I’m a deeply spiritual person (I know, that’s probably obvious). Everything in my life somehow becomes a reflection of faith and God’s presence. Even suffering. Because I believe that God always brings great good out of any suffering; that good is always greater than the suffering. I have seen that good surface and I have also been left hungering to see that good. But I have always believed it.
Life literally changed in a moment. One moment, in my head he was the five foot, eleven inch man that had the biggest heart of anyone I know; he was the towering man of strength, capability, and love. In the next moment, the phone rang, and my father was reduced to his back in a hospital bed fighting for his life. In a matter of hours, I was packed and on a plane, praying each flight that he would hang on…at least until I got there. Sepsis is a nightmare, and when major complications enter stage left, the nightmare becomes unbearable. We will all walk this path. We will all suffer the nightmare of our parents fighting an awful illness. I pray God that my strong, gentle father survives this, but time still will only tell. Not a day has passed that I haven’t cried in fear, frustration, or grief. There have been moments, one especially so, that I found myself worried that this was it; that it was his time to enter heavenly glory. And I have been scared, sad, and so very angry.
But, I have seen, even in this dark period, great good surface. I witnessed great love flourish. Even in the midst of this terrible, unending nightmare of my father fighting daily for his life, I have seen the great love and mercy of my God.
Within 48 hours, we were all standing at his bedside. All six of us Smith children stood vigil around his bed. Flying and driving from literally all over the world, we traveled to him. From Texas and South Dakota, from North Carolina and Egypt, we covered the miles as quickly as modern travel and money would allow. All for him. Despite the financial strain, with our some of our spouses sacrificing time off work and solo-parenting, we came. And stood around his bed and prayed. Hard. We looked into my father’s precious face, and encouraged him. We took shifts for over 48 hours, rubbing and willing the blood back into his extremities. We hit our knees and begged God to spare this man. When, during one of the darkest hours, my hope started to falter, my oldest brother scooped me into his arms and let me weep. I saw deep grief and pain pass over my siblings’ faces, and saw that grief manifest itself in the comfort of others.
I saw my mother truly mirror the tenderness of Christ. As my father lay in a coma, then slowly wake after each complication, she held his head and stared so lovingly into his face. Encouraging words spoken softly into his ears, some of which none of us could hear. She has remained at his bedside, her vigil nearly nonstop. As one of us grown children would buckle under the stress, she would come and hold us. She has stayed so strong! I’m not sure I could be that strong in her shoes. When I left the second time, she offered to drive me to the airport. As she helped me unload my bags onto the curb, I saw her strength falter for one moment. “I will not cry…I will not cry…” And then we cried together. Her vulnerability during this time has inspired me greatly.
He must be in so much pain. I had the flu last year, or some other terrible virus. It turned into a never ending bout of pneumonia. I remember being so tired. Just walking from the downstairs up to my bed seemed too far. Walking from the back patio to the swing set seemed impossible. I think of that time often and how much sicker he is. How I sat in my bed and was so frustrated with God. And how I watched my father, as he came out of his first coma, say one Hail Mary after another, his head bowing with each Jesus. He keeps praying, even now, as he says aloud the Fatima prayer. Despite his great suffering, physical and mental, he keeps praying; he continues his conversation with God. What great trust!
My sister moved her entire life back to Birmingham to be with my mother and father. She had just moved to Arlington, Texas to start her life there, to put down roots, and to wait for my parents to move back within a few months. But she left and went back home to help my mother. She spends everyday at the hospital with my mom; wakes at an obscene hour to hold her in her tougher moments. She helps my dad with his daily physical therapy and sends out updates and answers any questions. I thought recently, while I had yet another moment of crying, that I had not seen her cry very much the two times I visited. Even in that dark moment at the end of the hall, she stood tall, her face set, while we prayed hard. She has been stronger in her constant presence there than I could have ever predicted.
I have had people send priests in the wee hours of the night for anointing of the sick. I have had friends watch my children while I ran to my father. I have had people make us meals, offer Masses, and pray constantly for my father. I have seen people weep at my father’s kindness and express awe at my mother’s strength. I have seen the grace and love surface in a marriage tested by time and now by sickness. I have seen my own marriage flourish, my own sweet husband step up in love and constancy. He has watched our children so I could fly out a second time, he has cooked meals, prayed with me. He wept with me as we waited in the middle of the night to hear whether my father would survive his first major complication. He has bore patiently my days of sadness and moments of anger.
Suffering, alone, is a terrible and painful thing. It saps and hurts, destroys and kills. But suffering, when united with love, when endured knowing Christ is bringing great good out of it, becomes healing and restorative. Suffering, when endured knowing Christ is redeeming the pain, becomes life-giving and even beautiful. The only way I have been able to endure the darkest periods of my life, this time included, has been to look for the restorative grace taking root during the suffering. I see it. And it’s beautiful.
Suffering is the price of love. The hardest but the inevitable thing in the suffering of every individual is that he must inflict his own suffering on those who love him. It is love that redeems, love that can heal the world, love that can save it. Suffering has no power in itself; it is only powerful to save when it is caused by love, and when it is the expression of love. ~Caryll Houselander