The older I get the more I realize that the worst kind of ache we experience is the helplessness we feel at our inability to take away the pain our loved ones are experiencing. Internalizing a loved one’s pain can lead to anguish and heartbreak, but it can also lead to our redemption.
I’ve heard stories of more than one person who has a chronic condition that leads to tremendous suffering. Doctors and nurses can attest to the fact that they’ve seen patients worry about their loved ones more than themselves. Patients feel bad to see others suffering because of their condition, so they try to cover their suffering as much as possible.
My mother is an example of this. She is the toughest, strongest person I have ever met. She suffered more than any person I’ve ever met; yet she remained above it and tried to keep it to herself so we wouldn’t worry about her.
One night I was reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The story is about a killer who plants body parts of one of his victims under the floorboards. One night he hears the beating of the heart of his victim coming from the floor and his conscience gets to him. When I got to that part in the story, I heard a moan in the distance. It was eerie, and I wasn’t sure I heard it or imagined it. It was as if the moan was planted to heighten my experience of the story. Then I heard it again. The moan came from my mother’s bedroom. I rushed in to see if she was all right and if there was anything I could do. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were up here,” she said. She saw the worried look on my face and tried to reassure me. She had been found out, but — as good mothers do — she wanted to reassure me. “I’m all right. I’m sorry you had to hear me. I’m feeling a little pain in my foot. It’s nagging, and I just can’t seem to get over it. I wish we could get to the bottom of what this is.”
My mother suffered from neuropathy. This is a condition where one has suffered from peripheral nerve damage in the feet, which leads to numbness in the feet and an inability to move them properly. It was the result of her diabetes. She had no feeling in her foot, and as a result was limited in her movement. Without the nerves there, how could this agony be generated? We took her in for X-rays. The doctors discovered she had a skinny sewing needle in her foot!
For the longest time she mistook the pain as a byproduct of her neuropathy. She stepped on the needle in the garage. When the doctors stitched her up, they never took X-rays. They had no idea that she had a needle there. Sometimes it was worse than other times, but it was always with her. There was nothing they could do. The needle was wedged in too deep and became part of the bone.
My mother learned to live with it and adjusted her life to the nuisance of the pain. It made her mindful of every step she took. She moved gingerly, planting one foot in front of the other, trudging along. It took her longer to get places as a result and she managed to navigate the greatest obstacles with care and, at times, ingenuity. She used her upper body more, and I could see her visibly shake when it was too much for her – especially her later years.
As I reflect back on this, it boggles my mind how courageous she was. That night I heard her crying out loud, my mother made a pact with me that we would be honest with each other about the pain we were feeling. It was a pact that would come to serve me well. She inadvertently taught me the power of being honest with myself and, ultimately, being honest with others.
Years later my mother was diagnosed with spine cancer. I felt as if that needle in the foot was made manifest in a new way for her. She began to fall quite a bit as a result of the tumor that was growing on her lower spine. She was more and more dependent on others to help her.
Her imminent death was like that needle in her foot. It was a nagging ache that she would need to learn to accept and make peace with as best she could. As a result of her willingness to make peace with it, she was able to conquer it.
Such is the way of life. When we learn to make peace with our adversity, we learn to live in a way to help make us stronger. There is always tension in life that forces us to reconcile with challenges in a way that empowers us. Adversity forges the muscle of determination.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the more we reconcile with that, the easier it is to accept it and make peace with it. We learn it to a point where we are able to work with it in life.
My mother knew firsthand the excruciating pangs of Christ’s suffering. She literally lived with the needle in her foot. Every movement brought stinging and burning chills through her being. At one point, every step she took on the Via Dolorosa of life was a step of agony and uncertainty, but she made the steps to show us the way. She knew that there was something beyond her that she needed to lean on literally and figuratively. She knew she needed others to help her through her suffering and at times wait on her to help her through it. She knew this spiritually as well.
I sense that she knew her example of working through suffering would be a lesson to her children and grandchildren about life.
It pained her to be reliant on others. She told friends how sad she felt that we (her children) had to help her with her basic care. Like everyone, we recognize that reliance on others undermines our independence and can seemingly undermine our dignity, but it doesn’t. It deepens our recognition of our dependency on others and dependency on God. My mother was redeemed in the act of accepting help, and we were redeemed in offering it to her.
We all have a nagging ailment. We all have that needle in our foot in some way. It’s that one thing that seems to hamper us in life and keep us from living to the fullest. How we respond to it and battle to over come it makes all the difference in the world.