"The dark night of the soul."
Whoever coined the phrase?
Christmas was a lovely gift, but three nights later, I woke with a raging migraine headache.
The pain abated in the morning, thankfully. Deb, Terri and I were scheduled to see the plastic surgeon in Omaha. Terri was nearly ready for her final operation to replace her filled expanders with permanent implants, Deb was scheduled for her second fill, and I was getting my tubes out - I hoped.
Nothing in the world, not even a migraine, would stop me. I was sick of draining those vile tubes and carrying them attached to my body 24 hours a day. My head would hold out, I told myself, long enough to get those damn tubes out.
But it wasn’t 30 minutes after Deb had picked me up and we merged into busy interstate traffic that I felt the subtle throbbing in my head. Deb’s little daughter Sydney chatted companionably in the back seat, but I closed my eyes to her chatter and to gray forbidding skies and willed myself to still the pain in my head.
We had just turned off at Lincoln to pick up Terri when I felt the lurch in my stomach.
"Oh Deb," I gasped, "pull over!"
She zipped into a muddy drive near scattered business buildings, and I tumbled out of the car to be sick.
"Just get it all out, Cath," I heard the soothing words of my sister.
It was humiliating to be throwing up on the side of the road with busy cars passing and my 11-year-old niece gaping with wide eyes from the car.
"Oh, Deb, I’m so sorry," I moaned when at last I fell into the car. "I shouldn’t have come. I’ll stay at Terri’s, and you two go ahead."
"No!" Deb protested. "You came all this way to get rid of those tubes, and we’re getting them out." Deb completely understood my antipathy. "If we have to get a bucket at Terri’s and take it along," she patted my arm, "that’s what we’ll do."
Sydney offered words of encouragement. "Brandi and I throw up into a bucket all the time!" My sweet niece.
Terri was just as sympathetic, and as we sped off the last 60 miles to Omaha, I felt my stomach settle.
The three of us were ushered right into the same exam room at Dr. Montag’s, and it was a relief when Erin, the physician’s assistant, called me to be examined first.
"Those tubes are ready to come out!’ she chirped. I took a deep breath as instructed, and Erin and another nurse pulled each tube from either side at the same time. But it wasn’t quite over. The incision on the left side of my chest wasn’t looking good.
"I want Dr. Montag to take a look at that," Erin said.
According to Dr. Montag, the incision wasn’t healing properly. "Hopefully, it’ll resolve itself," she said kindly, "but if not, we’ll have to go back into surgery and repair it."
A setback. And a migraine to boot. But Terri, to my astonishment, had boobs! It was miraculous to see. Deb, too, was coming along nicely and was ready for another fill. But after a few brief instructions, Dr. Montag said she needed to see me in a week.
I was happy for my sisters, but back in the car, I could only close my eyes and will my head and stomach to survive the ride home. On the way home, however, Deb received a text from her daughter Brandi. The husband of a former student of mine had drowned when the ice broke while he was ice fishing. The news was a cold shock, and we were all silenced.
After what seemed forever, I was home at last. Heading straight for bed, I barely acknowledged my family. But all night long, my head pounded, my stomach heaved, and I spiraled into a kind of despair. I thought about Bill, the young man who had drowned, and of two other good parents of families I had taught, both whom had died of cancer during the week. When fitful sleep came, I dreamt of my dead parents. Only now they were young, and I was a four-year-old basking in the glow of my mother’s smile. In the bizarre fashion of dreams, I suddenly witnessed the horrific suffering of small abused babies in the house next door, and even as a young child myself, I called out to God in my dreams.
Morning came after a long, long night, and my headache finally began to fade. But the weight of sorrow crushed me all day long. When Tommy left that evening to watch the Husker game at a friend’s house and John did his part time stint at the city library, I sat down to pray and say the Rosary, something I’d not done since before my surgery. Pulling out my old Bible, I searched for consoling words of comfort and asked God to help me.
The weight lifted a little, and that night I slept a dreamless sleep between my snoring husband on one side and the comforting nearness of Willy the Cat on the other. This morning, I rose shakily to eat breakfast for the first time in three days.
It was New Years Eve. During the night, a passing storm had covered the world with a soft blanket of snow.
The first thing I did was rustle through the pages of the newspaper to find the year end poem I always enjoyed by local columnist George Ayoub. Encapsulating the national and local events of an entire year, the guy managed to arrange it all in a poem. Every thing was there - the triumphs and defeats, the deaths of those well loved and the drama of those living who are not so loved.
"And bless, too, living angels, who make this a brighter world," George wrote. "May high they hold the flag of peace, bright, shining and unfurled."
It was a little Godly message. It made me feel better, those words.
I still didn’t understand sorrowing and suffering. After five and a half decades, I knew suffering helped us grow and to be kinder people. But how did the abuse or starvation of little children benefit anybody? How did a good husband and father struggling for his last seconds in the frigid waters of an ice fishing accident help anyone?
But in the words I’d just read, life marched right alongside death, and good and evil sat closely side by side. And every day, we still strive to find happiness after sorrow, triumph after defeat, and simple joy in the goodness of family, home and work. The only thing I have to pin my hopes on, it always turns out, is my occasionally struggling faith in God. It always comes back to that.
Today is the last day of 2010. It’s been a year of breast cancer and epilepsy. It’s been the loss of my good mother-in-law’s independent life and her children’s hope that she will adjust to her last days in an assisted living facility. Those hard decisions take big chunks out of all of us. But it’s been a year of healing and courage and hope for the future as well.
I don’t know how sorrow plays into the mix.
I only know that after death comes resurrection, and that God is here.
That’s all I know.
But for this last day of 2010, maybe it’s enough.