God’s Humble Instrument
She was tiny and pale, with thin blond hair, an angelic face, and enormous blue eyes. She was six years old.
And she had leukemia.
I felt the familiar tightness in my throat when another new patient was transferred to my ward of the children’s hospital. Another child to care for meant only another child who could die. Who could cry out in vain for the mercy that apparently didn’t exist. Who could break my heart and intensify the nightmare that dominated my life ever since I came to work here.
Most of the children I saw entered the hospital with trepidation churning in their eyes. They recoiled in fear of the foreign, intimidating environment and screamed for their parents to take them home. But little Claire was different . . . from the moment I first laid eyes on her, there was some intangible quality that set her apart from all the rest. I couldn’t identify it, but the first time her eyes met mine they seemed to see right through me and penetrate to my very soul.
When I introduced myself, I was barely able to push the words out of my hoarse throat. “Hello, Claire. My name is Laura, and I’ll be taking care of you while you’re here.”
She nodded, her eyes brimming with earnest solemnity. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I’ll try not to be too much trouble.” Her childish voice was soft and sweet, belying the frailty racking her small body and the maturity in her eyes.
Her mother bent over her and stroked her hair tenderly. “Oh, Claire . . .” her voice broke. She looked up at me, obviously struggling to keep her composure. “You’ll see that she never thinks about herself . . . she’s a brave little girl.”
I swallowed, fidgeting. “I’m sure she is.”
Just then Dr. Willard, one of the head oncologists, appeared in the doorway. “Mr. and Mrs. Vernon? I’d like to have a word with you.”
Claire’s mother gave her a kiss on the forehead, while her father squeezed her hand and said, “Now, behave yourself.” He made a valiant attempt at a smile but didn’t quite succeed.
Claire, however, flashed a genuine smile and murmured, “Yes, Daddy,” without a single protest over her parents leaving her sight.
She looked lost lying in that hospital bed, pale and fragile, surrounded by medical equipment and all but swallowed in the voluminous pillow . . . The stealthy killer lurking in her bloodstream had ravaged her body, and I couldn’t understand what was enabling her to cling to life. I tried to numb my mind – it was the only way I could preserve my sanity. “Try to get some rest now, honey,” I told her. “I’ll be back if you need me.”
The little girl raised her chin slowly. “Can I ask you something?”
I bit my lip. “Certainly, dear.” Here it comes . . . the tears, the begging for me to promise something I can’t promise . . . Bracing myself, I leaned in closer.
But to my astonishment, she didn’t implore me to give her reassurance that she would soon be well and on her way home. Instead, she asked me very seriously and innocently, “Why are you so upset?”
I blinked at the disconcerting question. “Don’t worry about me, honey,” I croaked. “Just get some rest.”
Leaning back into her pillows, she nodded solemnly. “Okay.”
I took a deep breath and stumbled from the room, carefully averting my eyes from the crucifix hanging above the doorway. I didn’t know what I would have done if she had asked me the dreaded question. Many of the sick children here did recover and go home . . . but a few of them didn’t.
I knew all the information on Claire’s case, and I knew she was one of those few.
There was nothing anyone could do. Little Claire was doomed to die, and there would soon be another child lingering in the dark recesses of my mind, haunting me.
All my life I had dreamed of becoming a nurse. I don’t know when or how it originated; I must have been born with it, because I can’t remember wanting to be anything else. I devoted my heart and soul to that dream, and as I grew up it shaped every facet of my life.
Eventually, my dream had come true…but ever since my first day on the job, that dream had morphed into a nightmare.
I thought such a profession would be uplifting and satisfying to the soul despite the inherent stress, but the moment I first walked down the long, sterile hallway and passed sick child after sick child, I became aware of the cold, creeping feeling that I had made a horrible mistake. I expected it to be distressing; what I didn’t expect was the total crumbling of my foundation. The culmination of my crisis came when I first saw a child die . . . that’s when I started questioning the very Creator of the universe, wondering why I should bother believing in a God Who allowed such tragedies to happen. And soon the sight of a crucifix – which abounded here in this Catholic hospital – tormented me as much as the children did.
Even though I felt trapped in the hospital, I had to go back each day. I didn’t have any choice; nursing was the only practical thing I knew how to do for a living, and I had to eat. All I could to was clear my mind and think pragmatically, make myself numb, maintain a veneer of cheerfulness even though it was excruciating. That was the only thing I could do to ward off the pain. . . and that’s the nightmare I lived with every day.
“Shh!” Claire held a finger to her lips as I entered the room.
I jumped in surprise, almost dropping the breakfast tray. “What is it?”
She nodded towards Mrs. Vernon, slumped in the chair beside the bed with an open book in her lap; I hadn’t realized she was sleeping. “Mommy’s so tired from sitting with me that she just fell asleep,” Claire explained in a whisper I could barely hear. “ I didn’t want to wake her up.”
“I’ll be careful,” I assured her, trying not to dwell on how much paler she looked today. “I brought your breakfast – do you think you could eat some for me?”
Those solemn eyes flickered down to the steaming bowl of oatmeal and the glass of orange juice; she made a face but said politely, “Yes, if you want me to.”
Quietly, I drew up a chair. “Why don’t I help you eat this, and your mother can go right on with her nap?”
She nodded her consent, and I began to feed her spoonful after labored spoonful,. Before she had even eaten a third of the bowl, however, she began to protest. “Please . . . that’s enough.”
This was less than she had eaten yesterday. “Claire, you need to keep up your strength.”
“But Miss Laura, I just can’t eat anymore!”
“Can you at least sip this juice?”
She nodded wearily.
Striving to quell my foreboding, I set the bowl aside, and busied myself with checking her vital signs. Within a few moments, her mother stirred and opened her eyes. Disoriented at first, she soon shook herself awake with a look of chagrin on her face. She bent over to smooth her daughter’s hair. “I’m sorry I fell asleep, darling.”
I turned away, knowing all too well the heartbreak looming on the horizon.
Claire’s expression was all disappointment. “But Mommy – you were so sleepy! I didn’t mind.”
What a child . . . even though she was suffering, barely strong enough to lift her head from the pillow, her thoughts were entirely of her mother’s exhaustion. And she was only six years old.
“I appreciate that, darling.” Gently kissing Claire’s forehead, Mrs. Vernon tore herself away. “I do need to run home quickly, but I’ll be back as soon as I can with Daddy. All right?”
Again, that solemn nod.
“Then I’ll be back.” After flashing me a look of unspoken gratitude – which I certainly didn’t deserve – the young mother left.
Claire watched her mother go, then turned her head to look up at me. I winced as I noticed the effort required for the simple motion. “Miss Laura,” she asked, “may I talk to you?”
I had a few minutes before I needed to check on my next patient, so I sat down again. “Yes, of course you can.” Somehow, I sensed something important.
She gazed at me, her eyes wide, and for the first time I noticed a slight tremor in her voice when she stated very matter-of-factly, “I’m not going to get better, am I?”
She took me completely by surprise. Never, ever had I heard such a thing from a child. I stared transfixed at her face in disbelief, unable to say a word.
“Mommy and Daddy won’t tell me,” Claire continued in a pensive tone, “so I needed to ask you. Well?” A tear slowly trickled down her pale cheek.
I gritted my teeth against an overwhelming surge of rebellion. It just isn’t right! No child should face such a question, and I shouldn’t have to answer it! “If I had my way,” I said, low and fierce, “you wouldn’t be here in the first place, Claire.” God, how could you? I thought the words with a vengeance, then muttered under my breath, “God, how could you?”
Her ears were more sensitive than I thought. She cocked her head thoughtfully, wiping the tear away. “Miss Laura, are you mad at God?”
I looked at her sharply. “Whatever gave you such an idea?”
“You sounded like it just now,” the little girl replied simply, “and you always seem very unhappy. It’s not right to be mad at God.”
The utmost sincerity infused her voice; she didn’t intend to be nosy or impertinent. I started to squirm under this child’s frank, innocent scrutiny. I had fended off a few pointed questions from adults, but how to tastefully handle a situation like this baffled me. Looking for a distraction, I glanced over at the bedside table and picked up a strand of sapphire-blue beads. They gleamed when they caught the light, miniature crucifix swinging, and I realized it was a rosary dangling from my hand. I looked questioningly at her. “Is this yours?”
I couldn’t remember the last time I even saw a rosary, much less prayed with one. “Well, here, then,” I murmured, placing it in her cold hand.
“Will you pray it with me?”
I jolted with surprise. “Sorry, Claire, but I need to go see some other patients.”
“Sometime later then? Praying helps, but it’s still hard to . . . be alone.”
I swallowed, wondering what kind of thoughts went through her mind. “I’m sure you could pray it much better on your own, honey.”
Claire’s eyes were earnest and pleading, then thoughtful. “Miss Laura, do you ever pray?”
“I used to – “ here I caught myself. What was I saying? To a child? “Try to rest now, Claire,” I ordered.
“I’ll pray for you, Miss Laura.”
“Thank you,” I managed. “I appreciate that.” I turned to leave, but Claire’s next question stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Miss Laura, what do you think dying is like?”
My heart thudded as I slowly turned to face her. “I really don’t know, honey.”
“Say you go to heaven,” Claire went on. “You might not, but if you do, what do you think it will be like to get there?”
I didn’t think much about heaven these days, and the thought of hell didn’t bother me since, as far as I was concerned, I was already living in it. If Claire wanted theological enlightenment, she had picked the wrong person to ask. But before I realized it, I said, “I never thought much about it – what do you think?”
She took the question very seriously. Her soft blue eyes defocused, and when she spoke, she seemed to be talking to herself. “I think the first thing I’ll see will be the angels, happy angels with bright, shiny wings. I’ve always wanted to see angels, have you? Ever since I saw a picture on one of Mommy’s Christmas cards. . .but the real angels will be even prettier, right?”
Uncanny though it was, it felt like something was speaking through the leukemia-stricken girl. For the life of me, I couldn’t swallow the lump in my throat.
Claire’s eyes abruptly focused on me again. “I’ll find out soon, won’t I?” She squeezed the rosary so hard her knuckles went white, and I suddenly had the impression that myriad conflicting emotions were battling for control beneath the surface. “It’s scary, Miss Laura,” she whispered, “but . . . I just try to think about the angels.” The anxiety was still reflected in her eyes, but she was gradually regaining control.
So she was afraid, like any other child – but the fact that she was able to maintain such faith in spite of her fear made her more of a mystery to me than before. My vision blurred. I felt I needed to break this heavy silence, but I didn’t know what to say to her. Thankfully, the next instant I heard a strident beep summoning me to another room, the kick I needed to break the trance and get myself out of there.
Claire and I didn’t speak much after that; she seemed to grow more quiet with each passing day, content to simply nod and smile instead of carry on a conversation. Her vibrant spirit was finally succumbing to her weakened body, and I knew she wouldn’t last much longer, a fact Dr. Willard’s grave face only confirmed. More and more often she was asleep when I checked on her, frequently with her rosary clasped between her limp hands.
Soon, one afternoon when I went to check on her, the crisis came.
An overwhelming sense of dread assaulted me as I crossed the threshold and saw the priest standing beside Claire’s bed. He was making the sign of the cross over the little girl in what seemed to me more like a death sentence than a blessing. Mrs. Vernon sat half-crumpled over the bed while her husband crouched beside her; both of them clutched their daughter’s thin hand, tear-streaked faces contorted with pain. Claire’s eyes were closed, her breathing labored.
Dr. Willard stood nearby. Acutely aware of my helplessness, I caught his eye and flashed him a pleading look; as I knew he would do, he shook his head in anguished but stoic resignation.
With a creeping feeling of unease, I suddenly realized I was a total outsider. Even though nobody even noticed me, I felt cruel and invasive witnessing this family’s grief, which was building up in the room like a tangible thing, making me want to gasp as if I was suffocating. I turned away, fully intending to leave them alone.
But something stopped me. I desperately longed to go – it was too painful to stay, too painful to think of what was happening to the little girl – but I couldn’t. I stood rooted to the spot as if paralyzed, and I could no sooner stop looking at Claire than I could stop my heart from beating.
Her eyes flickered open, and suddenly, I didn’t seem to notice the blue veins starkly visible through her pale skin, the jagged lines running along the vital signs monitor, the drip of the IV fluid, or the hollowness of her eyes. I only saw her expression. Devoid of any trace of fear, her face glowed with a strange inner light, a calm, serene contrast to her surroundings. Then her gentle blue eyes widened, and she let out a gasp.
Mrs. Vernon cried out in fear. “Claire, what is it! Claire, what’s wrong?”
But the little girl didn’t seem to hear. She jerked and abruptly sat upright in bed like she was possessed . . . Which she was, my cynical mind finally realized with a flash of insight – she was possessed with joy. The gasp had been out of wonder, not pain. A peaceful, euphoric smile spread across her face as she seemed to gaze at a something visible only to her. “Mommy,” she breathed in a voice filled with reverent awe, “look at all the angels!”
Oh my stars, what’s happening? My knees went weak, my mind reeled, and I clutched the doorframe to hold myself up. Tears welled up in my eyes, demanding release, but something constricted deep in my chest, preventing the flow. Claire continued to stare for a few more seconds, then, closing her eyes, she sank gracefully back onto her pillow, her small fingers still intertwined with her parents’, the contented smile still on her lips.
I only dimly heard Mrs. Vernon’s sobs and the low voices of Dr. Willard and the priest. I backed out the door in a daze, unable to absorb the full impact of what I had just witnessed.
I didn’t know how I carried on until the rest of my shift was over, but as soon as it ended I made my way to an isolated corner of a vacant waiting room and collapsed in an oversize vinyl chair. Closing my eyes tightly, I took a deep, shuddering breath and tried clear my mind, to regain the numbness I needed to shield myself . . . but this time I couldn’t do it.
Claire wouldn’t let me do it. Her dying words echoed through my mind over and over – Mommy, look at all the angels! Her innocent, cherubic face seemed to hover in front of me, assuming all the expressions I had seen when she was alive: the wistfulness over the life she would miss, the concern she was causing others trouble, the earnest solemnity with which she had treated prayer . . .
Above all, the profound, pure joy that had graced her childish features as death cut her life cruelly short. It never even occurred to me to doubt that she really had seen the angels.
What an extraordinary child! She had suffered horribly throughout her devastating illness, she experienced fear so real it was incomprehensible to anyone else, but ultimately her innocent conviction never faltered. She endured her trials patiently without complaining, and even if she struggled with secret moments of doubt, she never lost faith in God’s goodness and mercy.
In the midst of all the suffering I witnessed every day, I had allowed myself to succumb to despair and turn my back on God when I needed Him the most. Since I had distanced myself from Him on my own volition, it was no wonder I couldn’t handle the demands of my job. My bitterness and resentment over what I perceived as God’s injustice had eaten away at my soul until there was nothing left, all because I hadn’t been able to do what a six-year-old leukemia victim had done – preserve my faith.
Instead of God abandoning me and all the children who died in this hospital, I had abandoned Him. My life was a living hell only because I made it that way. I would likely never understand the mystery and heartbreak of why little children had to die, but as I saw with Claire, death wasn’t the final word. Claire really did see the angels and receive a glorious glimpse of heaven while still on this earth. Whether I was willing to accept it or not, God had been present in that little hospital room, and Claire had known it. Her simple but earnest faith hadn’t been in vain.
If God could reveal such hidden glory to a dying little girl, then His goodness and mercy surely did exist.
Suddenly, I felt relief . . . and I started to cry, something I hadn’t done in years. I had forgotten I was even capable of tears, but nevertheless I cried in deep, wrenching sobs as all my pent-up guilt, shame, and misery from the past few years came rising to the surface.
When I finished I felt sick to my stomach and my head throbbed, but I actually felt human again. I looked up and, through the tears blurring my eyes, saw the crucifix hanging on the wall in front of me. For the first, time, I didn’t turn away – I let my eyes linger on it, absorbing every little detail. Suffering wasn’t futile because even our Savior had to endure it . . . Claire had understood that, so why couldn’t I?
I stood up slowly, trying to control the tremors in my muscles. It was clear in my mind now what I had to do to set things right and restore purpose to my life. Tentatively at first, but with growing resolve, I left the waiting room and walked swiftly down the hall. I was so intent on my destination that I nearly collided with a man emerging from a patient’s room.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, then I looked up and caught my breath at the sight of the white collar below a face with penetrating eyes that seemed to radiate wisdom and compassion – Claire’s priest.
“Don’t be,” he assured me. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.” He turned to leave –
It looked like a trip to the chaplain’s office wouldn’t be necessary after all. I took a deep breath, knowing that if I was going to commit myself at all I had to do it now. Please, God… “Father – perhaps you remember me. I was Claire Vernon’s nurse – I was there in her room…”
He nodded in recognition, smiling sadly. “Yes, I remember you. Can I help you with something?”
I pictured little Claire, the humble instrument God had used to touch my hardened soul. “Yes, Father – may I talk to you?”
By Ellen Virginia