I doubt that there is any mental torture comparable to watching our loved ones suffer, especially when there is little or nothing we can do to help them.
In What Is God Like?, my favorite among all my earlier books, I have written at length about my own ordeal as, along with my mother and brother, I stood by and watched my father slowly die of leukemia. We all knew he was dying; he didn’t know, and the three of us had decided not to tell him. My father’s nature was happy and buoyant, really almost childlike; we all felt that his confidence that he could get well just might help bring about the miracle. Week after week if he endured the needle in his veins, while hour after crawling hour the blood of his many friends dripped into his body to keep him alive. His bone marrow had been almost entirely replaced by leukemia cells, and although he was conscious until the end, there was never any real hope. After all these years we still have not stopped missing him, but the night he died, we thanked God that he was free of his pitiful ordeal.
I learned much during those days of watching my gentle father, who had never been ill, find his own way through his suffering. He was magnificent! I, who had always been proud of him, had never been so proud. His childlike confidence in Jesus Christ, from the moment of his conversion just a few years before his illness to the moment of his death, is still strengthening my confidence.
Watching my mother’s courage in the midst of her suffering during those months was equally as difficult for me—especially during the hard days when she was confined to her bed with a painful back injury and could not visit Dad at the hospital. She suffered both mental and physical anguish.
During one of his brief stays at home, Dad had gallantly tried to get to the breakfast table to eat with Mother and watch the birds at the feeders. This had been the morning routine for almost all the years of their married life. To have a breakfast at the table with her again, to see those birds, suddenly became terribly important 88 to him. Mother pushed him to the table in the wheelchair, and as he struggled to lift himself from the chair in order to sit “like always” in his favorite place, he fainted, fell directly on Mother, and caused a serious muscle tear in her back.
What seemed to sustain her during those days when she was confined to her bed was the fact that she had managed to keep my father’s head from striking the wrought iron corner of the kitchen table.
Strange, small things like this help us through our own suffering. Perhaps even our questions help too. I soon gave up trying to convince Mother to stop her daily puzzling about how such a dreadful disease as leukemia could strike my father who had always been in excellent health. She went over and over theft carefully planned menus. Mother is a marvelous cook, and I have no memories of poorly planned, unnourishing meals at home. “He always had lots of rare beef and steak,” she would repeat. “I could never get him to eat liver, but I saw to it that he compensated in other ways.” My mother is an intelligent worn- an, widely read on medical and scientific facts. She knew perfectly well that my father’s fatal disease was not caused by a faulty diet. Even if he had eaten unbalanced meals, there was no medical evidence that this could have affected the situation one way or another. The only theory (and it was just a theory) which anyone set forth was that perhaps as a dentist he had over-exposed himself to dental x-ray through the years. Even now, Mother will sometimes repeat her little routine about how strange it was that such a healthy, 69 well-fed man could contract leukemia. Occasionally I try to change the subject, but only occasionally because she is a woman with a healthy mind and healthy emotions and has never kept her grief alive by dwelling on these thoughts.
Her questions helped her during those days while we waited, though. They occupied her thoughts and gave her a puzzle to solve. I could see the relief it brought her, even though—and this is my point—her words tore though me like knives. My father and I were very much alike in appearance and emotions. When something affected us deeply, we couldn’t talk about it. I still can’t, but it helps Mother, and I believe this is one of the secrets of watching a loved one suffer:
To direct our own attention to another person in need.
If you walk a hospital corridor alone, as I have done three times within the past two years, there’s no problem finding another lone watcher to at tend, even in a small way. I remember one poor lady who had stayed around the clock for five days with her dying husband. When we met in the hospital corridor, I tried to be pleasant in order to encourage her, but she helped me so much one day by the simplest question imagine able, She smiled a little and said, “Your feet get to hurting,’ don’t they—after awhile?” My feet did hurt, and it helped that she knew.
I watched my mother endure intense physical pain alter she fell last year and broke her leg.
My own suffering was eased, though, because my 70 dear friend Nancy Goshorn watched with me.
Nancy and her aunt, Mother’s neighbors, had managed to get my mother to the hospital in an ambulance the night she fell in her own kitchen, staying in off the icy sidewalks “because I don’t want to take any chances of falling right now [ Genie’s working so hard to meet her dead line on Lighthouse.” Nancy and my brother were with her for the surgery, and then there was only Nancy until I could collect the final pages of my manuscript and hop a plane. I finished marking the pages at the hospital while I watched by Mother’s bed. But this was a different kind of watching. Mother was in agonizing pain, especially when she had to try those first labored steps with the walker, but she wasn’t going to die. I hew that, and there was Nancy’s unbelievable love and devotion, which sustained me far more than Nancy believes.
Each time of watching is different, Our questions can vary all the way from “Why did this have to happen now?” to “What next?” Occasion ally we even find ourselves able to laugh because laughter and humor are among God’s greatest relaxers. But there is nothing harder to bear than watching the pain of a loved one while we stand by helplessly.
My best friend at Ohio University was a fun- loving, dark-eyed teen-ager named Eleanor. We weren’t much alike, but we were “best friends” then, and the years have not changed our friend ship in spite of infrequent visits. Aside from having learned a lot of the right and wrong things together when we were kooky college kids, both of us have always loved writing. Eleanor has been a successful newspaper woman since her graduation
from the university, and she is doing a marvelous job as an editor for the Miami Herald and as the author of the widely read advice feature called “Column With a Heart,” which she writes under the name of Eleanor Hart.
Over a year ago, another college friend told me she had heard that Eleanor’s beautiful and talented daughter, Mary, had been in a coma for months in a Florida hospital. Eleanor and I don’t write often, so I knew nothing of this. In answer to my airmail letter, I received the following clip ping from the Miami Herald column for 9 August 1970—reprinted here with her per mission.
WITH GOD NOTHING
SHALL BE IMPOSSIBLE
A hospital is another world, its heartbreak and hope unknown to the mainstream of society until . . . until tragedy catapults a loved one into its Twilight Zone. Only then does the agony of human suffering, which hospital personnel live with every day, come alive for the complacent in that other world of regulated conformity.
Yet, miraculously, human beings do have a “fail-safe” system that enables them to live with misery. How many times has it been said, and exemplified, “God does not send a cross heavier than one can bear?”
Today’s letter is from a mother whose daughter has been on the critical list for
more than a month following brain surgery.
Dear Eleanor Hart:
Strange as it seems, one can learn to live with agony—agony of a devastatingly sick dear one who hovers not only on the brink of physical recovery, but of mental aware ness.
God knows I am not alone. There are thousands who have, and who are, living with a similar nightmare the nightmare of looking at a beautiful young person prone, a tube in her throat, her right arm stilled by paralysis, the sweet little girl face once so mobile, now immobile.
And the eyes, my God, the eyes—those enormous pools of amber sadness that seem to look right through you, then turn away.
“It’s Mother and Daddy,” my husband and I chorus hopefully at her bedside. “Hello, darling. We Jove you so much. You look beautiful. You’re doing fine, May-May (her pet name as a child). You’re going to get better, we just know it,” Sometimes the left corner of the mouth tilts slightly, then the eyes shift—left, then right.
“I think she knows us,” my husband theorizes comfortingly. “Any day now, there’ll
be a breakthrough.”
I echo his hope orally, but in my thoughts the horror stalks, unrelentingly…. Will we 73 ever again hear her say in that sweet, gentle voice, “Mother and Daddy”?
Oh, God, what I wouldn’t give to hear her say, “Oh, Mother!” in the tone of exasperation she always used when we disagreed about some trifle.
1 say “trifle” because any grief I thought I’d ever known is lust that Thoughts multiply into a mirage of torment:
Why can’t God take my life and resurrect her? Why should I, at middle-age, be in good health while my darling, less than half my years, lies there, an inert form with only a ghost of life?
It does no good to go to bed and pray never to awaken. That would be too simple, and who would benefit? Only I.
No dawn breaks eternally, and gradually, mercifully, I am learning to live with the horror—not only the agony of her suffering, but of not knowing what the outcome will be.
Yet, my husband and I are fortunate. We have each other, and somehow the burden of interminable anguish is less when two people bear it together.
“I know she’s going to make it, honey,” he says softly, and the look in his amber eyes, so like hers, has a warmth that reaches out and enfolds me.
Numbly, I turn away, fighting, fighting, fighting to stem the tidal wall of tears, and reminding, oh reminding myself a thousand times of the words from St. Luke:
“For with God, nothing shall be impossible.”
Signed—Living in Hope
My friend didn’t have to tell me that she, the columnist, had written both the editor’s note and the letter. I recognized her poignant, readable style, but I also recognized her writer’s need to attempt to ease her own heart’s pain a little by puffing some of it down in words. This helps those of us who write for a living, and it helps anyone in anguish of any kind. Some relief is bound to come from pouring it out, but I’m also certain that Eleanor strengthened her faith by reminding herself that “God does not send a cross heavier than one can bear” and that “…..with God, nothing shall be impossible.”
I learned later that she had been forced to write anonymously, as though she were a reader, because her rest had been disturbed so often by well-meaning but insensitive persons from a variety of religious sects who insisted upon calling or catching her in the hospital corridors to urge upon her and her heartbroken husband theft special “healing” prayers. “We appreciated theft interest, certainly,” she told me during a recent visit in my home. “But most of those people made me feel creepy—as though they might try to get me down on my knees right there in public. I had a funny feeling that their insistence in the face of our obvious grief and exhaustion some how had more to do with theft egos than with Mary’s getting well!”
The end of Eleanor’s story will be told in the next chapter since this chapter concerns the agony of watching loved ones suffer. I’ve had some experience with it myself, but I doubt that I would have dared write this chapter had Eleanor and Noel Ratelle not shared with me at least some thing of the horror through which they lived And they did live through it; in less than a year from the date of that column, I spent a genuinely happy day with them. Eleanor’s face still mirrors the deep suffering, but her mind is seemingly free of bitterness. Neither she nor Noel ever brings up their shared tragedy, but they speak of Mary naturally. Our conversation about theft painful watching period—six long months—was my idea. I wanted to be able to handle this chapter with authenticity because some of you may be going though the same kind of debilitating anguish.
The watching period, when you can do nothing, it seems, but watch and wait and wonder in your heart what Cod’s part in it really is. How He will get you through it. You wonder in your heart and try, try in your own way and according to your understanding to handle the questions which will almost surely come.
Do we dare confront those suffering through a watching period with the fact of Jesus Christ? If we know Him as He really is, yes. We will not deepen their bruises by speaking of Jesus because He is the One about whom Isaiah wrote, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench….”
Those who “barge in” upon human suffering may come in the “name of Jesus, but certainly they do not come in His nature.
Jesus never forces entrance, never insists. He waits No one could understand the agony of waiting, of watching as He understands it. He always moves within an aura of gentle, firm, en lightened tenderness, experienced as He is with watching His loved ones suffer without Him— without knowing that He is there—waiting.
So, I have written this chapter, feeling that Eleanor and Noel Ratelle would agree that Jesus Christ waits with us as we watch our loved ones suffer. And with joy and gratitude I have dedicated this book to them.