When Dead Things Live Again

heart monitor

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I probably need the debriefing more than you need the update. Many things were laid to rest last week, but my brother was not one of them. I did say goodbye, but not for forever. The cause of my brother’s coma was reversible—due to toxins that built up in his body as a consequence of liver disease. His ammonia level was higher than his doctor had ever seen in decades of practice. His coma was deeper and longer than the ones that we realistically hope people can wake from, and his was also in the setting of septic shock, massive blood loss from intestinal veins, and acute respiratory failure from a life-threatening infection. We were called to say goodbye.

So we gathered there together—siblings and half-siblings, parents and step-parents, spouses and exes. Of the ten other members of my brother’s immediate family present, I only had three of their phone numbers in my cell phone—my sister and my parents. Of the eleven of us crying around his bed, not one of us knew about his chronic disease before that dreaded phone call. Happy families are all alike—but my family is like no other.

I’ll explain the relationships as well as I can. My father was first married to my brothers’ mother—together they had three sons. After their divorce, my father married a fellow drug addict, and they would literally lock my brothers out of the house to get high. That marriage dissolved quickly, and my father married my mother (who had her own son from a previous marriage)—and together they had me and my sister. Meanwhile, my father’s first wife remarried (and later divorced) a man who was a good father to her sons. For whatever reason, my dad had a significant share of the custody of his sons, despite his history of addiction. They were with us often when I was younger, and we were often unsupervised—the youngest is ten years older than I am.

My brothers knew pain that I did not know, and it affected them; thus, it affected me. They were hurt deeply, and then they hurt me—one more than the other two. What must have happened to them that they would hate their father’s daughter? What evil had the youngest known that he would cause me harm and call it love? What was wrong with me if I preferred the pain to the silence? Not one of them came to my wedding or even RSVP’d with regrets. Not one of them called to congratulate me when I gave birth to their first niece. Not one birthday phone call or one “I love you” from any of these three—my whole life long. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen them in the past eighteen years, and I’ve been trying to replace them the entire time. Yet here we were all together in a room with our father—and our mothers, and their ex-step-father. Their wives were there, too. My brother who was facing death had recently divorced—so his ex-wife joined us as well. They never had children. Halves, steps, and exes—unhappy in our own way.

But all unhappy together, for the first time ever.

When we arrived at our hotel on the west coast, it was too early to check in. We sat with our bags at a table, waiting for the youngest of my dad’s sons to arrive with his mother. They had been at my ill brother’s hotel trying to gather his belongings and trace his steps leading up to hospitalization. They were a block and a half away, but they struggled to navigate the unfamiliar city. What should have been a five-minute journey to us took more than an hour, despite texted locations and dropped pins and exasperated phone calls. When my brother and my dad’s first wife finally arrived, it was easy to see why. They were broken, with red faces and swollen eyes—even walking was too much to ask. I was moved by their vulnerability, and it seemed natural to embrace a brother who betrayed my trust many years ago and the woman my father was once married to. That day, we were all the same.

We discussed what we knew so far. My brother had flown to this city two days before on business and checked into the hospital, short of breath but stable. The next morning, he was found in his room in a coma and struggling to breathe—and he was emergently intubated. He had stayed at this hospital prior to his divorce and given his wife’s number as an emergency contact—so the hospital called her when they found him obtunded, and she called the family. The youngest of my dad’s three sons and their mother arrived first and went straight to the hospital. In my brother’s belongings bag, they found a hotel key and went straight to the hotel to find answers about what events led up to my brother’s decline in health. They went to the front desk and gave my brother’s name, asking if the receptionists knew anything. They were met with shocked expressions—“That guest checked in at this desk, then disappeared two days ago while we delivered his bags to his room at his request. He left his wallet on the lobby floor, and an Uber driver returned his phone hours later. We’ve been worried about him ever since. He looked terribly ill.”

The hospital had given us more details—he had been hospitalized there before and was told he had a cirrhotic liver four months before. He had actually quit drinking nine months before on his own, worried about the fact that he couldn’t write without a drink and refusing to be dependent on anything other than his own genius. But the damage had been done. He would need a new liver, and until he got it, he would have to deal with the complications of the one he destroyed.

We had some answers as we sat around a table, a most unlikely family—but we had many more questions. Does he have a living will? Life insurance? Health insurance? Who has his dog? When are his bills due? Should we call his employer?

Other questions were specifically for me. J, is this survivable? What will he be like if he wakes up? Can a bad liver really cause a coma? Potentially, I don’t know, and Yes. My answers were worthless, but they were enough for my brother’s mother. “J, will you be medical power of attorney? He didn’t name anyone, and I don’t trust myself to know what to do.” I wanted to argue since she was his mother, but I knew it made sense. Although I couldn’t officially hold “Medical Power of Attorney” without my brother having named me prior to becoming incapacitated, I could make medical decisions on his behalf if his parents delegated that responsibility to me. My brother’s providers could be more efficient if they communicated with me, allowing me to interpret their findings and decisions in words my family could understand. “Yes,” I finally answered. I hoped that if the time came for compassionate withdrawal of life support, I could help her understand and agree to it.

I did not wish to advertise my medical knowledge. I know how threatened a medical team can feel here in Texas when the sibling from California suddenly flies in to run things. We literally joke about that at our hospital—“the sibling from California.” And here I was in California—the sibling from Texas who flew in as medical decision-maker. At least they don’t have to know that I’m in the medical field and wonder if I’m there to suggest better ways to do things. My subtlety lasted five seconds. “Who’s our medical decision-maker?” the neurologist asked when we arrived at the hospital room. “I am,” I said. “I’m his sister.” “She’s a doctor,” added my brother’s mother.

Cover blown.

“I’m a fourth year medical student,” I clarified. “How is my brother?” He took me into the room alone, and I was glad we had caught him while he was there. “I can spin this in a hopeful way—because we can always find reason to hope—or I can spin this in a realistic way. Which do you prefer?” “I want your expert opinion,” I said—understanding the implication that the realistic interpretation was hopeless. “You’re speaking more like a medical student than a sister,” he answered. I shrugged. I hadn’t ever been much of a sister. He examined my brother and then explained his condition in many words, likely dumbed down to a fourth year medical student’s level. I understood every one of them, but one sentence stood out. “I don’t think he’ll ever wake up.” He elaborated, “In fact, with this requirement of pressor support, I’m not sure he’ll make it until the rest of the family can arrive to discuss withdrawing care. If anyone wants to see him alive, they need to get here today.”

I was honest with the family about what the doctor had said, and I made a phone call to another brother I hadn’t spoken to since my childhood. Suddenly everyone was willing to pick up the phone. We spoke for thirty minutes, and he booked his flight, understanding the seriousness of his brother’s condition. When I returned to the room, my dad and his ex-wife were collapsed into chairs that had been pulled up to the bedside. My dad looked pale and sat quietly. My brothers’ mother looked frantic, and she rocked back and forth saying “I don’t know what to do” over and over again. These hours were the worst, and I spent most of them answering questions. What are pressors? What is anoxic brain injury? What does it mean to have high ammonia levels? I was thankful for the distraction.

Late in the day, another doctor came in with a different perspective. She wasn’t certain that my brother had gone long enough without oxygen to his brain to cause such a profound coma. She had never seen an ammonia level this high, but she had seen plenty of patients with liver disease wake from comas this deep once the toxins were removed from the body with medication. She wanted to give him more time before she lost hope. “I think this is reversible,” she offered, “so don’t give up yet.”

Hours and days passed. I kept the extended family updated via text message. I translated the doctors’ and nurses’ reports to the immediate family in the hospital room and waiting room several times each day. I asked questions of the doctors that no one in the family knew to ask. My purpose was not to interfere with my brother’s excellent medical care, but to explain his condition and the care he received to the people who loved him the most. The pathology behind his condition was complicated and multifactorial, and I would have been completely lost four years ago. My brother had never given me the opportunity to love him. He had never needed anything from me, until now. I felt useful as I served his family. My family. Our family.

The ammonia level eventually dropped. After over 48 hours of deep coma without any medically-induced sedation, my brother began moving enough to require sedatives so that he wouldn’t remove his breathing tube. In brief intervals of less sedation, he would sometimes even respond to commands. He opened his eyes; he squeezed my hand. We were hopeful. After 72 hours, his critical care doctor told me that she wanted to try to wake him up the following day and do a trial to see how he could do on his own if his ventilator settings were reduced to allow him to do the work of breathing. I couldn’t believe it—I had come to say goodbye, and to consent to removal of that ventilator support so my brother could die. Now they were talking about removing it so he could breathe on his own.

Later that afternoon, I was told that my brother was being transferred to a more specialized facility with a liver transplant center as soon as a bed became available. I asked if extubation (removing the breathing tube) would still be a possibility before transfer, and the nurse told me that it wouldn’t. “Your doctor is crazy—he won’t survive that,” he said. The afternoon and evening were also complicated by a GI bleed with an unidentifiable source, and I understood the reality that my brother could decompensate at any moment.

I decided to stay the night at the hospital in case the transfer happened in the middle of the night. I wanted to be there to offer any missing information at the new facility and meet the team. The rest of the family left at around 5:30 to get food and rest. At 8 pm, the food I had ordered arrived, and I ate it in the cafeteria while I called my husband. At just before nine, my youngest brother texted me to let me know that he and my other brother and their wives and mother were coming to say goodnight to my older brother. He wanted to see if I needed anything for my night at the hospital. I told him I was fine and that I would let him know if we were transferred overnight. Before they left the hospital, my brothers found me in the cafeteria. “You look tired,” the youngest said as he knelt in front of me and took my hand. “I love you so much. You’ve been amazing, and I don’t know what we’d do without you. Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.

It would have been too much for me even at my peak of energy and health and rest. But that night I was too tired, too afraid, too vulnerable—I couldn’t hold myself together. “That’s all I need,” I said. “Just love me.” And I cried in my brother’s arms for the first time ever. His wife embraced me next, followed by my other brother. “I love you, little sister,” he said for the first time, “and I’m so glad you’re here.” More embraces and words of gratitude and love came from his wife and my brothers’ mother, and I laughed after they left about the fact that I had just told my dad’s ex-wife that I loved her—and meant it. This tragedy had brought my family together over shared grief, shared hope, shared fear, shared meals, and shared spaces. My first real experience of my brothers’ love gave me energy for a long night ahead.

It was indeed a long night. A bed opened up at the more specialized facility, so my brother had a room. “A bed opened up” is a euphemism for “Someone died,” and that harsh reality was never out of my mind throughout the transfer. I was glad I had stayed despite my parents’ insistence that I sleep and let the transfer happen without me if it was going to happen at all—it involved a great deal of paperwork, and the nurses told me they would have called me in anyway if I hadn’t been there. I signed my brother out at a little after 1 am and took an Uber to the hospital, hoping to beat the ambulance there.

I did beat the ambulance there by more than an hour, and I ended up making small talk with a bipolar woman in a manic episode—the only other person in the lobby at that hour. Anything to keep me awake. She didn’t seem to need sleep, and after she wandered around the lobby taking deep breaths and commenting about the oxygen level at various parts of the large room, I began to wonder if she was a locked unit escapee. My heart went out to her—she was broken and didn’t even know it…like so many of us.

Two hours after my arrival, I was able to see my brother. Nurses were asking for a medical history I couldn’t provide—he had lied about his health, and I knew very little. I did provide our family history and the course of his stay at the facility we came from. I did confirm that he had not traveled to West Africa in the past three weeks or had contact with anyone suspected or confirmed to have Ebola. They checked his hemoglobin, which showed that his bleeding had not progressed, and they told me to be back by 9:00 am to see the hepatologist. I crawled into bed at 4:15 after a text message to the family giving the details of our new location and telling them that I would be at the hospital by 9:00.

When I arrived the next morning, the hepatologist wasn’t there, but a respiratory therapist was. They disagreed with the nurse from the other hospital and were planning to attempt to remove my brother’s breathing tube. “We’ve been weaning his sedation and we’re starting a breathing trial, but no response yet,” she said, and then asked, “Who are you?” As I introduced myself to his nurse, my brother’s eyes flew open. He looked terrified, as if he knew that my presence meant that something had gone terribly wrong. I asked if he could hear me, and he nodded. I asked if he knew where he was, and he shook his head. I asked if he remembered getting on a plane on Monday, and he shook his head. I asked if he remembered planning a trip for work, and he nodded. We had a starting point, and from there I walked him through the events as we had pieced them together from the time he got off the plane until that moment, pausing often to check for his understanding. He was still intubated and unable to speak, but his face spoke volumes. I had never seen my brother cry before, but he cried that day. “Are you overwhelmed?” I asked. He nodded. “Do you want me to stop talking?” He shook his head. “Do you want to know more about what made you sick?” He nodded. I told him everything, in words that he could understand—and I knew that he would not likely remember anything I told him in the shadows of sedation. “We all know about your liver now—you don’t have to hide it anymore. We love you, and we’re going to help you get through this.” He shook his head and cried again. I ran through the list of who was with us in the city—all of the immediate family members except my sister, who had left a few days before, as well as his ex-wife and his best friend. I asked if he wanted to see one of our brothers, and he nodded. I texted him, realizing that no one else in the family downstairs even knew he was awake and breathing well with his ventilator all but turned off. I knew it wasn’t time yet for his mother to see him, but he was closer to his brother than to anyone else, and I wanted him to have that support in the moments to come. My brothers were reunited, with tears mingling on tightly clasped hands. As brothers do, they quickly overcame their tears with humor. “We’re glad to have you back, Mr. President,” my healthy brother said. “The country has been waiting for you.” I played along when I saw my brother’s smile—“Your children would like to see you. Should we bring them in?” His tubed smile broadened at our teasing. He was back.

The respiratory therapist asked us to step out for a moment—they needed to move some equipment around the room in preparation for extubation, and they needed room around the bed to do it. As we walked out of my brother’s room and into the hallway, my other brother pulled me to his chest and sobbed. After what seemed like minutes, he finally said “He smiled, J.”

The respiratory therapist invited us back into the room. “We’re ready to extubate,” she said—“just waiting on the doctor’s orders.” I asked my brother if he wanted his mom to come in, and he shook his head. I didn’t dare ask if he wanted our dad. I moved on and asked if he wanted his best friend, and he nodded. His friend joined us, and the three of us were at bedside in awe of my brother’s smile when the extubation orders came in and a team of nurses filled the room. We stepped out, and the curtain was drawn—a two-inch gap left in the center.

This was the moment we had come for. On Tuesday, we were told that we might soon need to make a decision as a family about when to remove my brother’s breathing tube—so he could die. Just days before, he hadn’t had brainstem reflexes—much less a smile. Extubation was supposed to be the ultimate defeat—and here it was the greatest victory I’ve ever been a part of.

I watched through my gap in the curtain through flooding eyes. I had seen this done too many times to count—and it had never made me weep. Within seconds, the tube was out; he was suctioned; he was cleaned. He was fine. I collapsed into my brother’s arms in the hallway, and he wept too. Our brother was alive and communicating. Our family was alive and communicating.

We were invited back into the room, now cleared except one nurse. My brother’s first words were profound: “That sucked.” His second words shocked me. “Mom and Dad.” Surely not. “Your step-dad?” I asked. He shook his head. “Mom and Dad.” I still couldn’t believe it. “Your mom and our dad?” I specified, not wanting to bring his worst enemy into the room uninvited. He nodded. “Mom and Dad. Have they been good?”

We assured him that they had been perfect, and it wasn’t a lie at all. My dad and his ex-wife had supported each other gracefully during the deepest heartache either of them had ever known. The whole family had. For this week, my brothers had been what brothers should be, and their wives had been like sisters. For this week, my mother had taken it upon herself to serve and uplift her husband’s ex-wife—she could imagine the pain of losing a child, and she sought to lessen that pain for the least likely friend. My mom provided every meal for my brother’s mother, ordered every Uber ride, went on every errand for an incidental forgotten item. My mom even took her shopping for warmer clothes (she had barely packed at all, and what she packed was for Texas summers), kept her phone charged, and gave her a shoulder to cry on whenever she needed it. I have never loved my mother more. My brother’s mother also had the support of her second ex-husband, the step-dad who was deeply involved in my brothers’ lives. It seemed that they forgot they were divorced—they have both remained single for decades, and I caught them kissing one night after dinner. Even my brother’s ex-wife was included as part of the family. We all knew that a painful divorce probably left them with regrets and a need for closure. She knew him better than any of us after eighteen years of marriage—even though she still didn’t really know him. We honored her desire to be present and to have another chance to say goodbye to him after she thought she had lost that chance forever. She was not the ultimate enemy of the family anyway—my dad was. But you never would have guessed it. I watched my brothers seek out my dad time and time again during these dark days. I watched the embraces and confessions of love and the formulation of plans for the future. I watched walls crumble.

So yes, dear brother—they’ve been good. We’ve all been good.

My brother’s mom and our dad came up to see him—my other brother and I stood in the corner, arms linked. I watched my brother cry as he took our dad’s hand. “You look good, Dad,” he said hoarsely. “I love you.” His mom turned to my brother and me, shocked and ecstatic. She has always wanted her boys to have a relationship with their dad, but she told me later she hadn’t thought her son would even ask for his father. I could tell that my dad was overwhelmed—he is rarely a man of few words. “I love you too, son. I know everything, and I love you anyway.” My brother shut his eyes. “I’m a mess. I need you.” “I’m here,” my dad assured him.

He later asked for his step-father and our other brother. Then he needed rest, and he recommended an Italian restaurant for lunch. We went there while he slept, our appetites suddenly returning in full force. When we returned, he awoke and asked for both of my parents. “I haven’t let you be a big part of my past,” he began, “but you’ll be a part of my future.”

He saw his brothers again with their wives, and he finally asked for his ex-wife. When she returned from his bedside, she wore a content and relieved smile. “That went well,” she whispered to me later. “We have closure.”

That night, we had another large family dinner with our family of halves, steps, and exes. Before the margaritas even arrived, my brother nudged me and pointed across the table. My mother and his mother were taking a “selfie” together. Our dad and his step-dad took the cue and leaned in for their own selfie. Two women once married to the same man. Two men once married to the same woman. Friends, bound by their mutual love of one hurting person. One of my brothers popped his head into the camera field behind our dad and his step-dad. Next to my dad, and smiling. My brother kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “Did we just get our family back?”

Yes, we did—and that’s the miracle I’m stuck on. My brother was all but dead, and he came back to life. And my family was all but dead—and now it lives, too. Do you remember my sadness in my post about saying goodbye—do you remember the facebook message devoid of the words I longed to hear? All three of these brothers told me they loved me this week. All three made a promise to never walk out of my life again. I have spoken to at least one of them every day since I returned home, and every conversation ends with those precious words. All of my siblings are coming to my parents’ house in a few weekends, just to be a family for two nights. That hasn’t happened since I was too young to remember. Life stirs where I thought it was lost.

And my dormant heart stirs and awakens to life. What heartache have I known? Betrayal by one brother, and rejection by others. The lies of my father. The distance of a God I longed for. All of these…redeemed. I am struggling to find the words I need here. None of you could possibly understand what happened in my heart—it exceeds my talents and vocabulary, as well as your attention span. To put it simply, I found safety and comfort in the arms I once feared, and each of my brothers affirmed their love for me. The lies of my dying brother were no different than the lies of my father—none of us knew what he struggled with. When the truth came out, we all survived. My brother leaned on my dad, knowing that he’s been through shame like this before. I found peace in my prayers and in the prayers others offered, even in the darkest of moments. I felt that God was near and that this tragedy was for his glory and our good.

I know that there are medical explanations for my brother’s recovery. I know that there are psychological and sociological and hormonal explanations for what happened in my family. I know that this story does not need Jesus.

But I know that I do.

Maybe it’s because my personality type is ENFJ. Maybe it’s because this is a coping mechanism for a tragedy. Maybe Jesus is a lie. But my life has been marked by lies, and this feels different. Lies from my brothers, lies from my dad, lies to my family about where I stand in belief. I’ve known so many lies that I struggle to identify truth, and I will never claim with certainty to hold it. But if there’s one thing I do know, it’s this:

Me without Jesus is the greatest lie of all—and I’m finished with it.

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Who Jesus is to Me

night blindness

“Who is Jesus to you?”

It’s a good question. It has to be—Jesus himself asked it of his disciples in Mark 8. That chapter is one I have kept coming back to over the past few years, and I returned to it again as I prepared to answer this question from a reader on my About page. It was difficult to read—it always is, because I see myself in Mark 8.

I’m there from the very beginning. I’m there with the disciples who are perplexed about food only two chapters after Jesus had fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish—do they not have reason to trust? I’m there with the Pharisees who ask for a sign from heaven—is what they have already seen not enough? I’m there again with the disciples once more concerned about loaves of bread, and I can deeply sense Jesus’ frustration in his words to them—“Don’t you remember what you’ve seen me do? Are you really this dense?” (my own paraphrase). I’m there with the blind man whose friends brought him to Jesus when he couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) go there himself—my friends have remained beside me even in my darkness, and my healing has also been gradual.

And I’m there when Jesus asks the ultimate question—the question that has left my steady faith in a tailspin. “Who do you say that I am?”

Who is Jesus to me?

There was once a time when I answered the question the way Peter did—he is the Christ, the Messiah. Will I ever again have a one-line answer to this question? I currently do not, and that is why this is a post instead of a comment under my reader’s question.

Dear reader, I cannot say with confidence that Jesus is the Christ. What I can say is that I place my hope in something far greater than I am—my brother would call it “the universe.” I think I would call it “God,” even though I have not yet heard a well-established God-claim that I can believe in. And although I don’t know exactly who Jesus is to me or even who he should be to me, I feel that it is through Jesus that I am able to better understand who God is. Did he exist? I think so, although I believe that some of the claims that he did not are thoughtful and worth considering. Was he somehow both God and man? I do not know—but the idea that he was paints a picture of a God who made a way for me to know him. Did he give his life for me? I do not know, but I’m not offended by the example he provides and his call to come and die—there is so much in me that needs to die. And does he live today? I do not know—but if He is alive then the Word is alive, and I am not bound to the scriptural interpretations of other people from another world that sometimes point me to a God I could never worship. Like the blind man in Mark 8 who encountered Jesus, I see something—it’s just not quite clear.

A believing friend who knows of my struggle told me several weeks ago to not be lukewarm like the Church in Laodicea in Revelation 3—it is better to either accept Christ or reject him. I disagree with the unspoken conclusion my friend had come to—that my undecided heart is lukewarm. I was too emotionally exhausted to argue that night. A lukewarm heart is complacent. Although I am undecided about who Jesus is to me, I am not complacent. That’s why I’m here—it’s why I write. My heart burns within me; it is zealous, and its door is wide open even before the knock that I wait for. I pass through it to love the unlovely, and I allow in even those who hurt me. I listen for the voice of Jesus and often think I sense it…and then I’m reminded to fact-check with scripture, and I just don’t know any more. The letter to the Church in Laodicea ends with the words “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

We see similar wording back in Mark 8: “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?”

Having eyes do you not see…

I told you that I see myself in the blind man in Mark 8. In Mark 10, I find myself again—this time in Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. He cried out to Jesus, begging for mercy—oh, I’m there. Some rebuked him—and I’ve felt that, too. But he wasn’t lukewarm, and their rebuke made his fire burn hotter as he begged for mercy again. Finally he heard the precious words, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” Just typing that made me cry.

And then came the question—that glorious question. This same incarnate God had asked two chapters before, “Who do you say that I am?” And knowing who he was—knowing the full extent of the impact of this collision between the greatest of great and the lowest of low—he humbly asks this man a different question.

“What do you want me to do for you?”

I saw myself in a blind man whose healing didn’t come all at once—who could see something, but only dimly at first.

I saw myself in disciples who faced the question, “Who do you say that I am?”—a question that came after they demonstrated their own form of blindness and failure to remember what Christ had done.

I saw myself in a blind man who lacked sight, but not fervor—a man who begged for mercy until Jesus called for him and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”

And oh, I see myself in his answer to that question as my heart echoes these words:

“Rabbi, let me recover my sight.”

So who is Jesus to me, dear reader? I can’t quite see clearly enough to tell you—I see something, but I’m waiting for more. In the mean time, I respond to your question from Mark 8 with the hope of Mark 10. Until my eyes can see, my ears are waiting to hear the words “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” My ears are longing to hear the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” I have my answer ready: Rabbi, I want to see.

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

Image © Dirkkoebernik | Dreamstime.com – Blurred Lights From Road Traffic Photo

The Prognosis

The words stunned me—something like a blow to the back or a terminal diagnosis. Yes—like a cancer diagnosis. And how fitting that they came from a doctor. I now understand a bit better what I’ve always heard—that the patient hears nothing after the words “You have cancer” escape your lips.

His words were not to me, and they weren’t about a medical condition at all. The words were delivered last night to my husband Russell by Pascal—his blogging companion and closest local friend. As he said them, the dining room closed in to the size of a hospital clinic room, and the warm walls turned a dull shade of gray. The table between us disappeared, and his dining chair turned into a black rolling stool in front of a computer. Pascal’s blue shirt faded into a white coat as he turned toward my husband and said “Honestly, I don’t think you’ll ever return to faith.”

“I’m not giving up on you, and we can still be friends,” he continued, much in the way I had once heard an oncologist reassure a glioblastoma patient after delivering the death sentence. I didn’t hear too much else after that. Tears stung my eyes, and I swallowed hard as if the force of the swallow could somehow suck them back behind my eyes. I didn’t swallow hard enough, and a few escaped. I swallowed hard again. I couldn’t cry there. I was sitting across from a wonderful, refreshingly honest new friend who doesn’t understand my struggle—“Just believe or don’t believe, and own it.” I was sitting next to two brand new acquaintances on my right, and this was not the first impression I wanted to make. My husband was to my left, and his hand found mine. He could sense the way my breathing changed, even if he couldn’t see my tears. Pascal was across the table and two seats down, and I couldn’t look at him. I wasn’t angry—I was devastated. And what was my husband feeling? I couldn’t look at him, either. But he didn’t argue with Pascal’s assessment.

It felt like there was a computer screen in the room with a list of abnormal labs. It felt like there was a blood smear demonstrating an army of invading cells or a CT scan revealing an overwhelming tumor burden. We had none of those things—just some convincing symptoms and one man’s prognosis. And isn’t it what we expected? Was it a shock at all? Somehow, yes. Sometimes you don’t realize what you had secretly, even foolishly wished for until someone tells you it won’t be yours.

I understand and in many ways share my husband’s disbelief. My heart has recently been more open to belief, but not the kind of belief I once held, and not in a way that gives me confidence—just in a way that gives me hope. And I suppose I had this fantasy that even I didn’t know I had—that my husband and I would return to faith together. I didn’t recognize that it was something I had looked toward until the fantasy left me with Pascal’s words. I don’t think about breathing until someone shoves my face underwater and I no longer can.

Was it right for him to say? Hadn’t I expected it—even thought it myself? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Would Russell be any more likely to return to faith if someone had hope enough to invest in him and to endure the wearying back and forth for a decade or more?—I think not. Will the friendship continue—was the bond between our families ever more than the fragile thread of this conversation? Oh I hope it was.

How is Russell doing? The prognosis was, after all, his. On one hand, he understands why Pascal came to this conclusion—it does seem unlikely that he will reason his way back into faith, although it’s certainly possible. On the other hand, he doesn’t think that anyone is equipped to draw such a conclusion about someone else. It seems that someone’s confidence in the possibility of God bringing a friend out of disbelief might be correlated with their faith that such a God exists and is willing and able to do so. Wouldn’t it only take a small intervention like Russell mentioned here? He is very open to that. Doesn’t Pascal’s God do miracles? Isn’t a miracle what brought Pascal out of insanity? Russell primarily took the prognosis hard because of my tears, and I hate that this is somehow about me.

Does this change anything? Our friend who has walked patiently with us for almost two and a half years came to my most feared conclusion about my husband—perhaps one I should have admitted to myself long ago. What do we do now that reality has confronted us so abruptly (doesn’t it usually “set in”)?

Nothing changes. We woke up the day after to an almost-five-year-old alarm clock with brown hair and blue eyes. Our hands found each other’s and our fingers intertwined before our eyes were even open. I’ll wake up next to him for the rest of our lives (or as long as he lets me), even if Pascal is right. And even if Pascal’s assessment is fair, I can do what so many do after devastating words. I can keep looking for a miracle. I can wish for an outcome against all odds. Some call it denial. We call it hope.

Image copyright Samuel Micut, dreamstime.com

Immanuel

woman at the well

Barely more than two years ago, I sat at my kitchen table and typed a long letter to a stranger whose faith I admired from a distance. “I’m about to face Christmas without Jesus,” I wrote, “and I’m not okay with that.”

Today, I write not from the comfort of my home, but from one of the commonest of places: the Laundromat. No Christmas tree here. Our washing machine transmission failed last week. I didn’t know they had transmissions, but ours did—and the cost to replace it equaled the cost of purchasing a new machine. I called my mom for advice on brands—we have used the machines that the previous owners of our home sold to us for pocket change, so I’ve never actually bought one. Instead of advising me about the best quality I could get within our means, she and my dad insisted that they buy us the machine they have—the one I’ve been coveting for a year. It wasn’t in stock until later this week, and I hate being behind on laundry. With three little girls under five years old (I’m keeping my almost-2-year-old niece for the week), the hampers fill quickly. So I find myself here.

The environment is actually quite familiar to me in a painful way. We had to evacuate our home rapidly once when I was a young teen to escape the greatest danger of my childhood—my father. I don’t remember the specific reasons that we didn’t have access to a washer or dryer—it was likely that we couldn’t afford one, or perhaps my mom hoped for a return home that was in the not-too-distant future. Whatever the reason, we spent many hours at the Laundromat. It may have only been for a few weeks, although it feels like it was months. However long it was, our return home didn’t happen until my dad was released from prison years later. I remember my mom praying over the coins in our Folgers coffee tin—that they would be enough to wash and dry everything we brought. I think they always were, except for a few times when the bed linens ended up on a clothesline in the back yard of the home we were renting from friends for less than half the price they could have asked for it.

I hated the Laundromat. I was thankful for clean clothes, but getting them was uncomfortable. Our particular location (in the “bad” part of town) reeked of cigarette smoke. Rowdy children chased each other through the maze of machines. Babies cried for milk or a nap and were ignored while their moms folded clothes. I remembered wanting to take them all home, as if my broken family could offer them something better. Laundromats seem to so often be full of people with broken lives, not just broken washing machines.

Tonight in this Laundromat, I’m still broken—just in a different way. I still long for Jesus the way I did fifteen years ago when I guarded precious prayed-over coins. What would it look like if he showed up in a place like this? If the John 4 story of the Samaritan woman at the well were to be set in modern times, I think it might take place at a Laundromat. What breaks my heart the most this Christmas is that I can only consider such things in a hypothetical way. Why is the modern version of the gospels only in my imagination? Where is Immanuel? His very name is “God with us,” and I can’t find him. I can only conclude that the historical version was also a product of imagination. Two years after my desperate letter, I’m yet again about to face Christmas without Jesus. And I’m still not okay with that.

I want him to be with me in my doubt the way he was with Thomas. I want him to be with me in my worry and busy-ness the way he was with Martha. I want him to be with me in my impetuousness the way he was with Peter. Was he ever with mankind at all? Why did he leave? Even if I trust that his physical absence is for his glory and our good, where is the spirit that he promised us? Many of you can tell me of personal experiences to answer my last question. Why can’t I?

I want an Immanuel who is the ever-present father to the fatherless. I want an Immanuel whose tears mingle with ours when children are massacred. I want an Immanuel who meets me at a well, even though he knows who I am—one who sees all my dirty laundry and loves me anyway. I want an Immanuel who offers the satisfaction to my thirst and the permanent fix to every part of me that is broken.

I often find myself wanting to wrap my words up in a song. The one that I identify closely with tonight is “Where Are You, Christmas?” by Faith Hill—the first half. Ever since I learned “the truth” about Santa Claus at a very young age, the magic of Christmas for me has been the miracle of the Incarnation. God with us. If I can’t find Immanuel, I can’t find Christmas. He hasn’t given us a multitude of angels. He hasn’t given us a star. With my weakness and lack of resources, the only thing I can do now is ask that he find me, the way he found a Samaritan woman at a well. He knew everything about her; she didn’t even recognize him.


I wrote the above two nights ago from the Laundromat, and then got up to move my clothes to the dryer. The post was not yet finished, and my plan was to continue writing during the hour that my clothes were drying. That didn’t happen—it’s now two days later, and I’m writing from home. Why the delay?

I returned to my seat after my clothes were drying, and a man approached me. He had been trying to make small talk every time we were together at machines, and I had been short and vague in my replies in an attempt to get home from the Laundromat alive. Now he said this: “I don’t want to sound like a creep or anything, and my clothes are done—but I can’t leave a pretty girl alone here like this. I’d feel terrible if I found out something happened.” We made polite introductions, and then I tried to dissuade him—he could easily be the man he is saying he wants to protect me from, and in my mind my chances of surviving the night would be greater if he would leave me alone. His use of flattery was a red flag—a “pretty girl” in yoga pants, a sweater that could fit someone twice my size, no makeup, and hair that hasn’t been washed in over 72 hours recently. A “beautiful name” that 33% of my high school advanced calculus class shared with me. Did he have an agenda? Despite my resistance to him staying for an additional hour for my protection, he did stay. He had initially said he would sit down in the back just to keep an eye on me, but he actually sat down right across from me. I thought for sure that the raised computer screen would at least tell him to keep silent, but he spoke. “What brings a girl like you to the Laundromat?” he asked, as if I were not wearing yoga pants and an oversized sweater with no makeup and hair that hadn’t been washed in over 72 hours recently. “Broken washing machine,” I replied without elaborating. “Sucks,” he offered. I nodded. He continued, “I’m in the middle of a divorce. She took the machines.” I felt bad for him and decided that his vulnerability deserved at least one word. “Sorry,” I managed, finally making eye contact. He shrugged. “It happens.”

He kept talking, and I let my guard down slowly. It wasn’t long before I knew his exact address (which just so happens to be on my street, although I wasn’t about to tell him that), exactly where he works, his kids’ names, and that three of his best friends have died in the past year. When he finally said something about his church, it surprised me. I didn’t picture him as a church-goer at all, and I’m usually good at that. I asked him where he attended—my first full sentence in what had been a largely one-sided conversation. “First United Methodist,” he said, and added “What about you?” “First Baptist,” I answered honestly, kicking myself in the brain for giving out personal information to a Laundromat killer stranger. “I knew there was something about you,” he said. “That’s the reason I was supposed to stay and talk to you. We have something in common.” Uh-oh. I didn’t realize what look was on my face until I saw his non-verbal response to it. I had to explain. “I guess that used to be true,” I said to raised eyebrows. “I’m just not so sure any more what I believe.” I went from giving out personal information to baring my soul. This guy was bold, and I dreaded the conversation that I was anticipating. It didn’t happen. “Okay,” he replied simply. “So that’s the real reason I was supposed to stay and talk to you. I now know that I need to pray for you.” “Thanks, I guess…” I said awkwardly, with the words sounding more like a question than an expression of gratitude. He just smiled. The machine that had been tumbling my clothes stopped running, and I was relieved for an excuse to end the conversation. I dropped my clothes into a basket, and he walked me to my car. “Thanks for staying with me. Unless you’re about to shove me into your trunk or something,” I laughed nervously. “You’re welcome,” he replied, “and I’m not going to kidnap you. I will be praying for you. He won’t leave you.”

He won’t leave you.

With that, we got in our cars. I took a convoluted route home so I could be sure I wasn’t followed. By the time I folded the laundry and relayed the encounter to my husband (who says that I am never again going to a Laundromat alone at night), it was too late to write any more. Besides that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I guess I’m still not sure. The rational side of me says that conversations like these happen in Laundromats where broken people gather. That a high percentage of people in my region would mention attending church and respond with an offer of prayer and reassurance when I share my doubt. The emotional side of me that deeply desires to have faith tells me that this conversation was an immediate answer to the first part of this post. It reminds me that I asked for God to be with me and says he showed me that he is. It insists that he found me in a Laundromat after I asked him to find me the way he found a Samaritan woman at a well—that he spoke through a stranger and said “I won’t leave you.” That side of me recalls that Jesus revealed that he knew everything about that Samaritan woman, and she still didn’t recognize him until he said “I who speak to you am he.” Have there been times that he’s been with me when I have failed to recognize him? Could I be missing Immanuel?

It has been enough to occupy my thoughts for the past couple of days. The Laundromat stranger’s words were common and not unexpected for the situation—don’t worry, atheist readers; my head is still screwed on. But my heart so intensely longs for those words to mean more—especially in December when I’m looking for Christmas and dealing with a lingering child-like belief in miracles.

O come, O come, Immanuel.

[Image by Carl Heinrich Bloch (http://masterpieceart.net/carl-heinrich-bloch/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Miracles

beer can
I had gotten used to hands in my hair over the three weeks I had been there, but I still had boundaries, and these kids were invading them. After all, we had all just finished eating wild chicken, some kind of slimy greens, and a bland white paste with our fingers, and I’m pretty sure napkins were unheard of in this tiny African village that was so remote that we had to park our van four miles away. So while I was flattered that they called me a goddess and were enthralled with the almost-black, straight hair that reached the narrow part of my waistline, I needed space. And a shower.

I walked near the lake, where a choir of children sang and danced. A mass of people waited to be baptized in the lake behind them–a beautiful sight in this village burdened by alcohol addiction and witchcraft. A figure by the water caught my eye, and I moved toward her. She was crouched by the water all alone–was something wrong? I watched her in my peripheral vision, pretending to look directly ahead at the sun setting over the dam. As I moved closer to her, I saw that she held something in her hand and extended it out toward the water. She was focused intently on it and did not notice me, so I watched. I didn’t have an interpreter nearby, so I could not speak. As I observed, I realized she was holding a stick and using it to fish something out of the water. As it came within her reach, she picked it up and dried it off with her skirt. A beer can. Was she another who was so plagued with addiction that she would scavenge for the last drops of alcohol in a floating can at a baptism service? I was relieved when she immediately emptied it, although confused about her intentions. If her purpose was to empty the water of what littered it, she would be here for a while and would need a longer stick.

She dried the can off with her dress as she walked back toward the gravelly soil. There again she crouched, picking up rocks and broken glass and holding it all in her skirt. I began to realize what was happening. One by one she dropped the rocks and glass into the can. She shook it, and then dropped in a few more. Once satisfied, she ran with the can back to the children’s choir and joined the dancing and singing crowd in front of them, her shaking can the only accompaniment.

In my journal that night, I called it a miracle. A symbol of destruction became an instrument of praise. Right before my eyes, a damaged and worthless vessel was emptied of the filth it contained and then filled up with something new. It had a purpose–to bring worship to a King. I have never forgotten that can and the symbol it was of my own life. This is sanctification. I had a habit of finding tangible ways to interpret the miracles of God in the context of my every day life. Every time I see a beer can I still think of sanctification. Every time I see a Baptism or see flowers blooming faithfully again on a spring run, I think of resurrection. Old habits die hard.

Resurrection. This is Easter morning, Resurrection Sunday. I adore my pastor, but I know he will greet me with the words “He is Risen” this morning. Will I be able to return the greeting with the traditional “He is Risen indeed”? I’ll try to avoid him. Today will be hard for me. My small family is alone on Easter for the second year in a row because of my work and study schedule. This makes my heart sink, because I have always loved the comfort of home and extended family and a big meal as we celebrate this day. I long for fellowship, not take-out food and an afternoon of laundry loads between textbook chapters. I’ve always loved my dad’s powerful prayer before Easter dinner, because his life is a beautiful example of something worthless becoming a vessel of praise–all because Someone who once was dead is now alive. Resurrection gives us hope for lost things, worthless things, dead things. If death could be conquered, can’t disease, addiction, and faithlessness be conquered too? Sanctification continues because the resurrection happened–at least that’s how my dad sees it. Even if I never return to faith, I will always be thankful that my father’s faith in a savior I don’t believe in saved his life.

So yes, my heart stirs on Easter Sunday. Does that mean anything? Only that I’m nostalgic. I never saw what happened to that can after the African Baptism service. I’ve never thought about it until this moment. But I can imagine that some time after it was an instrument of praise in a worship service, it once again became a piece of trash near the water, filled with junk. Once the emotion and excitement of the day were over, the can was just a can…and I am just a person. No one holds me, no one fills me, no one makes me greater than what I am–although emotionally-charged days like today find me longing for miracles again.

Image credit © Noimagination | Dreamstime.com – Beer Can Photo