Date: Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Place: Gwinnett Medical Center, Lawrenceville, GA
Time: Approximately 2:00 p.m.
As Diane and I approached the entrance to the hospital, a call came in to Diane’s cellphone. It was Paul Armbruster’s brother, Tom, calling from California. Tom told Diane that Paul had already been pronounced dead earlier that morning, after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage during open-heart bypass surgery – a rare, 2% outcome.
Diane broke down in tears.
“Let’s go inside to the chapel and say a prayer for him,” I said.
“Okay”, she said. ” ‘Cause I don’t want to go in there and see him like that.”
We stopped at the information desk for directions to the chapel.
Approaching it, we found that the chapel’s doors were made of glass, as was the entire front wall that opened on to the parking lot. Sections of the ceiling were up to 20-feet high and the room was saturated with natural light. There was nothing cozy or comforting about it.
From our vantage point outside the chapel’s doors, we saw a group of people sitting in a circle, obviously holding a meeting of some kind.
Our eyes locked on the sign that said CHAPEL. “Is this the chapel?” I asked Diane. She placed her hand on the chrome handle. “It says CHAPEL,” she answered.
Diane gingerly opened the door about four inches. “It doesn’t look like a chapel,” I countered. “And who are all those people?”
“Can we help you?” a man from the circle asked.
“We’re looking for the chapel,” I said.
“This is the chapel,” he smiled.
“We wanted to come in and say a prayer for our friend who just died,” Diane said.
“Please. Come on in,” he said, waving us in to the 20×20 foot room.
Diane addressed the circle. “What’s all this about?”
“We’re chaplains,” replied the lead man. “We’re having a meeting.”
Only half taking in that piece of information, Diane and I each retrieved a bulky, oversized chair and positioned it away from the circle of chaplains. We found ourselves facing a modern painting which loomed high over our heads on the too-white, too-high wall.
This chapel felt way too bright, way too open, way too impersonal. We needed our own small, quiet, semi-dark space, with the cushioned pews that approximated a real church. There, we could sit quietly and bow our heads, undisturbed. Trying to sit in silent prayer while a meeting was going on in the same room just felt…weird.
We had barely made contact with our seats when Diane spun around to address the circle. “Wait a minute! You’re TEN Chaplains! This is PERFECT! Can we all say a prayer together for our friend?”
The Main Man smiled. “Of course. Bring your chairs over and join us.”
Diane and I hauled our chairs over to their circle which expanded naturally and warmly to accommodate us. We went around the circle introducing ourselves. “Let’s all hold hands,” Diane said.
“Paul Armbruster was my close friend for 20 years…” she began, her voice wavering. For the next 15 minutes, Diane relayed to the group about what a wonderful friend and voiceover teacher Paul was – the BEST, she told them. She told them about how Paul had mentored Diane herself 20 years ago, Diane having since become one of the top female talents in the industry. “He always said I was his most successful student,” she informed them proudly.
The chaplains, men and women, listened intently, completely, as Diane told them about how Paul was also an actor and a musician who had played bass in his church’s band for almost two decades. She told them about how she and Paul had kept a standing date to play pool every weekend for the past seven years. “He’ll be very happy to know he died as The Champ,” she said.
The Main Chaplain smiled. It turns out that he already knew who Paul was. He had been to Paul’s room that morning. He had seen Diane’s name and phone number written on the board in Paul’s room. He was holding in his hand a short stack of hospital room-issue paper towels, upon which he’d written the names and numbers of Paul’s friends who’d called the hospital seeking information. One of the names was Helen, another close friend of Paul’s, whom the main chaplain had already spoken to on the phone earlier in the day. He got up to walk towards Diane.
“She wanted you to call her,” he said, handing Diane his “hospital stationery”.
“Oh, thank you! I didn’t have Helen’s number,” Diane said. “She was a good friend to Paul.”
The Main Chaplain returned to his seat. Then, we all bowed our heads as he delivered a beautiful, heartfelt prayer for Paul, Paul’s family and Paul’s friends. He spoke as if he had truly known Paul personally. And, in the deepest matters of the heart and spirit, he did.
We raised our heads and Diane looked around the circle. “Thank you so much, everyone,” she said. “What are the chances of walking into a hospital chapel and finding 10 chaplains sitting in a circle?”
“Yeah,” the Main Chaplain smiled. “Somebody could write a joke about that.”
I piped up, “Ten chaplains walk into a bar…”
We all laughed.
Then, I asked of the Main Chaplain, “What is your name again?”
“Bob Duvall,” he smiled.
“Bob Duvall……ROBERT Duvall!” I chuckled. A ripple of glee traveled around our circle and we all shared a sweet, lingering moment of levity. Diane and I enjoyed the irony of having one Robert Duvall hold up in prayer our friend who had made his living for decades acting with only his voice.
Later, Diane and I found out that, while we were sitting with The 10 Chaplains, Paul’s longtime friend, Helen, was actually in Paul’s hospital room. Helen had been on her way to visit Paul in “recovery” when The Chaplain called her with the devastating news. Helen was able to spend some time with Paul, saying her goodbyes. Then, in her grief and need for consoling, Helen went looking for The Chaplain.
For the next hour, Helen would roam the hospital halls in a futile attempt to find the chaplain she’d spoken to earlier in the day. She couldn’t find any chaplain – anywhere – and thought it odd. Her search even included a stop at the chaplain’s office itself, which naturally, she found deserted. It was as if Helen – and all of us – were engaged in some bizarre, upside-down, sitcom confusion.
Meanwhile, the third and final element in this tale of synchronicity was unfolding. Kelly, another of Paul’s closest friends, was midway through an hour-long drive from Athens, Georgia, en route to visit Paul.
When Diane got home from the hospital at around 3:30, she called Kelly to deliver the tragic news that Paul had been pronounced dead earlier that day. Kelly relayed to Diane that she had just been in touch with the nurses’ station and was told that Paul’s heart was still beating, but for how much longer? Kelly was told that Paul would probably be completely “gone” before she could get there. Kelly drove on, hoping to be able to spend a few last moments with him…
When Kelly arrived at the Critical Care Unit, the nurse frantically waved her in, remarking that she couldn’t understand how it was possible that Paul’s heart was still beating for so long – and, that it would surely stop at any moment. Together, they ran to Paul’s room…
There, for the next 10 minutes, with his heart still valiantly beating, Kelly was able to stay by Paul’s side, holding his hand – until his broken heart finally stopped.
That Wednesday, though seemingly fraught with confused communications and misinformation, The Universe had woven a perfect tapestry of synchronicity. Each player had been placed on Paul’s life stage at the exact right moment, in order to ensure that his transition from the earth plane be executed with grace and peace.
Paul Armbruster was a devoted Catholic. He was a religious man. Although he feared death, he knew there was something more. All you had to do was find yourself at the other end of the light shining from his eyes to know that.
Among the many people who showed up, both at the informal gathering at Manuel’s Tavern the night before Paul’s memorial service, as well as the next day for the service itself, almost all of them told stories of how their lives had been influenced in a positive way by this loving, self-deprecating man.
A lot of them were current students of Paul’s who raved about him. Others were recent students who had found new success because of him and; still others were former students from decades past, who would say that they owed their careers to their dedicated teacher and mentor, many of whom became longtime friends with him.
Paul Armbruster was a powerful spirit. He touched many lives along his way and even during his final hours. Each person played a very distinct role for a very distinct moment, at the exact time that Paul – and everyone – needed it most.
That day, as Diane and I joined The 10 Chaplains in their circle, thereby bringing the number to 12, there we sat – a convention of Disciples sitting in prayer – clearing the way for our friend, that he might experience a peaceful transition back home.