The chimes are hard to clear from my memory.
When you are in intensive care with your kid, you watch these monitors over their head to make sure that all the numbers are where they should be. Respiration, heartbeat, temperature. When something is off, lights flash and chimes sound. You quickly learn that a smaller, quieter version of that will flash/sound on your monitor when someone else’s kid does the same so that nearby nurses will be alerted. When you learn this, it is a relief. Then you see the other tiny kids and you are appalled. Then maybe you’re afraid. If something horrible could happen to them, what could happen to my kid?
My son left intensive care more than a year ago and after only a week. He’s fine. He’s more than fine. He’s ahead of the curve. But the chimes, the flashing lights, the smell, the awful routine of saying good night and going somewhere else, all of that leaves a residue that’s hard to clear. Sometimes, I experience it all over again and acid dumps into my gut. A vice clenches my torso. I breathe slow so my heart doesn’t explode.
I went to go see some friends at the children’s hospital in Charlotte. They have a daughter there. She is younger than my son and she just had her second open heart surgery. She was born with half of a heart and this is the protocol to redirect things so that she can live and breathe. The surgery went fine. Everything has gone awful since then. Her body seems to fall apart and rebel at every turn. Blood clots, kidney failure, lungs filling with fluid. She is a mystery, a million spinning plates threatening to come crashing down. It is agonizing to watch from afar. I pray, not knowing what to say except to plead.
I went to go see them, though. To stop being “from afar.” They are my people. I’m their pastor. I love them. I went to go be with them for a few hours.
They live in those chimes, those flashing lights. This is their life for weeks on end.
The familiarity of it all makes me tense and almost nauseous. The things I’m seeing are overlaid with the emotional memory of the terror of my own days in my less intense intensive care. What my friends are experiencing is far, far worse than what I did. But the emotional referent I have for empathy is the most terrifying experience of my life. I cannot figure out the math of their pain. I punch the numbers into my emotional calculator, I multiply my own memories by 10,000 and all I get is: ERROR. DOES NOT COMPUTE. I cannot imagine.
I get past the initial onslaught of my own experience so that I can listen to them talk. I want to say things, the right things, to unlock their experience and release the pain, but I know the only thing that will do that is their daughter sitting up and playing as she should. A half dozen times I try to say something, but Grief crushes my throat in its claws and I cannot say anything. These people are superheroes pressed into costumes and masks by the tragedy of their daughter’s life. I know they do not feel special. I know they do not want to be. But they are wearing grace like a cloak you can almost see with your eyes. As the tears make their way to the ground, as we wait for yet another procedure to be finished, they confess their “whys” to me even as they honestly say they do not question God’s goodness. Ever. They are walking, talking, weeping miracles, these people. The memory of my own fear ebbs away. They are living my imagined terror and, in a sense, they are crushing it.
I do not ask them to do this for me. They aren’t doing it consciously. But watching them survive gives me a sign, an iconic window into something that is there that I do not have because I do not need to have it. I have worried, wondered if I will survive the crushing of this kind of grief, if it comes. And as they tell me the agony of the interminable length of time of their beautiful daughter’s decline, I’m in awe of their endurance, their incredible strength.
They are frail, these friends of mine. They are so tired and so weak right now. But somehow, at the same time, the endurance that this horror has wrought in them has made them hard like diamonds. Beautiful and delicate and unbreakable. The weight of their suffering has pushed this out of them. They have won it for all of us who watch them.
I do not know if their daughter will live or die. I am not being crass to say so. Things are very serious and the doctors are mystified by this little girl’s singular difficulties. Everyone knows how serious it is. It is not faithless to confess how daunting it is. We can look around and say with our friends, “This is the valley of the shadow of death.”
And we can ask where God is. “You said you would be here with us. Where are you? And why must we be here?”
The geography of their weeping is inexplicable. I’ll never know why any of this happened, how we got here. In a sense, the why does not matter. Knowing why would not erase the monstrosity of this tiny little baby hooked up to too many machines, with bruises everywhere from trying to find her stubborn blood vessels. It is a challenge to any believer in God, anyone who claims the name of Jesus, to stare at this little girl and confess what we confess together: That God is real, that he is good, and that he is here. We look on the edges of this terrifying portrait to see the glimpses of the Presence of God. We look at the smiling faces of our own healthy children, of this little girl’s brothers and sisters, and we are reminded that the darkness has not swallowed us whole. We see the tears as signs that we weren’t meant for this, that if something feels so wrong, surely there must be a Right that we feel ripped from.
Amidst the chimes and lights, my belief feels inadequate. But I know that unbelief feels absolutely ridiculous. Honestly, your “be absorbed into the stardust you came from” garbage can go to hell. It is the emptiest of hopeless platitudes, whispered without any kind of inkling of meaning. If all we are is a collection of atoms, this little girl’s condition is nothing more than an evolutionary glitch that should be cleared by the unerring power of death. There is nothing special about her. She’s deficient. An error. Spare me your “stardust” garbage. In the face of such suffering, there is no seduction in that narrative. Suffering may challenge the believer, but I think it decimates the empty wooing of unbelief.
Spare the empty religious platitudes, too. The ceaseless need for tidy bows to be wrapped around such tragedy. “God has a plan.” The Cross is at its most powerful when it is grisly and blood-stained. It was a torture device fit to pin the fury of God to Earth’s landscape forever. God despises and abhors the way that Sin has fractured everything, bringing death and suffering to babies, victims of a world gone wrong. God’s plan WAS the Cross and it IS annihilation of his worst enemies: sin and death. But right now we are torn apart by the grief that the future isn’t here yet. We can be quietly hopeful that this little girl will not breathe with a machine forever. But we are heartbroken that forever isn’t here yet.
In the midst of all those chimes and terror, belief and doubt trade heavy blows. I am unsettled by all that we hope for and all that seems to fall short. I’m stripped down to the barest essentials of what I believe. In that moment, all the years of theological reading, the flowery turns of phrase, the complex arguments and rationality, the historical weight, all of it vanishes under the heat of so much suffering. When I see the pain play over the faces of my friends, how they conversationally wander from the heavy to the light to the heavy, I realize that there is only so much they can carry with them through all of this.
Everything gets narrowed down to Jesus. Sometimes it’s the only prayer I can think to pray. Just whispering “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” again and again, just praying, more than anything that he would be here and we would know it. We want this sweet baby girl to sit up with her delightfully round, full face and smile again. We want her to stop suffering. I can barely get the words out, though. The intensity of it all is overwhelming so all I can do is moan and groan and ask for Jesus.
The chimes are like body blows.
A button is pressed to silence the alarm.
The blows rain down even as the tears drip.
And I’m just left gasping, grasping for Jesus.
“Jesus. Jesus. Jesus”
Until the chimes fade out and quiet comes.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.