A couple of weeks ago, I took an imaginative preaching class at a retreat center in the hill country. We spent the week marinating in good literature and reflecting on the impact of fiction on our preaching. Each of our eight books affected me. Nothing prepared me, however, for my encounter with myself. It was quiet around me for the first time in over a year. This space and a copy of Traveling Mercies was all I needed to face my own pain. She didn’t know it, but Anne Lamott told my story in Traveling Mercies. There is a story in the book about sisters, Ella and Olivia. The two girls are very small, and one of them has a life-threatening illness. Reading, I felt physical pain in the deepest corners of my heart. I read about Anne sprinkling ashes of her friends. I read about Anne and her friend Bee washing the lifeless body of Bee’s mom after her death, and I hated these stories. These were too real. I instinctively shut the book. I was scared that if I moved or read another line then this, too, would become my reality. I am terrified that I’m going to have to wash Ellia’s body like that, and I would rather die.
I have wondered how it has affected me to see my kid fight for life. I’ve wondered how it has affected me to see her choke over and over and over, nothing but panic in her eyes as if invisible hands were strangling her. I thought back to how I felt listening to her weak cries of pain. She sounded like a wounded puppy yelping from within the confines of a burlap sack.
What do you do when your daughter’s urine is blood-red for 12 days? What do you do when she’s so hopeless that she no longer cries when she finds out she’s being intubated? What do you do when she’s so close to death that you are afraid that going to the bathroom or showering will rob you of time with her? And then, what do you do when you realize this will be a risk for the rest of her life?
The window for negotiating these kinds of emotions quickly shut when I left the hospital. I had to get back to “normal” life. Although Ellia was temporarily confined to a wheelchair, she needed me to teach her to walk again. She needed me to re-potty train her, to entertain her, since school, church and all social activities weren’t an option. Anne Lamott said it best, regarding the parents of sick children: “I know that sometimes these friends feel that they have been expelled from the ordinary world they lived in before and that they are now citizens of the Land of the [Screwed]” (147).
And in the midst of this new Land, there’s not much time to emotionally process. I had hoped for this moment during our retreat, but I didn’t know exactly what would be required of me.
I’ve spent so much time being thankful that Ellia is still alive and that God has intervened to save her that I never experienced the sadness of her traumatic encounters with death.
This week, when the fear of losing Ellia rose up in me, I gave into it, welcoming it as if I was a surfer spotting a much anticipated wave. I’ve wanted to cry, wanted to express some kind of grief that subsumed my logic. And, it came. And the best part is, it came through reading someone else’s story. And once the grief wave comes, you have to ride that thing until it runs its course. I kept trying to stop crying, feeling like I’d had a good, cathartic experience and could now move on. But my eyes wouldn’t stop leaking. Every time I tried to go back to my class, an uninvited splash zone would bubble out of my soul.
Dealing with life’s difficulties is not about digging around until we feel something. It’s not about making ourselves cry—it’s about being open to the journey of mourning. It means that we’re willing to ride the grief wave when it comes. We choose comfort when we say yes to sorrow, however inconvenient the tears and snot may be.