The People I Left Behind

by Andrew Bertaina

      I arrived in San Francisco in the front seat of a maroon Chevy Sundance, self-consciously wearing a red Arizona Cardinals bandana. My dad was driving slowly, per usual, five miles below the speed limit while my mother complained about the degree of air flow reaching the backseat. We drove past Golden Gate Park—joggers, dogs on leashes, sand dunes, wind-blasted trees, a McDonald’s bag drifting along the sidewalk. The car climbed up Nineteenth Avenue, past chic pastel townhouses with large street-facing windows and ornate latticework.

     We were driving to Jackson Street, towards the large house where I was to spend the spring semester of my junior year in college. The eleven-bedroom house was located in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. It was a neighborhood full of mansions, some with enough ivy to remind you of Wrigley Field, others on hilltops surrounded by brick walls, castles of old. My favorite was a box-shaped house with an aluminum exterior, a circular front door, and a koi pond. Salty deposits built up on car windshields overnight, a constant reminder of  the Pacific’s proximity.

      I was as about excited as one can be with parents in tow. Meaning I was reserved, snappish, and overtly cool. My dad talked idly about the weather while I scanned the houses, looking for home. When we arrived, the front steps were abuzz with middle-aged parents helping to move in their children, who were waiting for them to leave.

      Eventually all of our parents left, and we had the house, our lives, to ourselves. We were expected to get internships as a part of our study, working twenty-four hours a week to prepare us for the real world at our doorstep. I interviewed at a publishing house with a fellow student, but decided that I didn’t want to work in an office for three months. I was interested in people, so I took an internship, with three others, at San Francisco General Hospital. I do not know if I learned about the real world, but I did learn the advantage of working in an office. You cannot file people away like papers, shut the drawer, and pass them on when you are finished with them. Some people, unlike papers, will stay in your memory, and they will haunt you forever.

      Bob Walter was in charge of the chaplain’s program at SF General. Bob was a retired Southern Baptist preacher who had decided that Jesus loved more than the Bible Belt and headed West with the sinners. He was like a father to me, guiding me through the process of self-discovery. He was there when a patient died, and he was there when I told him of my failing with my old girlfriend, how I had done everything but slept with her. He kept his voice low in meetings, so I had to lean close to his hangdog face to hear.  He told me I was forgiven. He told me that I was just human. He was my mentor. He had a face that you could trust. I remember the light glaring off his circular glasses, the lift of his cheeks in a smile, and I remember his voice saying that he loved me, that he loved all of us. Three years later, when I went back to San Francisco General Hospital, he could not remember my name. Perhaps that is how you keep working in a hospital — you learn to forget.

    Homosexuality is not considered a biological necessity at evangelical colleges like Westmont. It is considered to be a sin. As a hospital chaplain, I was charged with loving those that Christ loved, the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the lost. I was to offer them the love of Christ above all else, emulate His search for the one lamb. Christian doctrine was not deemed important; love was. Bob was my mentor. He had a face you could trust. Years later, I learned that he left his wife for a man.


     The chaplain’s program at San Francisco General was non-denominational. Every faith tradition was honored: Buddhist, Hindu, Judaism, Unitarian Universalist, et al. Bob interviewed four of us for the job of chaplain: David, a small red-headed kid from Boston already knew he wanted to be a preacher;  Becky, a granola-crunching hippie from New Hampshire with curly hair and two protruding front teeth that, when she smiled, gave her the look of a squirrel;  Sarah, a red-headed girl voted most attractive on the first guys-night out when we rated each of the girls on a desirability scale.


     On one of the first nights in the house, I went downstairs to check my e-mail. Tammi was in the hot, cramped computer room – a bit of hard ass. She was the only one in the house who smoked, almost the only one who drank. She was of Asian descent, and it was obvious that she hated the ubiquity of white skin, brace-enhanced smiles, and cheerful hellos that our college offered. We talked for two hours; it was the only night, in three months together, that I learned anything about her.

     Tammi leaned back in her chair and said, “Oh jeez, you’re sensitive. Some girl is going to fall for you.”

     “Which one?” I asked, smiling inwardly. I have always loved the

feeling of falling in love, of being loved.


      Sarah. If I told you that she had red hair and pale cheeks, it wouldn’t matter. Her beauty was internal, beneath this thin layer of flesh. She and I spent three months together as chaplains, watching people at their lowest points, their bodies decaying, life ending, and beginning. I can still remember the faint smell of feces in patient’s rooms that no hospital cleaner could completely cover. We parted the veil together, saw beneath the flesh to the bones of people, to the spirit. What she looked like is not important; she was an angel.

     We were riding on the bus together to work when she asked me if I meant anything by the winks and smiles that I’d been giving her. I didn’t reply; I waited for the slight shifting of the bus, rounding a corner on Mission Street, and pressed my shoulder against hers, holding it for a count too long. I am always in pursuit of being loved; it is the greatest game ever invented. Sarah smiled and leaned away. Her face reddened, and we stood together on a crowded bus, alone in the universe of our minds.

      The hospital wards had a certain verisimilitude despite their multi-faceted functions—gleaming white floors, fluorescent lights, a brief hallway that lead into the center of the ward where nurses and secretaries sat behind a semi-circular desk. Every floor had a couple of lounges, a few couches, a blank television screen, empty except for the occasional left-over birthday cake, half-gone, the families who had visited—a memory of plastic forks.

     The patients’ rooms ran parallel to each other along the walls of the ward, encircling the nurses’ station and the communal bathroom that healthy patients could struggle to if the need arose. The hallways were chilly and the rooms were warm, bathed in light, natural and artificial. They smelled vaguely anti-septic, as if an air freshener were sprayed over the scent of rotting fruit. They were sometimes empty, their occupants wandering the halls, bare-assed, trying to reach an elevator, to escape the hospital for a moment, to smoke a cigarette in the crisp air and cold sun of San Francisco.

      Sophia, a Unitarian Universalist, (read: heathen in an evangelical’s eyes) took me on my first visit as a chaplain. Her voice took on an otherworldly quality during her chapel services, almost chant-like, Gregorian, as if she were reaching within herself to touch God. It sounded inauthentic, like a show, like a séance, something that required candles. I can see now that we were all being pushed towards Sophia, towards acceptance, towards love. But I have always wondered where you draw the line? How you separate the wheat from the chaff?

     I was shadowing her that first day to witness a patient-chaplain interaction. I remember being conscious of my inexperience, of my lack of a clip board filled with medical terminology to hide behind. I am not a person who speaks easily about faith. I feel reluctant to present myself as an example of spiritual enlightenment. I am just one more soul wandering a lonely road.


     Sophia and I walked onto the AIDS/Oncology floor to visit a patient named Ronnie. He was in his early thirties, and suffering from AIDS. A secretary gave us a tight smile as we entered the ward.


      I do not know if chaplains were welcomed by the hospital staff. But what is the value of saving the body if the soul is lost? If there is no soul, were we useless? Now, I would like to believe in the eternality of the soul. I believed it definitively then.

     A crowd of people stood around Ronnie’s door. Balloons floated above the heads of a child and a middle aged man. A younger woman held a bouquet of flowers carelessly, bunched against her left arm. She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. Ronnie was dead.

      I remember feeling dead inside as well. He was gone. I did not wonder if his soul had brushed past me on its way out the door, if it had ascended; I wondered instead what I could say in that moment. Nothing.

     Sophia stepped towards the group and asked if she could be of help. A woman, who I took to be Ronnie’s mother, sobbed gently in the hall, pillars of light falling in the empty room behind her.

     “Thank you, but no,” she said.

     So we stood there, hands folded, heads down, silent, watching Ronnie’s family walk down the hallway—two balloons trailing behind, bobbing against the ceiling.


     Sarah and I routinely drove to work together in my red Chevrolet Corsica. Each day, I would weave through traffic to avoid San Francisco’s blockades. The left lane was always blocked by some jerk taking a left, while the right lane was stopped because at any given moment in San Francisco it is ok to flip on your hazard light, get a perm, deliver a note to a friend, put a box down, break off an engagement, or just about anything that suits your fancy as traffic piles up behind you. Driving becomes a fine dance, a weaving in and out of lanes, looking for hazard lights and turn signals.

     I remember the mornings with Sarah the most. We would turn on the music, roll down the windows and feel the rush of chill air against our cheeks from a morning fog burned off, treasuring the moments we spent together before the glass doors of the hospital swallowed us.

     I remember her laugh, a brief thing—uncomfortable with some inappropriate joke I had told but still laughing. I remember looking back at San Francisco with her from across the Golden Gate, a grey haze hanging above the city, the light on her fair skin, playing at the children’s museum, dancing together at the Palace of Fine Arts, emulating some romantic movie. I remember her hands—small and pale—held in mine. She was what I clung to in that hospital. Not God. Her. Hers were the hands that I could touch.


     I was buzzed onto the floor by a police officer and signed in to the seventh floor. The seventh floor was the ward where prisoners were sent when they were sick. When I walked into the room, the prisoner was lying in bed. A tattoo was snaking up his arm where an IV ran, and he looked vaguely homeless—long white beard, slim, dark framed glasses—like any other patient sent for recovery.

     “Hello, who are you?” he asked.

     “I’m a hospital chaplain. My name is Andrew.”

     I could tell by the position of his body that he wanted to talk, leaning slightly towards me. I walked across the room and stood at the side of his bed with my back resting against the wall. It was a violation of our training; you were supposed to leave yourself an exit from the room. But I had learned to trust the patients, even the incarcerated.  They were all prisoners here, lives hanging by a thread. The only threat I posed to them was youth and vigor. I was trying to love all of their failing bodies, their failing souls.

     His name was Simon, and his eyes were small and dark. He assumed, like many of the patients, that I was a Christian.

     “What do you have to say for yourself then?” he asked.

     I sat, unsure of what he wanted. We were taught not to lean over the patients because it might make them uncomfortable. I looked into his eyes. They were little dots of black ink. His teeth came together on the edge of his white beard, slowly chewing. Suddenly, he sat up in bed and began to yell about the Crusades, the Native Americans killed at the hands of the Church, and the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. He slammed his fist down on the bed, sitting up, eyes wild.

     “What do you have to say to that?” he asked.

     “I’m afraid that I can’t answer for all Christians throughout time,” I answered, looking into my hands and then up at his face, “I…”

     He cut me off and began ranting again, talking about the Holocaust, talking about the blood on our hands, on our conscience. I watched him closely during the tirade—spit flying, hair wild, waiting for the moment when he would attack. He had a thin frame, but he was in jail for something. He finished and glared at me. “Now don’t you ever come back in here again! Stay the hell out,” he said.

     If slapped, would I turn the other cheek? No. I wouldn’t have then. I wouldn’t now. I am not like Christ. I cannot bear the burdens.

      Near the end of the semester, I met a homeless man named Ernest, who was in the hospital for a hip replacement. Ernest was black, with arms three times the size of mine. He told me that he was formerly an alcoholic, but that he’s been off the sauce for a month. He told me that he thought the hospital would help him kick the habit. His smile was engaging, his teeth near perfect. I had grown and contracted in my months at the hospital, first learning to see the beauty in people, then tiring of all the ugliness. Ernest reminded me of the beauty.

     Each time I visited Ernest I felt as if I was returning to the house of a friend. After a few visits, Ernest asked me for a Bible.

     When I spoke with him about it he said, “I’ve been waiting for you to come back. I’ve been reading about Job,” (which he pronounced phonetically) “about how no matter what happens he keeps turning back to God.”

     I began to discuss the Book of Job with him, pronouncing the name correctly in the process.

     He cut me off mid-sentence. “Oh, it’s Job, not job.”

     The book of Job does not make much sense to me. God allows Satan to torture Job, which causes him to lose his wife, his sons, everything he values. Yet, he still turns to God. I do not remember what I said to Ernest that day; I remember what he said to me. Ernest had faith, new and vibrant, his hands grasping the edges of that new Bible. I do not know if I would turn to God in Job’s situation. I have not lost enough. Perhaps Ernest had.

     I visited Ernest many times during my last month at the hospital. He was capable of inspiring such belief in me, such comfort. He was homeless; he was powerful. I believed that he would one day conquer alcoholism and find a place to stay. We were not supposed to give patients our contact information. I gave him my phone number. He was the last patient I talked to from the hospital, the last one I left behind.


     Why did I only call him once? I was twenty-one years old. What could I have changed? I am twenty-nine years old. What can I change now?


     I still wonder, even today, typing this sentence, what happened to him. I can picture him—long days at the auto shop, a small row house, a slightly plump wife who slides him a glass of lemonade as he sits at the kitchen table. But I can also picture him on a street corner—huddled in a grey blanket, cup rattling, shaking hands, his arms—big and marked—the slanting rain making puddles of water beneath his brown shoes.

      Jesus served the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. I did the same, but I could not make them a promise of Paradise. I could not promise them anything. I could only witness their struggle here.

     By the third month of the internship, the visits had become exhausting. We stayed in the office, away from patients, exchanging stories, laughing or reading books. Sarah and I guiltily admitted to one another that we had only made one or two visits during the course of the day.  We were required to keep a patient visit logs, writing up the time of the encounter, the patient’s name, and a recording of the interaction. Sarah and I began to spend an immense amount of time recounting our patient visits, as if recalling five minutes of a conversation was the same as penning a chapter in Proust, our pencils dragging slowly across the white page.


     Sarah often came into my room at night. We lay on separate beds, our hands pillowing our faces as we tried to figure out what life meant—those moments in April, the smell of cheap alcohol, the smile of someone dying, the voice of someone asking for morphine. We bared our souls, filled up the space between words. She always slept in her own room.

     One night, a few girls came into my room to watch a movie. When it ended, the girls all left except for Jamie, a cute, peppy blond who later started a purity group. She told me that she had wanted to kiss me from the first moment she met me. I was flattered, and I was ready to let go. I had not kissed Sarah. I had not told the patients about my own life, my own failings. I had been holding back almost everything. I held their life-stories in my hands and could do nothing with them. We started kissing on the bed. It went no further. My God, what a letting go.


     On our final night in the house, Sarah came to my room, and we talked for a while in the dark. In spring, the air in San Francisco remains brisk, and the wind was billowing the curtains. We looked at each other for a long time, then kissed, as if from obligation over the things we had shared—death, God, silence, betrayal, sexuality, the world turned on its head. I remember our lips were dry, and it was brief. We were both uneasy from things done and left undone. We parted. 


    I met Gordon on floor 4A. 4A was the most positive floor because it was the floor where people worked on rehabbing, not getting sicker, but healthier. There was very little risk of losing someone. A hospital is a place of betrayals. Gordon was in his sixties—overweight, bald, two replacement knees. His room smelled of sweat, of bodies that sit and stew in afternoon sun. Sarah came with me that day, and we were both excited by our interaction with Gordon. He told us that he had been a long-time minister, that he appreciated us. He told us he was retired now, living on a pension from a stint in the military. He showed us a picture of his son and daughter; there was no mention of his wife. He was alone in the hospital. Gordon prayed with us at the end of our visit; it was evident that he was much better at being a chaplain than I ever was.

     I visited Gordon regularly during my time at the hospital, talking with him over greyish hospital lunches. He told me that he was an alcoholic before he entered the ministry. He told me that he was going to get better. Gordon told me that his wife had died ten years earlier, and that he had lost touch with his son, and rarely spoke with his daughter. He had no family to visit him.

     Gordon did not get better as weeks passed. I only saw him a time or two, struggling down the hallway with his silver walker. He was unable to contact his daughter and began breathing with a respirator. His large white legs began to swell, and he lost mobility. I prayed for Gordon with Sarah. Nothing changed.

      In the final week, I went to check on Gordon and found an empty hospital bed. I checked at the nurses’ station and discovered that Gordon had suffered a heart attack and had been transferred to the ICU.

     I felt like everything had changed, and I can see the faces of each one of those people, but I could never bear their pain. I could only love them, what a paltry thing. I could not face death alone on my final day as I couldn’t on my first. I took Sarah with me into the ICU. We stood in the doorway, listening to the machine breathing. He was still alone. Gordon was asleep, and I started to cry. He woke briefly, held each of our hands in his. I was reminded of the time he told Sarah and me that we were like his grandchildren. Perhaps she has been my sister all along.

    We left; he faded away.


     During the last week of the Urban Program the staff from Westmont College came to discuss our internship at SFGH. One of the younger members of the staff, a leadership professor, challenged the idea of a program that did not openly share the Gospel of Christ. He did not understand how we could support so many that lived outside the Body. I am not a public speaker; I am nervous, shy since I was a boy. I turn red, and I wonder if I am making sense. I told the assembled group, him specifically, that no one can accept the idea of a loving God until we have clothed them, fed them, and shown them that love incarnate. No amount of Christian doctrine can match the efforts of a single loving hand.

     Dayna, the leadership member who had questioned our internship, accompanied me on one of my last patient visits. He would go on to credit me with a life-changing experience, showing him that we must love the individual before presenting the Gospel. It was grace that I learned to extend to everyone in the hospital. It is grace that I cannot extend to myself, for I failed to love them enough. The semester ended, and I went home. They still haunt me. I have not forgotten them. Have they forgotten me?

     I left San Francisco and the hospital that May, an old man of twenty-one.  I drove away from the house that day, missed my turn-off north of the bay and drove for hours in the April sunshine glad to be free. I had pictured myself a hero, a changer of lives, ah life what a pile of shit. I saved no one from death, gave some small bit of comfort a time or two but not enough. I called my friend Ernest once to see how his hip replacement had gone.  He was staying in a house that he had been granted for a month while he recovered. He didn’t know what he was going to do next.  I never found out what happened to Ernest, to Gordon, to anyone.  I left it all behind, besides the occasional prayer for well-being, which too eventually faded. I would have liked to have stayed, to have helped them back on their feet, to have fallen in love with a woman who was not for me, but I couldn’t bear the weight; in fact, I could bear none at all.

Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Tin House, Flash Fridays, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Sierra Nevada Review, Apt, OxMag, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, Catamaran, Isthmus and Fiction Southeast.