Monday, April 14

Call Pain by a New Name

Dear Jacob,

This is a picture of your smiling Grandpa Wayne.  The only time I didn't see him smile was when he wasn't feeling well.  In the last few years of his life he didn't feel well a lot.

I have never known someone with a heart like your Grandpa Wayne's. He had a remarkable "pastor humor" which meant he told very corny jokes and then would smile, pleased, at himself.  He always found a way to invite people into small discussion groups with him and he loved to help others.  One time, because I was notorious for leaving my lights on, my car battery died while I was at work. I called Grandpa Wayne and he drove to the store, bought me a new battery, drove to my work and installed it for me in the middle of the day. This was the man I knew before Dad and I were even married.

He loved to take people where they needed to go, and would buy them coffee just to talk, and always, always in the most natural way possible he told people about Jesus. There are some people who have the gift of evangelism. They are few and far between.  Grandpa Wayne was one of them.  It was remarkable to watch him share the best story of his life and to have people take in his words without offense.  He told it from such an unquestionable place of love. It was the exact same place from which he looked at you when you were born.

Just about a month before Dad and I were married, Grandpa underwent heart bypass surgery.  He had his procedure done in the very same hospital and by the very same surgeon who had performed Mema's surgery...the one she didn't come home from.

Less than two years prior, we had gathered in that same waiting room for six hours, my mother, her sister, my cousins, my brother and I.  We were invited to take over a private waiting room while we awaited word from the surgeon.  The truth is, that when a nurse asks your family to move from the public waiting room to a private one, it is to tell you that your Mema has died.  It is to give you a place to react in whatever way you need. It is to allow the surgeon a safe place to briefly explain and to hold your hand with his thick fingers and say, "I'm so sorry."  Less than two years prior we were clinging to one another in that little room absorbed in our grief.

The day of Grandpa Wayne's surgery, there I was again sitting in the same public waiting room looking at the same art on the wall, watching the same security guard circle for the exact same reason.  I was skeptical of any scrub-attired nurse approaching us, any collared chaplain within earshot.  No one was taking me to that little room. It was the surgeon himself who came out to tell us that Wayne was finished and in recovery, but I didn't even want to shake his thick, scratchy hand in my relief.  That evening Dad and Grandma Lou and I went to church because I think that was something that was helpful to Grandma Lou after the events of the day. In the middle of the service all that courage, that bravery I'd utilized all day long, failed me.  All those not-so-old memories came back to me and I left in tears.

Pain is like that.  I don't know that it sneaks up on us so much as we seem to circle back around to see it again.  Think of it as if you're ascending a mountain. You don't go straight up a mountain, you circle around it, or drive through switchbacks in which you're seeing the same thing down below, but you just see it from a different perspective.  When we seem to experience pain that we thought we were "over" we hopefully see it from a new perspective and it gets a little smaller from our vantage point. There are some pains that we never leave behind though.  We just learn to live over the top if it.  We learn to let its voice get farther away.

Grandpa Wayne had diabetes. He couldn't see well, couldn't feel the tips of his fingers, and shuffled when he walked. When you were born he was on kidney dialysis three times a week, was on permanent disability and had congestive heart failure. These ailments were growing increasingly difficult for him.  Grandma Lou was a warrior-caregiver but he didn't eat quite right and he didn't watch his fluid intake. At some point in his failing health, Dad remembers. there was a specific day in which Dad became like a father to his own dad.  It's pretty safe to say that it wasn't a good day.  When you were born we all breathed a sigh of relief.  He had made it.  He had lived to see his grandson.  We named you after him.

I know that Grandpa Wayne was crazy excited to meet you.  He bought you story books about the guys he was descended from: John Quincy Adams and Paul Revere. While you don't have a blood claim to those historical figures it's cool that you're somehow still in the family line.  We'd sit Grandpa on the couch and he'd hold you and call you by your middle name. He never knew your second middle name.  He would have liked it, I think.

I would often be gone overnight to take seminary classes while I finished my Master's but one particular class had to be taken at a different campus which was near Grandma Lou and Grandpa Wayne.  One day in April I flew to Southern California while you and Dad stayed home in Grass Valley. While I was there, Grandpa was admitted to the hospital again.  He had a wound that wouldn't heal and some other complaints.

When my class took a break I went to the hospital to sit with Grandma Lou and Grandpa.  It wasn't a good sight.  He was struggling to breathe. He was groaning.  He wanted water so badly but because of his congestive heart failure there were strict orders not to give him any.  He pleaded with me to give him some.  If I could go back and change anything I'd have given him water. At the time I thought I might hurt him.  At the time I didn't know he was dying.

Grandpa had developed gangrene in his toe. The doctors wanted to amputate it.  And then his foot.  And then a good part of his leg. Grandma Lou and I were distraught with these options.  Grandpa wasn't a small man, wasn't a strong man.  How would he learn to walk again?  We called Dad who spoke with the doctors and then we said, "You need to come."  He tossed things into a bag, strapped you in and drove hard to Southern California.  He didn't make it in time.

Once they stabilized Grandpa and he was resting I took your exhausted Grandmother to get something to eat and then I drove back to school for my evening portion of class.  About an hour later she showed up at my classroom door.  I followed her outside and she told me right there on the sidewalk, clear black sky covering us, that while we'd been to dinner Grandpa had had two heart attacks.  He was gone.

It was fifteen years ago today, twenty five days before your first birthday, when Grandpa Wayne passed away.

You were a hit at his funeral, new life coursing through your aggressive beating heart, banging on the sympathy cards people slipped into your fat hands. You were the joy that tempered our pain.  You were the precious gift we were able to give the man who had adopted your dad into life and love.  When your birthday rolled around we all gathered again in our home in Northern California, held an open house for anyone to come by and tell you what a testimonial you were to grace.  We cried a little that day, because Grandpa couldn't give you more books, tell you more jokes, give you more love and guidance.

When dad had his toes amputated this was the first memory I went to. This was the first thought that crossed my mind.  It had all started in Grandpa's toes. As I sat with your dad, pregnant belly wobbling with the inside-Sam, and listened to the doctor's recommendation I was back in that Southern California hospital room saying, "Please God, No. How will he ever walk again?"

We are told that we get over pain, but really we just learn to live with it.  It always finds a way to be seen again a little further up in our journey.  It finds our weakest place, that spot on our way up the mountain where the trees are cleared away and we can see all the way down.  It fills our vision.  We begin to believe that what happened to us before will surely happen to us again.  We believe the lie that we can't change because that pain keeps us immobile. We believe that pain is what gives us our full identity. It's not true.  But pain likes to be the loudest thing in our life.

There are many things that I've had to persevere through once, twice, and again; betrayals, agony, loneliness, desertion, accusation, mockery and even death. It's not so much that I feel these things as I hear them, echoing in my head, my heart, like an empty room in my new place of address.  "He stabbed you in the back."  "She never called you again."  "She thinks you lied about her husband."  "You only thought they were your friends."  "They didn't wait with you in your darkest hour."  "You will never get through this."  Pain leaves me hollow, sweeps the floor with my hope, keeps me living in the dark.

What comforts me is to know that Jesus suffered through all of these things too. And that was just in the last week of his life.  You know the Easter story; he overcame it all in a big way.  When we rose he pulled us up with him.  He renamed our pain and called it growth.  These are the things I'm thinking about this Holy Week; I have a savior who can re-envision all of my pain.  So do you.