malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: April 2007

I Never Knew Him

Unknown FatherHe was the third 20 year old in as many weeks to sit in my office and share his story of how he tested HIV positive recently.

We talked about a lot of things during the hour, but when I asked about his family I noticed his eyes went to floor. Tell me about your father. “I’ve never known him, never even met him. He lives somewhere in Georgia.”

His eyes were misty as I asked him what that was like for him.

He shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know, I don’t anything different,” he mumbled.

We talked about a lot of things and then he just stopped and said clearly, “I’m really depressed. I’m having a hard time. I need help.” He showed me where he had cut his wrists in the past.

I introduced him to resources we have in the clinic to help with depression. We made appointments with a mental health counselor, a psychiatrist, and a weekly group for persons with substance use problems. And of course, an appointment was made with his medical team for his HIV care.

But tonight, I still think about his eyes.

Asking Questions and Listening

questionsBeing a chaplain and a wireless consultant have more in common than one may think.

What does offering emotional and spiritual support to persons with a life threatening illness have in common with providing technical support for cell phone/data device problems?

Asking the right questions are more important than providing the right answers.

As a chaplain, people sometimes expect me to have answers to difficult questions. I’m slowly learning that I can usually be of help more if I ask questions rather than try to have answers.

For instance, I was in a family conference in the ICU unit of the hospital earlier this week with a family member who was faced with making the difficult decision to remove life support from their loved one. I listened as the doctor said to the family member, “I’m sorry, there is nothing else that we can do. Your loved one is not going to make it. He is going to die very soon.”

I asked the family member if he had talked with his loved one about this scenario before this hospitalization. “What would your loved one want if he could speak to you now? What would his answer be?”

There was no hesitation in his voice because they had talked about it in great detail before this hospitalization and ensuing coma. “If he can’t get any better, he said it’s ok to let go. He is at peace with it. He has fought the good fight.”

He had his own answer in what he would do, and later that evening, it was so.

On a lighter side, I was told today about an employee “that was ready to throw her Palm Pilot Phone out the window.” My telecommunications colleague said that this woman has spent more than ten hours on the phone with all types of technical support, but her problem prevailed.

So, I volunteered to go to her office and sit down with her as a tech support guy. “I’m going out of town tomorrow, I’ve got to have this thing working!” she said in frustration.

“Tell me the story of what you’ve already tried,” I said. And she began telling me with great detail all of the things she had done. And there, in the midst of her story, the answer jumped out at me. “May I see your phone?” I asked. Fortunately, it was an easy fix. She cheered and thought I must be so smart. The truth was she gave me the answer.

It was in listening to her story that the answer was revealed.

Asking questions and listening. It sounds so simple.

Time to Just Be

hospital-bedI walked into the hospital room to find my friend in the bed too tired and weak to respond with words. All of her life energy was focused on providing each breath and heartbeat for her body. Her mother was weary from sitting next to her daughter’s hospital bed for too long and from grieving the last ten years knowing her only daughter would someday die from AIDS. That time is now very near.

The friend’s Mom said, “Hi Malcolm, please sit here beside the bed. I’ll move into the lounge chair.” Within a couple of minutes, she was asleep.

I spoke softly to my friend, “Are you tired?” I think she nodded yes. It wasn’t time for conversations like we had in the past as one clergy colleague to another. It wasn’t time to talk about the similarities and differences of our faith backgrounds that were always so rich and instructive for me.

Instead, it was time to be present. Time to just be. I sat down and leaned over the bedrail to hold her right hand that rested on her chest. She put her left hand on top of mine. I closed my eyes and silently thanked God for a person who has made such a difference in so many persons’ lives. I thanked God for the difference she has made in my life in particular.

Dr. Saag first introduced us in the clinic in 1995. She asked me to read the sermon she was going to give soon to her congregation. It included telling her congregation that she was HIV positive and that she would humbly appreciate their prayers and support. She would teach them that it is ok to be cared for by others.

She was understandably frightened and yet also resolute in this sermon that this was the right thing to do. “It’s my duty to educate them about this disease,” knowing that it could also mean the end of her employment. She gained strength from the experience and became a powerful spokesperson in so many ways.

Thankfully, in the days following most of the congregation gave her the support she (and they) needed.

As I sat beside her bedside, her portable CD player was close to her ear as songs from her faith played softly. It was such a sacred time.

I stayed for 30 minutes or so, listening to the music, reminiscing, and stroking my friend’s hand.
There were no words to make it all better. Her life lived has already spoken volumes.

It was time to just be . . . present.

I Don’t Have Nobody

GentlemanHe appeared at my office door, led by a staff member who didn’t know where else to take him. “Malcolm, can you help this gentleman?”

“I will try,” I answered.

“Come in, sit down, tell me what’s going on?” I introduced myself, “My name is Malcolm, what’s yours?”

The six foot tall, 40 year old strong, healthy looking man immediately broke down and began to cry. I handed him a kleenex. “I’m new to Birmingham from south Alabama, just been here about a week. Nobody will help me, I don’t know what to do! I feel awful, my tooth is killing me, I don’t know what to do (he repeated). Nobody cares. I’m HIV positive and I don’t have a doctor here and I don’t know what to do.”

All of a sudden, this 40 year old seemed like a little boy who was lost. He was.

I assured him that I cared, and that many people here would care for him. I asked a few more questions and all he wanted to do is call his grandmother or sister at “home.” He was homesick, and needed to hear a familiar, encouraging voice. So I handed him my cell phone and told him he could call anyone he wanted.

Before long he was talking to his sister. She asked to talk to me and I answered her questions as best I could. I assured her I would help him get a doctor’s appointment for his primary care and our dentist. I gave her my toll-free number and told her to call me anytime if she knew how I could help her brother more.

I called the dental clinic in our building, asked for a special favor, and they worked him in right away. I got an additional form for him to fill out so that he could be seen by our doctors in the coming days or weeks. He saw someone in the waiting room he knew and they talked for awhile. By the time I left him, he was smiling, looking forward to getting his tooth fixed this afternoon.

I wonder how many people feel like nobody cares for them? It’s a terrible feeling to be a stranger in a foreign land. Especially when you are sick and you don’t know where to turn.

Every Day Is World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day December 1stThis was originally written on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2005.

All across the world people are raising awareness about the worst health epidemic in world history, HIV/AIDS.

As a chaplain in an AIDS Clinic since 1994, it is easy for me to see this as another day because where I work, every day is a day about HIV/AIDS. I know this is not true for most of the world.

But there are still stories that grab my attention. For instance, today I got word from one of our patient’s family members that his brother died last week. His body is at a local funeral home and the funeral is supposed to be in two days. They had to wait this long because the family can’t come up with the money required by the funeral home. I talked with the funeral home director and she said, “I guess the family will have to postpone the funeral until they can get the money,” in a not-so-compassionate voice.

So today I’ve been on the phone with the family and another funeral home trying to see if they will be able to bury this 40 year old after more than a week. I know the funeral home director at the second funeral home as we have had a lot of funerals through the years. He said, “Malcolm, if they don’t have any more options, we’ll take care of it for whatever they can pay.”

I am thankful and angry. Thankful for my friend Heath, who hasn’t lost compassion in his business. And I am angry and feeling a bit sorry for the funeral business owner who is blind to compassion and can’t see how we are going to have a funeral on Saturday without the money.

We will find a way, believe me.

Another day in a world with AIDS.


divorceI saw his name on the patient appointment board in our physician’s conference room. I asked his doctor how he was doing and mentioned I had performed the wedding ceremony for this patient about 5 or 6 years ago. It was a day of hope and renewal.

And so I walked down the hall, knocked on the door and went in to greet my friend. He has been through a rough time physically with his health in recent months, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better. His dark eyes looked at me and he blurted out that he and his wife were separating and would soon be getting a divorce. You could see the sadness in his face and his slumping body posture.

We remembered some of the good times he had in his marriage, but mostly he talked about his future. He wondered what would happen next with great uncertainty. His physical health seens to be in a steady march of decline. Emotionally, he is hanging in there but not sure how deep his reservoir is.

I promised to call him next week and offered to meet regularly for a while if he wanted. We agreed to start with the phone call.

His eyes were hungry for support. And yet I could also see that he was starting to figure out how he will survive. So he turns what energy he has to navigate this next transition in his life.

Sometimes I forget that HIV is just one of the transitions our patients experience. They live life like you and me. Some days are hope filled, others feel hopeless.

The Buddhists have it right. Everything is impermanent, nothing stays the same. Today is what matters, savor it fully. Laugh from the belly, breathe deeply, this moment is a gift.

The Easter Sunday Promise

sunriseToday is Easter Sunday.

The promise of new life, new hope, new beginnings.

May it be so for our 1500 patients, their families and loved ones.

May it be so for our 50+ employees who give of themselves so that others will have the possibility of new life.

We have 7-10 new patients every week of the year. And I have the privilege of meeting with each of them in my office to hear their stories.

It is an awesome opportunity to walk alongside people during difficult times.

Help me learn what I need to learn this week. Amen.

The Jail of Fear

jailHe sat in my office with a tremor in one hand matched by an occasional quiver in his voice.

He had told no one of his HIV positive diagnosis except for his wife, even though the two of them had been separated for many, many years.

“I can’t tell anyone because I live in a small town in Georgia and it would be the end of my life as I know it if people found out.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking about being HIV positive, being gay, or both.

“Why haven’t you and your wife divorced after all these years?” I asked.

“Because she is angry, and will not grant it,” he said.

I wondered what payoff he received from being separated but not divorced.

They live in different houses, and both live in a jail of fear.

She is afraid that she will lose the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.

And so does he.

And as a result, they both lose.

He continues to respond with silence to her threats of telling the town he is gay. And she nurses the red hot anger that seems justifiable to her.

My prayer is that they could both be free some day.

Sooner rather than later. Before it’s too late.

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