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It’s true. I love hearing a good story. I love to tell a good story. If exaggeration will assist in the hearing and telling, I’ll use it; however, this is more than narrating a saga to regale an audience. It’s more than my causing amusement, laughter and distraction from our daily doings. It’s more than adding spice to a mundane routine. This is the stuff of life that causes one to stop, really stop and smell the roses in our everyday bouquet of life.
All was going well in my scheduled retirement. Salaried work had long been displaced with volunteer activity in a number of arenas. I was loving what I did, the people I met along the way, the sense of fulfillment and sharing. The days rapidly filled with necessary meetings. All was well. I smiled when folks commented more than asked, “Aren’t you retired?” Unfailingly, my response was, “I am a non-retired retiree and I’m loving it.” Certainly, life was not idyllic.
There were bumps in my road but none that arrested progress. Two years spent learning to live with chronic ulcerative colitis gave witness to my determination to continue despite obstacles. An ache and a pain here and there would send me into afternoon naptime. Mostly, I was an on-the-go gal.
Never did I realize how much of a comfort zone I had entered. Here I was, steeped in a tea of busyness sweetened with the sugar of doing good work that I sipped with the glee of feeling useful. Life was good and I was enjoying it to the full.
Then it began. My cup overflowed, but not with the biblical promise of abundance. Instead, there came a little drop of annoyance—a slight indication of the deluge to come. My head began to ache. In my usual fashion of self-prognosis and medication, I prescribed more napping and increase of fluids. It was my version of “take an aspirin and see me in the morning.” Self-treatment failed miserably. I turned to the professionals.
Good move, one would say, but by the time I made the decision, my condition had seriously deteriorated. Hubby Dear became Frantic H.B.! He asserted, and I agreed, that transport to the emergency room was now both necessary and urgent.
Off we went. Thankfully, I hadn’t gazed into any mirror before leaving the house because I’ve since been informed that I looked more than awful. “Death warmed over” is the typical description. Truthfully, I didn’t need a looking glass. I had a feeling monitor that was equally accurate. I felt as if I had leapt, or been pushed, into death’s crushing embrace. This is not exaggeration of a good story for maximum effect.
Pain absorbed me. Prayer eluded me. My comfort zone had been dramatically invaded. Darkness absorbed all the light and loveliness of my life. It was time for my prayer pals to stand over, around and beside me in supportive supplication. They had to do what was beyond my ken at this moment. Now was the opportunity for me to allow others to be my upholders. Now was my chance to leave the plateau of my personal comfort zone and learn what the valley of discomfort had in store.
The prospect was more than daunting. It was frightening.
I had spoken many times and in many forums about the value of being discomfited. I waxed eloquent on the need to enter our shadow side, even if it was uncomfortable to do so, so that we’d gain new knowledge. I believed what I said, but I had not experienced deeply. It was yet an intellectual thought, a philosophical idea, perhaps even a theological ideal. In any case, I was totally unaware that my own experience of life was far distant from the reality.
Physical pain more than brought me to my knees. I took me into that deep spot of wisdom. Physical pain took control where I had always been in charge. To rid myself of dis-ease, I had to place myself into the hands of others. I can still hear the words of the wonderful nurse in the emergency room who whispered, “We’re here to take care of you. Everything will be all right.”
Silent tears flowed unbidden down my cheeks. Yes, I was overwhelmed with emotions. At the same time, I believe it was the flow of providence that came to me uniquely because I was in darkness.
Intellectually, I knew the darkness was yet filled with light invisible to my eye but quite present to my heart. The tears opened the gateway to my deepest being, promising me that all would be well. It was time to let go...and I did.
My stories are never short and sweet. They are as complicated as life is complex, with all the twists and turns that create an interesting journey. Each day in the hospital brought a new symptom. Dealing with the twists and turns was doable, even if it was not easy, until I received news that I’d be dealing with yet another illness. My new normal comfort zone had now been invaded as well and I was not so sure I wanted to enter the second degree of darkness. Yet, I knew I had little choice. The final barrier was broken when I gave myself permission to lament.
I grieved for all that I felt I had lost, permanently or hopefully temporarily. I lamented the loss of wholeness taken by layers of distress. I mourned my inability to participate in all the meetings that were scheduled for the week ahead. I grieved the loss of mobility as I was tethered to an IV bed buddy. I lashed out at the people who tried to comfort me with reasonable statements of compassion. I needed to be alone in my darkness before I could see the light that lay in its midst.
Time and tears slowly brought me home. In this Advent season whose message is intended for a people in waiting, I am ever more sure that those who walk in darkness will see a great light. This time, it’s not simply an intellectual thought. It’s a real life.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.