A weary elderly woman has just told me that she wants to stop fighting her debilitating disease and “write the end of her story” when the door to the hospital room flies open and a couple propels themselves into the room. The sacred moment disintegrates as the new arrivals bustle in laughing over a shared joke. They pause mid-punchline when they see me at the bedside.
“Well, who are you?” the woman asks in a brash tone laced with Jersey.
“I’m Chaplain Corrie,” I say with a pleasant smile.
“No!” she hollers on a whoosh of breath as she shakes her head vehemently. “You can’t possible be a chaplain. You don’t look a day older than 23!”
The woman proceeds to grill me about my age and exclaims over my babyface. She tells me that she almost mistook me for her great-grand-daughter, and then, as though she hasn’t found enough ways to annoy me, she says in a wary voice, with a hint of pre-disgust, “You’re not one of them born-agains, are you?”
Usually once a day, and some days as many as four times, people tell me how young I look. They are effusive with their protests that I can’t possibly be in my thirties. Some ask where I go to college and then look sheepish when I tell them that I finished my undergraduate degree in 2002 and completed seminary in 2005. A few brave idiots have actually tried to argue with me about my age. When they begin, I internally ask my brain soaked with chagrin — do they think I, the chaplain, am lying to them?
Some of the nicer, more astute people try to back track and compliment me once they realize they’ve said too much. Middle-aged and older women regularly respond with the mumbled line, “You’ll appreciate it when you are my age.”
Really? I’m supposed to find solace in the fact that in thirty or forty years I’ll finally look old enough to be respected as a professional?
Honestly, people say the stupidest things. I remember when I was a teenager attending one of my brother’s water polo matches. One of the moms, who I had known my whole life, sees me and says, “Oh, Corrie! You look so CLEAN!”
I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to talk about how clean I looked for two full minutes. Everyone on the bleachers listened to her gush on. I shrank inside myself, pulling my hair tightly against my chin like a scarf, suddenly and strangely ashamed of having clean-looking skin. In a desperate attempt to get her to stop implying that I usually look dirty, I blurted out, “Well, thanks but I haven’t showered for two days!”
Obviously I am not immune to saying stupid things. But, come on world! The daily comments on my youthful appearance are getting really old!
On Easter Sunday, my church hosted an egg hunt, free breakfast and worship service at a local park. As one of our major outreach programs, I felt compelled as a staff member to write “Pastor Corrie” on my name tag in case anyone had questions about our church. One of our regular members comes up to me, looks at my tag for a moment and said casually, “So, you’re official now.”
(By then I’d been on our church staff for nine months and a denominationally endorsed and licensed pastor for seven.)
“Yes,” I responded simply, remembering her presence at my installation service.
“It’s, well…you just look so YOUNG!”
I tried to dig up the single kernel of patience left at the bottom of my virtue barrel, but I failed, gave a brittle smile and replied, “I’m actually three years older than Brandon.” (He is our new associate pastor.)
“Oh,” she said and paused. I thought maybe I put her gently in her place, but she went on. “People with round faces like yours always look younger than they are.”
First, I’m too young. Then she thinks to make me feel better by remarking how round my face is. Unbelievable! You know what the word “round” is code for, don’t you?
With two older brothers who used to tease me incessantly and call me “dork” far more often than my given name, I’ve accumulated forbearance like a guitarist accumulates calluses. But hearing how young I look on a daily basis, that I can’t possibly be a pastor or professional chaplain because I look like a college student, is becoming more than I can bear. I worry that a day is coming when I might explode and verbally spew on a patient or congregant.
Fed up, I mentally prepared a new response tactic — honesty. The next time someone remarked how young I was, I would just tell them that their comment made me feel insignificant and disrespected. The next time someone called me “sweetie” or “baby” (and yes, one of the female nurses sometimes calls me baby) I would respond, “Lisa, I appreciate our good rapport, but in the interest of continuing our positive relationship, could you please call me Corrie instead of baby?” I resolved to be mature and stick up for myself. Honesty was going to work.
Today I walked through the ICU anointing and blessing the hands of our nurses to honor the sacred work that they do. Many expressed great appreciation. As I was exiting the unit, I passed by the senior nursing manager’s office, a woman who often consults me on our most difficult cases.
“Good morning, Sue” I called a friendly greeting and tossed out an accompanying wave and smile.
She looked up, smiled back and said, “Good morning, kiddo!”
Zinged again by a reminder of my babyface, I forgot my resolution to be mature and offer a gentle corrective. Instead, the shock of this new assault hitched my stride and I almost tripped. I squeaked out a uninteligble noise, shut my mouth and marched out of the unit like a pouting child.