Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Review: The Voice That Calls You Home

The Voice That Calls You Home: Inspiration for Life's Journeys The Voice That Calls You Home: Inspiration for Life's Journeys by Andrea Raynor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got the opportunity to read this book before it is officially published, because the author's publicist sent me an advance review copy. Raynor has worked as a chaplain, both in hospice care and caring for people during the 9/11 recovery efforts, and she is a cancer survivor. Knowing these facts, I was intrigued. What I didn't expect, however, was how much this book would deeply move me.

In recent years, I rarely keep books that I've read unless I think I will read them again someday. Even then, I try to keep books moving along--I will post them to or give them away instead of keeping them on our many bookshelves--but this one is a keeper and a loaner. I can already think of a long list of people who would appreciate this book.

I found myself needing to pause occasionally at the end of the chapter, because not only did the book make me cry several times (and I admit, I'm very emotional since becoming a mother, especially after surviving the NICU for 4 months), but I also needed to absorb the power of the message.

Much to Mike's disgust, I'm sure, I've dog-eared this book several times to mark the passages that touched me most. I'm not sure whether I can get him to read it now, since he will be so disturbed by the dog ears!

Raynor opens her book with the story of a Buddhist tale about a woman named Kisagotami who is grieving the loss of her baby. She goes to the Buddha, begging him to bring her son back to life. The wise Buddha tells her that he will do what she asks, if she will do one thing. She must return to her village and get a single mustard seed from one household that has not known death. Kisagotami returns to the Buddha without a mustard seed, but she has experienced healing because she heard the stories of her community and realized she was not alone.

After becoming an advocate of family-centered health care and coming to know so many people who have grieved their children's deaths, two incidents in the book highlighted the need for continuing work and education in this area. Raynor describes the death of an older Italian man, and the nurse who told her that she was going to ask the family to leave so she could prepare the body. Raynor suggested to the nurse that they ask the man's wife to stay (something she herself would never have asked for because of her limited English and respect for medical authority). The nurse assented, and she and Raynor watched as the wife cleaned her husband's body so tenderly and lovingly that they both felt blessed by the experience. But it never would have occurred to the nurse to ask the wife to participate. It reminds me of the time that an NICU nurse proudly informed me, when we arrived in the unit, that she had given tiny baby Christopher his first bath, even though she knew we would be arriving soon...and forever eliminating our opportunity to experience that first milestone. (And consequently she will forever remain in my mind as "that nurse.")

Another moment desperately needing family- and patient-centered care was when Raynor went in for her second lumpectomy and was treated like she didn't even exist, by the technician, nurse, anesthesiologist, and surgeon. When she woke up from surgery, the nurse was plying her with coffee so she'd be able to get up and leave. When Raynor found out that she would have to have a mastectomy, she wisely sought a new surgeon and a new hospital, one that would care for her spirit as well as her body.

Raynor's memoir is unusual in the sense that she was raised in a warm, loving family environment, by wise, spiritual parents. She appears to be the kind of person who has always had a transcendental connection with spirits and death. Her parents used to have seances when she was young, and her Methodist father had a unique ability to connect with spirits. Her father's mother died when he was young, and Raynor's daughter was born on the anniversary of her grandmother's death, transforming that day for her father into a happy, doubly meaningful one.

In the dark weeks and months after 9/11, Raynor volunteered at Ground Zero, going down to New York at night time, after spending all day doing hospice work and caring for her own family. When bodies or fragments of bodies were recovered, she would say prayers over them in the morgue. She ministered to the police officers, fire fighters, and other workers, and she tried to find meaning, somehow, in the wasteland.

She writes openly and honestly about her own battle with breast cancer, and the circle of friends and family who lifted her up during her darkest days. She writes about well-meaning friends who tell her "at least you're here" or "at least you've got your health" without understanding how discounting that is. (I can remember similar feelings when Chris was in the NICU, or when I had miscarriages.) I loved the story of her "buzz party" surrounded by women friends, and how her son asked her whether she'd rather die of cancer or be bald for a little while so she could stay with him.

Raynor writes beautifully of her experiences seeing people through to the other side. Although she witnesses and supports the deepest kind of pain and grief imaginable, she tries to find meaning and mystery in this sadness and suffering. She does not offer easy answers or platitudes, but suggests that the best we can do is to keep calling out for help, and "keep believing that there is One who hears, and to be open to the ways in which God comes to us. As the German theologian Dorothee Solle wrote: 'God has no other hands than ours.'" What I valued most about this book were the underlying themes of being God for one another and helping each other through the scariest moments of life.

The ultimate message of Raynor's book is that we can be each other's angels on earth. The most important thing we can do for someone who is suffering is to be present, to listen, and to be present again. We cannot take away another person's pain and we should not even try, but we can be present. We can be ministers to each other, and be the voice that calls each other home.

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