This past week, I got sick. Flat on my back, barely able to walk to the bathroom. You’ve been there. I had to cross 4 days off my calendar, disappoint people, field emergency line calls for L’Arche, and deal with how gross I felt from not showering.
All of this led to me bursting into tears.
Author’s note: Said crying took place before Hulu.com allowed me to rediscover a long-lost love for (the early seasons of) ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ My inner 13-year-old was thrilled. The entire Season 3! It was all I could do to keep from calling my best friend and talking about Buffy + Angel forever!
Now, where were we…? Right. Bursting into tears.
I was too tired to process exactly why I was crying, but what I did manage to say to my (patient) husband was:
“I’m just…scared, and…frustrated! Because I can’t do anything I usually do. I can’t do the simplest things! I feel like…”
I didn’t finish the sentence, but what I meant was: I can’t be the strong, vivacious woman I want to be. I can’t look pretty (I can’t even brush my hair.) I can’t be who I want to be. And that, in addition to this fever that won’t quit, scares me.
The reason I didn’t say this was that, before I could say it, I had one of those visceral realizations. The kind of epiphany you experience with your entire body.
Translated into words, it was: What I’m feeling now is, in some small measure, what many of my friends at L’Arche feel every. single. day.
That stopped my pity-party-train in its tracks.
I thought about Pedro*, who needs someone by his side with almost every step he takes. I’ve seen how frustrating this can be for him. When he feels his legs wobble, he sometimes gets a look of anger and disappointment. He’ll slap his legs, as though the force of his will (powerful indeed) could make them steady.
Not long before I knew Pedro, he could walk on his own. He bears that knowledge with as much grace as he can, every day. His disability affects his ability to move through the world independently. I had a taste of that, being sick. I was limited in what I could do, and how I could move.
So, what can being sick or in need of care give you (other than the realization that Hulu.com is amazing?)
It can give you vulnerability.
When I was sick, I had to ask for help. A lot. I kept my ‘asks’ to a minimum and grouped them together, but the fact remained: I had to ask my husband to do things that I’d normally be doing myself. He brought me breakfast. He refilled the Brita pitcher. He took care of me. At first, this was a little strange; I’m comfortable in the ‘caretaker’ role. However, I began to see that it was a good thing for me to relinquish my usual role as can-do woman. It was a humbling, tender thing to allow myself to be cared for.
It can give you honesty.
It’s easier to lie to yourself and to others when you’re feeling well. It’s easier to say, “I’m fine” when you’re not fine at all. When I was sick, I found myself saying things like, “My temperature is over 102 again, and I’m scared.” I found myself writing more openly in my journal (once the fever went down), writing things like, “I’m done being so dependable at the expense of my health. The next time I start feeling horrible, I’m staying home. I’m taking time off if I need it.” Telling the truth felt freeing.
It can give you compassion.
As I mentioned, being sick helped me feel a greater solidarity with my friends with disabilities at L’Arche. Yet it also opened my heart to others. For example, even when my fever was still high, I wanted to reach out to a close friend who is about to start chemo. I sent her a quick email (all I could manage). When I heard back, it was ironic: I’d written to encourage her and to let her know I missed her, yet her words were balm to me. She was (is) keeping her love and faith alive in a really difficult situation.
Notice the phrase, “It can give you.” If you don’t choose these things, they will not be forced upon you. Being sick can just be being sick. But that’s not my style. As my friend and college housemate Tiffany once said, with admiration and puzzlement, “Cari, you find meaning in everything. You clean your closet and it’s a religious experience. I clean my closet and it’s…nada.”
We laughed about this, but I remember her words. It’s true — it is in my nature to seek meaning from experience.
Here’s what I think. For everything that is lost, something beautiful remains.
That beauty isn’t always obvious. It may be hidden within the heart of one person. It may take a long time to appear. There are losses so catastrophic that it seems futile to hope for anything to rise from the ashes. I don’t claim to understand how this works. And I may be wrong. But I’ve seen it happen, and that keeps me believing.
As of this writing, I’ve ‘graduated’ from the bed to the couch. You know that moment: when you can sit up without pillows propped around you for support. It’s a good feeling, knowing that you are rejoining the human race.
Yet what has made me more fully human has nothing to do with how much stronger I’m becoming.
It has everything to do with what I learned when I had no strength left.
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*Names have been changed.