The hole left in my spirit in the wake of his unexpected passing was deeper than words can describe and the silence without him on earth to advise me was deafening. The unfathomable loss was compounded exponentially by the unavoidable fact that my sick body was the reason I wasn’t there for him. By that point, I had already missed three of my siblings’ weddings, one of my sons’ First Communion, another son’s graduation, and a list of countless other special events throughout the years, all while pleading with God to heal me just enough that I could be present in person for anything at all. To be missing this on top of everything else was just too much to bear. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and it made my previously well-endured suffering crash down over me like a house of cards.
I was Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird, watching life from my window, out of sight, never getting to interact much in day-to-day happenings outside of my home. I was Quasimodo, exiled to the bell tower of Notre Dame, wishing I could get past my physical limitations and find a way to be part of the world around me. Those physical limitations were constantly standing between me and the “real life” I longed for and for the most part, I felt pretty useless.
Around the time my dad got sick, I was already overwhelmed with chronic symptoms. I was unable to walk more than a few feet on my own without beginning to pass out and my nervous system was such a mess that it couldn’t even regulate my body temperature properly. There were only about ten foods I could tolerate and I was so sensitive in general that I couldn’t handle simple things like being in a room with certain types of lights on or letting sun touch my skin without dire consequences. I was relying on wheelchairs, shower chairs, specially-timed medications, and gadgets like blood pressure monitors and pulse oximeters to get me through each day.
The news of Dad being put on a ventilator alone landed me in the hospital so it was no surprise when the day of of his funeral found me stuck lying flat on my couch, so sick that even crying for a moment was sending my heart rate higher than 150 beats per minute. I couldn’t sit up, let alone walk with my family down the aisle of a church behind my little brother carrying a marble urn of what was left of my dad’s physical body. It was excruciating salt in the tender wound in my spirit to be so far from the people I love most on that hardest of days. I sat holding my cell phone in trembling hands, the live feed of his funeral Mass playing on it’s tiny screen, listening to the priest tell story after story about how my dad touched lives. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the ways he touched mine. As I watched, I oscillated between hurling unfounded blame at myself for not being able to will myself to health and tearfully asking, like Jesus did on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Guilt, grief, loneliness, and fear took turns washing over me in waves while my reality stared me steadily in the face in a way it never had before. How could a loving God let me get to the point that I was so sick that I couldn’t even go to my own father’s funeral? And why? What was I doing wrong? Was I not praying enough? Not doing enough? Was there a formula to unlock the mighty heart of God that I was missing? It seemed there must be. I had watched numerous people around me experience the healing they sought while I remained disabled and homebound, feeling like I was perpetually on the outside of everything, in what felt like a nightmare version of Dr. Seuss’ “Waiting Place”.
The truth I kept banging into then was the same one I’d been running up against for years prior while climbing the various hills and mountains of my long illness. The unchangeable truth was that no matter how much I wished or hoped for certain things, I couldn’t always make them happen. There were things I just couldn’t do on my own. More frustrating than that was the fact that I couldn’t push God’s hand or charm him with my good intentions and beautiful promises to make them happen either. What are we supposed to do when it’s midnight in Gethsemane and we’re sick and scared near the depths of despair, unable to see the forest for the trees, while the world keeps turning all around us? How can we still feel cherished and held during times when our souls cry out to a seemingly silent God, telling him what we think we need, and we feel our prayers echoing back over and over like a gong against heaven? What should we do when the healing we hope for so desperately doesn’t come and it feels as if our supports have been knocked out from under us?
I know what my dad would say. He would say, “Float”. He’d always tell me when I was overwhelmed by life and didn’t know what to do, to just picture myself lying on my back on top of water, not trying to tread water, not trying to scramble to find the shore, but just floating until God sends a life raft. For a while after my dad died, “floating” was about all I could do. Some days my floating was just leaning on the suffering psalmists, repeating their words in my mind when I couldn’t find my own, “How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me?” (Psalm 13:2).
Sometimes the only prayer I could manage was one word alone: “Jesus”. I looked to the saints who continually reminded me of the importance of leaning on the wisdom of those who have gone down this road before me. When I’d begin to feel I wasn’t doing enough for God, not handling the weight of the cross he had entrusted to me, he’d send words like these through one of his saints, and it was balm for my sinking spirit: “One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God and many a time he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off.” I usually do feel like I need to be meditating my own head off to receive God’s favor, but I have found Teresa of Avila to be right.
Sometimes merely living out my suffering and getting through the day, often in tears, is all I can do, but I’m finding it really is enough to God. I humbly gift those tears to Jesus. They fall down my cheeks like raindrops while I try with everything in me to keep my face turned toward God, who is my sun. There are times it seems like clouds are blocking his beautiful rays and I can’t feel their warmth, but somehow my soul always knows that he’s there. Like a tulip, I find myself bending towards the light that I know exists outside the windows of what can often feel like a four-walled prison. I find that the more I turn and fall to my knees in front of Jesus like the man in Mark 9:24 saying, “I believe; help my unbelief”, the more the life rafts appear from him on the water. In whichever forms those rafts come to me, each anchors me to my creator, each one helps me stay afloat just long enough for the next to come along.
Like Peter, I have found that I start to sink when I stop trusting God to hold me up on the water, and trust is hard to come by when you’ve experienced loss. I have found that God sends others with life rafts for me and I have to humble myself to let them be his hands reaching down to me. I have never been good at asking for or receiving help and any time I’d needed help in the past, I’d usually turned to my dad who was suddenly no longer there. When he died, I found myself withdrawing into the suffering alone, pushing away others’ offers to help me. I didn’t want anyone to see my weakness and I certainly didn’t want to be anyone’s burden.
What wound up happening is that God pushed back. He gently began, one brick at a time, to disassemble the walls that I had carefully placed around myself, sending a steady army of helpers into the open spaces. They entered into the dark corners where I was hiding in plain sight and brought life rafts created from their own hard-earned understanding of suffering to lift me up. There is nothing that has soothed my soul more than a good and faithful servant of God showing up at just the right time, giving selflessly to me in love just so that I could float a little longer. I realized after the helpers tiptoed into my life one by one in their little ways, that even the little things I was doing from inside these four walls must still matter to someone. Even Boo Radley found a way to bring joy to his neighbors by the small tokens of affection he left silently in the tree hollow, right? Even Quasimodo was able to offer sanctuary to a friend in need.
I found that my own suffering has value in that it has better equipped me to see the needs of others around me. Each act of love that has been shown to me, from the simplest to the most extravagant, has helped fill a hole in my spirit. Each has allowed me to feel God’s light in a tangible way, showing me how much we are all a part of each other, even long after we leave this earth. Each has made me aware of the effect I can have right now from my little corner of the world and that reaching out to others in the small ways that I can, right now in my brokenness, is enough and maybe even necessary. I see now that while I was waiting for “real life” to be jumpstarted by the healing that might never come, I was actually missing the only real life any of us ever get, the precious present moment.
This is real life right now with all of its laughter and pain. We can’t always alleviate the source of our suffering, or even expect God to, but we can float through the darkness in each other’s care. We don’t have to enjoy that darkness, but we can help each other bend towards the light of Christ and find real joy in doing it. We can be Veronica, simply reaching out to wipe the face of a suffering soul on the way up their big hill. Or we might be called to be Simon the Cyrenian, stepping from the crowd of onlookers to help carry our neighbor’s cross. You never understand the weight of someone’s cross until you’ve offered to lift it.
In light of this, I’ve learned to give everyone grace, even the bullies and prodigal sons of this broken world because we’re all suffering in our own ways, aren’t we? We’re all trying to figure things out the best way we can on this journey to what comes next and we all need love and grace to make it. When someone hurts or offends you, look into their heart, to the truths hidden behind the scenes in their dark corners. Love them anyway. They might feel like they are shadow people on the outside of everything, too. They might need to be reminded we’re all children of the light and be pointed in the direction of the sun. They might have lost their sense of worth or belonging. They might be ashamed of their failed relationships or houses in shambles or their inability to be the perfect whatever-it-may-be. I’ve learned that God is in all of it, that we will always find him if we are seeking, and that he sends help in unexpected ways in his own perfect timing. I’m finding more as time goes on that relief of my suffering doesn’t always come in the form of God granting my every desire (like my dad being healed or my illness ceasing to exist), but rather in love bestowed on me by others in the waiting places.
I’m finding that while we experience losses in life, we are also picking up little pieces of each other along the way, collecting them like treasures to share. I carry a trove with me just from my dad alone. The lessons he taught me in love throughout my life now reverberate through me out into the world in his absence, an ongoing legacy of his love. My mission in life is to let the love of Christ pour over me and through me like he did, that I may be a channel of light to someone else. Lord knows, I have borrowed light more times than I can count. We become part of a beautiful ripple effect, living in tandem with each other’s suffering and joy, giving and receiving in turn. As we reach out and open up to each other in our most vulnerable moments, we begin to see each other the way Christ does.
We’re all so intricately intertwined, as we’re weaving this complicated web of life together. I think that many times, we wait to reach out to someone who’s caught in a snare until we have a concrete solution to fix their problem. Too often, the solution never materializes and we miss such beautiful opportunities to just love. I have found in my own experience that lifting others up in any way, even when there is no visible solution, can be just what they need to keep going.
We must take hold of the seeds of love that have been planted in our own hearts and, beginning right now, sow them in the world around us. I urge you to look past the many differences we have among us and be the phone call after all the other well-wishers have gone. Check in. Be the giver of the greeting card that shows up for no reason. Send a meal or send a text. Be the vehicle God used to answer to someone’s prayer. Maybe even do it without asking what you can do to help first. Be what someone didn’t know they needed. Smile encouragingly at the frazzled mom at Mass. Give a little grace. Pick the least among you or your next door neighbor and be, for them, the person you needed when you were at a low point. It matters. Whatever your lot in life, you matter. Like Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which His compassion looks out upon the world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world.”
If you have ever reached out to me in any way, I will never forget it. You are the reason I still bend toward the light even in my pain. If I have ever helped you, the pleasure and privilege was all mine! I’d do it over again a thousand times, should you ever need me. If I haven’t helped you yet, I look forward to the opportunity to one day do so. I love you all!