You can be going along, perfectly fine, and then WHAM, it sneaks up behind you and clubs you over the head, and the wound is fresh again. Tonight I found myself blindsided with grief for a dear old friend. We were supposed to raise our babies together and grow to be snarky old ladies. We were going to be the Golden Girls. I miss her so, but I thought I had entered Acceptance. Then tonight out of nowhere, I felt that same gut punch as if the loss had just happened. And in my hurt, God sent a friend with unexpected words to comfort me. This friend was a beacon of hope in my hour of need, a reminder that life goes on and old hurts do heal.
11 Not that I speak [a]from want, for I have learned to be [b]content in whatever circumstances I am.12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.
This scripture has always baffled me. I have experienced agonies in my adult life that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. I have hit ten on the pain scale more than once. A handful of times I have cried out to God for relief for so long that I’ve switched to praying for death. There have even been times I’ve been suicidal; these particular migraines are sometimes referred to as “shotgun headaches” because of their propensity to drive sufferers to the very pit of utter hopelessness and desperation. And God has the nerve to quietly, gently remind me of this scripture. In exasperation I ask him, “How am I supposed to be content in Hell?! Because that’s what it feels like, Lord. I can’t imagine worse pain than the worst of my own. I cannot comprehend it. How could anyone possibly be content like this?!” But He only whispers, when He answers at all, You shall learn to be content with whatever I give you, whatever you face. You will learn. And it’s meant to be a comfort, but being the bullheaded child that I am I cross my arms and stomp my foot, saying “LOOOOooooooOOOrd, I don’t WANT to be content! I don’t want to be a saint! I just want the pain to end! No, I don’t want this growth, please just let me be a good wife and mother and do the things I want to do that are supposed to be Godly! Let me be the Proverbs 31 woman! Why would you place me in this role, and give me these desires to do it well, then take my abilities? Why am I even here anymore if I am only going to suffer and be a burden? Why did you open my womb only to leave me unable to raise these precious gifts? I’m failing them, Lord, and I don’t understand. How can I possibly be content here alone in the dark, while someone else raises my babies? While they cry for me, and I cry for them? I’m failing as a wife, as a woman, as a human being. And I KNOW I still have worth, Lord. I know my worth does not depend on what I do. But why are you keeping me here to do nothing but suffer and drain?”
9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast [a]about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with [b]insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-11
I cried out to Him again. “How am I strong right now, Lord? Where is Your strength in this?” Then, one day, He introduced me to someone whose suffering was greater than my own, and it had plagued her for decades. And I was humbled. I remembered her every time my own suffering began again, remembered how much worse life was for her. That day, there was a shift in my spirit. Instead of praying for my own pain to end, instead of crying out on my own behalf, I began to pray for her. Fervent, broken prayers, day and night. And God honored those prayers. God used our pain to reach into each other’s darkest places. Now, my pain has a purpose. God has given me an intercessory prayer ministry I never could have entered otherwise. And while I’m not yet to the place I can say I have learned to be content, whatever my circumstance, I am getting there. Now, I believe that can come to pass in my own life. I’m still fighting with God about it, after all I am stubborn and kind of a spiritual idiot. But He’s working on that, too.
I closed my eyes and started to drift away. But something inside of me, a male voice, not my own like before, said GET UP. My body shook. I pried my eyelids open, but most of my field of vision remained black. There was a small opening in the center, but it was dark and blurry and kept fading in and out. TIME TO GO GET HELP, the voice thundered softly. I tried to sit up, “OH,” my whole body groaned. I managed to stand and feel my way down the hall, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, feeling like I would topple over each time I lifted a foot. It felt like something outside of me propelled me forward, down the hall, supporting me because I had no energy. I still didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live either. I didn’t want anything; emotions ceased to exist. I barely existed. I was compelled to do as I was told, and I was too tired and weak to resist. So into the stairwell we went, my angel or maybe even the hand of God himself and what was left of me. I should have fallen down the stairs, but I didn’t.
Somehow I stumbled into the lobby. “Hey, you don’t look so good. Is everything OK? …OK? …OK?” I tried to form a coherent thought, and words tumbled out. “Um, yeah, I think… I OD’ed on the painkillers… for my shoulder…” “OK, well let’s get you to the hospital, we’ll get you taken care of.” I don’t remember anything after that, until I was lying on a hospital bed. Nurses were strapping my arms down. “We’re going to put a tube down your throat to pump your stomach, and your body’s natural reaction is to try and pull the tube out. It will feel like you’re choking, but you’re not. It’s OK. We’re going to take care of you. Here’s some numbing spray. Now swallow.” I gagged as the tube went down. As the procedure began, the nurses’ faces changed. I heard a man say “Looooot of pill fragments there…” The room went silent, except for the sound of the various hospital machines, as more and more came up through the tube. It seemed to take a long time. I remember the feeling of my stomach walls touching. And then, I fell into a deep sleep.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28
A part of God’s plan for our family became clear today. A tragedy struck an old friend last night. Soon, because of the eviction, we will live close by to help ease their suffering. Obviously I’d rather have a better reason than eviction, but I am glad and grateful that we can be there in time to bring some holiday cheer.
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. Isaiah 61:3
A couple of years after Nancy and Ellie came to live with us, we experienced a major tragedy together. Our home burned to the ground, along with most of our possessions.
It happened on a beautiful Fall day: crisp, cool air, just a few white fluffy clouds in the sky, leaves just beginning to change. While working in the kitchen, Mother caught a whiff of that awful stench: melting plastic. She frantically looked around the kitchen, but found nothing. Then we all heard a pop, followed by crackling.
Mother ran into the living room and ushered us all outside. She and Nancy did a headcount once we got to the curb and realized my brother was not with us. Mother ran back inside and found him hiding in the hall closet, clutching his blankie and crying quietly. She scooped him up and ran.
After depositing him safely in “Mommy Nancy’s” arms, she ran back in a second time, and then a third, and a fourth. Over and over, she ran back in. I remember increasingly large puffs of smoke pouring out the front door each time it opened. The neighbors gathered at the end of the driveway with us, watching in shock. Nobody tried to stop her.
After each trip back into the burning building, she ran to the end of the driveway to deposit an armload of things in a growing pile. Mostly photo albums and family movies, but she grabbed other things too: nick knacks, blankets and pillows, whatever she could snatch from the flames’ path. She only stopped when she went to open the door one last time and the flames singed her hair.
My dad came flying into the cul-de-sac around the same time as the fire engines. I remember him hoisting me up into a bear hug and asking Mom if everyone made it out OK. We watched the jets of water shoot into our crumbling house. It seemed like hours before the smoke began to slow. The flames won, rendering our home nothing but piles of black rubble. A neighbor brought blankets out to wrap around the children. She invited us in for cocoa to help us warm up while Mom dealt with the police, firemen, and insurance agent. I think I only took a couple of sips of cocoa. I remember staring into the thick, sand-colored mug in shock. Grown-ups were talking around me, but it sounded distorted, like I was under water.
We spent the night in a cheap motel, then moved into a rental house for several months while our house was rebuilt. I don’t remember much about the rental house except for drab, grey walls, and a window seat overlooking the back yard. It was my favorite spot in the house. Somehow cozy and magical, it made me feel safe, and provided the perfect spot to immerse myself in a good book or day dream. I’ve loved window seats ever since then.
Daddy did not live in the rental house with us. This was one of the separations when we didn’t see him much. The fire took the only home he’d ever known and left him devastated. He lacked healthy coping tools, so he withdrew and sunk deeper into his addiction. As soon as our new house was ready, he came around again. I don’t know if he moved back in, but he was there every night after work, playing, reading stories, tucking in, eating dinner.
Some of our things were salvaged and professionally treated for smoke damage, including my favorite doll. I cried the day Mom brought her to the rental house. I hugged my dolly tight and didn’t let her out of my sight for months.
I developed PTSD after the fire. I had a recurring night terror about it for years where I was trapped in the burning house and couldn’t get out, complete with feeling the heat and smelling the smoke. I haven’t had that particular one in a long time, but I do still get occasional night terrors about fire. I’m still pyrophobic. If someone lights a match or lighter anywhere near me, it’s all I can do not to panic. I DID panic until a few years ago. I would scream and back away in terror, seeing the flame burst out of control before me. This got some weird looks, and I had to explain about the house fire to many friends over the years. None understood. I was never evaluated for PTSD until college.
When I was three years old, my mother needed to raise three babies with no job, no family nearby, and a transient husband. She also suffered from a slew of medical issues. She needed help. Right around this time, a family friend’s sister lost her husband. She had nowhere to go. We had a spare room. Our family friend wisely put us together, and her sister and three-year-old niece moved in with us. So now our family consisted of two mothers, sometimes a father, and four children under the age of four.
Ellie fit in seamlessly with my siblings and I, and we grew up as a close-knit sibling group of four. We did everything together: vacations, family portraits, holiday celebrations, the works. And Ellie’s mother, Nancy, became fast friends with my mother and like an aunt to us kids. She and my mom shared the load equally whenever my dad left, each acting as a parent to all four of us. When Daddy lived at home, he treated Ellie as one of his own and she called him Daddy. Family meetings and discipline included all four children.
At some point, we decided we needed a special term to describe our relationships because, in our limited experience, there just didn’t seem to be a fitting term. “Oh, so you and your sister have different dads?” “Yeah, and different moms too. But nobody’s adopted, and we all live together.” Those discussions drew a lot of confused looks. So we coined the phrase “heart sisters” and “heart aunt,” terms of endearment we still use as adults. But mostly, we’re just a family, no modifiers needed.