to deliver him. She reported to me that her son was black and blue, and even had torn skin over his little face and head. After getting past the sorrow for what her sweet son went through, she moved on to help people feel more at ease by saying, “He was a baby only a mother could love!” And we belly laughed some more!
After we regained our composure, she said, “John, (first time she ever called me by my name) the first of December I will celebrate my ninetieth birthday, and I would like to talk to my son. We haven’t talked to each other for over ten years. I would like to ask him to forgive me before I die.” I replied, “Let’s pray about this.” Before I left, we hugged for the very first time and expressed our love for each other. As a chaplain, I work very hard to discern when to get involved and when not to get involved in the personal lives of my patients. In this case, I felt a strong desire to try to help. I went back to my office with a mission. I searched for and found her admitting paperwork. On it was this son’s phone number. I called him, and we had an amazing conversation. I asked him if he realized that his mother was about to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. I shared with him that she really wanted to see him, and I asked if it would be possible for him to come. He said most definitely, “I will be there!”
And true to his word, he arrived the night before her birthday while she was sleeping. She woke up smelling coffee, bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast. Smelling that wonderful aroma, she thought one of her three daughters had come to surprise her with breakfast for her birthday. As she shuffled to the kitchen with her walker, she found her firstborn son wearing an apron, cooking breakfast for her. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. With tears running down her face, she asked him to please forgive her! With tears in his eyes, he forgave her and then proceeded to ask her to please forgive him for waiting so long to see her.
The next time I saw her, she was bubbling with joyful anticipation to tell me what happened on her birthday. She whispered in my ear, “God answered our prayer, didn’t HE?” The son and I never told her about our phone call. This dear sister went from this life to the next life shortly thereafter with a forgiven and clean heart. All of this because an ugly gorilla broke the ice in our relationship with each other, love began to flow, and God touched and healed some wounded hearts!
Moral of the story: Don’t underestimate the power of a well-loved stuffed animal. Donations welcome.
John T. Catrett, III
Scissortail Hospice Chaplain
306 North Main St. Suite E
Bristow, Ok. 74010