This article comes from the December issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “The unexpected.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.
On July 7, I awoke to an eerie scene. My husband, Al, lay face down on the living room floor as our two cats slinked around him, meowing in distress.
“Al, what happened?” I cried.
“I fell last night, and I haven’t been able to get up,” he moaned. “The pain in my leg. The pain.”
After a frantic 911 call, two ambulance personnel rushed to our home, injected him with meds and whisked him into the ambulance. I shakily followed behind sirens to Newton (Kansas) Medical Center across town.
Within several hours, the emergency room medical staff diagnosed my diabetic husband with a urinary tract infection and blood poisoning (sepsis). Further testing revealed these conditions were contributing to kidney malfunction. For three weeks, doctors strove to better his lab numbers, transfuse his blood and solve the mystery of why Al’s stomach continued to distend dangerously.
In attempts to crack the code of why his colon functions were collapsing, they transferred him to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, a half hour away. A new round of MRIs revealed he had Olgivie Syndrome, a rare kind of obstruction of the bowels. For another four weeks there, Al’s life hung in the balance. He underwent two colon surgeries that gave him two holes in his stomach—an ileostomy and colostomy. These stomas, with bags to collect waste, would give his colon several months to heal.
For two more weeks, Al returned to Newton Medical for rehab before he was discharged to home with a walker, a mountain of medications and dietary restrictions that starved our sugar fixes. During a follow-up appointment with his colon surgeon in October, we learned that the plan—if he continued to recover—was to remove his stomas and rehook his tubing during two more surgeries in January.
Shift in health, shift in marriage, shift in life
After nine continuous weeks in the hospital, Al came home a changed husband to a changed wife. While going through a tunnel and coming out on the other end, our plans had crashed to the roadside. Shift happened, and we were left picking up the pieces in the ditch.
For the first time in a long time in our marriage, we finally both had full-time jobs with great benefits. We anticipated sharing greater security with added creature comforts. Instead, we were thrown into an unexpected labyrinth of unknowns: Should Al, who resigned from his job as a school para working with children, seek disability benefits? Or should he, at 64, take early retirement? Should he join my insurance plan from work, or should he continue to pay for COBRA benefits? What had the most integrity? What could carry us across the river that divided the old land from the new?
Slowly these issues are ironing out, as God and our community have been faithful to pave a new pathway for tenuous steps forward. Though I didn’t know it at the time, by having to slog through summer’s vertigo, I shaped new priorities that could help me navigate shift and change.
Honoring the capable Creator of an ever-changing creation
Helen Keller once penned, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.” I am learning that my Creator is more than capable of creating roads to be traveled and giving humans the resilience, grace and courage to make the turns at its unexpected twists.
On one hand, the shifts evoked by Al’s medical crisis brought us to the end of a road, our idea of the road’s direction. We had projected a comfortable stroll, not a careening cliff hanger. We had envisioned fiscal security, not the penniless though priceless riches of faith. We had dreamt of travel together, not the “staycation” that logged more meaning in our marriage than ever before. We had hoped for one thing and received another. But as we received reality as it was rather than what we wished it to be, we arrived at a strangely delightful destination, a deeper peace with God and with each other.
Honing our prayer practices that can steady us in times of flux
I will never forget the waiting room vigils held with family and friends during Al’s two surgeries: They were an elixir of harrowing fears and hopes for healing. As I walked the tightrope of that tension, the safety net of the silent and articulated prayers of loved ones caught me in God’s waiting arms.
Psalm 139 has always reminded me that God’s presence never leaves me alone in my pain, and it became a prayer during times of anxious spiritual reading, especially verses 7-10: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Another favorite prayer of mine during the heat of the battle was an excerpt from “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”:
I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me.
And when all else failed, Saint Faustina’s prayer, “Jesus, I trust in you,” spoke tomes in just five words.
Prayers—communal or silent, informally offered or liturgically followed, chortled in fear or cradled in faith—were for me a stabilizing lifeline between divinity and humanity. The most bittersweet times happened during marital prayers whispered at Al’s bedside. That’s when, in the cacophony of beeping machines, our gaze embraced in naked dependence. Whether we got out of this alive or not, we knew we must continue to pray to the One who sustained us “in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.”
Throughout the ordeal and to this day, Al and I have been faithfully showered with prayers, care, kindness and grace—in a phrase, people have been “Jesus with skin on.”
For example, my fellow marketing-communication team at Mennonite Mission Network have buffeted my unraveled work life with bountiful flexibility; family and other co-workers and friends have showered us with around-the-clock prayer and food, gift cards and help with the yard, house and cats; members of my Catholic community in Wichita held vigil with me at the hospital and still offer intentions for healing in many prayer settings. Several friends pressed $100 bills into my hand, and countless readers logged onto my CaringBridge entries. Therapists and spiritual directors offered maps and compasses in the psychic wilderness.
We have felt unworthy of all this lavish love. Yet as we gratefully receive it, we join fellow pilgrims on the bending, shifting road, helping each other make the turns that lead to ongoing healing and hope.
Laurie Oswald Robinson is an editor for Mennonite Mission Network in Newton, Kansas.
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