I was about nine years old when I realized that my family is kind of a disaster.
Before then, I thought every family planned on eating Thanksgiving dinner at two o’clock, only to finally carve the turkey at half past six. I thought family vacations were supposed to be catastrophes. And, I never understood why everyone matched in family photos while we clashed and were always sweaty and squinting.
So it should come as no surprise that in the thick of the latest family matter—Pop’s cancer—our tendency toward calamity abounds. Only this time, I am the sole culprit.
Pop was in the hospital and things looked a little bleak after a surgery setback. As I sent updates to my family text thread, a little old lady, fit and slim, with a very structured leather fanny pack on her hip walked into the room.
“Would the patient like to receive The Eucharist?” she asked, reaching into her smart hip pouch.
Ah, the fancy fanny pack held Communion.
“Yes, thank you,” I said, pulling my eyes from her hip. “He missed it yesterday. Any chance you can come by later?” Pop was still in recovery.
She jotted onto a notepad she pulled from her back pocket.
“We have a chaplain that can give Anointing of the Sick. Would the patient also like that?” she asked.
“That sounds nice,” I said. “Sure! Add him to the list.”
With that, the old lady with all the things turned on her heel and left the room, and I went back to watching ships float down the Mississippi River outside Pop’s window.
When Pop returned I mentioned that a priest was stopping by. About two beats passed, after which Pop said, “You’re not getting me something like last rites, are you? That’ll freak me out.”
I froze as a subtle panic rose up from my stomach.
“No, no. Of course not,” I stammered. “Why would I do that?”
I went back to the ships, but my mind traveled elsewhere. It was fourth grade Religion. Ms. Flamiglia stood in front of the class holding a hollow cross with a secret drawer inside of which were candles and a bottle of oil. She was talking about the sick and the dying. In my textbook was a picture of an old man in bed. A priest in robes stood beside him, making the Sign of the Cross. On the classroom blackboard “The Seventh Sacrament” was written in capital letters. I looked back at Pop and then at the door.
What did I just do?
I casually sprinted to the door and peered down the hall. No robes. No oil. Yet.
I grabbed my phone and went back to the family text thread.
“Mom, is Anointing of the Sick the same thing as last rites? I think I’ve made a huge mistake.”
“What did you do?!” one sister replied.
“Go on…” my husband added with a popcorn emoji.
Disaster had struck our family once again. We can’t even handle cancer without mucking it up. I explained myself in a frenzy, praying that I could somehow weasel my way out of having to explain myself to Pop should robes and oil stroll in.
“ANOINTING OF THE SICK IS NOT LAST RITES,” Mom answered in caps.
“Whatever it is he says it’ll freak him out. What do I do if the priest comes?” I frantically asked.
Another sister tried to bolster me. “If a man with robes and oil comes, let him in. Be specific about what Pop needs.”
What? You want me to handle something awkward like explaining to Pop why he should receive the final sacrament? Oh hell no.
“Can you please get to the hospital now and fix my life?” I begged back.
In most situations, I have no qualms. I can ask, pry, and badger until things get done. I’m annoying as hell and it’s a wonder that I haven’t been barred from entering the hospital. But my scrappiness loses its rough edges the instant I have to tell you an awkward truth. I don’t want to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth, and I don’t want to tell you that robes and oil have arrived because you are, in fact, so sick you need it. Someone else can adult those situations. I don’t want the responsibility of embarrassing, or disappointing, or heart breaking.
I spent the remainder of the day on high alert, having gone from bird dog, lunging at every possible cure for Pop, to watchdog on the lookout for robes and oil.
My sister showed up. Thank God! But robes and oil never did.
They showed up the next day when it was just Pop and me. But it wasn’t the chaplain and he didn’t wear robes. It was my childhood pastor who has known Pop for thirty-plus years. No one was there but me to take the reins of awkward truths. I didn’t tell Pop what my sister told me to say. I didn’t say anything. I just took his hand in mine and nodded, reassuring him that this was right.
Turns out, Anointing of the Sick is not, in fact, last rites. It’s a beautiful prayer all about hope and courage—everything Pop needed. Hell, everything I needed. We both cried, not because it felt like last rites, but because it felt like relief. The oil, too, was soothing. It had a nostalgic scent like incense at Christmas. I dabbed Pop’s eyes, kissed his hand, and smiled. We’d made it through.
The chaplain did arrive the next day, also without robes. He wore a blue parka instead. Once again it was just me with Pop. I suppose it was just my time to grow. So I took Pop’s hand and held it tight.
“Father, how many times am I allowed to have this? Is there a limit?” Pop joked.
“As many times as you need,” the priest answered.
I know enough to know that sometimes disaster is a godsend. Instead of remembering an awful day in the hospital, my family laughs about when I put in an order for last rites. We can’t even handle cancer with dignity like other families. That’s just who we are. As for me, this time disaster forced me to go to that uncomfortable place where personal growth springs up. Like Anointing of the Sick, that’ll happen as many times as I need should I embrace the crazy.
My family is absolutely nuts. Yours might be too. Embrace it. Give it a group hug. Your disasters just might see you through the darkest times.