Three years ago, before our home was ready for Johanna, we stripped most of the insides down to the studs. We found all sorts of surprises. In what is now the special kitchen for Johanna, we found the original framing for the icebox, a common built-in feature in 1920s homes. Upstairs we found newspapers from the 1940s, used as insulation between the walls. In the basement we found an old coin collection, with coins from the 1800s (we returned these to the previous owner). Ripping the house down to the studs was time-consuming but ultimately worthwhile. There was no other way to make this home a refuge. Johanna’s unique health needs required singular solutions, many of which meant taking down before building up.
In the coordination of building this safe refuge for Johanna, I found refuge in it, too. I don’t think I recognized it at the time, but I used the demanding requirements of homebuilding and caring for Johanna, along with full-time teaching, as the perfect distractions from my grief. There was simply so much to do that I could easily go without thinking about the grief and anger which Johanna’s illness had stirred in abundance. I could go days without thinking about the infuriating failures of dozens of failed medical trials. I could go weeks without feeling the loss of not being able to be with my wife. This pattern of not processing my grief and anger wasn’t new. It was more like the situations of my life had stripped my insides down to the studs, and I had the chance to see them for the first time. Instead, however, I busied myself with admittedly important tasks, burying myself in work.
What better way was there to smother grief for lost dreams and anger at overwhelming circumstances than with endless work? What better way to delay processing them than with the noble tasks of teaching, home-building, and caregiving? These tasks served as perfect scapegoats when these feelings inevitably crept in. If I was angry, it was because things weren’t going as planned on our renovations. If I was despondent, it was because it was hard to balance teaching, homebuilding, and caregiving. Eventually, however, my circumstances changed, and I no longer had as many tasks to busy myself with. When I had finished putting our house back together, my insides were still stripped apart. I had lost the precious refuge of being too busy.
The day we moved Johanna to our new house is fixed in my memory. All of our hard work was put to the test. Like a giant set of painstakingly-placed dominos toppling after the first push, dozens of events occurred in rapid succession to get Johanna into her safe space. After the final piece fell and I carried Johanna to her space, I collapsed to the floor and leaned my head on the kitchen wall. I prayed and tried to give voice to the furious emotions running through my heart and mind. Would Johanna get better here? Would this mountain of wood and glass and hope work? Her siblings and I watched and cared for her around the clock, and though she was spared an emergency room visit, she remained deeply ill for weeks, her body vigorously reacting to the new environment.
I had poured hundreds of hours of work and hopes and dreams into this house, so when Johanna arrived and was very ill, I was crushed. Like so many times before, I faced another wave of failure and loss, filled this time with the fear this house wouldn’t be the safe space we needed. I had experienced feelings like this before, but this time there was no easy outlet to delay and distract myself from them. Now that the house was complete, I couldn’t drown these feelings in building it anymore. Instead, I had dozens of hours each week to be alone with this anger and loss at Johanna’s continued illness.
I saw for the first time just how angry Johanna’s suffering made me. I saw how deeply immobilized I was by a problem so big, even a one-of-a-kind house couldn’t fully fix it. I saw my grief and loss on full display, no cover-ups, no delay. Some evenings after a difficult night cooking I would retreat upstairs in utter silence, retreating not only from my emotions, but from people as well. Other nights I would distract myself with little projects around the house or play games on my phone, none of which were inherently bad, but were done in a way to delay the processing of my emotions. I was bent on keeping a refuge of busyness intact. Nevertheless, it was clear to everyone around me that something was wrong. In my most honest moments, it was clear to me too, but I spent most of my time being too busy see it. Yet, like water trapped in a leaky pipe, my emotions were coming out whether I wanted them to or not.
If I had been asked what I was taking refuge in during this time, I probably would not have said, ‘busyness’. Though I may have blamed busyness for some of my troubles, I did not see it as a problem. I had been hiding in my refuge of busyness for so long, I no longer recognized it for what it was – a reality cleverly co-opted into a delay tactic. It was only when my refuge began crumbling that I began to see it. It would be easy for me to blame this on an inherent lack of introspection, but it goes much deeper than that. At the heart of my busyness was a belief that I was in control of my circumstances. It provided me an excuse to avoid admitting I was crushed and burdened by our difficult realities. It provided me an excuse to be angry when new problems appeared, or stubbornly refused to be solved. It provided the perfect delay to the process of lament.
If I had ever wondered why the Bible was full of God using weak and unfit people to do his work, I now had my answer. These are the only kind of people who need a refuge. These are the only kind of people living an ‘open-handed’ life. A life lived in the knowledge that every day’s problems are too big and painful to be controlled. Through building a physical refuge for Johanna, God revealed my own refuge. He broke in and pried my clenched fingers from the altar of self-reliance. He pointed me to another refuge, one where I could admit I was crushed and burdened. A refuge where I was asked to shelve my anger and learn to open my hands in humility. A refuge where I could lament and grieve. It’s a refuge I’m still learning to inhabit.
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.