Last Wednesday my brother, Matt, was admitted to a hospital in Virginia for an infection in what is remaining of his left leg. He told me the news in a Facebook message and in his typically brave and resilient nature, did not seem scared, angry, or anxious. Though I guess in the world of social media, it is not always easy to tell.
In September of 2011 while overseas with the Marines in Afghanistan, Matt stepped on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that was buried in the ground for any unassuming soldier or civilian to step on. The bomb ripped up the left side of his body and he had his leg, from the knee down, amputated as a result. His knee and femur bone and thigh muscles were not affected. He received a purple heart for his service and sacrifice to his country. And would have to learn how to live again without half of a leg. To say that such a thing is easier said than done would be a gross understatement. For a 27-year-old to go from being a lean guy with toned and bulging muscles, able to run six or seven miles at a time and lift weights and kick a football like a pro, to requiring crutches or a prosthetic leg to get from his bedroom to the bathroom is devastating in more ways than what is obvious. Especially when you are the father of two growing little girls. And especially when fishing and outdoor activities are not only your favorite hobbies, but your life’s passion.
Because of the infection that he has sustained, my brother has to have his knee amputated. This was unexpected and a shock for him to hear. There is a chance the infection may spread and move into his femur which would be a worst-cased scenario and result in him having nothing left of a leg below his left hip. These are the kinds of things one cannot imagine enduring until it happens upon you or someone you love. They are extraordinary, terrifying, and dangerous circumstances — certainly nothing I could have ever predicted to happen to the boy who first taught me how to throw a baseball and with whom I played in the dog house with as a little kid. (Yes, the dog house).
When I found out last week that the doctors said he would lose his knee, my heart was shattered into a hundred pieces and I wished that I could pick all of those pieces up and mold them back together like play-doh and box it up and send it to him so he might know how much I care.
I cried a little, vented to my best friends, prayed with more earnest than I have in any other experience from my recent memory, and tried to do my best to express my love to him.
But that did not seem like enough.
I wanted to do something more, both for the honor of my brother and for what I am able to glean and take away in wisdom from the situation.
So I promised my brother that every night he is in the hospital or having surgery, that I would run a mile for him. When I told him this he was appreciative and as a former hardcore runner himself, a bit jealous.
“Wow, I miss running! I can only really swim for exercise these days,” he told me.
That confirmed it for me. I needed to take on this challenge for him.
On Wednesday night I set out to run one mile. And that one mile turned into 3.5. Thursday night I went out to do the same, and that one mile turned into four. Once I got going, it was near-impossible to stop. The adrenaline and motivation of running for my brother carried my legs farther and faster than I imagined I was capable of doing. For it has been quite some time since I have devoted myself to running, outside of the casual jog here and there to de-stress.
What I found was that envisioning my brother in his hospital bed, being prepped for surgery to remove a vital part of his leg, pushed me to not only appreciate my body for it’s four healthy, functional limbs, but to never, ever take for granted what they can do, rather than being worried about what they can’t. For I am someone who is prone to focusing on what I can’t do, or don’t have, rather than the opposite. But when your sibling is about to undergo a knee-amputation, you suddenly start seeing life in a different way — your own life and life as it happens around you. While I have gone out to run for my brother, I have focused intentionally on what it feels like, I mean really feels like, to have two legs, and how hard it would be to run without one. It is near-impossible to imagine this, however. I simply can’t envision myself running without two legs moving gracefully and swiftly below my hips, pushing and carrying my frame along the surface of the sultry, warm sidewalks outside. When I place my hands on my torso, sweating to the sound of Smashing Pumpkins and Led Zeppelin (two of my brother’s favorite bands), it is almost disorienting and scary to imagine having to perform such a physical act without two legs. But more than anything, it is mostly just sad. Like Matt, however, I refuse to let the sadness I feel dominate what I am capable of right here and right now, in this moment. Because if I only focused on the sadness, I would have no strength to get up and move and do something about it.
My brother’s surgery is scheduled for tomorrow morning. So as I have done for the past few nights, I will lace up my sneakers tonight as the sun sets after another long, dry summer day in Southern California, and go run a mile for my big brother — thinking about, praying for, and reflecting on the memories I have of us growing up together as my ponytail swings behind me and I pump my arms against the balmy July breeze into the cantaloupe and coral colors of the setting sun. And if I had to guess, I’d guess I’ll end up running more than just one mile, in honor of Matt, and for his resilience in a physically, emotionally, and spiritually desperate time.
If I have learned anything from him and how he has handled this situation, it is that life is short — really short. So you may as well get out there and run while you have the ability. Because you really don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
If there were a week that stood worthy of being awarded with a prize for being the most emotionally brutal, this past week would be in the running to take home such a prize. No, the world did not end, and nothing totally catastrophic happened (though it felt that way in moments), but it was enough to reduce me to feelings of near-hopelessness. And in general, served as a great example of the times in life when the only question that seems worth asking is, “why me?”
I asked that question a lot over the past few days. “Why me, God? Why would you let one more bad thing happen to me when there is already so much that has gone or is going horribly wrong?” And He didn’t answer that question, though I asked Him to many times. Somehow I made it through to see the sun rise on this hot, soupy, yellow Sunday afternoon. And that fact alone may just be an illustration of Grace.
I logged onto Facebook this morning and read a status update from one of my favorite writers/ thinkers of my time — Ms. Anne Lamott. It was more than just a status update though, it was more like a prayer — an honest and painfully raw musing about the state of things intermingled with an underlying plea for the light. I thought I would share it here for anyone else who may have had the wind knocked out of them a few times over the past few days. We’re in this together. And God, in His mystery and majesty, is ever-so-faithful.
“Many mornings I check out the news as soon as I wake up, because if it turns out that the world is coming to an end that day, I am going to eat the frosting off an entire carrot cake; just for a start. Then I will move onto vats of clam dip, pots of creme brûlée, nachos, M & M’s etc. Then I will max out both my credit cards.
I used to think that if the world–or I–were coming to an end, I’d start smoking again, and maybe have a cool refreshing pitcher of lime Rickeys. But that’s going too far, because if the world or I was saved at the last minute, I’d be back in the old familiar nightmare. In 1986, grace swooped down like a mighty mud hen, and fished me out of that canal. I got the big prize. I can’t risk losing it.
But creme brûlée, nachos, maybe the random Buche Noel? Now you’re talking.
The last two weeks have been about as grim and hopeless as any of us can remember, and yet, I have not gotten out the lobster bib and fork. The drunken Russian separatists in Ukraine with their refrigerated train cars? I mean, come on. Vonnegut could not have thought this up. Dead children children on beaches, and markets, at play, in the holy land?? Stop.
The two hour execution in festive Arizona? Dear God.
And let’s not bog down on the stuff that was already true, before Ukraine, Gaza, Arizona, like the heartbreaking scenes of young refugees at our border, the locals with their pitchforks. The people in ruins in our own families. Or the tiny problem that we have essentially destroyed the earth–I know, pick pick pick.
Hasn’t your mind just been blown lately, even if you try not to watch the news? Does it surprise you that a pretty girl’s mind turns to thoughts of entire carrot cakes, and credit cards?
My friend said recently, “It’s all just too Lifey. No wonder we all love TV.” Her 16 year old kid has a brain tumor. “Hey, that’s just great, God. Thanks a lot. This really works for me.”
My brother’s brand new wife has tumors of the everything. “Fabulous, God. Loving your will, Dude.”
My dog Lily’s ear drum burst recently, for no apparent reason, with blood splatter on the walls on the entire house–on my sleeping grandson’s pillow. Do you think I am well enough for that?
Let me go ahead and answer. I’m not. It was CSI around here; me with my bad nerves. And it burst again last night.
Did someone here get the latest updated owner’s manual? Were they handed out two weeks ago when I was getting root canal, and was kind of self-obsessed and out of it? The day before my dog’s ear drum first burst? If so, is there is an index, and if so, could you look up Totally F*cking Overwhelmed?
I have long since weeded out people who might respond to my condition by saying cheerfully, “God’s got a perfect plan.” Really? Thank you! How fun.
There is no one left in my circle who would dare say, brightly, “Let Go and Let God,” because they know I would come after them with a fork.
It’s not that I don’t trust God or grace or good orderly direction anymore. I do, more than ever. I trust in divine intelligence, in love, more than ever, no matter what things look like, or how long they take. It’s just that right now cute little platitudes are not helpful.
I’m not depressed. I’m overwhelmed by It All. I don’t think I’m a drag. I kind of know what to do. I know that if I want to have loving feelings, I need to do loving things. It begins by putting your own oxygen mask on first: I try to keep the patient comfortable. I do the next right thing: left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. I think Jesus had a handle on times like these: get thirsty people water. Feed the hungry. Try not to kill anyone today. Pick up some litter in your neighborhood. Lie with your old dog under the bed and tell her what a good job she is doing with the ruptured ear drum.
I try to quiet the drunken Russian separatists of my own mind, with their good ideas. I pray. I meditate. I rest, as a spiritual act. I spring for organic cherries. I return phone calls.
I remember the poor. I remember an image of Koko the sign-language gorilla, with the caption, “Law of the American Jungle: remain calm. Share your bananas.” I remember Hushpuppy at the end of Beasts of the Southern Wild, just trying to take some food home to her daddy Wink, finally turning to face the hideous beast on the bridge, facing it down and saying, “I take care of my own.”
I take care of my own. You are my own, and I am yours–I think this is what God is saying, or trying to, over the din. We are each other’s. Thee are many forms of thirst, many kinds of water.”
Have a peaceful Sunday night, friends.
Four months ago I wrote an essay entitled, Making Sense of a Senseless Loss. It was about my older brother, Matt, and the gaping hole that had been left in my life after he excommunicated himself from me and my family. It was up there with the top three essays that have been the most difficult for me to write. That’s because it was about the brother that I grew up alongside and whom I had not seen in eight years. I referred to him as being my “lost brother,” which might sound a bit dramatic and like a hyperbolic plea for pity. But for anyone who grew up close to their siblings, I can’t imagine the sentiment would not be shared were they to endure what I did with the brother who first taught me how to fish, ride a bike, and do a cannonball into the deep end of the swimming pool.
The last paragraph of that essay reads like this:
“I hope to someday know my brother again. My prayer each day is that he knows he has a little sister out there who misses him, and who has not and will never give up believing that the good times will outlive the bad, and that maybe in some miraculous way, I’ll get my big brother back. And if I do, I’ll be sure to have a fishing pole ready just in case the sun is out and the air is warm and he wants to go to the ocean to catch up with the sister who never stopped loving him.”
Now, as a woman of faith, I am not the kind of person who chalks up every good thing that happens to me as being a divine act of God. Even the stuff I pray about. For example, if I pray about something and that something happens to change or work in my favor like I prayed for it to, well, I don’t pounce at the chance to announce to the world that “God answered my prayer!” Because for me, to claim to know what is and isn’t an answer or an act of God can feel sort of presumptuous and unthinking and self-serving. And to proclaim that I know God did something for me because I prayed and asked Him to seems to cater towards a bloated spiritual ego and frankly, sort of misses the point of prayer, in my opinion.
I have prayed for my stepfather to stop drinking for 15 years. Nothing has changed. I have prayed for 17 years for my mother to find the strength to leave him when she has promised me and my brothers that she would. (Over the entire span of their marriage). She’s never followed through. I have prayed for healing from my anxiety and for a healthy hamstring in my left leg which has kept me from running like I used to for almost three years. Those problems not only still exist, but seem to have only gotten worse. Did God answer those prayers?
The obvious response might be, “no, of course He didn’t.” But I reject that. I think we can’t know. It’s not our right to know how, when, and if God will answer our prayers.
His ways are not our ways, after all.
But what if those things I prayed for did happen? What if my step-dad really did stop drinking and my mom left him and I woke up totally anxiety-free one morning, with a healthy hamstring ready to start training for a marathon? Would God have answered those prayers?
I’d be inclined to say yes. But truly, I think the better answer would be “I don’t know.”
I am well aware that such a view is not a popular one. For if I pray for something and the next day it happens, it must be what some might call a “God thing,” right? An answer to prayer?
I don’t necessarily think so.
I am generally the kind of person that believes I must clear my spiritual “deficits” and “deficiencies” first before God will answer my prayers. Or even acknowledge me. (I struggle with understanding the concept Grace, can ya tell?) So when I pray, it is usually only when I feel like I am worthy enough in the moment to be heard (i.e. — when I have paid my spiritual penance for the days or week’s worth of sins). This is not a healthy thing, and certainly not what I am advocating. I have struggled with prayer for a long time. Probably since I became a believer in the gospel. But what hasn’t been a struggle for me is knowing that the way God works in my life will never, ever, EVER, not-in-a-million-years, ever, make sense to me.
What happened this past Sunday morning illustrates this point.
I logged onto Facebook and saw I had a friend request. I tapped on the notification on my phone’s Facebook app. and my heart dropped to my feet. It was from my brother, Matt. I stared at his Facebook profile picture for about five minutes, trying to figure out if it was authentic and I hadn’t been tricked or had started hallucinating after a particularly strong cup of morning Joe. But there it was, right in front of me, behind the screen of my iPhone: a request via cyberspace from the big brother who would always bait my hook for me when he took me fishing, to be my “friend” again.
I accepted his request and wrote him a short note. He wrote me back in depth, detailing all that has happened in his life since we last spoke two and a half years ago. His life has changed dramatically. And in all the best ways.
If you had asked me one year ago, or two, if I thought that I would ever hear from my brother again, I would have sighed and said “no…not for a long time.” I had resigned myself to accepting that I had lost him forever. Truly. I thought there was no hope. And when people would say things like “he’ll come around again,” or “he will wake up one day and realize he misses you,” I would roll my eyes and think — “yeah right, they don’t get it.” I hated talking about it with anyone. And I hated the tears that would fall and the heart-break that I was left with anytime I had to dig up the story of what happened to him. But all I could do was let it go and do the thing that people tell you to do in hard moments and “pray about it.”
I never thought God heard me when I prayed about it, though. But I did have faith that He would take care of my brother. I had to have faith in that. I couldn’t not.
I prayed for Matt and his safety and for reconciliation with my family since he left for his second tour of Iraq about six years ago. I never stopped praying. My family and some of my closest friends didn’t, either. I didn’t think it mattered though. God can’t fix this, I would tell myself. But despite that thought, as I said, I always had faith that God would take care of him. I just didn’t know what that would look like.
The past few days have felt like a blur – a good blur. I have been corresponding with my brother almost hourly and we have been catching up about everything and anything. As I type this he is laying in a hospital bed in Portsmouth, Virginia, where he has been since yesterday after doctors found a nasty infection that has made its way into what is left of his leg. He is going to require surgery to remove his knee since that is where the infection is currently. He is afraid the infection will spread further into his femur which would require the amputation of the remainder of his leg. But he is in good spirits. He is a fighter, and always has been.
The question has crossed my mind a lot: is this an answer to the prayers I have been praying for him for years?
I can’t know the answer to that question for sure. I am not God. His ways are not my ways. His love, grace, and provisions are a mystery to my feeble mind. But here is what I do know: He took care of my brother. And despite my spiritual shortcomings and weaknesses and utter brokenness, He was listening to me for all of these years, even when I was sure He wasn’t.
God is faithful in that way. He is faithful despite our faithlessness. He is loving despite the hardness of our hearts. He is gracious despite the fact that we deserve and are owed absolutely nothing. And He is kind despite the disbelief and disillusionment we may sometimes feel towards Him and His church.
I am thankful for that. And I never want to take it for granted.
If you had told me literally two weeks ago that I would soon be re-connected with my brother, I would have laughed in your face. And bitterly resented the notion. But as it happens, this past Sunday morning I woke up to find a friend request awaiting my approval on Facebook, from the one person I thought I might never get the chance to love, talk to, and laugh with ever again. The guy who I wrote about back in March that I hoped to someday know again. And the guy I prayed about every day with hopes of him knowing that he has a little sister out there who misses him.
I can’t claim to know when God answers prayers or exactly how He does so, but I can say that this experience with my brother — him reaching out to me and wanting to be my big brother again — is no coincidence. And I have no doubt that every tear, prayer, and frustrating, painful thought has been seen and tended to by God in His own beautifully mysterious and perfect way, to bring me to this place. A place where I have the brother back that I was sure I had lost — the brother who loves simple things like fishing, good beer, and working on his truck — the brother that now knows he has a sister in faraway California who never stopped loving him.
And through the heart-crushing tests of time, distance, and trauma that have come, and will still come against us, never will.
One of my good friends texted me last night to tell me that I was his best friend.
“You have become one of my very best friends. I just want you to know that,” read the text that popped up on my phone from him. It was a few minutes after 10 p.m. and I was sitting on my back porch in my pajama shorts staring up at the sky with a cup of iced Chai for piece of mind after a rough day.
“And I would have given up by now without you,” he said a few minutes later.
I smiled and thought of a proper response.
Over the past few months my friend and I have sort of become pillars of strength in one another’s life. Cracked and imperfect pillars, of course, but pillars nonetheless. Our friendship has given birth to the kind of bond that I imagine a brother and sister close in age (and who get along) might share. After a series of foundation-rattling transitions and life changes, including the choice to come out about being gay, and taking back parts of his life that he almost lost to a paralyzing bout of depression, he is, like most of us, just trying to find the light to lead his way through this dark, confusing world.
His text messages made me feel glad for friendship and the ability to share pain and life and heart-break with others who aren’t afraid to be real. Transparency at it’s best, can inspire and give hope to others who feel suffocated by the facades of a world that is begging them to be perfect, or at least to portray perfection in place of truth.
Because the truth is, for some of us, life feels like it is overflowing with pain and bad news and disappointment and disillusionment. All the time. And while I texted my friend last night, the conversation turned towards a talk about how often we see people shy away from ‘negative’ emotions and how it’s so much easier to let those feelings go when we allow ourselves to experience them.
“Crying is good,” I told him.
“You want to know what I did today?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
“I swear…I sat in my car after work and watched the Youtube video for “my heart will go on,” by Celine Dion and cried like a baby for 30 minutes. Purposely. True story.”
I chuckled after sending that self-disclosing piece of information. I am not proud of moments that involve me sobbing like a teething toddler to Celine.
But because he is a best friend, he did not laugh. He told me that he would have done the same thing.
“If you’re sad, be sad. Allow it. It’s amazing what happens when you actually do that,” I continued.
How powerful it is when we allow feelings to exist as they are. When we acknowledge what is. When we remember that we are never alone in our experiences, however painful they may be.
I stumbled upon this passage the other day on random blog that I found myself reading on my lunch-break. It resonated with me. And totally makes sense in the context of what pain, sadness, and hardship mean for the human experience.
“I actually attack the concept of happiness. The idea that—I don’t mind people being happy—but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness. It’s a really odd thing that we’re now seeing people saying “write down three things that made you happy today before you go to sleep” and “cheer up” and “happiness is our birthright” and so on. We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position. It’s rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much. Everyone says we grow through pain and then as soon as they experience pain they say, “Quick! Move on! Cheer up!” I’d like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word “happiness” and to replace it with the word “wholeness.” Ask yourself, “Is this contributing to my wholeness?” and if you’re having a bad day, it is.
This resonates with me particularly as someone who struggles with a mental health condition. As a sufferer and survivor, I often feel fragmented and scattered and broken in bleak, hard-to-describe places of my heart and mind. I don’t feel “whole” in the same way that I imagine others do. Because for the rest of my life, I will always have to fight to stay strong and hopeful and somewhat positive when the waves wash over me and I am terrified I may never reach the surface for a full breath of air again. I will always have a gaping hole desperate to be filled with the love of the father I lost to heroin years ago, I will always have traumatic memories that will come back and jolt and jostle me out of reality and into a place of inner turmoil and anguish, and I will always have a scar on my right arm where I was burned with a cigarette butt when I was twelve years old by the man who was supposed to take the place of my dad. Money, success, romance, booze, and status won’t make those things go away. Nothing ever really will. And that’s okay. Because like this excerpt states, these are the things that will and already have, contributed to my wholeness as a woman. I learned, and am still learning, that happiness is sometimes too ambitious of a goal. Both for people like me who have had to walk through hell, and people like my best friend with whom I texted last night who is struggling just to be real and to stay positive in life’s most crushing moments.
I maintain that we were made to be real, not perfect. Whole, not happy — though happiness is a great thing, it’s not what defines who we are. It is the strength we find to keep going and fight back when the world ties it’s noose around our necks that define our story. And in turn, it is that story that defines us. It is the will to persevere when you can’t see where you’re going and none of it makes sense outside of causing pain that often teaches us the most. And sharing our stories is of a lot more value to a world full of dinged-up, bruised, and internally disheveled people than encouraging them “to just be happy.” For many of these people are people who at the end of the day just want a best friend they can share truth with and grow together alongside. All in the hopes of learning how to be more whole as a person — no matter how bad of a day, a season, or a life they have had.