Wednesday, March 5, 2014


The room reeks.  Of urine and tobacco spit.  I take a gulp of air at the door and try not to use my nose for the rest of the hour.  A pale, elderly man is slumped in a recliner.  He is wearing the same red flannel shirt every time I come.  He reaches for my hand and I notice his fingernails need to be cut.  "Where you been?" he asks.  I try to look past the missing and black teeth and see the happy, generous smile and the twinkle in his watery, blue eyes.  It always takes me a few minutes - to get used to mouth breathing, to quit worrying about what I might be sitting on, to stop recoiling and start enjoying his dry humor and rich stories.

Today we talk about hitchhiking.  I know that he was a logger on the west coast and a builder on the east coast so I ask him about driving back and forth across the country.  "I never drove it," he tells me.  "I hitchhiked across eleven times."

"Wow" I say.  "Eleven times?  Were you scared riding with strangers?"

"Scared?" He snorts.  "You obviously never hitchhiked.  Every one did it. Plus, I had my gun if I needed it."

"A gun?" I am even more incredulous.  "Didn't that scare the people who picked you up?"

"I didn't wave around like a crazy man while I had my thumb out." He is tickled now.  "You obviously never hitchhiked."

"Nope.  Never.  It's not safe anymore."  I tell him. "And I sure wouldn't pick up a gun toting, ornery lumberjack either. How many women picked you up?"

"Women?  There were hardly women drivers then.  I never rode with a woman."  He cracks up at my ignorance.  "You obviously never hitchhiked back then."

"I wasn't born then."  I remind him.  "So I definitely wasn't hitchhiking across country."

"That's true."  He admits.  "And it's obvious you never hitchhiked."

He tells me how he hates being trapped in this one room.  Trapped in a body that is failing him.  He longs to be a young man again, planning his next adventure.  "I would do so many things differently."  he tells me.  "I made so many mistakes."

"Oh sweetie," I say, (because I am a Southern chaplain, after all),  "We don't get through life without having regrets, do we?  It's one of the hardest things about being human."

For a minute there is no urine or dirty flannel or black teeth.  Just two travelers who know the pain of regret, talking about the gift of forgiveness and the peace God can bring.   It's in these moments that I know why I am supposed to be in this room.

And then he wants to lighten the mood.  "This one time I was hitchhiking in Arizona." He is grinning again.  "You have obviously never hitchhiked there....."

Someday, I hope to be the kind of chaplain who doesn't plug her nose during a visit, who can throw her arms around dirty flannel without wincing, stingy reserve.  I have coworkers whose acceptance and warmth both shame and inspire me every week.  Until then I will be grateful for every exiting gasp of fresh air.  And for former hitchhikers who are eager to tell tall tales.


  1. If he logged on the west coast he could have been at least a contemporary of Uncle Don who also hitchhiked on occasion! I totally identify with the mouth breathing! Delightful encounter! M2