God on a Respirator: A Reflection for Good Friday

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I began writing a reflection for Lent back in early March. Then the world got turned inside-out as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, filling intensive care units, distancing us from each other by six feet or more, wiping our calendars clean, and confining us to screens within our homes.

When I went back to take a look at my pre-COVID-19 reflection, I found that I could no longer relate to what I’d written; my words belonged to a former life.

I am going to begin with two assumptions:

1) That Jesus Christ is “God the Son,” and

2) That what we are commemorating during Good Friday and Easter is Jesus’s death by crucifixion, followed by his resurrection from the dead three days later.

I recognize that not all of my readers will share those assumptions, but I am not going to spend time arguing them here. (If you’re interested in excellent, logical arguments in this arena, I’d refer you to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.)

So.

COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the lungs. It destroys lung cells as it starts to replicate, which triggers the immune system to step in. But the immune response may also destroy lung tissue and cause inflammation, which can lead to pneumonia. As the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fill with fluid, it becomes more difficult for the lungs to get oxygen into the bloodstream. People who die from COVID-19 are usually dying from multiple organ failure and septic shock due to lack of oxygen.

Crucifixion, which was developed by the Persians around 300-400 BC, was perfected by the Romans and used as a punishment for the worst offenders. It’s death by slow torture: Hands and feet were nailed or tied to a cross, and as the arms and legs gave way over time the victim would bear his entire weight on his chest. This put the victim into a state of perpetual inhalation; death resulted from suffocation or organ failure due to the resultant lack of oxygen.

In other words: Both COVID-19 and crucifixion involve death by asphyxiation.

I have been reflecting upon this over the past week. What it means, if you accept my opening assumptions, is this:

God has experienced firsthand what it feels like to die from COVID-19. 

God has felt the crush of chest pressure, God has gasped for breath, God’s oxygen saturation has plummeted, God’s heart has raced and then stopped all together.

I’m just going to leave it at that. I’m not going to interpret it or tell you how it should make you feel.

You may find it comforting that God in human form underwent the worst that the world can throw at us, and therefore understands what we are experiencing right now.

You may find hope that, in rising from the dead, God demonstrated that death does not have the final say and promises an ultimate resurrection of all things.

You may feel infuriated. “I don’t want your sympathy, God,” you may be thinking. “If you know how bad things are here, why don’t you FIX them already?”

All of those seem like valid responses, good places to start. Let’s approach Good Friday with whatever we’re feeling, be it awe or anger, and let God take it from there. The most important thing, it seems to me, is that we feel something.

How to Thrive

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I have never been a big New Year’s person. As an introvert, I’d rather be curled up at home in pajamas with a book than at a late-night party. The transition from one calendar year to the next doesn’t excite me much, and resolutions have always struck me as futile attempts to delude ourselves that a new year will bring automatic personal renewal.

But this year, as 2019 becomes 2020, I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m choosing a word to focus on for the new year. The word is THRIVE.

My word for the new year is a rebellion against the diagnosis handed down to our infant son, but it’s also a resolution for our entire family.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

A Still Small Christmas

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I hesitate to assume that there’s such a thing as a “typical” Christmas, but if it exists then I feel quite confident in stating that this has been a very atypical Christmas for our family.

As some of you may know, I have spent the past five days in the pediatric inpatient ward of the University of Vermont Medical Center with our 7-week-old son. This was completely unexpected and sudden. Our entire family – including all four daughters – had driven happily up to Burlington for some scheduled testing for the baby. We’d planned to have lunch and look at holiday decorations after what we assumed would be an hour-long appointment. But, to quote Joan Didion, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” And in that instant, we were being told that the doctor was concerned about our baby’s growth trajectory and wanted to admit him to the hospital for “failure to thrive.”

So, without any preparation or planning, without a toothbrush for me or extra clothes for the baby, and with a long list of pre-Christmas plans and to-dos that was going to require sudden and extreme revision, I found myself ushered into a pediatric hospital room. I found myself discussing who-takes-the-girls-where-and-when logistics with my husband (whose birthday was the following day.) I found myself groping through my own dashed expectations as I tried to explain to four teary girls what I knew of the immediate plan, and how little idea I had of anything beyond the next couple of hours.

This is not a medical drama, so I will very quickly set your mind at rest about our son: He is fine. He was tiny at birth and has always been a robust spitter-upper. His pediatrician has been monitoring his weight since birth, and everyone was pleased with his steady gains until his spitting up increased dramatically after a routine outpatient hernia repair surgery. His weight gain never stopped or reversed, but it slowed. After a couple of days of testing at the hospital to rule out Big Scary Things, he was diagnosed with severe reflux, which we will manage at home until he outgrows it eventually.

But I didn’t know the end of the story as I sat in our hospital room that first night, trying in vain to sleep in a pull-out chair while my freaked-out baby fussed beside me and nurses came and went all night long. The next days would be the darkest of the year; this made a certain narrative sense to me. What I couldn’t quite manage was to find the sense in our situation – I couldn’t figure out where God was in the whole thing.

Even though you know better, it’s so easy to fall into thinking that life should reward the good and punish the bad. We are adopting our son, not to earn brownie points with any person or deity, but because we love children (this one in particular; he’s our son) and we wanted to provide a good home for a child who needed one. Since his birth, our sweet boy has not had an easy road: Each of his seven weeks of life has brought some new health wrinkle – none deeply serious, all treatable, but most of them involving a degree of disruption and discomfort for him and for the rest of our family. All of this is outweighed by the extravagant amount of love the little guy has brought into our lives. Still, the temptation every time we hit the next hurdle is to say, “Really, God? This kiddo has been through so much; can’t he just get a break? We’ve all been through so much; would it have killed you to make this just a little less hard?”

On that first night in the hospital, I looked out the window at a narrow strip of dark winter sky barely visible between the buildings opposite our room, and my heart screamed, “Where ARE you, God?”

A passage of the Bible that I’ve always loved for the beauty of its language is 1 Kings 19:11-12. The backstory is that the prophet Elijah has been doing everything right, risking his life by warning the Israelites and the corrupt King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to turn back to God. In response, Ahab and Jezebel kill all the other prophets and threaten to do the same to Elijah. Elijah escapes into the wilderness, where he is on the run for forty days and nights until he reaches a cave on Mt. Horeb.

11 Then He [God] said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. [New King James Version]

When Elijah hears that still small voice, he knows it’s God, and God gives Elijah instructions about what to do next.

It took me three days in the hospital to realize that the answer to my cry, “Where ARE you, God?” was: Right here. It took that long because God’s voice didn’t boom down from heaven, there were no chariots of fire, comets, flashy miracles, or apparitions. But there was a still small voice – a series of them, in fact.

God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire:

God was in the nurse who, while tenderly giving my son a bath, told me how she’d switched from geriatrics to pediatrics seven years earlier, when she learned she couldn’t have children.

God was in the young man from Patient Transport who, while wheeling my son down to a swallow study, told me how he drives his mother an hour to her haircut appointments in our town. (“She used to go with my grandma, but after my grandma died, I started taking her.”)

God was in the doctor from radiology who, observing me walk the halls for an hour as the barium solution moved through my son’s digestive tract, ushered me into the staff break room. “There’s a nice, big window,” he explained.

God was in the gentle hands and kind words of the countless doctors, nurses, and staff throughout our stay who counseled us and brought bottles, warm blankets, white noise machines, and mobiles to make my son more comfortable.

God was in the faces of the hospital patients – the really ill ones who passed us on gurneys in radiation, the other children on the pediatric floor – and their caregivers.

God was in my parents, who took our daughters at no notice and provided them with love, security, and fun.

God was in my husband, who couldn’t have cared less that his birthday had been overshadowed, and who drove an hour up to and back from the hospital numerous times to bring me clothes, toiletries, and Chipotle dinners.

God was in my daughters, whose primary concern was never their own plans, but the fact that they were separated from their baby brother.

God was in the stunning sunrise in the strip of sky between buildings on the morning of the darkest day of the year – a reminder that there is always light in the darkness.

And God was in our baby, because this experience taught us that he needs us, and we need him.

Since this all happened days before Christmas, I was thinking of another baby, too: A New Testament baby who was the embodiment of the “still small voice” in 1 Kings. Isn’t that just like God? He doesn’t show up like you’d expect, in the earthquake, wind, or fire, or with the rich, powerful, or lovely; He shows up in the hospital corridors, amid those who suffer and those who serve. He shows up as a helpless newborn baby, born in a barn on the back edge of an empire. There may have been choirs of angels in the sky, but God lay in the straw crying for milk.

On this most atypical of Christmases, I learned to stop scanning the skies for those angel choirs, and to listen instead for the still, small voice in the dark.

On the Art of Waiting

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“I can’t stand it! I just can’t wait any longer!”

I hear these words from my daughters on a daily basis, it seems. Sometimes they’re spoken in frustration, sometimes in excitement. Always, the object of their waiting is something pleasurable, wished-for. It might be a birthday, time with a friend, a destination, or simply dinner. These days, of course, it’s Christmas. The problem is that they’re not there yet; they have to wait.

“It’ll come,” I tell my daughters repeatedly. “Just be patient.”

Right now, we are smack in the middle of Advent. The major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter have built-in waiting times attached to them: Easter comes after 40 days of Lent, and the four Sundays before Christmas Day make up the season of Advent. We celebrate Advent by lighting candles (our church lights one candle for each Sunday, but our family has an Advent wreath with a candle for each of the 24 days prior to Christmas.) We open the doors on Advent calendars (our family prefers the ones with a small piece of fair-trade chocolate for every day of Advent.) We play Christmas carols and decorate the house.

In these modern times, we also spend Advent shopping, addressing Christmas cards, and running around to a dizzying variety of holiday parties and events.

I was surprised this year when I heard an interview with the British poet and priest Malcolm Guite, in which he said that Advent used to be a time of quiet, a time to stay in, a time to be thoughtful. The celebratory part of Christmas would begin on Christmas Eve and last for the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany; Advent was a time to be still and wait.

But we don’t like to wait, especially in our current culture of high-speed internet, movie streaming, and free two-day delivery. The way in which we spend modern Advents is further evidence of our impatience: We distract ourselves from the wait by filling the days with a flurry of activity. How can we be still when there’s so much to buy, do, and bake?

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Holiday Hullabaloo Makes for Tired Mom

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We were just between the main course and dessert of our Thanksgiving meal, when my daughters asked when we could start decorating for Christmas.

Once I’d convinced them that it was not appropriate to begin ripping down the Thanksgiving gourds, turkeys, and autumn leaves and to retrieve the Christmas boxes from the basement immediately, they began happily making plans for the Advent season in between bites of apple pie.

“Oh, I can’t wait to make the Christmas cookies!” my ten-year-old exclaimed.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Dispatch from the West Coast

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I’m writing this at the dining room table of my brother- and sister-in-law’s home in Orange County, California, on the final day of a weeklong visit with family on the West Coast. From where I sit, I see the clear blue sky that hasn’t changed all week; the Southern California weather has been perfectly sunny, warm, and dry. I see the red tile roofs of neighboring houses in this suburban development, where nearly every day we’ve walked a few steps across the lawn to the neighborhood pool. I see a row of palm trees; despite having spent five years as a California resident myself, I never get over the palm trees.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Walking the Labyrinth

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Were you to ask me what our family has done this summer, my response would be, “Very little.”

This summer, my daughters decided they wanted to do nothing. With the exception of a handful of brief or sporadic local activities, they shook their heads at any sort of camp or sport. Many of their friends head to sleepaway camp for weeks on end; not one Gong daughter has even a passing interest in such a thing – and, as a former miserably homesick camper myself, I’m not inclined to push it.

Sure, there was the weeklong vacation in Maine. A couple of trips to the lake and the pool. A few outings to local museums. And that’s about the sum total.

Now, this isn’t my first rodeo: When it became clear that our summer calendar was going to have its fair share of blank spaces, I printed out a nifty little sheet for each daughter with the heading, “My Summer Goals.”

“Just think of three things you want to accomplish this summer, and write them down,” I instructed them. “That way, you won’t feel like you didn’t get anything done this summer.” This is parent code for: Good Lord, we’ve got to have at least a little bit of structure or we’re all going to KILL EACH OTHER!

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Of Anniversaries and Trampolines

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The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing also happens to be the 17th anniversary of my marriage. Laying the two events side by side, I’m not sure which is the greater miracle: the amount of planning, coordination, brainpower, technology, and skill required to land a man on the moon, or the amount required to pull off our wedding (to say nothing of the ensuing marriage!).

The 17th anniversary is apparently the “furniture anniversary,” so it seems fitting that this week my husband installed a major piece of outdoor “furniture” that allows our family to defy gravity just like those Apollo 11 astronauts. That’s right: We got a trampoline.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent — now on the op/ed page!

Why Build Sandcastles?

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Ever since I was pregnant with our first child twelve years ago, with a few exceptions, our family has spent a week of every summer at the Maine coast. This summer was no exception. Our daughters consider Maine one of the fixed points of their year, and look forward to our summer week there all of the 51 other weeks.

This year brought some changes, as is inevitable with the passage of time and the aging of people. Some were bittersweet: Due to a combination of busy-ness and illness, my extended maternal relatives visited Maine for only a day instead of staying the entire week. But some were sweet: My growing daughters no longer wake at dawn demanding entertainment, being now content to sleep late and spend slow, quiet mornings reading, drawing, and talking. They can apply their own sunscreen and help lug beach paraphernalia. For the first time, we were able to enter the gift store in town that’s full of breakable items, where my daughters chuckled over the card that said, “Let’s get this party started (because I’d really like to be in bed by 11!)” – which they suggested getting for their father – and debated over which welcome mat would be most appropriate for our house: “Welcome to the Jungle,” “You’ve Made it This Far,” or “The Neighbors Have Better Stuff.”

But the beauty of our Maine week – and the reason I suspect it holds such a special place in our daughters’ hearts – is how few things change year to year. For the past six years, we’ve stayed in the same house, with a big climbing rock out front. Each visit entails several nonnegotiable activities: multiple visits to Perkins Cove Candies and the Corner Café, daily beach and rock climbing time, and an excursion to Dunne’s Ice Cream (formerly Brown’s) and Nubble Light, with dinner at Fox’s Lobster House (where their Nana spent a summer hostessing during high school.)

And when we go to the beach, the girls always build sandcastles with their grandfather – my father.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Underneath My Game Face: A Good Friday Reflection on Truth

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My five-year-old daughter awoke in the middle of the night calling for me. As I tucked her back into bed, she was in a sweetly groggy, half-asleep state.

“Mommy,” she said, looking up from her pillow, “who should I be in my dream?”

It was such a beautiful, strange question that it caught me off guard.

“Well,” I ventured, with the sense that my answer might be vitally important, “why don’t you be yourself?”

This seemed to satisfy her. “Okay,” she nodded, closing her eyes. “I’ll just be Abigail.”

As if it were that simple.

***

For my first two decades of life, I was adept at molding myself into whomever others wanted me to be. My goal was approval: I could walk into a room, sense the prevailing winds, and do or say whatever would make the majority happy.

It hit me in my early 20s: I had navigated college, graduate school, and my early career, but I wasn’t certain that I’d ever had a single original opinion. What did I really think about anything? I’d spent my entire life asking who I should be, instead of who I was. Had anybody told me to just be myself, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

At this point I was teaching third grade at a private girls’ school in New York City. I was 25 years old. (I look back now and marvel at how anybody ever trusted my 25-year-old self with a classroom full of eight-year-old girls, but we all survived.)

It was the year 2000. This year, a threshold to a new century, was also a threshold moment in my own life. It was the year that I started taking baby steps towards my self. I was a year post-recovery from an eating disorder. I’d been dating my future husband for a year, and had begun attending a church that would be pivotal in shaping my faith. I was beginning to accept that I needed to make the best choices for me, regardless of whether I’d make everyone else happy.

I remained a mess of insecurities, bitterness, and confusion – things I struggle with mightily even today, mind you – but the steering wheel was starting to turn that would alter the course of my life ever so gradually, like a gigantic cruise ship changing course.

In the fall of 2000, Nadia walked into my third grade classroom. She was a bright, energetic eight-year-old, so it was a shock when, in November, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw.

***

Nadia was the first person I’d known with cancer. I remember Nadia’s mother, Judi, who seemed so strong despite the obvious emotional pain she was suffering. I remember Nadia during the various stages of her treatment – chemotherapy, surgery to remove part of her jaw and replace it with part of her shin bone, and more chemo – who seemed so strong despite the obvious physical pain she was suffering. She missed a lot of school that year, and on a handful of occasions I visited her apartment after school to work with her one-on-one, so that she wouldn’t fall too far behind.

In my memories, Nadia’s cancer ended with the school year: She completed her treatment, the cancer was gone, and the prognosis was excellent.

Five years later, after I got married and quit teaching, I left New York. We moved across the country to Berkeley, California so that my husband could go to graduate school. Much like the photographs that we packed into boxes and have never re-opened, the seven-year chapter of my life that happened mostly between East 86thand East 96thStreets was boxed away in the attic of my mind.

But sometimes Nadia slipped out. Every once in a while – when I added another name to the list of people I know with cancer, for instance, or when I read my daughters Patricia Polacco’s powerful picture book about childhood cancer, The Lemonade Club– I’d wonder how Nadia was doing.

***

This February, while searching for something completely different on the internet, a book popped up: Motherhood Exaggerated, by Judith Hannan.

That’s Nadia’s mom! I thought. I’d forgotten that Judi Hannan was a writer. I clicked for more information. In 2012, she’d written an entire book about Nadia’s journey through cancer.

I ordered a copy of Motherhood Exaggerated, and for the week that it took me to read I could hardly concentrate on anything else. It is a gorgeous book. On one level, it’s about parenting a sick child and how the effects of a life-threatening illness continue long after the illness itself has retreated, but it’s also about the broader themes of life, love, suffering, and the struggle for hope.

I read Motherhood Exaggerated as someone who’d been there but hadn’t fully experienced all aspects of Nadia’s illness. I read between the lines, recalling the bits of my own story that intersected with Nadia and her family. The book resurrected places and people I’d packed away in my mental attic years ago.

Then, one night, I turned a page and found myself.

“Ms. Cinquegrana [my maiden name] is young. She exudes a quiet serenity, which is a soothing contrast to the bubbly smiles and cheerleading attitude of hospital personnel…. Ms. Cinquegrana is always unflustered by Nadia’s appearance or latest medical crises. On the three or four occasions that she has come to our home to work with Nadia in the past few months, I would sneak peeks of her sitting with Nadia on the floor. Their bodies are always learning toward one another; their quiet talk is punctuated occasionally by giggles. It is a vision I cherish; their time together is a true oasis for Nadia.”

Don’t we all sometimes wish we could know how others see us? This was my chance, and it was a flattering portrait. But after reading that paragraph about my 25-year-old self, my first reaction was: It’s a lie.

 I don’t mean that Judi Hannan wasn’t being honest. But what she saw, what she describes, was my “game face.” know that this quietly serene, unflustered young teacher was a seething cauldron of conflict under the surface. Reading Judi’s description of me only drove home the degree to which my inside hadn’t matched my outside.

Don’t get me wrong: If this was my game face, it was an appropriate one. I’m glad that I was able to be a true oasis for Nadia. This same game face would serve me well less than a year later, when the lower school headmistress pulled me out of class one morning to tell me: “A plane’s just crashed into the World Trade Center. We don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not good, and it’s probably going to affect some of our parents. Our job is to keep the girls calm and in school for as long as possible.”

I’m not suggesting that we wear all of our emotions like a wardrobe; restraint and self-control are often the best choice, particularly when dealing with children. I only wish that I’d actually felt the “quiet serenity” I was somehow able to exude; that it had been my personal state, rather than a professional mask.

***

If I could reach back through time to Ms. Cinquegrana, I would tell her that she still has some rocky years ahead on the journey towards selfhood. September 11, and her marriage ten months later, will shake the ground beneath her. She’ll lose her bearings on who she’s supposed to be. She’ll quit teaching and enroll in a graduate program for photography – an interlude that, 15 years later, she still can’t quite understand. Then she’ll close the door on New York, move to California, and start having children.

It will be those children, those four little girls born in six years, who will force her to take her self seriously – because when you have four pairs of eyes studying you for guidance on how to be a person, it’s impossible to conceal that your inside doesn’t match your outside.

***

One night in Vermont, when all my girls were in bed, I read this line in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth.”

And I thought: YES, THAT is who I would like to be, and teach my daughters to be.

I no longer wanted to put on a happy face…or a kind face, or a brave face. That’s exhausting. Instead, I wanted to actually become happy, kind, and brave.

***

I don’t think it was an accident that Motherhood Exaggerated popped up on my laptop screen at the start of Lent, sending me on a voyage into the past, opening the boxes in my mental attic and plumbing the depths of who I was, who I am.

Lent is a time to take stock of our insides. If someone sacrifices themselves to save your life, chances are that you will take stock; you will think hard about how to live the life that’s been given back to you.

That’s the story of Jesus and Easter.

Lent is a time when I ask myself, “Do I really believe this crazy thing?” And when the answer is YES, my next question is, “If this is the truth, is my life telling the truth? Does my inside match my outside?”

The answer is always NO, of course — for all of us, I suspect. But when I look back, I can see that every year the distance between YES and NO gets a little smaller. It is a slow, often painful process, learning how to be myself. I have become more patient with this; it takes a long time to turn a cruise ship around, and it’s not even my hands on the wheel.