We’ve been here before: waiting for that callback from the on-call nurse, waiting to find out if we’re headed to the emergency room with this child.
But it never has been this child.
Her older brothers, yes. From staples in the scalp to midnight croup, from epi-pen jabs to that one nightmarish choking incident. We’ve called 911. We’ve opened the door for paramedics. We’ve carried little boys out to the car in the cold and dark of the night.
After thirteen years of parenting, we aren’t frightened by much. After nearly twenty years of marriage, we’ve reached a state of calm. It takes a lot to rattle us.
When Jonathan carried Elsa to the car on Labor Day and headed for the emergency room, I wasn’t afraid. When he called to say they were admitting her to the children’s hospital, I wasn’t afraid. When they told me the next day that she needed to stay for a second night, I wasn’t afraid. Asthma is our family inheritance, after all. From grandmother to mother to daughter and son. It is familiar to us.
When we brought Elsa home again, her virus-weakened lungs having been strengthened by inhalers, and fluids, and oxygen in a snaking tube, we remarked on how capable we had felt through the entire ordeal. Maybe after four children we had learned a thing or two? We know when to call the doctor’s office. We know how to trust (in doctors, in nurses, in God above).
We know how to stay calm.
We know how to move on.
A week has gone by, and it occurs to me there is something I don’t know. I don’t know how to stop seeing it. I don’t know how to forget.
When I lie in bed at night, my mind replays one moment over and over: Elsa, lying in our bed and working so very, very hard to breathe. The muscle at the base of her throat flutters with each quick and shallow breath.
It looks like a small butterfly trapped just beneath her skin.
On Monday, one week after she went into the hospital, we celebrated Elsa’s fourth birthday. She opened presents in the morning, and we ate pink birthday cake in the afternoon, but her favorite thing was the iridescent butterfly balloon.
She carried it around the house. She played with it outside in the yard. She lay down in the grass and held it over her head. All the better to see those butterfly colors against the deep blue of the September sky. All the better to carry on a laughing conversation with a soaring balloon.
The weather lately has fluctuated between just right and still too hot. We’ve spent a lot of time outside in it regardless. Elsa hunts for caterpillars in the herb garden that grows just outside the kitchen door. These particular green caterpillars seem very fond of Italian flat-leaf parsley.
I found one perfect, orange butterfly wing fluttering in the grass. I thought at first it was a butterfly, and I wondered why it didn’t fly away as I approached. Leaning down, I saw that it was only the one wing, caught on a blade of grass, moving back and forth in that day’s hot, dry wind.
Lord have mercy, I thought, this child I love is as fragile and vulnerable as a butterfly.
I am, too, I suppose, no matter how solid my own body feels when I plant my feet on the ground of my garden.
We are gossamer.
We are tissue-thin.
Liable to be whipped about in the slightest wind.
What is it Scripture says?
“The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).
Those words have always made me feel sad. And afraid.
But I have learned how to be unafraid. I have learned that. There is sadness, yes, but there is beauty, too. We are like flowers. We are like butterflies. We are jewel-colored. We fly swiftly. We dance in the wind.
I want to forget, but these are precious things. God, I pray, make me strong enough to remember all of it.
The broken wing.
The brilliant orange.
The broken lungs, and the small, laughing voice.
Give my own weak lungs breath to sing the whole Psalm, all the way through:
“The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children …
Praise the Lord, you his angels …
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, …
Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the Lord, my soul.”
Just the other night, I sat on the front porch and wished I had a sweater. The calendar may still say August, but, around here, summer is definitely tipping over into fall. Our weekly delivery from the local CSA orchard is shifting more and more from peaches to apples.
My daughter says, “I smell fall!” I tell her, “I can hear it,” curled, yellow leaves crunching under my feet.
During our two years in Florida, I missed autumn most of all. We still had summer (beautiful but long). There was spring, just more gradual and gentle than any northern spring. Our first year there we even had a winter, of sorts. But there is no autumn in Florida.
Each season has something important to say. Right now, the world is still very green, but, when the wind blows and the air suddenly fills with yellow leaves, this truth is revealed: there is no escaping death.
This is a season for dying.
It’s also my favorite season.
Maybe that’s because it tells me that death is a lie. We may imagine death as the end, but in fall we know that this dying is leading us toward a blaze of glory. In dying, we are walking toward beauty.
Our new home is beautiful. In the evenings we go for drives through a vibrant green, rumpled-quilt sort of landscape. There are creeks, tunnels formed by trees, old stone, Quaker farmhouses at every crossroads, and road signs that say, “Caution! Horses and hounds.”
We drive for the beauty, but, in honesty, we also drive to put our 3-year-old to sleep. Put him in a bed and he’ll stay awake for hours. Put him in a carseat, no matter the time of day, and he’s snoring within minutes.
A sleep-deprived preschooler isn’t my only frustration. There are also allergies. And asthma, that same nemesis that kept me bed-bound all last winter in Florida.
Nearly every breath I’ve taken in this new place has hurt. The baby doesn’t wake me up at night, but the coughing does. And I wonder, why this serpent in my Eden?
But, if death is a liar, so is trouble of every kind. Sickness, disappointment, difficulty: they all say God is not so good.
Here is something wonderful about having walked through deserts and having enjoyed the good, green places: Paul’s words in Philippians 4 finally make some sort of sense.
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
He is the secret. Our God of peace.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if this jar of clay has failing lungs. It is Christ who lives in me. Lives!
And nothing touches me without passing through his hands.
So I can live unafraid. I can live grateful.
I’ve been sick. For a month. I’m worn out with it.
Worn out enough to have spent the last few days in bed. Worn out enough to have finally called the doctor. Having filled the prescription he gave, I can breathe again. Though I am still tired. And each breath has that ache-y, medicinal twinge suggesting that my body knows it isn’t yet breathing under its own strength.
To be confined to a sickbed feels like the ultimate waste. Productivity ceases. To-do lists are left undone. One can no longer give anything. Confined to bed, receiving is the name of the game.
In other words, it isn’t only the pain of illness that makes it so uncomfortable.
When sick, it is no longer possible to do; the challenge is simply to be. I focus on each breath in and out. At first, this brings fear. Later, comfort. To labor at something which is usually instinctive is to recognize that it has always been, will always be … a gift. Breath. The presence of God. Beyond us and within us.
When we are sick, the world shrinks. I have a book. The view from my bedroom window. A slowly ticking clock. This is life condensed. Which means there is more to notice, more to observe, more to think about in one minute of this life than in an hour of my usual busyness.
And that is a good thing.
Still, I hate the phrase “look on the bright side.” It suggests a yin-yang view of life that I simply can’t accept. I think you know what I mean: every cloud with its silver lining, every light with its shadow. No thank you.
Shadows only make me dream of a world without shadow. Of light without darkness. Of a day when “the moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter … when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted” (Isaiah 30:26).
But, in the meantime, I do marvel that anything good can emerge from sickness. From brokenness. From darkness. This isn’t to say that “it’s all worthwhile” or “it happened for a reason.” Those are platitudes that do little justice to the utter wrongness of sickness. And brokenness. And darkness.
No, when I acknowledge the good gift I am marveling at the fact that darkness is never all. There is always something more. Something beyond.
For me, now, it is only a few words read in a book in the middle of the afternoon while I lie in bed and listen to the children scream their far-off screams. They are not, in this moment, my responsibility.
And so, released from every responsibility that says do, I lie still and read a description of wolves crying under a full moon in Yellowstone Park. I’ve never heard a wolf’s cry, I don’t know if I ever will, but now, having read these words, I can carry that cry with me for the rest of my life:
At the same time other wolves joined the first two, and we heard … the full-throated quiver of the pack. It haunted everything it touched, sanctified it. It rolled down the mountains and onto the plains and the bison heard it, the ground squirrels heard it, the crows nesting in the trees heard it. Mary began to tear.
“We are alive,” the wolves said. “And the world is beautiful.”
(from Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger)