This is an essay about an essay. Rather, it’s an essay about a particular reading of an essay. Plus, it’s about the author of the essay who also did the reading. And it’s about me, too, I guess.
The essay is called “His Wide Mouth Home,” and I heard it on NPR over 18 years ago – July 5, 1999, to be precise. I know the date because I have the cassette recording from NPR’s All Things Considered for that day, hour one. Hour one had a number of stories about the hot summer and how to stay hydrated – apparently it was a scorcher that year – and then there was this essay.
The essay itself is pretty straightforward, and it fit the hour’s theme well. Jason Wetta retells an episode from his summer on the Galveston Sheriff Department Beach Patrol, when he was the first responder to a drowning. There’s plenty of detail and color and Jason skillfully evokes the scene – you can smell the coconut oil even before he mentions it. You can feel the heat and sense the presence of the murmuring crowd around the lifeless body – you can see them make way for the lifeguard’s approach.
The victim was a boy – Juan de la Cruz – only six years old. He didn’t make it, and you know he’s not going to make it long before Wetta spells it out. It’s a powerful story, a powerful essay – powerful enough that I went through the trouble of finding out how to order a copy so that I could listen to it again – and again and again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it over the years. Not regularly – I keep it in a drawer full of random tapes – and to listen to it I either have to take it along in one of our beaters that still has a working cassette deck, or borrow one of the CD/tape players in the house that the kids use.
I have only one other NPR story on cassette: “Ghetto Life 101.” It, too, impacted me in a profound way, but Ghetto Life doesn’t make me cry. “Wide Mouth Home” makes me choke up every time.
To begin with, Wetta’s words are powerful in themselves, but his narration brings them to life. He adds sound effects – like the oxygen tank’s intermittent pffft and the ambulance’s beep-beep-beep as it reverses into position – and inflection that draw you into the picture. In Jason’s retelling, you can hear the workaday detachment in the voice of the dispatcher, while Jason himself is thoroughly engaged, emotionally, even spiritually, in what happens.
There’s also the prefacing information that NPR’s Noah Adams relates – about the Dylan Thomas poem from which Wetta borrowed the title – and the postscript datum that the author had since become a Benedictine monk at St. Mary and St. Louis Abbey in Missouri. Adams’s comments before and after provide a frame for this tragically beautiful anecdote that help transform it into something sublime, something true and awful – something I needed to hear when I heard it.
The summer of 1999, when I first heard Wetta’s essay, I was in the middle of nursing school, juggling clinicals and exams while doing my best to keep up with my duties as a husband and father. I was also working as a nursing home aide by then, trying to boost up our rapidly diminishing bank account and maybe gain some real world healthcare experience.
But it turns out healthcare work – the job of healthcare, the “punch in and get your work done” side of healthcare – is a lot tougher than I’d ever imagined when I was applying to nursing school. There’s no way around it: Caring for strangers as an employee is not the same as caring for strangers as a volunteer, let alone caring for loved ones. If you’re paid, you’re beholden to the clock and to the requirements of the one paying you, no matter how sincere your intentions, no matter how passionate your commitment to seeing Christ in the sick and suffering.
There was something in Wetta’s story and how he retold it that gave me hope – gave me insight and perspective on the unnerving task of caring for strangers as a profession. There’s never enough time to do all that you’d want to do; never enough energy to respond the way you’d like to every call light; never enough attention to spread around; never enough you to give away.
I wonder if that experience on the Galveston beach deterred Wetta from pursuing a healthcare career and propelled him into the monastery. And I wonder if Wetta is still a monk in St. Louis – I hope he is. I hope he adds special prayers at the end of his Rosaries and Lectio Divina for those who still do what he did as a lifeguard. I hope he still prays for me.
And this old cassette tape. I’m going to figure out how to get it transferred to a CD so it’ll last longer. I’ll be listening to it for a long time.
You can listen to Wetta read his essay by following this link.