When I last wrote, I wrote about Lent and the positive action of writing a book that has the power to overshadow the negations – the fasting – of the season.
But I should have written about best laid plans.
Because I didn’t write a book for Lent this year. I journeyed through my child’s health crisis instead.
About the time that Lent was beginning, and just days after our recent move, my oldest daughter Gemma got a flu-ish virus. Or at least that’s what we thought it was. She was groggy and a little feverish. On the first day her stomach was upset and she threw up. After that she just wanted to lay on the couch and watch TV.
We weren’t that worried, though it did seem a bit strange since she’d had her flu shot. Regardless, we proceeded with business as usual and thought Gems just needed her rest. We gave her TLC and lots of fluids.
When the fevers and headaches didn’t go away but only got progressively worse, we were concerned. We took her to her primary care, and he thought it was just stubborn virus. A few days later we took her again and he sent her to the ER. After a day of observation, the ER docs sent her home.
A few days after that we would be back.
By that time the fevers and headaches had grown so intense they were triggering confusion, hallucination, and photophobia. We had already read online about meningitis, and despite the doctors’ viral diagnosis, it sure looked like the dreaded infection to us.
It’s strange how your mind begins to tell stories in a moment of crisis like this. Denial-stories of how it couldn’t be that, it couldn’t be happening to us, surely God will protect from the worst.
But it was that, and the worst did happen.
By the worst, I don’t mean the worst of all possible diagnoses. But I do mean the worst case scenario for this set of symptoms and this situation.
Gemma didn’t just have meningitis. She had a rare case of bacterial meningitis that was the result of an undiagnosed sinus infection eating through the soft bone in her still-developing skull and creating an abscess on her brain. The infection was now in her sinuses, in her bone, and in her meninges (brain and spinal fluid).
The infection was deadly.
And Gemma was suffering, not just from the constant and intense fevers and headaches but from lack of nutrition and depleted strength. She was, for all intents and purposes, fading away.
I cannot type that without trembling at the reality of it. I don’t want to believe it happened. I don’t think I’ve fully accepted it.
When faced with trauma we dig deep wells to find perseverance bubbling up that we didn’t know existed. Gemma dug deep, deeper than I ever thought a child could. She is strong – angel-strong. Her mom and I dug deep, inspired by her, out of sheer determination to see her healthy again. Our focus became singular and everything else was pushed aside. None of us, of course, knew how deeply we were being affected by all of it.
We still don’t.
What we did know is that in the darkest moments God was all we had to hold onto.
These kinds of experiences are theology demolishers. Unless one wants to live through eyes sewn shut, religious platitudes and cliches become utterly useless. “God is in control” is the kind of platitude I mean. When your child has a life-threatening illness, you become quite sure that believing such a platitude would be to believe in the worst of all beings, God or not.
God is not in control, not in that way. My wife and I are quite clear on this now.
But we believe, with a depth of reality that transcends theology, that God is always, powerfully, lovingly, restoratively at work.
I wouldn’t be writing this – wouldn’t be writing anything – if Gemma had not recovered. She has. And with such marvelous fullness as to leave her mom and me breathless at every dance, every joke, every race from the yard to the house, every shrill argument with her little sister, every big, full meal eaten after such a long, sullen hiatus. We marvel, really, at Gemma’s return.
Her body endured not only a deadly illness but two surgeries and almost daily procedures that repeatedly turned the trauma dial up to 11. Her mind fought and processed and is still processing now in hindsight – wondering, worried if this will ever happen to her again.
I guess recovery, in that sense, will be ongoing for a while yet.
I won’t soon forget the spontaneous request she made while still in the thick of her nearly three-week hospital stay: “Dad, can you read me a Bible story about Jesus healing someone?”
And I can’t help but see Jesus the Healer in the hands and minds of doctors solving problems, making diagnoses, performing surgeries, prescribing antibiotics. I can’t help but see Jesus working miracles through the hundreds of people praying at the prompting of a few Facebook posts, through their urgent pleas to the Father for Gemma’s homecoming. I can’t help but see the laying on of healing hands in the hugs of friends who drove hours out of state just to visit her for part of the day.
I can’t help but see Jesus the Miraculous Healer in those first couple days after we arrived home, when Gemma’s spirits suddenly revived even as her body came alive.
The Lenten wilderness has a way of uncovering our deepest realities, of laying us bare if we let it. It can upend all our best laid plans to do a much deeper work. This is the essence of the fast – to clear away the clutter and remember we are dust. True repentance can take root in such a space, leading to true restoration.
My wife and I have been changed by this journey. Our daughter has been changed. Our family has been changed. Forever.
We still don’t know how the change will unfold, how resurrection will spring forth from such a dry and thirsty desert.
We just know, deep in our bones, that God is powerfully, lovingly, restoratively at work – always.