(A reposting of a piece I first published on my former blog in 2010.)
My 10-year-old daughter Leah and I are spending two days in the hospital. Leah and I both have a bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes brittle bones. Because Leah has had several bad fractures this year requiring surgery, we put her back on a medication protocol she was on as a preschooler, and that (we think) contributed to a nearly four-year stretch when she did not have any fractures. Because the medication is delivered via IV over several days, it requires an inpatient stay.
So this is a hospitalization without acute sickness or significant pain. As far as hospitalizations go, not so bad. Leah watches movies, does art projects and plays Nintendo, while I read for luxurious long periods that I rarely get as a mother of three. The nurses and other staff are, as always, attentive and warm. Leah orders whatever she wants to eat via “room service.” Sounds almost like a vacation. And yet it is mostly torturous—long, dull hours in a climate-controlled bubble, in which trips to the bathroom or the play area are complicated by Leah’s being tethered to an IV pole attached to her arm at one end and a wall socket on the other.
Leah’s roommate is a young girl just coming out of spine surgery. Though the curtain between us gives an illusion of privacy, we can hear everything. We hear her vomit after trying to drink something. We hear her cry a hoarse, high-pitched, “Mooommmmy!” every time the nurses reposition her—a cry so quietly desperate that I want to cry too. In that cry, I hear Leah, lying in the ER trauma room with a badly fractured femur, as the nurse explains they’ll have to move her leg to get a good X-ray. I hear myself, waking from surgery, my legs on fire inside their heavy plaster casts, sickened by the lingering taste and smell of surgical gas.
And I’m not sure which story to believe: The one about the miraculous ability of modern medicine to fix problems that used to be unfixable, or the one about the pain that no amount of drugs or toys or soothing words can banish.
The girl’s mother speaks so gently to her, tells her she loves her often, spends 10 minutes at the sink rinsing vomit out of a new Barbie doll’s dress because she knows the dirty dress will make the pain worse and the pain will make the ruined dress worse. Later, I learn this mother has eight children, all of whom, including the girl having surgery, are living with foster parents or relatives. The mother is pregnant again.
And I’m not sure which story to believe: The one about the doting mother ministering to her ailing daughter with gentle strength, or the one about the mother whose life is so out of control that she can neither care for her children nor stop having children she cannot care for.
There are several Haitian children who were airlifted to this hospital because the surgeries they had to treat fractures and crush injuries from the January 12 earthquake were threatened by infections running rampant in their poorly equipped hospitals at home. Their family members were not allowed to accompany them. The children look good. They play and smile, sporting themselves around in wheelchairs or hopping through the halls on crutches. A girl of about seven grins as a volunteer helps her nail together a small wooden house, which she then paints. I hear from nurses and doctors that the children are, of course, so needy. So very, very needy. They have temper tantrums often, and I hear several of these—wailing that goes on for 30 or 40 minutes at a time, because they cannot go outside due to the rain, or just…because. Our doctor tells us that the youngest, a little boy of about two, was so malnourished when he arrived that he just lay in bed, completely still. I pass a staff member holding him on her hip, and he gives me a grin, saying “Hi” over and over as he clasps and unclasps his chubby hand in a baby-style wave.
And I’m not sure which story to believe: The one about dying children’s lives and limbs restored in a place offering them food, shelter, care and love, or the one about children who were crushed under tons of concrete and metal, who are hundreds of miles from their families, and who will return to their chaotic, chronically poor country when they recover.
I am reminded of Yann Martel’s novel, The Life of Pi. Pi, an Indian boy, is the only human survivor of a shipwreck. He ends up in a lifeboat with several zoo animals, including a Bengal tiger he names Richard Parker. When Pi is rescued and tells his story, his tale is met with unbelief. So he tells a different story, in which he was on the lifeboat with his mother, a cannibalistic cook and a sailor, all of whom die in various gristly ways. The ultimate question of the book is: Which story do you believe? Both stories are frightening and full of death, but one—the one with the tiger—also tells of mystery, hope and miracle. Early in the book, Pi writes:
I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.
I am attuned more closely than I would like to the world’s pain. I often find it hard to believe “the better story.” The memory of that little Haitian boy’s fisty wave mostly haunts me, as I think of what might become of him when he returns home. Will his few months in an American hospital change everything for him? Or not nearly enough? I tend to believe it might not be enough.
But Easter is coming. And what, after all, is Easter about but believing in the better story? I have worshipped alongside those who cannot accept the resurrection as fact, who come to church to be in the company of those who believe in the mystery although they do not. I respect them, but I can’t be like them. I need the resurrection. I need it to be the way things actually happened, because without the resurrection, Christianity is just a bunch of nice people doing nice things in the name of a nice guy who lived a few thousand years ago. That may be something, but it does not provide nearly enough light to take on this world’s deep darkness. Without the bright light of the resurrection, I would always believe the sadder stories. They are, after all, so much more common.
I am reminded, too, of my favorite poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, in which poet Wendell Berry tells us to “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
This Easter, be joyful though you have considered all the facts. Believe the better story.