Monday, November 16, 2009

Finding God in the Bottom of the Big Green Bucket

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird      Some of my former students and some of my friends have been asking me how editing my long novel, Solomon’s Puzzle is going. To answer the question.  It's slow going!  It’s hard to know whether I should edit out the character loosely based on Ryan or if I should use J------’s real name as no other really fits… Hmm…the decisions require thought, which I’ve never found particularly easy. And then there is the tedious task of making sure there the right amount of spaces stand in the right places.
Not only that, but I’ve been busy with my growing family.
This busy-ness is an exquisite joy, but it comes with some challenges. Most of these challenges address my soul particularly my attitude toward life and others.
My son Eric and daughter-in-law Care discovered recently that they are expecting a child! The baby’s presence is a miracle and we are all thrilled and grateful, but Care does not feel well. At all. In fact, she feels terrible. She’s been suffering terribly with debilitating nausea and all the wretchedness that accompanies that affliction.
When people are sick they need different things. Some like to sleep, some like to watch TV, some insist on being left alone. My husband is one of these “lone rangers.” When he is sick he wishes only to be left utterly alone – like some great lion – to heal in private dignity. But for some people are helped by a visit.
Visiting the sick is a practice that has recently come to my attention. Though it is one of the church’s seven traditional acts of mercy, it is not easy to fit into our daily routines. In addition to the hectic schedule of the modern American, who barely has time to cook let alone visit, sickness rarely means being housebound. People with infections hardly stay home for 24 hours; they get their antibiotic and return dutifully to work. Surgeries are stitched up and patients sent home the same day. Friends express reluctance about visiting new babies not wanting “to disturb”anyone.  People are nice and caring, but busy beyond busy.

one of my exquisite joys
When I was a young mother, I had an “old lady friend” at church called Emma. Gruff, opinionated, and prone to cussing under her breath, Emma had a soft heart. She never fussed over people or said she felt sorry for them, but she showed her compassion by visiting the sick. I remember one day when I had the stomach flu and she came to see how I was coping with two toddlers while resting my head on the rim of the toilet. Though she was close to 80 years old, she amused the boys, got all the family’s laundry washed, dried and folded, and cheered me up with her efficiency. This sort of practical help is her legacy.

This one finds joy lots of places
I wish I could say that was the only time when my children were little that illness darkened our lives, but it was not so. Allergies and asthma, childhood viruses and stress meant that there were many sick days. When Valerie was a baby, Joe only 3, both Eric and I developed pneumonia. My friend Myrtle came to visit. In no time, she had a tablecloth on the table, flowers from the yard in a vase and things looking as “spit spot” as if Mary Poppins herself had come to call. We don’t realize how much we get done when we feel well, but when coughing or fever takes all our energy, disorder rules! Myrtle’s cheery restoration of order lifted my spirits and as she was leaving, she said, “When all this is over, let’s go out and do something fun.” That promise gave me something tangible to anticipate; the encouragement helped me heal.

enjoying baby Clare's bath tub
My mother had a different approach to family members being ill. If I called to tell her Eric had pneumonia, for instance, her response was, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” It was difficult to hear this unsympathetic response. She may have said this may be because she feared the consequences of illness or because wanted to instill a sense of responsibility in me, or maybe she felt too busy and overwhelmed with her own life to offer help. Her challenge and the fact that when she was sick, she craved (I mean by this demanded) attention, care and devotion, created in me the impetus to take action when loved ones are ill.

equisitely enjoying sleep
Two summers ago my daughter succumbed to mono. Other children of mine have suffered from this awful virus. Over the years, I’ve listened with cringing sympathy to students’ descriptions of their suffering. But Valerie had the worst case I’ve ever witnessed. One morning near dawn I heard her breathing change and knew that her tonsils had swelled nearly to close her throat. A rushed visit to the doctor confirmed this. In fact, the nurse peered into Val’s mouth, gasped and left the room to get the doctor. Valerie was ill for weeks. She was weak and discouraged, scared and frustrated. Faithfully every day after work Andrew came to sit with her. Andrea came to see her, and her colleague Rob Levit brought flowers and stayed for tea. Caring for her daily, I know how much a visit– even a 15 minute visit- meant to her health and well being.

So I came to this time of my life with disparate examples of how to respond to illness. As well, I’ve seen that people need different sorts of care when feeling ill. Care’s illness while pregnant evoked feelings of concern for her and also the question of what to do about it.

My instincts told me that Care would enjoy company; Eric and Care confirmed that this is true. I’ve been spending time with Care and though I am grieved and worried that she is sick, I have to admit that being with her is a beautiful blessing. We’ve had time to talk and get to know each other better. I’ve been privileged to hear her dreams and goals. And we love to talk about how much we love Eric! I’ve treasured every moment with her. She is a clear-headed, loyal, loving, just and talented person. She has great compassion and she’s brave. Every time I left her house, I felt enriched, happy for our family, happy for Eric, grateful to God, determined to keep praying, cooking, visiting etc. With each visit, wonderful things happened … to me. Wasn’t this the opposite of what was supposed to be happening?

Even before her illness, Care had been teaching me how to organize my storage. She put the garage in order before Val and Andrew’s wedding, designed my closet space and was the brains behind the renewal of my basement this summer. We had begun work on my sewing room by creating a general plan of order. Care has a magical ability to order things. As I’ve been spending time with her, I found myself suddenly and brilliantly full of this same understanding as if time in Care’s presence had turned me into a neat person. When driving home last week, I understood that by adding one small shelf to my sewing room, I could complete the attempt at order she’d begun and make the room functional. Instead of putting it off by dreaming about Hopkins’ poetry or what to do with the band bus scene in my novel., I drove straight to Home Depot, bought what I needed. I described the revised plan to Karl and together we Care-ified the room.

my Care-ified sewing room
I admit to you, dear reader, that deep in my heart I imagined that as I was gaining wisdom from Care, she might be strengthened by me. I wrote out my “Recipe for a Happy Pregnancy” by hand for her, thinking that might help. I reminded her of what Corrie Ten Boom said in The Hiding Place, “there is no pit so deep that He [God] is not deeper still.”
Care teased, “You mean I can find God in the bottom of my big green puke bucket?”
I was sure this was true but I was also sure that finding Him would mean she would feel as I did when pregnant. I hoped that my visits, my cooking, my love and cheer would heal her.
But it hasn’t.
We’ve tried everything. She still feels awful. Whereas I am wiser, full of love, blessed beyond measure by getting to know her better, she’s still got that big green bucket by the side of the bed in case she doesn’t make it to the toilet in time.
This was not my experience with pregnancy.
My husband counseled me that frustration would lead to judgment. To his kindly meant admonition, I felt insulted, got angry. But he’s right. Frustration at Care’s situation means that I’m deciding that she should be well today, that she could be well today. I’m judging Care and God. Uh, oh.
This is not true, nor is it for me to decide. Recognizing this means I have to humble myself; I have to look at that big green bucket- which I despise for all the suffering it represents- and realize that I am called to love and give, but the healing is up to God.
How startling to realize that God healing Care does not mean that God will make Care like me!

Have you ever seen your reflection in a convex surface? Your face looks ridiculous, the nose too big, the forehead stretched. That’s how I’m “seeing” myself now in light of the “big green bucket.” My view of my role in the world is distorted. How embarrassing to think that my attention could have turned from concern for Care, who is the one feeling ill and suffering, to concern for me, my time and my pride! It’s humiliating to think that all I’ve done (you know how I value my own works!) might not solve the problem—might even make it worse. I should note here that the special protein-filled cookies and marvelous challah bread I brought her upset her stomach. Sigh. It’s humbling to think that I’ve traded precious editing time and not gotten what I assumed would be my payment from God- that is- relief for Care.

Care and Eric are seeking the Lord. Because of this, I know they will find Him. That bucket might stay beside Care’s bed for another day or week but that doesn’t change the truth that they will find Him because of who He is, not because they are squinting really hard in their seeking or because I managed to devise the right recipe. Here’s to each of us finding God in the bottom of our big, green buckets!


  1. I loved reading this beautiful. I loved visiting others and enjoyed visits from my friends during times of illness. Our society doesn't allow us to do that glad you are able to visit with Care during this hard time she is going through.

    Karl.....such wisdom!

    Thank you