Sometimes, when Vic Frederiksen is alone in the chapel at Children's Hospital Medical Center, he imagines himself in another line of work. He sees himself opening a marina or a small flower shop. Another line of work, far from the sorrow and suffering.
Ten years ago, when he left a well-to-do Episcopal congregation in North Carolina to become chaplain at Children's Hospital Medical Center, he had this naive idea he could somehow fix things, that he could fill the ragged holes in peoples' lives.It hasn't worked out that way. Vic doesn't see the kids who check in for a few days, then go home to lead the rest of their lives.
He sees the two or three a week for whom the suffering is about to end forever. He baptizes babies who never grow up. He sees the children who never get out of bed - or if they do go home, are never again whole.
But from the beginning, the children have given him strength. He remembers them as lessons in courage. This is just one of them:
"I'd been here a year and a half. He was 7 years old the first time I saw him. A real cute little guy. I got to know him well.
"He had cancer. A lot of the families I see are broken already, whether by divorce, financial problems, whatever. Sometimes, I wonder what comes first - the disease or the family crisis. But this boy's family was intact. A nice middle-class family from a good neighborhood.
"Anyway, he'd had the surgery, the chemotherapy, everything. But his cancer was winning. There was talk of doing a total hemipelvectomy, where they cut off everything from the waist down. But the doctors decided it would be too difficult emotionally for him.
"One day, he told the nurse he wanted to see me. And when I went into his room, he told me, `I want to be burned, put in a tin can and taken home.'
"Hearing something like that from a child, it sets you back. I asked him when he wanted this done. And he said, `When I die.'
"He told me his dad moves around a lot and he didn't want to be left behind. He knew they couldn't haul his casket around. You see that a lot in kids - they don't worry so much about dying as they do about being separated from Mom and Dad."
Vic called the boy's parents. The four of them reached an agreement that, if the boy should die, he would be cremated. Vic told him it wouldn't hurt because he would be dead. He explained that God would take him to a place where he would be so happy, he wouldn't miss his mother and father. And he told him that instead of a tin can, his ashes would be kept in a mahogany box. The boy said that sounded OK to him.
"A few days later, he told me he'd been leaving his room. I asked him about it, and he described leaving his body, going home and being with his grandfather, the one who'd died.
"He said the last time he went home, a big black tornado came tearing down the street, destroying everything in sight. And just before it destroyed his house, his grandfather told him to leave. The grandfather wouldn't let the boy go with him - he told him to go back to the hospital for a while longer.
"You hear of people having these out-of-body experiences, and you often hear about a tornado. Some psychologists say the tornado is a sort of death premonition. I don't know.
"But the boy died shortly after that. On Good Friday. I took the mahogany box to his home Easter Monday. His mother put it on a bookshelf. Then she poured us each a glass of Chivas Regal, and we talked.
"I try to visit his parents every year on Good Friday. He's still there on the bookshelf, just like he wanted to be."
Over the years, Vic has come to understand he can't fix things, that a lot of what happens doesn't make sense, and that none of the cliches work. He realizes that, most of the time, all you can do is be there.
But he wonders how much longer he can do this job. He finds himself dreaming about opening a marina. Or maybe a small flower shop.