On a morning late in April I woke and couldn’t remember where I was. There had been too many beds that month. When I heard the flock of English sparrows in the hedge outside our bedroom window – I recognized I was home. Normally, I’m bitter about them, but for that one day their tuneless quarreling was sweet. “What lasts? What lingers? What is snagged by the brambles of time and what slips through and disappears? What leaves only a little dent in the world, the soft sunken green grave, the scribble on a scrap of paper, the memory that is bleached by time and then vanishes bit by bit each day?” So asks Susan Orleans in Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend. (p. 40) These questions sneak into our lives – suddenly, there they are, right at the surface when some unexpected event forces a halt to ordinary life.
It’s been several weeks now since I spent six days in a hospital in Connecticut with a nasty pneumonia. Being immunosuppressed (from medications prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis) can make you susceptible to serious infections with abnormal presentation, – so for awhile I was a “case of interest.” You don’t want to be interesting to medi¬cal people. I managed to scare Denis because, of course, I like inventing new ways of keeping him alert. The nights were long giving plenty of time for thought, what with constant interruptions and a roommate who groaned for hours in a most alarming way. I suppose I’m a little evil if I admit she made me think of P.G. Wodehouse, who described someone as “Aunt call¬ing to aunt, like mastodons bellowing across the primeval swamp.” I’m not saying it’s anything unusual – not getting rest in a hospital – and I know what a small slap it was compared to the beating many take. I don’t mean to be super-pious either about using the time to think and pray – especially for the lady in the next bed, since I could hardly ignore her or her large Bronx family giving political commentary and more from morning ’til night. To be honest, there were many hours when all I emitted were garbled hums aimed at the ceiling.
One of the first things I determined to do when I got out was to send our children copies of my usernames and passwords for every website and account I use, including the bank and Paypal. I do not care if they hack me. If I die, they will thank me for this. (I haven’t done it yet, kids, but I will.) I also decided to pick hymns for my funeral and ask the person I have in mind to take charge of comfort, if needed, and give thanks to God whose generous mercies accompanied me all my life. You can’t be too diligent about such things.
Listening with Benefits
I also turned over a new leaf. Denis was glad to hear of this, and now I hope it wasn’t a mistake to raise expectations. Generally, I resist his warnings when he questions my priorities or sees me tanking. Though he understands people need to take risks – how else would we even walk from here to the bathroom? – and that we are never completely safe, he likes to protect me, but I like risk. This time my resistance was cause for reflection. I’m not sure how guilty I should feel for a hospital bill that is going to be thousands of dollars? That stresses me for a minute or two. But it might have happened even if I’d stayed home from our long, interesting, complicated trip to the East Coast, like he suggested. We can’t know for sure. Before we left, I was struggling, trying to hide how bad I felt; I kept thinking, any second now I’ll feel better. To clarify – I have fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and other annoying auto-immune issues which makes some weeks worse, especially if symptoms flair for who-knows-why? I’m always quite sure if we wait one dang minute I’ll be able to rebuild that rock wall for you.
This confession is not to gain sympathy, but to be more open about the challenges of chronic illness that affect daily life for many people. I have at least ten friends who face similar struggles but have a hard time talking about it. We often even bore ourselves trying to figure out symptoms, medications and causal links. Most of us are afraid to admit much because we don’t know what others will think. That we are having histrionics? That we are babies, who if we quit whining and got off our butts would be just fine? On our trip, staying with friends, in the ER, in the care of a perceptive doctor, I was outed and chided for under-reporting. I honestly want to figure out how to communicate better and rid myself of a machismo attitude that keeps me a little too dishonest about how I feel.
My goal is to be a better listener, to Denis especially, and be wisely, but not insanely cautious. Being married for eons should confirm he knows me better than anyone. I want to responsibly take better care of myself. I want to be content where God has placed me. Marva Dawn advises in Being Well When We’re Ill: “In our limitations, our achievable piece of fidelity might be simply to rest in grace, to refrain from fussing about not accomplishing anything, but to learn to wait.” (p. 136)
My one quibble with Denis is his tendency to be a tiny bit too controlling and to miss out on some fun because he’s risk averse. So we sigh and try to walk along respectful loving lines, learning from one another even as we live and age together.
Buts are good
Perhaps it’s inevitable that the older we get, the more we think about when or how our days will end. None of us knows. When will we become “sunken green graves,” our lives uncaught by the brambles of time? We echo the words of Virginia Woolf who wrote, “The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” (A Room of One’s Own, ch. 1, p.17) In a similar vein, the words of David used to fill me with such sadness: “As for man, his days are like grass, he flour¬ishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Psalm 103:15) In despair, Job repeats the same thought: “He springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure.” (14:2)
However, this illustrates the problem of isolating a verse without looking at its context or the big picture. If I merely observe the next phrase, or even the next word “but,” I gain an entirely different perspective. “But,” means don’t stop here; I have something more to add and it will change the game. It’s true, our lives can be easily crushed, our passage through life can make us feel small and pointless compared to eternity, but that’s exactly why God brings it up so many times in scripture.
David goes on: “but from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteous¬ness with their children’s children…” (Psalm 103:16-17) It’s as if God knows we can become depressed when the fragility of our lives hits. He takes time to reassure us again and again, through many Biblical writers, in the strongest possible language, that we are loved and our lives are safeguarded in Christ in the most meaningful way, not just on the days when we’re in trouble, but forever. We are not like flowers here today and forgotten tomorrow. God’s Word to us is: “Your life is eternal and even though your body will die, it will be raised up healed and imperishable.” God’s words are not like mine – full of b.s. and forgetfulness. Not at all. He is telling us that when he declares something, it is diamond-hard, it will not change, be revoked, depend on the weather or getting distracted by Google.
Isaiah repeats it: “The grass with¬ers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (40:8)
Peter affirms it: “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” (I Peter 1:24, 25)
Jesus is explicit about what this Word is: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:39-40) Like poppies, any bit of weather can blow us away, but we’re not lost in the wind. God calls us, he holds us, he loves us, he has plans for us that go way past this life, and he wants us to know we are not alone, we belong to a great community of people.
I review these truths because I easily forget them and greatly need to hold them fast.
Look at them!
I used to not like poppies because their blossoms only last a day or two then they’re gone. In fact, when we first moved into Toad Hall, being young and ignernt, if they dared appear in a flowerbed, I tore them out, but I’ve changed. Last year Anita planted some poppies and only one survived, but it produced three blooms. This year there are seventeen and now I can’t stop loving them, perhaps just because they are so fleeting. They burst, blazing into color, but quickly, their petals fade and drop, then they die. The last few days I’ve watched them intently, going out several times a day to check their progress. I’ve learned to appreciate their sudden glory knowing they will be back again next year and perhaps in even greater numbers.
Back in March when I was beginning work on this issue, I thought of writing to you about how often the little things in life, the small joys and beau¬ties are what sustain us through a day. I will save some of those examples for another time, but Henri Nouwen perfectly expresses what I’m trying to get at in an Advent Meditations pamphlet he wrote. Here’s an excerpt from it:
Learn the discipline of being surprised not by suffering but by joy. As we grow old, there is suffering ahead of us, immense suffering, a suffering that will continue to tempt us to think that we have chosen the wrong road. But don’t be surprised by pain. Be surprised by joy, be surprised by the little flower that shows its beauty in the midst of a barren desert, and be surprised by the immense healing power that keeps bursting forth like springs of fresh water from the depth of our pain…
Poppies fall into that category of joy. These moments of clarity tune my heart to God’s presence all around – often they appear like unclaimed jewels you get to keep just because you looked.
I found one in the midst of my hospital stay. The trees of Greenwich. After three days in the middle of a high-traffic ward, a nurse came to me at 1:48 a.m. and apologetically told me they were moving me up a floor. I asked her if I could please, please have a bed next to a window. She seemed happy to grant my wish. Several hours later, I watched the morning sky light the tops of oak and maple trees outside my window. From my bed, I could only see the canopy of a forest and not the parking lot sur¬rounded by office buildings directly below. At first they were black silhouettes that gradually became individual gray trees lit with the soft¬est tinge of salmon that soon bled to strands of fuchsia, to mango, to finally reveal a spring of newly-minted green leaves under a brilliant blue sky. The fluffy white clouds looked as if a child had drawn and placed them. My heart soared with joy for the gift of trees, I thought, yes, if I can only look out this window, I will be well in no time. I recalled Manessah, our first granddaughter, who announced with solemn authority in her newly-minted two-year-old voice whenever she saw anything beautiful or remarkable: “God made that.”