Teri was no ordinary soul…she was a puppeteer. Teri could tell the best stories, sing the craziest and bawdiest songs, and laugh louder than anyone I knew. Near the end of her life, Teri chose to go back to school to be a nurse. In class, she was a bright spot to her classmates and professors, and in the hospital she was a source of light and life. Sadly, TJ only had the joy of caring for others for a short time before her sickness took her away from nursing. In that brief time as a nurse, TJ was able to add to her repetoir of stories.
Near the end of Teri’s battle with cancer, my family and I had the great pleasure of hosting Teri Jean in our home. One night after our children were in bed we sat down to listen to some of Teri’s adventures in nursing. As I listened to this master storyteller share stories from the floor I was profoundly moved. As she spoke I knew I was sitting under an expert in the art of incarnation. Let me recount two of those stories for you.
“Talk to the Teddy”
TJ’s first assignment as a nurse was an overnight shift on a hospital floor in Iowa City, IA. One night, a young man arrived by ambulance. He was checked onto her floor. When the ambulance drivers wheeled him in Teri could tell they were agitated and annoyed by their passenger and she quickly realized why. The man on the stretcher refused to directly answer any questions that were directed at him. The only way the man would give a response was if the person speaking addressed the stuffed bear he held in his arms. TJ could tell the ambulance drivers were frustrated and pretty unwilling to speak to the bear. Teri, on the other hand, being a puppeteer in her previous life felt very comfortable, and normal, speaking to a stuffed animal! She began to direct her questions to the bear and continued this practice throughout the night. Eventually, after many interactions with the bear, the gentleman softened and turned to Teri. The gentleman, speaking through the bear, spoke to Teri. The bear conveyed the following message; “you have been very kind to ‘John’ and now ‘John’ would like to speak to you directly”. The gentleman then set the bear down.
“Do You See What I See”
On another occasion, Teri was charged with the care of a young man experiencing rapid and massive deterioration of tissue in his heart. The rapid decline made the young man very sick. To regulate his pain, he was prescribed high doses of narcotics. A side effect of the medication was drug induced hallucinations. When these hallucinations set in the young man, scared by these hallucinations, grew agitated. After spending time with him, Teri was able to recognize what was happening. Instead of pretending the hallucinations weren’t happening Teri entered into the fear with this man. She didn’t ignore him, in fact she invited him to tell her when he was having them and then she asked questions. What was he seeing? Where in the room was the imaginary person? Each time, the young man would describe what he was seeing, and then she would diffuse his fears with laughter while letting him know that what he was seeing was just a hallucination. After some days in the hospital, the young man was released only to return a few weeks later. Upon his return, he began asking for Teri right away. Teri was not available but the young man shared with the nurse why he wanted to see Teri. During that particular time in the hospital when Teri was with him, he had been at very low point and he was contemplating suicide. The hallucinations scared him. Teri’s willingness to talk to him about his hallucinations, to normalize and stand beside him in his hallucinations and help him decipher the real from the unreal was the first time he felt ‘normal’ and it gave him hope.
Teri was self-forgetting and willing to enter into a world that was not her own in order to safeguard a suffering person. She was willing to suspend her reality and enter the reality of the person she was caring for. By doing this the people Teri looked after felt deeply loved, they felt safe, and they experienced intimacy and trust. Teri became their guide and when a relationship was established she was able to walk with them on the way towards transformation. Teri’s willingness to enter into the brokenness of her patients was a form of invitation. She was with them where they were, and she invited them on a journey towards greater wholeness. This is incarnation in its full beauty.
Teri modeled incarnation for me and I can only pray that I would be willing to die to myself in order to enter into the world of the persons that God calls me to care for. Incarnation doesn’t run from suffering and brokenness and it also doesn’t try to ‘fix’ or ‘eliminate’ the suffering for the person or community. Incarnation enters the world as it is, embracing brokenness for the sake of journeying towards redemption. Incarnation is a radical self-denial and self-forgetting. Incarnation is courageous and hopeful. Incarnation groans with the broken. Incarnation is God with us. Incarnation is God with us as we are with others.
I am so blessed to have had Teri in my life and I thank God for her great love and her ability to see the beauty in all things and her courageous willingness to ’empty herself’ in order to enter another’s world in order to become a guide towards wholeness.