portion of the artwork for Christine Simokaitis's fiction

St. Philomena
Christine Simokaitis

In my other life right now, I have been canonized as the Patron Saint of Hypochondriacs. I’ve got a switchboard here in my office, so when a petitioner is praying to me, a light will blink on the board. I wear a headset with a microphone that allows me to talk to the callers without my having to hold the phone, which is convenient because sometimes it gets very busy around here, and I have to use both hands to plug in the cords on the board to answer calls and place people on hold. At first, the headset was kind of in the way with my halo and everything, but since Bluetooth came out with their wireless earpiece, it works a lot better.

One of my favorite parts about this job is the robes! I’ve got big drapey sleeves that are very dramatic, and a different-colored mantel that I wear depending on the season. There’s this stool I like to spin around on, and I have this little game where I challenge myself to get all the way around three times before the stool stops. My robes flare out like angel wings—wheee!

There was a time—I know it’s not really funny, but I can’t help laughing when I think of it—I still had a cord from the switchboard in each hand—what was I thinking? I started to spin. I got so tangled up with the drapey sleeves and the fanned-out robe and the mantel, plus the headset was still attached—I fell right off the stool! Well. That caller was sure I was exclaiming over the severity of his symptoms, and it took some doing on my part to convince him otherwise. Poor dear.

I do try to give my full attention to the caller. Also, even though they can’t see me, I make sure that my face radiates kindness when I’m speaking. I might ask what he or she is feeling as they list their symptoms. I hear them, both what they are saying and what they are not telling me, like how anxious they are.

Then we pray. My go-to is the 23rd Psalm, although lately I've been testing out this new one I made up: “Dear Lord, bless my body and all that it tells me. Bless my experience of my body and keep me clear and calm. Let my mind focus on your light.” It seems to do the job.

Psalm 51 is nice for when I have to put them on hold, but if they are really panicked about something, we skip over the “clean heart” bit and go right to this line—works well as a chant: “Deliver me from death, Oh Lord!”

New Age types are interesting. For them, I usually come up with a visualization, where maybe they feel Jesus’ love with each inhalation, and how it radiates to each and every cell of their body. They can say “Om” if they’d like. I don’t mind mixing it up now and then.

I’ve been so much busier since the Internet started. Oh, that WebMD—it’s enough to test my patience! I’m working on a Google Ad, one of those that pops up on the side of the page that you click, and I would have all kinds of prayers for various ailments. That way, when someone types in a symptom on WebMD or symptomchecker.com, my ad will pop up and they might go there first and then not even feel the need to try to diagnose themselves. It’s been pretty effective. Plus, I’m working on a FB page. I need to get more Friends and for people to start “liking” me to spread the word.

Most of my petitioners are repeats. Whatever is going on in their body, what they usually need is compassion. I don’t tell them it’s “nothing” and I never say what they are feeling is not “real.” A person’s experience of her body is true, even if her self-diagnosis is off. Have you been in that body? No. You haven’t. Then don’t tell me it’s “not real.” Ooh. That boils my blood. I tell them, “Yes, that sounds scary.” Because it does! What they are going through always sounds scary. As soon as I say that, they calm down. I've been at this a long time now, and I can tell you—what people need more than anything is to feel heard.

Of course, it is also true that, sometimes, what people really need is to call 911. Those callers I refer to Jude.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 42 | Fall 2013