I could feel my heartbeat in my head, like someone had installed a miniature bass drum inside of it. My heart was racing and I felt the blood pulsing through my chest and head. My wife was dying in the room next to me and I was singing worship songs out loud, trying to get my body to obey the rhythm of my voice. The previous sixteen hours had been spent sitting in a chair outside her bedroom, tending to her vomiting and needs. As my beautiful wife kept puking, I kept a vigil. It was her third week of non-stop retching. Our visit to the emergency room weeks earlier had made things worse. We had gone home because things were not getting better. Now, with Johanna at home and unable to take even sips of water without puking, I sat and watched. I read books to her, read Psalms to her, and prayed for her, all while offering her the smallest sips of water to wet her cracked and parched lips. My world was being crushed by the smothering darkness of disease, pain, and impending death.
Many of my nighttime vigils were filled with griefs and pains that literally bent me over. I could barely stand. Often I was flooded with tears, trying to keep them quiet so as not to disturb Johanna as she endured her relentless migraine and puking. Returning to my bed at night, after being relieved by the arrival of Johanna’ sister, seemed surreal. If I slept, I kept waking with fright. My days blurred together in a sea of distress, grief, and adrenaline. My heart would not stop racing. When I sat, stood, laid, or walked, my heart was beating to rhythm of my grief – a pounding, steady rhythm. So at night I kept singing in my bed. I kept singing in my bed as I tried to reign in my shaky body. I needed to follow the rhythms of another kind of world – the world of worship. I needed to step into the well-worn paths of other Christ followers through song, instead of being washed away by the gaping loss which clung so near. My heart needed a new beat to pump with.
Johanna almost died. But she did not die. A final, desperate emergency room visited yielded an unusual medicine, after many failed attempts, that kept her nausea at bay. Large doses of steroids allowed her to receive vital salts and fluids. Two weeks later she was at home, weaning off steroids and starting to feel sick again. We could see her old life and symptoms returning, plus or minus some safe foods and medicines Johanna could eat and take. Despite Johanna’s returning, ‘normal’ symptoms, what we used to call our normal life did not return. We had been profoundly shaken by the past month and our normal felt a long way off. I still felt my pulse throbbing in my head. I woke at random times throughout the night. I felt strangely fragile and weak. A few weeks after our return I journaled,
I’m not even sure how to categorize what has happened to us. It feels like a sort of slow-motion car accident. We’ve come out on the other side, but things don’t feel the same…. My inner narrative is telling me that after the worst happens, things get better… After things are the worst, they can still be bad. It is in moments like this where I feel myself deeply unsettled… I feel my inner strength drained. I feel shattered.
It is in these kind of fragile and shaky moments that I am most thankful for Jesus’ call to follow Him. I’m particularly thankful it’s a call to follow, not a call to strike out on my own journey. In the fragility of my mind and body I more willingly accept the well-traveled ruts of the Christian life. Singing my way to a slower heartrate while Johanna’s body starved and dehydrated, letting the rhythm of another song dictate the pace of my heart, was one of the ways I did this. As I did so, the words of the songs, often forged from their writers’ own distresses and griefs, were reminders of the deepest comforts of God. As I sang different Christian hymns and songs, they not only calmed my heartrate, but also stood as reminders of God’s presence in our distress. Pouring out my heart to God in song in distress was simply imitating a long line of others to Christ, who Himself sang a hymn with his disciples at the Last Supper, before being arrested and crucified. Moments like these are reminders to me that the shakiest and scariest moments of my life are not without a well-trodden path forward. This path is filled with Christ’s presence, who comforts in every circumstance, and who invites us to walk with Him through the darkest valleys. We will arrive with Him on the other side, because He knows the way.