Monday, November 26, 2012

How do you walk alongside someone in pain?

How do you walk alongside someone in pain?

For the last seven years I have been the caregiver to someone in great pain. Her pain is physical, spiritual and emotional. For all the articulations she has made of her pain and the answers to the inevitable why? why me? she still carries the sequels of her brain hemorrhage as an open wound. By her side, sometimes against all my emotions, I have witnessed her pain and felt my own as I m sure all caregivers do. The most basic lesson I have learned is that I cannot start feeling compassion and then be able to be a companion if I don't acknowledge my own pain and embrace it as part of this new life.
I began looking or examples of this type of "companion" pain, or compassion (suffering with)when I found a copy of Gibson's movie The Passsion. These are my raw notes after seeing the movie once more.

The Passion of the Christ –movie by Mel Gibson,
The Canadian Movie Classification posting at the beginning of the movie reads: brutal violence and classifies it as R (restricted). I wonder how Ruandans or Salvadorians would classify it since they are familiar with the brutality of recent genocide and war. We Canadians have a sanitized version of life.

The movie starts with a dark scene in a garden where Yeshua Nazarit is in a deep struggle in his soul as he faces the pain and execution prescribed to rescue men’s souls. This is a man choked by raw fear of the known. He knows exactly what he is walking into. No surprise, just fear and finally submission. The beatings start almost immediately. Any image of current police brutality comes short of what is portrayed in horrific detail. I wonder why I feel shocked by this sadistic brutality, is it because Yeshua was innocent of the charges? Is it that this type of brutality and level of violence is uncommon to me? Would my reaction be different if I lived in Gaza today? The colonizer is always brutal with the defeated, in this case, however, the violence comes also from neighbors and friendlies, and maybe this makes it more horrific because it chips away at the false sense of security coming from the belief that my neighbours will protect me.

Nonetheless, I find myself most deeply moved by every scene in which Mary silently accompanies her son in his trial, torture and crucifixion. She is portrayed as a stoic woman, at the same time, she is given an aura if wisdom. She does not succumb to her emotions. She feels and suffers deeply, but keeps her heart in check by remembering everything she had heard about her son even before he was conceived. She knew this end was coming. The old man Simon had told her. No surprises there, but a mother will never be ready to see her child hurt. Witnessing this pain seems to cut deep, as deep as the whip cut into Yeshua’s flesh. Stoically she follows the procession don Via Dolorosa as a silent witness, just a stone throw away. Their eyes make contact during the ordeal. He knew why this was necessary, he had come for this; she also knew the prophesies. He takes the blows and feels the pain. She feels the pain of her son as if it was her own. She cries openly with every blow. The other women also cry openly by such violence. Why so much sadism against a peaceful rabbi? When he can, he looks at her to give her comfort by reminding her that this was written and He has to go through it. She looks back at him with all her love of a mother. She would like to soothe his pain, run and embrace him just like she did so many times when Yeshua was a child. Both are witnesses of each other’s pain, and both are willing to pay the price, because of what they have heard from Adonai. Yeshua had suffered his agony in Ghetsemani where he had come to fully accept his Father’s will, Mary suffered hers over the passion.

Watching Mary suffer and witness his son’s death brings in my heart a new dimension to the concept of motherhood. I wonder how much pain my own mother witnessed in her life. Pain from her children, pain from her parents, pain from her siblings. At the end she was a woman full of love and sadness. Sadness for the losses she experienced and love for what she had learned about God.

The passion of the Christ is the passion of Mary. They are different and they are the same. Both knew the purpose and both ran the race together to the end. In this sense, Mary was the first disciple and the one who spent the most time with Yeshua. What she didn’t tell us through a book, she told us by her courage and faithful presence all the way to the cross.

How can I continue to walk alongside my wife? With compassion and a solid understanding that pain is only a part of the journey. With caring friends that also walk along with me and remind me that there was a resurrection.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Brain Injured

Dear Jan:

I was reading the medical reports from day 1, and I just felt overwhelmed with the realization that you were in some moments closer to death than to life. The Plastic Surgeon said last week that you are well know around this hospital. I wonder if one of the reasons is because you were not supposed to survive the magnitude of this aneurysm, and the other reason is that having survived, you have recovered beyond their expectations.

Why are you so special?
In a sense you are strong proof of the plasticity (flexibility) of the brain. Without a language centre, your brain is re-writing word by word, rule by rule, the language program to another section of your brain. How is this happening? No one seems to know, but everyone can clearly see the daily improvements in your speech. How does the brain move the program to control the right hand? No one seems to know, yet, your right hand is coming back. Neurosurgeons, neurologists, psychiatrists wonder about this resilient quality of your brain. In part is your determination; in part is the way the brain heals itself, given the right therapies and the right supports; in part is how God designed this wonderful biological thinking organ, made out for the most part of fat. Somehow, you are challenging old notions and stereotypes and continue to heal beyond the point when most give up.

Your brain has been injured and the rest of the body shows the effects. I notice how people make judgements about you, some take a look at you and decide that it is the same Jan from before, just requiring some minor adjustments; others take a look at you and wonder if the damage to the brain has impaired your cognition to the point where you know and think and react only partially, sitting on top of this evaluation, they feel magnanimous because they can extend you a hand.

At the end of every discussion of who is the new Jan, I have to go back to the only person who can answer this: Jan.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Trust in the middle of pain

Pain, some say, makes us stronger. Pain is a universal experience. So instead of spending energy and time trying to figure out why some days I feel I am getting a bigger share of pain than the average, I am learning to experience the pain, keep my larger context present and find the small rays of light left in my days, so then, I can be thankful. I know it sounds counter intuitive, but it works.
At one level thankfulness is the expression of trust, and trust is the expression of love. I cannot love if I don't trust, and I cannot say I am trusting if I am not thankful.
The American Dollar says "in God we trust", well, not really. The founding fathers believed that, but the majority today don't even recognize God. If they trusted God, they would be a loving and a thankful nation, because the good book says that God is love. However, all the evidence points to a greedy, self-serving nation, always looking for a spin on what they do.
So, when I say I trust God, I mean that in the middle of my pain, God's love shows up as a soothing energy that fills my psyche with comforting peace and thankfulness. He shows that he loves me by reminding me of his commitment to walk with me to the end and his promise of not paying me as I deserve, but rather being merciful to me. In spite of the pain, I can be thankful, because he is around.
I suffer when I see Jan in pain. This is because I love her. He reminds me that he understands pain because he also suffered for this pain in Jesus. He reminds me that the pain does not come from God, it comes rather from the broken arrangements in our broken world that have affected everything, including our health. I remember that he made a good world, then my ancestors came and messed it up. He doesn't like the mess we made, but He does not leave us alone.
Pain seems to be the opportunity to really understand thankfulness, trust and love. Love does not run when the going gets though. Trust does not melt in the middle of the battle. His presence is not diminished even if in the middle of the pain my trust wears thin. Why? because this is a two way relationship in which one side never changes his promise. I may run out of strength and trust, I may find myself at the end of my rope, I may feel like I have no love left in me to go on, yet, right there, I know God is near giving me extra love, trusting I will choose to rely on his strength rather on mine, and freeing enough space in my heart to be thankful (opposite to entitled).
If I printed my own money, it would be too presumptuous to write as a motto "In God I trust", because, in the darkest hours of Jan's illness, I feel I have lost my trust. Yet, deep inside of me I can repeat Wumbrandt's words: "if I am unfaithful, I am unfaithfully yours"

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Spring Time!

It's Spring time!
I was waiting for this milestone in the annual calendar with great trepidation. The impact of a long winter on my psyche is more than the SAD syndrome, or having had enough of "cabin fever" because of the the cold. I tried spending as much time as possible outdoors. I tried being active. I tried being social. None of that seems to convince these old bones that some cold is OK; that people seem to be more productive in the cold weather; that cold days make good occasions for great family time. Nonetheless, I felt cold, too cold.
I will chalk it to my Mexican origins. I lack the genes of those born here.
Jan continues her progress in small steps. Now and then, there is a major setback, mainly when she has a seizure.
In our marriage she is the faith backbone. Despite the pain and impediments she continues trusting God, while I continue to question the dark night of the soul we are going through.
The main struggle is with a sense that we have been thrown out of our purpose. What was that purpose I thought we had and now we have lost? That is a big question for the next blog.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

6 Years Ago an Aneurysm Changed our Lives

Six Years

A Saturday morning six years ago, I was sitting on the waiting room of the ICU of a hospital. I was feeling bomb- shelled. A handful of my closest relatives had spent the night with me waiting to hear from the surgeons who began operating on my wife's brain, trying to stop a bleeding that happened the night before.

One of the surgeons had come around 3:30am to tell us that they had completed the surgery. The aneurysm causing the bleeding had been clipped. Now it was a matter of waiting to see how her brain reacted to this traumatic invasion. They had brought her to the ICU. She was hooked to a respirator, which kept her alive. Her brain was too weak and traumatized to do this alone.

The surgical team had taken a couple of bone plates from the left side of her head to allow more room for the brain to swell. She had a white bandage covering her head. She laid there, unconscious, oblivious to all the commotion of the ICU and to the angst that had flooded hearts and minds of family and friends that slowly had been informed of the tragic event.

We could visit her in groups of two for only a few minutes. She needed rest. I remember her sister, holding Jan's limp hand with a look filled with sadness and the weight of a thousand tons on her shoulders. I don't know how I looked, but she reflected my feelings. I did not really know how to feel when something like this happened to my wife!

During the day a couple of surgeons came to explain to us what was going on. They said her brain was "angry" and was reacting by seizing up. If this continued, the brain would swell, seize up, and potentially die. We had to wait for 72 hours to see whether her brain would stabilize. If her brain died, Jan's body could continue to live thanks to the respirator, but she would be like a vegetal.

Friends continued to arrive in a steady stream during the day as well as relatives from other towns. The word had spread like a wildfire. I remember the mountains of love and support I received that day, while at the same time, I was going in a free fall inside of me.

Initially I had gone through the motions of calling the ambulance and going through ER on just adrenaline. Now, the initial shock and fear was turning into a tension. One part of me was willing to accept the comfort received from loved ones.

At the same time, another part of me was falling into a dark vortex in which I had to face dire prognosis from the surgeons; the implications of the paperwork I had to sign with the order of “do not resuscitate”, if her brain would die; the multitude of questions about this tragic event. I could not reconcile what I knew about a loving God with this incredible pain that was swelling somewhere in my core. I needed to find an explanation that would tell me why this was happening to my wife. Why her? Why now? Why didn't this God stop this from happening?

Our life together was collapsing in front of me and I could not do anything. I was having the equivalent to an emotional aneurysm. Many people told me many things. I am sure many of those words were very wise. However, blinded by pain I was unable to remember most of them. I can only remember their faces full of concern and compassion. I needed them desperately, but they seemed to be standing on the other side of thick glass wall. The only comment I remember is what Jan's dad told me "keep things in perspective". I didn't know then what he meant. Years later, his wise advice sank in.

My spiritual mentor arrived during the night. She didn't say much, rather, she walked alongside in silence while I paced in that ICU corridor. We walked shoulder to shoulder for hours. She did her work without words. Occasionally she touched my shoulder gently to let me know that she was still there. I cried bitterly in silence. Eventually, I was able to get a sense of comfort and companionship. In my darkness and desperation, I needed a light, a rock to regain my footing. Deep inside, I heard a soft but convincing voice, assuring me that I was not alone

Six years ago, my life changed forever. It had changed several times before, but not as dramatically and painfully as this time.

In hindsight, I can see that six years ago I began my graduate work in relationships. That day I began to clarify who I was and what was my purpose in life. I knew I was starting a long and difficult road in which I had to trade logic and strategy as essential tools in life for compassion, patience and totally new understanding of integrity: being one with my words and commitments.

After all, five months earlier I had told this unconscious woman in the ICU that I would love her in health and sickness... and now the opportunity to prove it to her was in front of me.

Six years ago, I began a path that has taught me how far human love can go.

I am grateful.