Death, Infertility, The Great Rash of 2018 & Other Times I've Gotten Lovingly Schooled by God
It is so strange, what triggers grief. The morning after poison ivy welts began to appear on my forehead and arm I woke up to a swollen and distorted face in the mirror with the delicate ruddiness of an Oompa Loompa. Oh crap, I thought. This is bad.
We’d gone in search of an elusive Kansan waterfall a couple days prior with friends, a fool’s errand that ended up including a swampy trek through a mostly stagnant creek during which, at one point, I remember Steven muttering about there being poison ivy everywhere. I recalled frequently wiping sweat from my forehead. It all ended in us staring, our shoulders drooping, at the alleged waterfall, now an unassuming and mercilessly dry welter of rocks and jagged concrete slabs with nary a crawdad’s tear trickling among its outcrops. But we had fun. The children clattered around the stagnant pools for a bit and soon we tromped back through the shallow bog, the crepuscular closing in as it does – always a bit more quickly and dramatically than you think it should when you’re outdoors, night arriving in its wake boldly and abruptly.
But soon vast swathes of my skin were pebbled with angry lesions and I was crying to my husband, asking if he still loved me. Exorbitantly priced over the counter creams yielded little to no relief and Google searches on the subject left me seething with rage as multiple websites listed as their number-one poison ivy remedy “avoid poison ivy” (why oh WHY would I be wasting my time looking up pre-emptive information on poison ivy remedies were I not already actively afflicted by the accursed flora?!?!). I was comforted only marginally by my decade-old bottle of calamine lotion and its truly bizarre snippet of copywriting: “Now in a new… elegant suspension formula”. I did not feel even remotely elegant covered in its chalky pink patina. So I went to the doctor where I received a shot on my buttock (I had not anticipated the locale of the shot and happened to be wearing my most appalling pair of underwear, naturally) and a prescription for a round of oral steroids.
I read the prescription in horror: Prednisone. The scourge and salve of my dad’s last days as he took more and more, attempting to heal himself, somehow, to stave off the effects of the COPD that blackened his lungs and constricted his breath. Bruises had erupted all over his forearms, purplish and furious, and wrapped around his elbows from the pressure of resting them on the dining room table where he sat all day every day. The medication made dead skin flake off precipitously and excessively. I called my mom and surprised even myself with how quickly I crumbled into tears and struggled to get the words out, saying even though the nefarious ivy had turned me into a red, scaly, unevenly pneumatic version of the woman I once was, I was scared to take the steroids.
Of course, she reassured me. He was taking so much in those last days, she said. More than he should have.
But I keep thinking of that bruised flesh, the old vessel, sown perishable. I kept thinking in his last days how much death was like birth: hard, painful, sacred, fiery, luminous. Real. Paul says the whole creation groans in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. My dad’s flesh groaned, the old wineskin, in that sterile, stark white hospital bed. But in that wearied flesh so close to capitulation I saw his spirit soar.
But back to the poison ivy. It was a cruel mistress, tenacious and relentless. And its fury seemed to culminate in tandem with a ferocious bout of PMS. I realized I was, again, not pregnant for the perhaps sixteenth month in a row after my husband’s vasectomy reversal. PMS hormones hurl me into a different reality, one of darkness and narrowness and hopelessness and compression. And the events of the past year all seemed to build to one infinitely dissonant crescendo in my heart. Angst erupted in me, a polyphonic deluge of anger, bitterness, rage and grief.
And its loudest refrain kept assailing me: Not Fair.
It’s not fair that Lia died the way she did, alone, opioids made in some illicit lab in some foreign country by reprobate criminals who never give a thought to who they hurt or how their noxious synthetic potions, cooked up in endless molecule-tweaking variations, laying waste to life; exploiting their chemic acuity to make substances that enslave and kill when I could barely pass high school chemistry, these tainted toxins conceived in darkness coursing through her veins and poisoning her body.
It’s not fair that she was given up for adoption at all, abandoned because of a fiercely patriarchal and honor-obsessed culture. Did her father carry her to the orphanage door, I wonder, after he drove her mother away in rage once he found out she had had another child before, another adoptee, severed from place, from belonging, from blood? If he did, were his teeth still gritted with livid shame? Did he resist holding her close, hoping the anger would eclipse his attachment to her, his longing to show mercy to a child who carried his DNA, whose face carried echoes of his own? As he knocked at the orphanage door or rang the bell at the gate, did hesitancy ripple through his heart, a frisson of grace, a bolt of conviction that whispered of another way? Or had the sting of dishonor, of perceived emasculation turned every inclination of his heart evil, its red brutal fury pulverizing any merciful impulse?
It torments me in my heart, to think of a child, to think of her, dumped in an institution, abandoned, crying, confused. I think of a toddler’s agonized “why?” – primal, inarticulate, wordless, even. A howl from Not fair. It’s so hard for me not to let how her life ended color the rest. I remember finally and tearfully giving words to the question that festered in me: what good was this life, God? What good was it for her? How will you redeem this? How can my memory of her be redeemed, laced as it is with shock and pain, The Ending staining in retrospect the rest of her entire life.
It’s not fair that I should have to endure my dad’s death so close on the heels of Lia’s traumatic, soul-rattling departure. It’s not fair that I should miss him this much. Three days after he died I frantically packed his rusty antiques and photos and cowboy hats and bizarre hyper-contemporary design accoutrements into bags and boxes – It feels like everything is going away, I sobbed to a friend. And then I laid on the bed in my parents’ basement and made sounds I’d never heard before, guttural wails and keening born from the deepest place in my gut, a place that was at once inside myself and also too huge to be contained.
Daddy, I cried again and again, a name I’d stopped calling my dad by teenagehood. But I felt like a child – lost, confused, bewildered. It’s as though death had torn a rift in the fabric of reality with such sudden violence I didn’t know which way is up any more. Death seemed to reign wherever I looked; I echoed with David: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.” (Psalm 22:14).
Everything seemed like a husk of itself. “Don’t you know how this all ends?!” I wanted to hiss under my breath, incredulously, to people going about their lives, watching football, mowing lawns, filing papers, filling out forms, amassing collections of stuff. It all seemed so effete next to this stark towering behemoth of blackest endings: Death. Thy sting is here, now.
It’s not fair that I should never get pregnant again, never feel a baby rolling in my womb again, knees and elbows gliding across the surface of my stomach like water on a roiling river, never have another fresh precious little soul to love and adore, another set of sweet kissable cheeks and rolls upon rolls and downy skin and pure unencumbered smiles. It’s not even fair that I should never feel the oceanic pain of birth again, with its afterglow (perhaps aftershock) of sheer bewilderment, when you feel like you’ve been destroyed and reassembled and everything is new, most of all this perfect little creature in your arms, at once so deeply known, so deeply kin, and still so yet-to-be-known, a tiny galaxy of glorious potential in the most tender vessel imaginable. It’s not fair that I should have to plummet to the death valley of PMS every month for the rest of my fertile years, the three or four days of infernal struggle where everything looks and smells and tastes like ruin and the wasteland stretches forth interminably. Yeah, I know every month I truly think the world will end and then I just get my period. But oh, it feels real.
Every avenue to another child feels totally closed off, barricaded by an impenetrable wall I can’t see past. I look at every adopted child and see them through the lens of Lia, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode and wildly self-destruct with the inescapable pain of separation buried deep within. I see the enormity of loss that would have to occur for someone else, for the child himself, for adoption to even be needed. A dendrite web of pain, its tentacles reaching deep, untraceably. And I am terrified.
An accusatory volley of voices torment me in my head: Good Christian People should want to adopt. Good Christian People think adoption is beautiful. Good Christian People care for the orphan. But the truth erupts irrepressibly from my heart and my lips: I don’t want someone else’s baby. I want my own. Not fair.
One of Denis Johnson’s characters in the short story “Strangler Bob” says “The idea of God disgusted me. I didn’t believe. Everybody yacked and blabbered about cosmic spirituality and Hindu yogic chakras and Zen koans. Meanwhile, Asian babies fried in napalm.” As my eyes read my heart intoned: Meanwhile, Asian babies are ripped from their mothers and holed up in an orphanage before being exported to a foreign country, to strangers. To us.
So I wept. I tantrumed. I apoplexed. I read the book of Job, while scratching myself: “I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.”(Job 10:1). I always know there are and have been many who have suffered far more than me, including Job, and might balk at my tiresome complaining. But God is always willing to hear – perhaps waiting patiently to deliver an epic smackdown humbling. Yet, miracle of miracles, because of Jesus we can always approach the throne of grace with confidence, even if sulky, navel-gazing confidence.
Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump has always been one of my favorite fictional characters, and his devil-may-care confrontation with the Almighty one of my favorite scenes of his. His ancestral destiny to die on the battlefield thwarted, he is legless and reckless and has exactly zero rat derrieres left to offer in pretense of caring and so he courts wrath, he beckons it, he invites God to annihilate him. But he isn’t annihilated, at least, not permanently. Although the movie never explicitly states so, I believe he is born again. The lashing maelstrom of his personal pain, heavier than a black hole and oceanic in its engulfment, the Adamic vacuum at the center of all of us, is the very crucible in which God magically reaps redemption, seemingly ex nihilo. We are crushed and pressed and on the cusp of death and then suddenly we are on the other side, not dead at all but more alive than ever, a new kind of aliveness that dazzles and sparkles and is a miracle in and of itself. And Lieutenant Dan backpaddles into the sunset, having stormed the kingdom of heaven and spoke of, or rather screamed about, “things too wonderful for me to know,” as Job puts it, and lovingly (and perhaps terrifyingly) put in his place.
Is it good, this perversion of praise, these lashing diatribes? Perhaps not. But it is real, and well-documented in the Bible. I was startled recently while re-reading Jonah, an anti-hero if there ever was one, as he gives a sharp riposte to God’s questioning whether he should be angry about a withering plant no longer providing him shade when he didn’t give a darn about the entire population of Nineveh and was chafed by God’s love and mercy in sparing them.
“But God said to Jonah, ‘ Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’
‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’”
Wow, really? We’re still in the OT here, pre-incarnation. People have been smote for far less. I think of another instance where Jeremiah speaks freely, even venomously:
“Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails.”
Not fair, I echo with them. I’m perpetually shocked anew by finding or re-reading these things in the Bible: embittered screeds that could reasonably be called rants, spiked with doubt and resentment. Why is this even recorded? I’ve thought before, when looking out from the mountaintop vista, full of faith, traipsing confidently through the wide-open, wildflower-dotted fields of the Father’s love in Jesus, or as Adrian Plass calls it, “feeling like Billy Graham cubed.”
But this year, the year of death, I rejoice in these unbridled, uncensored catharses that neither draw commensurate punishment for their speakers nor disqualify them from the wondrous, utterly undeserved outpouring of God’s grace. It blows my mind. God savors what is real.
I was struck by a line a friend shared with me recently from Craig Groeschel: “When we retreat and refuse to feel the pain of our disappointment, then we’re not really trusting Him.”
I turned this over and over in my head, straining to digest something which seemed so simple yet felt so confounding. Could it be true? What about the pain of our more-than-disappointment? What about the pain of our agony? What about the pain of our unspeakable trauma, what about the pain of a sister whose life throbbed with it?
There were a few days soon after my dad died that I stomped around angrily, indulging in an inner monologue that went something like this: “I’m not going to grieve right now. I don’t have time to grieve. I’m not doing this again so soon. I’m putting it in a box and putting it away for awhile.” Of course, this shallow resolve soon broke. But for perhaps the first time in my life I didn’t want to feel. Feeling seemed like a tremendous burden. I knew feeling would bring complaints and anger and unbearable refrains of “why?!” I wanted to keep God at arm’s length.
At times before, my free-rein complaints have served to bring me back to him faster, a turning back toward the only One who can give peace, an infinitely cleansing and refreshing effusion of grace like a three-thousandth baptism as I’m vaulted anew into the throne room, pristine white yet undulating with prismatic colors.
But now I linger in the complaints, in the unresolved. And I wait. Sometimes patiently, but most of the time not so patiently, and sometimes in the throes of a livid tantrum.
Again, is it right? I don’t know, and true, when I was a child I acted as one, but when I became an adult I put away childish things (mostly). But there is a purity in unself-conscious tantrums, a refreshing primitivity in scorched-earth purgation. And hey, I would never have discovered my most beloved chicken’s hernia otherwise: in such a sallow mood one day after my dad had died I laid down on the ground just outside the chicken pen because – why not? When you’re seriously contemplating whether God is there and whether he is good and comprised totally of light with no darkness at all or, rather, if the universe is merely a molten drove of churning chaos with a terrible burgeoning mass of oblivion as its festering core, the threat of a little chicken poop in the hair seems to matter very little. Essix, my sweet hawk-like hen, hopped onto my belly and mincingly stepped across me when I noticed the bulbous, blue-veined pouch dangling behind her thigh. A hundred bucks and a nerve-wracking few hours later, during which she laid an egg while under anesthesia, much to the veterinarian’s giggling delight, her innards were tucked and sewn back into their appropriate position.
I think of Job, utterly bereft, sprawled on a heap of ashes and scraping himself, wracked by unfathomable grief. He is losing his religion, thank God; the binds are loosening on his legalistic, karmic view of life. But he can’t imagine life could possibly get any worse and further he doesn’t really care anymore if it does. “Are not my few days almost over? Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy before I go to the place of no return, to the land of gloom and utter darkness, to the land of deepest night, of utter darkness and disorder, where even the light is like darkness,” Job wails.
All the sacrifices he faithfully made to atone for his children’s sins came to nothing. And the only three friends who have deigned to sit with him in his grief now offer Answers, with an emphatic capital A, packaged, ready-made, glib, “right”, answers with clear lines and parsing out and karmic cause-and-effect reasoning, as mechanistic as a vending machine. Be good, you’ll be blessed. Be bad, you’ll be cursed.
But Jesus says: Do not be afraid, little flock, for your father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Jesus says: In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world. Jesus says: neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this was done so that the glory of God could be revealed in him.
That’s the thing – I strain for understanding. I lust after it. I pore over books in rabid pursuit of it, and yet it evades me. And should I ever think it is firmly in my clutches, it narrows and nacretizes my vision until I’m a totally blind guide, straining out gnats. Understanding, on the terms my flesh desires it, siphons mystery, drives out the Holy Spirit and renders whitewashed tombs.
If the black-and-white answers we crave are supposedly right, why do they feel so rotten? So devoid of what is Real, devoid of love and mercy and God himself?
I have realized in myself – a revelation learned over a pattern to which I devolve regularly and most likely will again – that when I am grasping desperately for concrete answers which I can own, I am not walking in faith. I am not luxuriating in the daughtership I can only enjoy because Jesus has thrown wide open the gates to the kingdom.
It’s just lil ole sputtering, exasperated me, working myself into a hysterical tizzy trying to be God again and then collapsing under the weight of my woeful inability to parse paradox, to see it and analyze it all from some higher ground, to sate the restless tongue which longs to classify, as Townes Van Zandt wrote. I long to glut myself on the tree of good and evil instead of trusting God.
Victor Hugo wrote of the Bishop Digne in Les Miserables: “He would muse about the greatness and the living presence of God; about the strange mystery of the eternal future; about the even stranger mystery of the eternal past; about all the infinities streaming in every direction before his very eyes; and, without trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, he saw it. He did not study God, he was dazzled by Him.”
Why is it so hard to allow ourselves to be dazzled? I believe it is his desire. I believe it is his heart. Oh, the sinful straining to hold on to every last miniscule purchase on the cliff of knowing instead of letting go and being borne aloft to the top, as an heir of God and co-heir with Christ.
Annie Dillard writes of the difficulty of observing nature and God and God in nature – animals and insects are always dashing away, and at times it feels the Spirit is always dashing around a corner, just barely unseen, working at the periphery even as the marvelous, startling results bloom before us. She cites the KJV version of Moses’ encounter with God while standing in the cleft of the rock, a version which I’m particularly fond of for the following verse attributed to God: “And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.”
Though we have beheld his face in Christ, we still see indirectly; as in a mirror, Paul says. And my vision, polluted by my pride, my arrogance, my ravening desire for control, waxes and wanes. Like Dillard, I am also “both waiting becalmed in a clift of the rock and banging with all my will, calling like a child beating on a door: Come on out!... I know you’re there.”
And Job wonders at it, too, this pale trickling down of God’s glory into the world, after he offers a awe-filled litany of His works:
“And these are but the outer fringe of his works;
how faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”
His back parts. The faintest whisper. The outer fringe. It’s often like that, isn’t it? At least it is now, here, before the face-to-face. Grazings of eternity that are imbued with a magical nowness, a wordless transcendence, vestiges of the radical presence, of the Real. He moves simultaneously on the periphery of things and precisely in dead – no, living! – center.
I often feel like I am beating on the door, chasing the margins of where he’s just been, trying desperately to pin down God. Yet as Jesus speaks through John the Revelator, he is knocking at the door! Do we dare believe it? Do we dare believe that he never leaves nor forsakes us? Do we dare believe that he longs for relationship (but is utterly immune to manipulation and facades)?
Sometimes I do. Sometimes, in the past year, I’ve refused, depleted by my desolation at unanswered prayers and when I can see nothing but the inexorable trundling death-march of all created things. But I always return to him, because by his wonderful and terrible grace, earthly things wear out so quickly when not mediated by the presence of Christ. Much faster than they used to. Even good gifts have a vacuity at their center without Jesus.
Still, now, I sometimes chase whatever flittering hologram promises peace or pleasure or love, perhaps not as ravenously pursuant as I once was yet piqued recalcitrantly by the temptation of Stuff, of manmade praise, of any manner of sensorial fulfillment.
As I listen to “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing” I am cut deep anew by the lyrics: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!” I feel it, too. I feel it. A brokenness as deep as Cain’s, my very marrow riven with putrescence. Like Cain, I wander east of Eden, crippled by paranoia and despair and longing. But by his grace I remember: this doesn’t work. It is not good for man to be alone. And it is tragic to eschew the living water for cheap swill.
As long as we’re still facing God’s way, can we really lose? Even in rage, lost hope, disillusionment, grief, distrust, doubt – if we are still facing him, still holding on for dear life to the hem of his garment, to the wild and desperate hope which stands defiant in the face of seen reality, can we really lose? I suspect sometimes that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is so big that if we keep merely showing up, the Spirit will keep moving, keep transforming, keep working all things for our good.
There have been times I’ve clung in despair, even in clenched resentment. Oh, how I have felt my disappointment. Have I ever! I have wallowed in it, I have befriended it, I have immersed myself in it. Why, yes, I am in fact eminently and exceedingly justified in being angry about the plant, I echo with Jonah. I’m mad about Lia, I’m mad about my dad, I’m mad about my empty womb. Still, his grace flows. Inexplicably, mysteriously, profligately, unfairly, kaleidoscopically.
It flows even where Asian babies are exported to strangers. It flows even where lives end in ruin, with perishable vessels perforated with poison. It flows in a hospice full of dying people and it flows from the crossbars of an ancient Roman torture instrument.
We may blather about chakras and koans as I once did in my hazy new age days. But Asian babies fry in napalm and that’s only one piece of the hideous mosaic of violence and suffering that’s been ramifying like a virus ever since Cain slew Abel. It’s why I left yoga and chanting and meditation behind: what where they in the face of all this? What were parlor tricks like the guru holding his arm up for seven years against this churning pulsing human story, soaked with blood and sodden with sin? How could this all ever be undone? Why even live at all if there was no hope bigger than escape through some kind of self-improvement rubric, at the end of which lay benumbed consciousness wiped clean of individuality?
But there’s only one story big enough, broad enough, imbued with sufficient – no, overflowing – mystery and wonder to account for the horror, for the doubts, for the chaos. There is one story, of a God who sent his only son to earth, clothed in flesh, yet somehow, the exact representation of His being (Hebrews 1:3).
Because of this story, we have hope. On good days we feel it in our very marrow, even deeper than that brokenness, and on our worst days we turn to it in desperation, hoping against hope like a blessed fool that there is indeed a cure for what ails us in the blood-soaked wood of those crossbars, that there is indeed a love that conquers it all and even more - so much more - can redeem it all. The world laughs, a slick cynical snicker. Let them laugh. I'll keep counting on the One lashed and pummeled and treated as refuse, the One entombed on Friday and resurrected on Sunday, the only one in Whom true beauty ever seems to enduringly abide, the only One who has borne it all and can bear it all, the One True God and the One True Human. Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus.