It was mid-October a year ago when my mom had brain surgery to remove a tumor from her left frontal lobe. Hovering over the place where her speech and emotions live, the tumor had grown quickly enough to cause a seizure and lost time. I remember how nervous we were when it all happened on a night nobody expected, how my mom and I laid in the hospital bed together and tried to piece together what her recovery would be like. And then there was the surgery, the good report, the way we sat quietly waiting for enough hours to pass to see what the side effects might be.
I remember how my dad and my aunt and I all slept in the CCU waiting room, and how one really doesn’t sleep in a waiting room but waits while pretending to sleep. I remember the woman sitting next to me and the odd way she talked to herself while trying to get comfortable on the teal vinyl chair for the night. Her teenage son had overdosed the night before. There was a family in another corner of the overnight waiting room whose patriarchal member was suddenly diagnosed with late stage esophageal cancer, and I remember my aunt, a former ICU nurse, telling me his prognosis was poor. I remember how we lined up, all of us, at the doors of the ICU and waited for the nurses to buzz us in during visiting hours. What brave smiles we all wore, and how we took any little sign of improvement as proof that all would be well. There was that lady whose husband had had a massive stroke. “They told us he said a few words!” she said with a beaming smile. It was unlikely that he would walk again, but he had said a word or two, and that was enough for hope and resilience to blossom on her face.
The man in the room next to my mom’s never had a visitor. I thought about sitting in his room and praying for him while he slept. I wish that I had. I don’t know why I didn’t. I will never forget his brown toes peeking out from beneath the sterile hospital blanket. Someone give him some socks, I kept thinking. He needs some socks.
During visiting hours a couple of classical violinists came and played hymns for the ICU patients, and I stood there by the nurse’s desk with tears in my eyes, the non-patient who didn’t know how to reconcile all the hope and grief living in that hospital corridor.
Less than a week later, I sat outside with my mom on the deck behind her house. I made some spiced tea for us, the Tennessee weather cooling off while we sat and watched the squirrels empty the backyard bird-feeder of its contents. I pretended to read but really I just watched my mom. She looked anxious. Do you want a book or a magazine, I asked her. No, she said, adjusting the headscarf I’d bought for her to wear post-surgery. She picked up her phone and then set it down without looking at it. No, I’m just trying to organize my thoughts. They’re always going off in weird directions. I can’t catch them.
We watched TV, she slept a lot, my dad and I cataloged every strange thing she did and googled “brain surgery recovery” when she wasn’t looking. There wasn’t a lot to recovery besides waiting and worrying and praying.
When I traveled home to my husband and kids in Missouri, I tried to process all that had happened that week, that month, that year. I couldn’t remember a harder year. And yet, my mother is fine. Healthy, thriving, nothing to remind us much of a brain surgery or the weeks of wondering what our family would look like when it was over. I sent her a text yesterday: Happy brain tumor removal anniversary!
Last week I dreamed of my grandmother. She died nearly two years ago in January. We buried her right after a snowstorm. In my dream she was exactly the way I remember her best—before Alzheimer’s, before she stopped speaking, before she didn’t know us, before she shrank down to the final version of her earthly self. In the middle of a night last week she was laughing the way she did when she squinted her eyes and showed all her teeth, as if she knew the joke was on her and she was glad to be laughing about it. That’s the way I remember her, the version that shows up in my dreams from time to time and reminds me that maybe she’s laughing that big in heaven with Jesus, but the joke is clearly on us because we’re not there to see her tuck her chin down and laugh with her eyes closed. When I dream of her, I always feel happy but wake up with a knot in my throat.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been remembering and writing. In some ways, I thought writing a book would be easy. It’s just communicating what’s true. How hard can it be? Turns out, it involves a lot of sitting in front of my laptop and watching my tears puddle on the table. I have unspooled the thread of my life to examine all the ways God has been near, and it has left me breathless with thankfulness. There is a good portion of loss, a surprising amount of grief. But there is so much grace that I could never find a vessel large enough to contain it.
I have wondered why at times the Lord allowed certain grief and at other times only brushes with it. Why did my mother leave the ICU with a full recovery ahead of her but the man next door was unlikely to wake up? Why do we have thirteen years of infertility attached to our histories? Why do my husband, sister, and I all have lifelong chronic illnesses? Why did we get to keep our son? Why did my grandmother suffer from Alzheimer’s cruel grip for more than six years? Why didn’t we get fired from church ministry a decade ago? Why am I sitting here free from physical pain when my life used to be characterized by it?
Why are some days suffering and others grace?
Why is it so hard sometimes to tell the difference between the two?
It’s good to lay out the past and remember where you’ve been. In detailing the gifts and griefs and the blurry line between the two, I find one constant. The steadfast love of the Lord is the thread that stitches together my past, present, and future. He’s sewing something beautiful, something that’s connected to a much larger tapestry. It’s hard to trace the pattern. I can’t even see it most days. But I know He’s pulling together the threads of joy and suffering in your life and mine, and He’s continuing the story He planned before anything existed. On the days when the thread looks frayed and faded or maybe pulled so tight it could snap in two, this is when we remember that the One who’s weaving together our future has never lost a thread, never dropped a stitch, never made a mistake. His story will be good no matter what, and He will use the pattern that draws our eyes to the unifying thread the most. He will use what will keep our eyes attentive to His presence and His steadfastness the most.
Maybe it involves long nights in a hospital waiting room, or maybe months making trips to a cancer treatment center. Maybe the pattern includes a pregnancy test that just won’t turn positive. Or a loneliness that presses your chest with grief every day of your life.
Sometimes the pattern feels like the wrong one. Wrong design, Lord. Pick another template. I’ve said as much to Him before. This was not a good plan, Lord. I would have done it differently. But my plans would never have involved me laying face down on the floor in my living room pleading with the Creator of the universe to be near to me. So, I never would have seen Him answer that prayer in a thousand different ways if not for the grief and pain that put me on the floor in the first place. I think it comes down to what dictionary I’m using to define good.
Here’s what I know: the Lord never withholds what is good from His children (Ps. 84:11). He will never keep from us anything that would have been for our good. He even uses what is evil or broken for good because He is the Redeemer (Gen. 50:20, Rom. 8:28). If He has said no to some dreams or ended other ones, it is because He has seen the finished project and knows the way the seams should run. We can trust the One who designed the pattern. When He seems to be withholding good things, He’s giving us everything we need. When He closes a chapter, He’s giving us everything we need.
It’s Him, friends. What we need is always Him, and He always meets that need.
His love is high and deep and wide. It fills in the thin places where our doubts about His goodness thrive. When I look back at the story He’s written thus far, I know I can trust Him with the parts I haven’t read yet. His nearness, the way He has loved us with His nearness—it is the constant. It is the thread that holds it all together.
During the days of my mother’s brain tumor diagnosis and surgery, she and I came to study Psalm 139:5 separately. Neither of us knew that the other one was holding tightly to the same verse.
“You hem me in, behind and before, and You lay Your hand upon me.”
I can’t think of a more assuring promise than to know that the Lord has completely surrounded us with Himself.
There is no stronger, more binding thread.