It’s not really fair that I ended up with two dads who love me unabashedly, but both my dad and my father-in-law have poured so much goodness into my life, I will spend the rest of my years trying to sort through all their love and kindness. John, as you know, is a Man among men, and most days I just give up trying to out-love, out-work, out-smart that husband of mine. As if that were not enough (and it’s not), my identity as a beloved child of Father God was formed and strengthened from my earliest days. I will probably end up in counseling for a really confusing reason (“I’m just not sure how to respond and live with all that love, you know?”).
Most of my life’s balance has tipped heavily toward goodness, success, health and security. Loss, grief, injustice, failure, and uncertainty were not part of my story.
But in recent years, the balance began to shift. John’s dad was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease; a dear uncle with a different progressive brain disease; and last fall, my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. For 14 months, we helped shape the connections of a newborn baby’s brain and heart into strong, healthy functioning, then watched a system snip the cord that bound him to us and attach him elsewhere. We enter into messy stories of traumatized children.
Lately we find ourselves walking a long and dark road of grief, loss, pain and anger.
Disease, maybe especially brain disease, confronts our assumptions of body and soul and mortal life like nothing else.
The human body is a miraculous machine. My father-in-law knows this better than most as he worked as a medical doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
The human soul is more mysterious and miraculous still. My dad sought understanding of the ephemeral soul through music, song writing, scripture, and literature. John’s uncle devoted his entire life to introducing others to eternal life found in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. To know each of these men was to know kindness, joy, intelligence, strength and love.
So, how does one reconcile the harsh reality of brain disease upon such men? Upon their wives, children, siblings and parents?
Losing a family member to a degenerative disease is comprised of hundreds of deaths over the progression of the illness. I have watched my mother-in-law and aunt lose their best friends and husbands, neuron by neuron. I drove my mom to the emergency room after she was shaken awake by my dad’s grand mal seizures in the middle of the night, and stood next to her as she received the news of a large mass in Dad’s brain.
Bad things happening to innocent children confronts our assumptions of the goodness of God like nothing else.
I see children repeatedly lose parents and important caregivers and experience the aftermath. In the community of foster care we hear of terrible atrocities acted on innocent children. I have walked by slums in Nairobi and seen children begging in India and Central America. We support an organization that fights cyber sex trafficking, child prostitution, and forced labor slavery.
Combing out lice and tucking in sad and scared little girls at night who miss their moms but have to sleep in a stranger’s bed are duties I wish never had to be done.
And here is where I land. I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. I do not believe that all of this pain is part of God’s plan.
I used to think I had to have a neat and tidy defense to speak such “Christianese” blasphemy, and I don’t have one.
But hear me, my vision of God and his love for his children has grown exponentially these recent, painful years. He is bigger, more good, stronger, and safer than I realized. This world is both a piece of dog excrement and a breathtakingly beautiful work of art and engineering, but it is so very small and weak compared to the goodness and love of God.
For reasons I do not understand, here I am, with these people, on this piece of geography, at this point of time. My life is a breath, and it is beautiful, and it is painful. And underneath, all around, up above, and within is God and his unending, unbreakable, steadfast love.
Although an embarrassingly large portion of my life could be described as such, I’m not one to throw around the word, “blessed”. I prefer “grateful”. It’s probably just semantics, but I can’t utter the word “blessed” to describe my financial security, my kind husband, amazing children, and the beautiful river in my backyard. How could I be blessed with these things while others are denied food on the table, the ability to conceive a child, or a safe home to live in?
Instead, I open my hands and give thanks. I cry out with gratitude for those gifts that bring me joy and I cry out with anguish over a broken world. I give thanks for the way God draws near in our suffering. I give thanks for the outpouring of kindness from our people. I give thanks for every neuron and the functioning it allowed for the time it was assigned. I give thanks for the example of Jesus, walking a road of suffering and death during his time on this flimsy earth, taking heart that he overcame the world. I give thanks that this blue, green, and gold rock we circle upon is filled with wonders and opportunities but is not the end.
God’s plan was never for children to be separated from their mothers or for cancer or lice or brain disease. Things in this world are not as they should be. Yet we discover glimpses of love, beauty, courage, laughter, creativity, and joy in regular and unexpected places.
Lately I’ve heard this question posed around the internets: “What is saving your life right now?”
My answer: The poets. The women and men who string together words and notes into verse, story, and song, revealing a truth invisible in the physical world. They throw me a rope to cling to when I’m drowning in grief. They tear down the dam that encloses my tears and anguish. I climb upon their wings to soar above the weak limits of my own ability to feel and describe joy and love. When my week is full to the brim with busy-ness and Hard Things, they sing through my speakers and pour grace from pages.
What is a neurosurgeon other than a poet who takes raw material of flesh and cuts, rearranges, and stitches it into healing and hope? What are hospice nurses, occupational therapists, mental health counselors, foster parents, and helpful insurance agents other than poets whose words can make the ugliest experiences of our lives into moments of laughter, new possibility, relief, and comfort? Who are my friends whose texts, emojis, and GIPHYs can make me snort with laughter and ugly cry in a single digital conversation? Poets, every one of them.
God’s ways can be inscrutable, but they are not bad. I love how he uses regular dads, moms, poets and other humans to be part of his creative work of healing and beauty-making and prayer-answering.
My dad is now tumor-less and in some ways healthier now than before the diagnosis. John’s dad and uncle continue to steadily decline, in different, but heartbreakingly relentless ways. We currently shelter two small children in our home with a ferocious love.
In provision and in loss, I will yet say, thank you.