February 16, 2024

Behind the Glass—a short story

In this story, some of Emily’s internal experiences are similar to my own experiences as a hospital chaplain during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic. All details about patients, their loved ones, and hospital staff, however, are fictional.

The hospital chaplain’s normally gone at this point, because you’re dead, after all, and your loved ones are gone. But for some reason I don’t want to leave you just yet. Your sister and your friends made for the elevators just minutes after the RN noticed your death on her monitor and joined us in the room to whisper “He’s gone.” Booming news, delivered like a puff of smoke. Relief and grief; exhaustion and adrenaline. 

In a while, two people will bustle in with a long, pale bag and zip you into it. I imagine your liver cooling and your blood settling into your back, your buttocks, the backs of your thighs and calves. You’ve cast off from our shore, but are you across yet?

You signed the forms before you lost consciousness, because you wanted this. You wanted what the respiratory therapist did to you, adjusting and tugging on your breathing tube to snake it out, knowing that you couldn’t breathe long on your own, knowing that your organs were shutting down, that cancer had claimed vital territory. You were ready for this. Maybe she reminded herself of all this while she tugged.

And you wanted the RN to keep those softening, dulling drugs flowing like she did. Quiet, and when your heart stopped, no code blue, no physician running up the stairs, no team crowding around your bed, no broken ribs. You agreed that when your heart stopped, your medical team would allow clinical death to slide into biological death.

Oh, you’re dead, I don’t deny it. But are you fully gone?

From your window, I see the shadowed back parking lot, the twilit silhouettes of oaks and hydrangeas. There goes your sister Lynn, shuffling across the circle of light under a lamppost that just came on. She’s fishing around in her pocket and dragging her fingers along the door of a blue Celica, your car, or hers now, I guess. (She told me about it.) She’s turning around to lean against the car, lighting something up.

I’m giving you a running commentary, in case you’re still here.

A few hours ago, Lynn asked me to pray. She clarified, when I asked, that I should address my prayers to Mother. Not sure whether you heard that part, so I’ll fill you in. She said she’s spiritual but doesn’t trust religion. She said you don’t either. I told her you seem spiritual to me, because last Wednesday you told me you saw your mom and your brother Todd, right there in the corner of the room, by the sink and the mask dispenser. I told her that you pointed them out to me, mom and Todd. And that you said you felt safe.

She closed her eyes tightly when I said that. “Ah, Todd.” she said. 

Old griefs and new griefs braid together, over and under, under and over.


In an emergency, a Catholic might be willing to receive the Eucharist from me. My hands trembled the first time I felt in my purse for that sealed plastic cup, with its sip of consecrated juice and consecrated wafer.

Behold the Blessed Sacrament. From my purse.

I held it like it was made of blown filament, like it was the baby Jesus himself.

I secretly wish you had wanted that, because I could have provided it, and there are so many things I can’t provide. Like answers. Last Wednesday, you asked what I think happens after we die, and I dodged the question. If it’s you who’s dying, your answer is the one that matters.

So I asked why you asked, and what you think happens, and later I asked how you felt about the nearness of death, and whether you were afraid. I’m glad you felt okay talking with me about those things, exploring scary terrain by the light of your own beliefs and hunches instead of mine. But still: wouldn’t it be something, to deal out definitive answers to a question like death?


The intensive care unit on D-7 is at capacity during this Covid-19 surge, and every work shift is an uphill sprint for the staff over there. The vibe is slower and wider here in oncology, where you died. The machines and people near your room are quiet.

Your eyes have been closed this whole time, and your expression is blank, as if you’re not listening. You’re right, I should leave you be. I should go back to the chaplain’s room and get some sleep, in case there’s a call during the night. That’s why I’m spending the night here at the hospital, after all, to answer that phone and say yes to heavy questions: “An elderly patient has died and her son is on the way, can you meet him when he gets here?” Yes. “Siblings are waiting for news about their dad’s heart attack; can you go sit with them in the small waiting room by the fish tanks?” Yes.

“We lost a young patient to Covid, can you come sit with her mother?”

That was the question on the night I met Jasmine. “On-call chaplain, this is Emily,” I had said, as usual, when the phone rang. I was half in a desert dreamworld, fumbling for the light and my glasses, straining toward the awake world. I tried to sound ready to face what goes on in hospitals at two in the morning.

It was Shaundra on D-7, and I heard wailing behind her. “What’s going on?” I asked then, needlessly. Who could not know what was going on? Whose mitochondrial DNA does not provide them with faint memories of ancient terror, bad death, shattering grief? Who does not know the meaning of a mother’s wail?

In the elevator heading up to D-7, I arched my back and stared at the ceiling, opened my eyes wide, and tried to wake up. Tried to loosen the stubborn rubber straps on my N95 mask. Tried to pray. Parts of the metal walls and elevator buttons were white with dried bleach, and I was holding my breath. As I stepped out on the seventh floor, I sensed a familiar shift in air pressure and heard air being sucked under the wide double-doors that led to the Covid unit, then the sigh of equalizing pressure as the doors swung open to let me in.

It was not hard to find Jasmine. She was wailing and banging on the sliding glass door of a patient’s room, longing to go in but knowing she couldn’t. Her daughter lay dead in front of us, behind the glass wall and sliding door that protected us from the virus, from that deadness. 

We could not go into the room—we could only look at her, a motionless dark-haired girl, silent in the room where she had died, sleeping behind the glass. But no magic or kiss could wake her, no scream, or plea, or prayer.

RNs had freed her from tubes and drug pumps and monitor wires by then. She lay on her back, clean sheets tucked around her, two white pillows under her head as if she were napping. But still, her mother could not hold her.


I once thought I saw an angel, you know. I was eight, and two girls ran onto the playground at recess saying they’d seen an angel in the chapel, a real one. I had to see it for myself.

It was a dim side chapel at St. Catherine’s Elementary, and five of us sat in breathy suspense, watching the front wall of the room. A single sharp light focused on the crucifix, Christ in bloody torment, thrillingly gothic compared to the empty wood beams at my family’s Lutheran church. “To the left! Do you see it?” whispered the girl next to me. She slipped from her chair and knelt on the carpet, and so did the others, splaying their feet out to the sides, folding their hands across the fronts of their blue school sweaters. I slid onto my knees and folded my hands too, straining to see the angel in the patterns of light on the wall. 

If angels wear wavering light and shifting shadows, then I saw it. Yes, I did.


I went to the atrium to breathe, but I’m back. When I walked past José, who will be one of your baggers, he said “Hey, thanks for sitting with him.” He feels it too, the abruptness of death. I like that your big transformation is happening in a cocoon made of smaller transformations: combative to accepting, conscious to unconscious, intubated to extubated, heart beating to stopped, friends present to absent, body warm to cooling.

Even though no one wailed here today, Lynn’s grieving. Do you feel her love? She and a couple of your friends told stories about you, thanked you, said goodbye. One of them cried against your chest, your best friend since third grade. Your face is an empty gray now, and it says nothing to me, however hard I look for a sign from the other side. Why don’t I want to leave you alone? Your mom is here, of course, and Todd. And some part of you?

In you, death’s mystery is lying in front of me once again, and I still can’t see death, no matter how hard I look. It’s always around a corner, and its flickering shadows are all I see.

I want to tell you the end of the angel story. When the Sister heard what we were doing, she marched us into the florescent light of her office and glared at the Catholic girls. It is a special blessing to see an angel, she said, one that you cannot expect, one that God does not give to regular girls, girls like you. God sends angels to girls like Mary. Their penance for believing that they might be as special as Mary was to sit without fidgeting and recite the Hail Mary prayer twenty times—a plea to Mary for help, for forgiveness.

I asked the Sister what I should do. “Go to your class,” she said, I suppose because Protestants can’t make up with Mary, having permanently offended her with their doctrine. And just like that, Mary stopped watching over me.

Another strand of grief.


A spotlight in my mind keeps swinging toward that other night, the night with Jasmine.

Before the call, I was dreaming about Hagar, who saw El Roi in the desert—the God who sees. A rough, creative God, never shocked by death or drought. Seeing and, once in a while, seen. The veils, down.

Later that night, as Jasmine smeared tears and snot on the glass and pleaded with her dead daughter in Tagalog, the moon was waning gibbous. I know this because after I left, I went out behind the parking lot and looked up. And I felt the moon’s white light cover my face and soothe my eyes, a gift of spiritual first aid, gently applied by the God who Sees.

Lynn must have closed the blinds this afternoon, thinking it was too bright for death, too warm. I pull them open to find the night sky. Look, there it is. The stars, blind in the daytime, have come out to view you through the glass. Bits of far-traveling light are fluttering onto you like the kindness of strangers, like love that won’t give up.

What’s happening to you? Can you finally see what was invisible in the glare of life’s days? Are there stars whose gazes you can finally return?


A Filipino patient in a nearby room was distressed by what he overheard that night, an RN told me. It seems Jasmine believed she had brought Covid into the house, had given it to her family. It seems she believed her daughter was dead because of her.

She cried this out, in Tagalog. A prayer, the kind Mary can never ignore. I know that now. 

“Do I need to get her away from that glass?” I asked the RNs that night. “Could she break it? I mean she’s small, but….”

No, they said, no. She can’t, it’s okay.

It’s not the first time they’ve seen fresh, raw grief come wetly to life. Maybe that glass has taken harder hits.

That night, outside that glass, I imagined the air of fresh death seeping around us, motes of it floating out from the tiny gap between the sliding glass door and the door jamb. I wanted to put my lips to that gap and sing into the room, mask off. What had come over me?

Ah, I remember. It’s not that I wanted to sing Mary into the room. No. It’s that I wanted to get her attention, make sure she saw those of us outside the glass, in need of mercy too. Because I saw her sitting on that bed, dressed in shifting shadows and wavering light, faint and iridescent. She leaned over that girl and stroked her hair, letting her tears fall onto that sweet, still body. Watching over her, just as she always had.

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