I was on the hunt for fried chicken during my lunch hour from the hospital where I worked as a pediatric chaplain a few years back when my cell phone rang.
Because my policy was to never, ever, give my cell number to a patient’s family, I was totally oblivious to the likelihood of a serious call during lunch.
I cheerfully answered the phone.
“Chaplain, where is he?”
“Sarah?” I asked.
“I mean . . .” Sarah stammered. “Eric’s in Heaven, right?”
Sarah was the mother of a little boy who had died in our hospital a few weeks prior. For some reason — I didn’t really know why — there was something special about this close-knit family that caused me to make an exception about my cell phone rule.
“Yes, I feel certain that he is in Heaven,” I declared, shifting gears from fast-food to food for thought.
When I asked her to tell me more about what was going on, she told me she was having nightmares about her son smothering. Her sobs continued and churned an ocean of grief. The swells came through the phone like waves threatening to drown both swimmer and rescuer.
Then she asked something that can’t possibly be answered definitively by anyone on this side of the celestial.
“What was it like for him after he died? What’s he feeling now?”
The Bible contains many references about Heaven, but Sarah was not looking for Biblical authority, she was looking to share in another parent’s deepest hope. Living inside a pain that was raw and brutal, she was trying to make it through her personal Hell on Earth, one day at a time, one prayer at a time, one phone call at a time.
I tried my best to answer her question, but given my current whereabouts I opted to add a bit more through a later e-mail.
“I don’t know for sure what Heaven’s like,” I wrote. “The Bible tells me God prepared it as a ‘place not made with hands,’ so it’s probably more than we could ever imagine. And if it’s made by God, then Heaven must be made of the best of us, of who we are, of all our hearts can collectively imagine.
“Sarah, you cared for Eric every hour of every day for eight years. Your love formed a cocoon of Heaven for him right here on Earth. God has done no less for Eric by creating an eternal Heaven designed by a mother’s love and a father’s care.
“When I think of Eric in Heaven, I see him in a place where his lungs are filled with the freshest air from the most pristine mountain peaks. It is a place where he needn’t struggle to find his legs. He can walk and run and jump. He can dance with butterflies and sing with angels.
“He can talk and hear and understand. He knows the joy of a million rainbow waterfalls. He knows a father who loves him and is filled with the presence of his mother’s lullaby to comfort him.”
After sending the e-mail, I resolved to amend my phone policy about not giving my personal number to patients.
God knows who needs to talk and when. I think God knew I needed to talk to Sarah as much as she needed to talk to me.
So, God mysteriously gave her the number — via my big mouth.
Now, I have a new cell number policy: “Never, never, never give a patient your personal phone number, unless of course, it’s God’s idea.”
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You can also follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.