Archive for May, 2014

This I Believe

WebofLifeIn my religion, each member has a different belief system based on their experiences. Every year my Unitarian church asks 4 people to present their own sermon of sorts. We are given 15 minutes to share what we most believe at this time in our lives and how we got there. Often times it is an opportunity to share what is unique about your path. I was given the honor of sharing my This I Believe a couple of months ago and wanted to share it with you all as well:

I have written this presentation at least 5 times, each time it was completely different. It is amazing how many things you can really BELIEVE a matter of 6 weeks. If I had stuck with earlier drafts, you would have heard about my Catholic upbringing, or my passion for the arts and theater, or 10 minutes on how amazing my little girls are. Eventually I realized that I have had three events in my life that have shaped what I believe more than any others.

The first was my baptism, a sprinkling of water that tied me forever to my Catholic roots; to my grandmother who only voted democratic once — for JFK — because the trinity trumps politics; it ties me to the midwest and a family that goes back 6 generations in Iowa alone. This baptism would one day allowed me to be an “altar kid”, carrying a solid wood cross twice my size down the aisle, almost beheading the entire 3rd row before my dad caught the swaying cross-turned-weapon, saving the priest who was dodging just behind me.

The second event was actually two separate moments in time, those two moments when my entire world split open and sprung my most precious gifts, my girls, who shook my life back down to its roots with the purest love I have ever experienced.

The third event was less so an event, it was more like an unexpected redirection. Now that I think about it, it reminds me of the time I was learning to jump horses at camp. My horse decided she was done working, one jump before I was. We ran at the gate from across the ring, I leaned forward, ready to soar over the fence with power and grace, and the horse stopped dead in her tracks. Sending me flying over the gate without her, thrashing as I hit the dirt.

Eight years ago, 10 months after the birth of my first daughter and about 4 months after my husband Bryan and I signed the book here at WBUUC (after hearing about it at a Peter Mayer concert), a searing ribcage pain sent me into my GPs office begging for relief. It took over a year of undesirable tests and failed diagnosis to realize that this was not just an irritating bump in my path, I had again been thrown from the horse and I had no idea how to get back up.

I was born Catholic and I fell in love with a Jew. When Bryan and I came to the doors of WBUUC we were like many, first baby in our arms and looking for something my original faith had not offered. I wanted my child to know the same kind of community I had, but so much more. And, I wanted her to understand that there was something bigger than herself out there, whatever that would be. The idea of spending a moment of peace here each week, looking out that window, listening to this music and pondering what I believed seemed such an absolute indulgence to a crazed working mom still nursing her first-born. Before the pain I had the luxury of believing, or nor believing anything I chose. When the pain moved in, I needed my beliefs to stand the test of adversity.

When I first heard the term web of life it seemed a sweet, if a little hippie-dippy, concept reminding me to care for the world around me, to follow the golden rule. My experience of chronic pain has given me a deeper understanding of the life and death nature of this principle. In the movies, when someone becomes seriously ill they take to their beds, absorbing the care of family and friends until they come out triumphantly on the other side. In the world of a lower-middle-class mom, you have an invasive medical test and then hurry back to work before your lunch break is over. I dream of a day in bed.

I am diagnosed with a disease called Sphincter of Oddi, a rare and incurable disorder effecting the valves in my pancreas. It causes a variety of digestive fun along with 24-7 ribcage pain, it is similar to gall stone pain. To put that into perspective, every time I’ve stood up here to read, or in the Religious Education classroom to teach, or waited in line for morning coffee, I have been in pain. I am in pain right now. I control the intensity to a certain level with medications delivered through an implanted Medtronic pain pump.

The experience of chronic illness is not the stuff of movies. At its worst, chronic illness makes you feel as though you have been kicked off the web of life, rendering your own existence unrecognizable. The medical system is not the God-like place we hope it will be, when Doctors run out of solutions they tend to push you away, or worse, make you feel that your pain is only in your head somewhere. Employers, who once appreciated your investment, start to see your sick days as a hit to their bottom line. And after 8 years, even the most dedicated friends start to fatigue. It is hard to blame them, I went from a person who spent her time chatting about Gossip Girl to someone preoccupied with her fight for insurance coverage. I’ve also witnessed something I’d never imagined would happen, loved ones finding fault with my choice of treatment and using that as a justification to completely ignore my disease. Ultimately, I think it is just to hard for them to come to terms with the fact that I will have this pain for the rest of my life and they cannot do a thing about it. But, it is the most isolating kind of coping mechanism I’ve experienced. I have looped the steps of grief for each of these relationships many times, mourning a loss of faith and trust that I had in them.

At them same time I have become someone who absolutely needs people, something that feels very out of fashion in our up-by-the-boot-straps culture. I’ve had Doctors listen to me and treat me in a humane and loving way. My current employer trusted me when I said I could leap into a new career, chronic pain and all. I have friends and family who call every time I go through another test or procedure, sending cards with words of encouragement — even 8 years later. They have supported me in every way possible, including the roof over my head.

Many marriages falter under the weight of chronic illness, when the in sickness and in health part becomes very real. I married a man who meant what he said. Bryan has been my constant advocate and soft place to fall. And when my girls come flying into the bedroom in the morning, urging my grumpy butt up-and-at’em, I am grateful for their inspiration. These are the people who have grasped my wrist and held me on the web of life when it felt like no one wanted me. When if felt like life itself had betrayed me.

People are always trying to find a silver lining in all of my pain. I think they want to make something they cannot imagine into something they can feel OK about. I’ve lived with it long enough to be OK with that fact that it just plain sucks. The thing that makes it OK , even more than meditation or prayer, is the active love of family and friends. I believe more than ever that we all belong on this interdependent web of all existence: healthy or sick, rich or poor, working or jobless, thin or fat. I think we all like that idea, but only if the beings on the web meet our specifications, meet our criteria for deserving support and love. I hope that this experience has and will continue to teach me to love without conditions and to understand that we all have something important to share.

I can assure you, from the position of someone who knows: a day, hour or even minute spent stoking the star-dust in someone’s pained soul is the holiest of work.

 

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