Some mornings she simply cannot
bring herself to pray. Even so, a prayer
will at times break through her clenched lips,
announcing the slow drain at her heart.
She will raise her face from its cage of fingers
and gape at the fog that has lain itself down
over the field behind her house like
a dream of erasure. Even the green trees have
lost color. No air breathes. Not a wing of sound
flies back from the highway behind the hill.
And then some midnight, when faith
has quite emptied itself, a familiar loneliness
makes itself at home under her ribs.
A ghost of God? An inkling? She holds
her breath, listens as a small draught
weathers its way through the eaves,
into her ears. The next moment she hears her child
stir in the room down the hall, calling
her name, as if (s)he names her longing and in
that naming, names a kind of answer.–Luci Shaw, The Angles of Light
I texted a friend last night. “I’m losing my religion.” Yes, full blown, Michael Stipe singing in the background, losing it.
“Oh no, I’ve said too much.”
It was day three of a new round of plamapheresis slowly emptying the flaring infections attacking every part of my body and brain. It is always grueling. I arrive early to have labs drawn. It takes a few hours for the numbers to come back. Twice, last Thursday and today, my treatments have been cancelled because my fibrinogen is too low. The hospital where I receive treatments is in a major shift in their dialysis unit. It’s left them with only two nurses who know how to run the machine I need. My usual nurse leaves tomorrow for a long vacation and the other nurse is off all this week. We were trying to cram five treatments that should be given every other day into less than a week, and my body appropriately screamed “No way!”
As Dan was driving me back to the hospital yesterday I was on the phone with Cincinnati Children’s confirming what scans Danica will be having next Tuesday. Realizing my last pheresis will be Monday, the day before we take this oh so hard trip, I was already unhinged. The head ortho nurse looked back in the spine conference notes and said it indicated a CT angiogram that had not been ordered. Trying to get this scheduled at the last minute is nearly impossible even at the main campus much less at the Liberty location where our other scans and appointment is. She said she would work on it and call me Thursday. Yes, this is how things happen in health care. There is clinic and surgeries and other people’s children in the balance. I learned long ago how to walk the delicate line of being a strong advocate and also a compassionate patient. When my daughter is in the exam room or on the OR table I want others to respect and care for us too.
When Dan picked me up several hours later I was ashen, freezing cold in 80 degree heat, crazy nauseous and tired and never more aware of how hard all this is. Anne Lamott writes in her treasure of a book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” Yes. This.
I am ruined. My body failing me over and over again in countless ways is the ultimate betrayal. It’s never been about believing God can heal me. It’s surrendering to the fact it will not fully happen in this life. There are some victories. The fight is not in vain, but I have to put out a white flag on this complete healing thing. In eternity, yes. Here, no.
I am loved. So loved. My friend who takes me to treatment and comes to get me whenever she can is love. I don’t call her. She calls me. She knows the asking is my Achilles heel. Her calling her son-in-law to help when she can’t is love. Him coming on his precious day off is love. The same friend’s husband buying our favorite Stouffer’s frozen enchiladas while he’s shopping is love. The expression on his face when he sees me and the wisdom in his words, “There’s nothing I can say,” is love. Another friend showing up with an unplanned meal on a day our family was near implosion is love. Tuna casserole can in fact be manna. A package in the mail with epsom salts, unscented lotion and herbal tea and #pentopaper encouragement is love. A friend showing up with food, pet meds and a check from a lemonade stand her sweet girls had to help with Danica’s trip is love. All your donations on our gofundme site are scandalous love. Your prayers, especially when I just cannot pray for myself, are love.
I am in charge of so little. Really, nothing. I can’t orchestrate the rest of this treatment and plan rides to and from even if I asked for help. I can’t predict exactly how our Cincinnati trip will go. Both outcomes of these scans and appointments are worse case scenarios. I can’t tell Danica it’s all going to be okay and soon she will be able to run and play. I can’t ease her very real fears about the future of this broken metal in her neck that once gave her a miracle. I can’t keep my Laney safe while we are away or heal any of the scars leaving her over and over again all these years have left on her heart and mine. I can’t pay our bills. I can’t stop the constant swirling spreadsheet of debt from cutting off my air supply and sending my body into a stress induced panic every time the phone rings or the mail truck pulls away. I can’t go back to work to try to fix all this. I want to work so badly. I want the prideful, self sufficient feeling of doing anything to make this less of a mess, but I can’t. I can’t give my husband the one thing he wants more than anything in the world–his Moni Kaye back. Worst of all, I simply cannot pray.
After my family was in bed last night I slipped into the pitch black sun room, laid on the cold floor and called the friend I texted earlier. She is always my place to tell the whole truth. I cried. I shook my fists. I told her how mad I am. I told her how I really want to give up. In the same breath I had to talk about the love. I couldn’t not mention the love. Something happened. In Anne’s same book she calls it a “divine limpness.” I was saying all the things to my friend I wanted to get on my knees at my prayer bench and say to my God.
“…In that divine limpness you’ll be able to breathe again. Then you’re halfway home. In many cases breath is all you need. Breath is holy spirit. Breath is Life. It’s oxygen. Breath might get you a little rest. You must be so exhausted…
Through prayer, we take ourselves off the hook and put God on the hook, where God belongs. When you’re on the hook, you’re thrashing, helpless, furious, like a smaller kid lifted by the seat of his pants by a mean big kid. Jesus, on the literal hook of the cross, says to God, ‘Help,’ and God enters into every second of the Passion like a labor nurse.
When you get your hooks out of something, it can roll away, down its own hill, away from you. It can breathe again. It got away from you, and your tight sweaty grip, and your stagnant dog breath, the torture of watching you do somersaults and listening to you whine ‘What if?’ and ‘Wait, wait, I have ONE more idea…’
You can go from monkey island, with endless chatter, umbrage, and poop-throwing, to what is happening in front of me. God, what a concept. It means I stop trying to figure it out, because trying to figure it out is exhausting and crazy-making. Doping it has become the problem.
So when we cry out ‘help’, or whisper it into our chests, we enter the paradox of not going limp and not feeling that we can barely walk, and we release ourselves from the absolute craziness of trying to be our own–or other people’s–higher powers.
We can be freed from a damaging insistence on forward thrust, from a commitment to running wildly down a convenient path that might actually be taking us deeper into the dark forest. Praying ‘help’ means that we ask that something give us the courage to stop us in our tracks, right where we are, and turn our fixation away from the Gordian knot of our problems. We stop the toxic peering and instead turn our eyes to something else; to our feet on the sidewalk; to the middle distance; to the hills, whence our help comes. Something else. Anything else. Maybe this is a shift of only eight degrees, but it can be a miracle.
It may be one of those miracles when your heart sinks, because you think it means you have lost. But in surrender, you have won. And if it were me, after a moment, I would say, ‘Thanks.'”
I hung up the phone, wiped my eyes and blew my nose. I peeked into my girl’s rooms on my way to bed. I remembered my Danica’s prayer, the one I was almost too jaded to hear, “Dear Jesus, Thank you for this day. HELP mommy to get her treatments and to get better. THANK YOU for my friend’s lemonade stand to raise money so I can see my doctors in Cincinnati. THANK YOU for my stuffed peas in a pod. (A gift from her friend she held tightly as she prayed.) Help grandpa and grandma to get home safely. HELP Anna Mae at her new home. THANK YOU for Jesus who died on the cross for our sins. HELP us be more like Him. Amen.” (This is a variation of her same bedtime prayer every night.) Her childlike faith and Sleep Sound in Jesus lullabies tucked her heart and mind safely in when I could not.
I crawled into my own bed, put my earbuds in and listened to R.E.M.’s old song “Losing My Religion.” I was transported back to the summer I saw them in concert at the Gund Arena. I was so far from God but wanting Him and needing Him so badly it ached. I held up my lighter during “Everybody Hurts” as tears ran down my face. Even then I know He heard my “Help.”
This morning Dan and I left our house at 6:30 am so he could drop me at the hospital for labs before he headed to work. A few miles down the highway I felt utterly sick, and we took an exit so I could run into a McDonalds and empty my stomach of the curdled worry and grief I’d ingested the night before. After the needle and the many tubes of blood I waited for hours to get the results. The director of dialysis found me in the sixth floor waiting room. She felt so badly about their staffing issues pushing me to come on days I clearly was not going to be able to proceed. She told me she called the nurse who was on vacation locally. Her daughter had a baby, and she took the week off to help her. She would come in Thursday to get another treatment in. I cried. More love. More thanks. I called my sister, Alecia, who has managed more nonsense in the past week than any one person should have to. I said, “I’m sorry. I need HELP. Can you come get me?” She rallied her girls, got them dressed and drove the twenty minutes to pick me up. I sat in the light filled atrium waiting. I turned my face towards the bright sun, and the Spirit groaned for me what I could not utter and then I said,
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”–Romans 8:26