the value of suffering (part 2, 3, and 4)

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 8.10.47 AM

{image by Gabriel Morrison}

Part 2

I have this affliction, you see:

I can’t fall asleep in my bed where it’s snug and soft and safe without first lending my thoughts and prayers to all the people who don’t have what I have; all the people who rest their weary heads on park benches and bus stop seats or who lay hidden under the bushes with their backs against the bricks of Trinity Lutheran Church. Almost every night between the clean sheets, I cry and give thanks because I’d rather wear a horse hair shirt and eat locusts for the rest of my born days than take any creature comforts for granted.

I can’t buy knick-knacks or whatnots from Target without feeling conflicted inside and I’ll stand there in the aisle holding this item or that item between my hands, weighing it’s worth and necessity against what I could give away instead. I am newly burdened by (and want very little to do with) anything I don’t need.

I can’t watch a documentary like “Food Chains” without breaking to pieces or releasing expletives because our country’s caste system has never been more clearly outlined. And it’s never been more clear that I live “above” more than half of humanity and somehow I just want to go down below and lift people to equal. Sometimes the equalizer desire makes me scream inside or out loud, depending on the day.

I can’t talk about how we, as a family, have decided to value suffering without first acknowledging that there are varying degrees of the distressing stuff and those degrees are relative to genetics, geography and all kinds of circumstances. I can only value suffering to the extent in which I’ve encountered it and I wouldn’t dare be so naive as to believe it would absolutely still be my oyster if I was that mama choosing which of her babies to save or that man on his knees with a blade against his jugular vein.

Like the apostle Paul and with a wild fist to my chest–a hope against all hope–I yearn to be a person who, even after bearing 39 lashes, several stonings, a few shipwrecks and a snake bite could still raise the roof of a prison cell with a refined, on fire “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice”. But I cannot affirm for sure.

I’ll say it again because I have a wordy, repetitious streak sky high and a mile wide: What we know of suffering corresponds to what we’re born into, where we live and all the nuances and relationships of that place. And my reflex tendency is to stay quiet in the face of pain that is obviously bigger than my own experiences, but I’ve been told and retold that it’s not helpful to disqualify or minimize our reality just because someone else’s is worse. I’ve been told that “suffering is suffering”.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to finish “The Value of Suffering”. If you haven’t already, and would like to, Part 1 can be read HERE.

|||

Even though it’s four hours north from where we sit and happened months ago already, I can still go back to the hospital in Vermont at any given second. It’s a distant memory stuck right to my skin and all I have to do is think a single thought about it and I’m there like I’d never left the smells and sounds and sights and tastes of that space. Hospitals are alternate universes, strange places where the senses are on high alert; where everything is acute like the point of a sword or a first kiss. Hospitals are places where your flesh is more tender and your heart is more open; where your blood runs a little thinner and the tears come a little quicker. Hospitals are places where time is not time and real life is not real life; places you don’t forget, even in your sleep.

Which is why I’ll never disremember the moment they wheeled Gabe away for surgery or how Austin and I felt when we stood there in the middle of the fluorescent hallway, holding each other tight together and simultaneously feeling ripped apart. We were a little forlorn, a little frayed and fighting to keep a lid on our emotions while watching one of our hearts go through the double doors on a stretcher, without us.

Our 13-year-old son was journeying to a place where we couldn’t go alongside; crossing a threshold and becoming man right before our eyes.

We waited numb and long after the portal closed around him, immobilized by the sensation of not really being tethered to anything–almost like we were floating between worlds. We weren’t here, but we weren’t there either.

Finally we turned our sleep-deprived and bruised bodies towards the nearest shower, then sustenance . . . and the strong sentiments came rushing during lunch in the cafeteria with our trays of mediocre food and extra sides of caffeine. We were having a “Is this real life?” moment, followed by our first “real” talk since the accident.

It was Austin who needed to unburden first and among other sentences, this is what he said: “I’m the one who encouraged him to go down that hill. I did this. I kept telling him, ‘Gabe, you’ve got this. You can do this.’ I watched him explode right in front of my face. He broke his fucking hip because of me and I’ll never forget that image or the sounds he was making with his mouth. It’s burned in my mind forever.”

Austin felt the same way I would’ve had I been in his shoes; had I been the one to prod my son down a hill that landed him in surgery room 4. But when you believe that suffering belongs in your story–in your son’s story, even–then there is no need to place blame or point fingers. So I didn’t. Instead, I sidled up to my husband and his ache that was bigger than the Texas sky he grew up under and absorbed between my ribs what he was burdened by. And I only said to him what he would’ve said to me had our roles been reversed:

“Should we not encourage our children to take risks that could end in suffering?

Should we protect them from the possibility of pain?

Is he too young to walk his own Calvary road and identify with Christ?

Or to invite the potential to become a different person through affliction?

Or to experience something that could change the breadth and depth of his character?

Or allow him the opportunity to empathize more with those who are hurting?”

It was right then when our emotions finally caught up to us and came spilling from our red-rimmed eyes.

It was right then when we chose how we intended to go on:

We would carefully design a filter for Gabe and invite him to push his story through it. This filter would support and steward the truth that suffering is a component in the anatomy of conversion; an agent of transformation; something to be welcomed, embraced and befriended. An opportunity to go deep with other people, to go deep with himself and to go deep with Jesus like they were kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane together.

For the moment Gabe was going to hurt so bad, but we would aim for a day when he could turn around, look back and say “that hurt so good”. (“That hurts so good . . . “ Maybe the Kingdom has a definition for good that includes some “bad”. Maybe so much of what we call “bad”, isn’t bad at all.)

We would encourage our son to see what Rumi saw when he penned: “A wound is the place where the light enters you.”

If sustained carefully, Gabriel’s suffering could become one of the best and most formative stories of his life. And we decided that even if we had the magical ability to do so, we wouldn’t take from him the very thing that had the power and chance to metamorphosis his heart.

Did you catch that?

We sat there in the lunch room with all the bustle and busyness going on around us and decided we wouldn’t undo what happened to him, or to us. We surrendered to life such as it was, reframed our narrative around the cross, pushed back our chairs, cleared our trays and headed up to wait for Gabe’s return and the actual testing of our ideals against a real, hard road.

PART 3

After I published Part 1 of this series, I received an email from a new reader. She told me about the tears that fell when she read our story and the tears that fell even harder when she came to the sentence where I suggested a synonymous nature to suffering and healing; how they were two sides of the same coin, or a drink from one cup.

When you find that the purpose of suffering is to move you closer to the “man of sorrows”; closer to the one your soul longs for (if that be the case), then the pain can take on an odd and exquisite quality of pleasure or joy–paradoxically, they become the same sentiment.

This woman went on to tell me how she had walked through the wilderness recently and while in that difficult and dry place she had reached through to a close friend for comfort and commentary and the response she received was: “God never leads people to deserts and is never is involved with pain”. And further, her friend went on to suggest that “true growth and relationship with God always results in success, perfect physical healing, and never ever experiencing trauma or loss”.

You’ve probably figured it out by now, but I’m gonna go ahead and tell you in no uncertain terms that the Gospel as it beats in my heart cannot reconcile with a gospel exclusively filled with health, wealth and success; a gospel void of wastelands, hardships and hurts.

To me, it’s like saying a Christ follower shouldn’t identify with Christ. And I just can’t go there, believe it, buy it, drink or digest it. That stuff is cheap Kool Aid and my palate has a penchant for Wine.

When I get on my knees next to the base of an ancient cross and press that bloody lowercase T to my chest, when I angle close to feel the beat and heat and hope of it next to my heart, when I get as close to the splinters and skin as possible, this is what I see: pain is part of the point and plan by which we are healed, saved and continuously made right.

Time after time after time.

And no matter how much I might wish it otherwise, I know that if my desire is to be a true follower of Jesus, then I must accept a crucifix with edges and trenches and angles that cannot be wiped out, filled in or cleaned up.

Suffering is identification with the One who was “acquainted with grief” and I want to drink the same cup, chase him all the way down that long and messy Calvary road and hold him hard to me and understand him better and get his battered face between my two clumsy mitts and tell him I will go where he goes. He is my people.

Suffering belongs in our stories, because it belonged in his. Do you believe it?

This is the narrative we want to pass down to our kids. We want to show them how to lean into pain; learn from it and be changed by it. We want to pass down a narrative that says crucifixion is just as much a part of life as resurrection and rebirth–and is even a necessary and integral ingredient to being raised up and born new over and over as truer versions of self.

|||

Gabe was brought to our PICU room when the surgery was over and the doctors began debriefing us before he was even fully awake. We learned that the procedure had been more difficult than they had anticipated . . . Our boy broke his femur so high on his thigh that there was very little top bone left to reattach the bottom bone to. And that little piece of top bone kept popping around while they tried and tried to place the two parts together. Finally they got it right, but in the meantime Gabe had lost so much blood that he became symptomatic on the operating table–with body spasms and a skyrocketing heart rate.

When we heard that his team of doctors had had to give him an emergency transfusion, our stomachs almost lost the lunch we just ate. While we were innocently chewing our food, chatting and planning, they were working to keep our child alive. But, he was ALIVE! (“We’re just so grateful he’s alive” became the most repeated phrase from start to finish of this story.)

It was understood that Gabe would be up in a walker or on crutches the very next morning and that we would be discharged in a day or two, at the most. But for five days straight our patient didn’t get any better and in many ways his condition worsened.

For five days straight Gabe screamed like someone was boring holes in his leg with a half inch drill bit while shoving bamboo splinters under his fingernails. In response to the drip narcotics he was on, Gabe itched his flesh until it flaked and bled. He puked and blacked out from pain and nausea. His eyes bulged in terror every time the nurses came in to shift him. When he couldn’t take the pain of his worsening condition anymore, he cried and cried and yelled and bellowed.

For five days straight we saw and heard and felt things that made us want to crawl out of our epidermis, climb the walls, cap our ears and run crazy from the room. Just because Austin and I had chosen to lean into our suffering and embrace every scrap of the experience that we possibly could, didn’t mean our bodies weren’t scourged by it. We broke and bled out like there were a slew of wrecking balls swinging around inside us.

And on the fifth day . . . we’ll never ever ever forget what happened on the fifth day.

On the fifth day, Gabriel’s brain broke. The pain plunged him over the threshold of what his young body could take and we watched our son split open and lose his mind.

We couldn’t save him or stop the madness and sometimes we still wrestle with the ferocious need we felt in that moment to turn our backs and walk away. It was either that or scream our own minds off or pull our hair out or bang our noggins against the nearest wall. Or all three.

Austin and I had to look away.

|||

Meanwhile, our digital devices were blowing up with messages of love, support and prayers and all of that gold and goodness kept us breathing and holding on. Like I said before, there were hands and arms and hearts everywhere, surrounding us on all sides. We felt the fingers on our pulse, the connection of community, the truth of what church means to us.

Even within the moments of madness, and even within an environment as seemingly unwelcome and sterile as a hospital–with it’s all it’s needles and surgical knives, sick people and caretakers, beeps and bustling–we felt at home. There was an absurd quality of peace to our stay, or maybe it was just the absurd peace we felt inside that allowed us to see our surroundings for the unusual oasis that they were.

Definitely it was because all of you were there in our room with us.

Our good friend, Micah, set up a GoFundMe page and the dollars that started coming in relieved the worry from our minds of how we were going to afford a plane ticket to get my mama to come keep the other boys or the ongoing expense of a hotel room or the unforeseen cost of our car needing repair. Or whatever medical bills our insurance wouldn’t cover.

My sister and her husband drove an hour almost every day to give us hugs, bring picnics of healthy food and help us process. Their own friends would come too, inserting themselves into our hearts like family and providing whatever they possibly could for our needs.

We had complete strangers show up, grab our laundry and return it the next day all fresh and folded. We had complete strangers make errands to bring us smoothies and groceries and lavender oil for Gabe’s itchiness.

We were completely surrounded, you see? What an irreplaceable and precious gift you all were.

|||

During those five days of ongoing agony, we kept saying to the doctors and nurses a variation of a few things:

“Something is wrong. Why isn’t he getting better? Is it possible that something isn’t right inside?”

During those five days of ongoing agony, Gabe kept screaming:

“This hurts way worse than when it happened! Something is wrong! Why isn’t anyone listening to me?!”

We were a little brushed aside by the professionals and made to feel like we didn’t know what we were talking about, but finally the order came through for more X-rays and with the results came some answers. And with the answers came relief.

The hardware used to fix Gabe’s femur had malfunctioned. See exhibit A:

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 8.44.00 AM

Our son had been enduring a broken leg this entire time.

We were told that they had never seen this contraption come apart before and that Gabe’s case would have to be written in a medical journal so other surgeons would know that a glitch like this was even possible.

Glitches aside, everything went as planned during Gabe’s second surgery. This time around the surgeon screwed those darn hardware pieces together, then had four assistants reef his leg in every which direction just to make sure it was totally secure before sewing him back up.

Part 4

We didn’t foresee being in the hospital on Easter morning, but as we woke up and watched the sun rays rising and coming through the windows to light the sterile areas and inmates, it felt so right to be spending this holy day in a place where pain and sickness jump from the ceilings, walls and halls like rabid ping pong balls. The beeping monitors were a strange song to be sure. The scurrying nurses were a different kind of congregation. The volunteers were a weird band of misfits who arrived with their arms full of canned cranberry sauce and foil wrapped dinner rolls and they made a humble feast in the tiny Ronald McDonald kitchen and all us used up and tired out stragglers drifted in to partake together. Paper plates and plastic forks are the new china, strangers are the new family, hallowed it be his name and this kind of [eccentric] Kingdom, come.

Following this lowly lunch we received a text message from our friend Johnny that brought us all to our spent and bent appendages: “Take courage, dear boy. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

We are the Easter people, how priceless.

We are the people who believe that the cycle of suffering, death and resurrection holds the true meaning of life and is a beautiful, triumphant, hallelujah song; a chorus we will gladly sing our weary lungs out to. We suffer, we die, we come back alive. Repeat. Or as Richard Rohr says: “The Crucified revealed to the world that the real power that changes people and the world is an inner authority that comes from people who have lost, let go, and are re-found on a new level as who they truly are in God.”

That afternoon Gabe rose to his feet for the first time since the accident without the same kind of violent pain he had experienced before. He only took three or four small steps with is walker, but we cheered as if our voices were the combined effort of a full football stadium. We laughed and cried and shouted and jubilation busted straight past our seams.

We were witnesses to an Easter that we would return to in our memories as often as possible, that sacred time and thin place was a feeling so like what I imagine of heaven.

|||

The calendar showed that we had stayed at the hospital for 9 days and the whole experience was otherworldly, wrapped and saturated with the most unexpected twists and turns, tribulations and triumphs. It was a low valley and a hilltop high; a place where our bodies became marked with scars and our souls were squeezed out like sponges in the hands of an angry Hulk . . . but also a place where our cups brimmed over with a sort of joy that was dark and deep and wild. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and sometimes they are one in the same–the worst is the best and the best is the worst. None of this makes sense, I know. You cannot reconcile or neatly explain mystery and paradox, you can only choose to live in them.

Our gratitude abounded during the car ride home and we sang praise songs and talked and planned and passed the pain meds to the back seat where Gabe was propped between a dozen pillows. We also wondered what the coming road would look like and prepared for the certainty that the hard factors weren’t over, they were just changing . . .

Because we soon became intimate with the reality of supporting a teenager who had lost his mind from trauma, lost his identity as he knew it and lost the constant narcotic drip that helped manage his misery (I understand firsthand why people call coming off drugs a “crash”).

The weeks that followed were a blur of daily “drudgery” and I won’t go into the minute details here, but suffice it to say: we spent our dawns-to-darks in a succession of weeping, holding, cleaning, feeding, showering, yelling, sleeping, weeping, holding, talking, supporting, aching, aching, aching, cleaning, feeding, weeping, sleeping, yelling, holding, showering . . . I might’ve even tweaked a time or two. The intensity of everyone’s needs were on high alert and our other boys had been through something, too. Trauma left nobody untouched and each person responded and processed differently and each person needed support and Austin and I would fall into bed at night like a herd of elephants had butt-jumped on us.

Then we would wake up after sleeping like the dead, sit on the edge of the bed, brace ourselves a little bit and wonder if we could possibly do it all over again without going certifiably insane. Sometimes my morning prayers would lean in the desperate direction and before my feet ever hit the floorboards, I would ask Jesus to hold me like I was the last girl on earth and he was the lonely one.

Every day was an exercise in collecting manna, just enough to get us through to bedtime. And every day that manna not only kept us alive, but also made us know with surety that the Promised Land is not some 40-years distant farce or phenomenon. The Promised Land is here, today, now. The Promised Land is in the moment and being so hungry for Bread that all you can do is bend over and pick it up or walk into a single moment and see that it’s available everywhere.

Those days changed us, reorientated our family; brought us to a new vantage point, wrecked and healed different parts in each person. We’re still not over the humps and hardships. Just this past Sunday I lost it all over again. The ongoing weight of certain things is crushing and releasing your anguishing is cathartic, but still. If you ask me why we value all this suffering and are even surrendered to the potential of future pain, this is it:

When our boys were young, Austin and I began teaching them that life is this beautiful and terrible cyclical sojourn towards the risen Christ and to that end we have always emphasised such a high value on transformation; on the constant chipping away of our false selves and the discovering of our true selves. And that high value doesn’t allow us to reject this one brutal, yet effective medium of our own ongoing change.

We value suffering because we value transformation. We value transformation because we value looking like Jesus and his foolish little overturned Kingdom.

We are further hallowed by the fire; we are put more to rights after the pain that busts us apart; we are more open and like the Cross every time we encounter it.

Our individual and collective identities were made an inch more new, brought a little bit further along in their becoming journeys. We had all fallen to pieces, but I was unfurling into more of my true self. And so was Austin, Seth, Jude and especially Gabe. Who he thought he was utterly shattered on the side of an icy mountain. And we were there the night he lost a battle with himself and yelled it all out: “I don’t know who I am anymore without my body working!”

And we were there that night to help bring language and shape and realization to the person he was to born to be, no matter what’s working or isn’t. What a gift!

Suffering is a gift, the fertile crescent where transformation grows and when it appears in our lives we aim to lean forward, sink down and participate rather than resist or run. Kingdom come.

would you like to share?
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail to someone
thank you for coming by!
want to read more?