Where Pain and Love Mingle Freely

For Jesus and for us too, incarnation is a dance of strength and brokenness, of abundance and fragility.

Liz Tichenor / 5.25.23

This essay was originally published in the Sickness & Health Issue of The Mockingbird magazine. 

Toward the end of June, that dreaded second pink line finally arrived for me. It was faint but definitive. I had only coughed a few times, and I figured it was just allergies. All the same, I was going to see my seven-month-old goddaughter that afternoon and I wanted to be extra cautious. I pulled a test out from our stash of BinaxNOW boxes and swabbed vigorously. Fifteen minutes later, there it was — a quarter inch of dye that changes all plans: Covid.

It was Friday just past noon, my kids were still at swim practice, and I flew into action. My most pressing concern was not how I felt (I felt fine, I kept assuring myself!) but finding someone to cover for me on Sunday. I am an Episcopal priest, and I knew that finding a sub to lead my congregation on not even forty-eight hours’ notice in the summer would be tough. I called and texted and emailed everyone I could think of, wracking my brain and wringing my hands. Finally, after several hours of searching, a dear friend agreed to do me this favor. I pulled the covers up under my chin and fell fast asleep.

I hid myself away from my family and slept for days, as if the positive Covid test had given my body permission to recognize that it was, indeed, sick. The cough had quickly settled in deep; my lungs were a strangely shallow home for air, unable to fill up without leaving me hacking. I was too tired even for Netflix or for shopping online. Time felt slippery and slow. And then, gradually, things began to shift. In between naps I realized I was bored and lonely. I was also increasingly anxious about my work, concerned for all the things left undone, the folks left hanging, the growing heap of tasks I would have to return to before long.

Driven by this mounting worry and still isolating from my family, I opened my laptop. I couldn’t do much for many current projects, given my state, so instead I slowly began tackling tasks that had been looming on the back burner for ages. I read through every last page of our church website, updating each as I went. I began sifting through all my accumulated email. I organized several years’ worth of agendas and minutes from our church’s governing board. I had Covid, sure, but damn it, I was going to be productive!

Fast-forward several weeks, and I had another opportunity to heal. This time it was planned: I was the lucky recipient of a gum graft. It’s oral surgery in which a periodontist takes tissue from the roof of your mouth and sews it along your gums to treat recession. I cannot recommend this; it is every bit as painful as you might imagine. I was also the proud owner of wild misconceptions of what this recovery might entail. I knew it would probably be difficult to speak for a while and had arranged for another priest to lead in my place that coming Sunday. But as I considered my condition, it was my mouth that hurt, not my fingertips, and so I was back on email the day after surgery.

That afternoon, I felt an irrepressible urge to tidy up. A friend was coming over to lift my spirits with root beer floats, and the house was a mess. I scurried around, gathering dirty dishes into the sink, filling the laundry basket, apparently forgetting that it was this same friend who had picked me up from my surgery the day before. He had all but carried me to the car, still woozy as I was from the sedation. He had brought me home, had mixed honey into yogurt to try to coax something through my throbbing mouth and into my empty stomach. He had found the ice packs and helped me to the couch to sleep off the worst of it, his eyes kind through it all. And now, a day later, it seemed necessary to clean the house.

Meggan Gould, Living Room, 2020. Courtesy of the artist: www.meggangould.net

We talk about the incarnation of Jesus, the way God took on flesh, walking on this soil and breathing this air, how the divine somehow came to make her home here among us. And we, too, live in this wild mix, the Holy evident in our human bodies, the image of God mysteriously, miraculously, imprinted on us all. But this wonder doesn’t just come in triumph or success. For Jesus and for us too, incarnation is a dance of strength and brokenness, of abundance and fragility — both sides kissing each other again and again, all our days.

And yet so often I get confused, thinking that it’s my own striving that will produce strength, and my own ability to push through pain that will pull me into abundance. I leave so little room for what is fragile, or for what is outright broken. And then, occasionally, I am reminded of how Jesus acknowledged and even settled into his own human frailty. That’s easy to miss, or to forget, because so much of the time we focus on what he did with and for other bodies: feeding folks who had so often gone without, touching those bodies most people would carefully avoid, healing beloveds who had long been plagued by all manner of illness. Which is all good, and beautiful, and complicated. But what about his own body?

I cajole myself to remember how he stole away from the crowds, withdrawing by himself to the wilderness to rest, to pray, to simply be. He must have been bone-tired, his back aching from all that healing, his throat raw from telling parable after parable. And so he left, eking out room for his own restoration. This, too, was part of his teaching, leading us by the example of his absence.

And what are we to make of the time when he seems to be unhealable, his death looming large as he and his friends make their way back to his inevitable end in Jerusalem? They don’t yet know the second end of the story, the one where he rises. They certainly don’t know that he will still bear open wounds, even then. Maybe he knows and maybe he doesn’t, depending on who you ask. But if he is fully human, I have to believe this man quakes with fear and dread. He knows the suffocating pain that is coming for his flesh. And his response? To feast, and to settle into the love of his friends. A woman comes with nard, this wildly expensive ointment to caress into his body. It’s perfume to cover the stench of death, and they’re that close to the end, they may as well begin now. Some of his students argue, questioning the lavish spending, and Jesus waves them off. He needs this tenderness, both to receive it and for us to see it, for us to know that this is part of living the good news. His body is breaking, and so he stops. He lets this friend love him well.

My mind returns to the afternoon of my surgery. My memory was blurry, the various sedatives and painkillers still slowly working their way out of my system. I had been resting on the couch for some indeterminate amount of time, my head propped up to ease the swelling, my pup Mabel curled up at my feet, when I heard the front door open quietly just behind me. I didn’t have the energy to turn to look, but soon enough I saw two figures slide into view, carrying a third. Two beloveds and their baby, my goddaughter, coming to check on me. They had watched my own kids for the day, and now with them off to soccer practice, my friends circled back to me.

Their voices were low and gentle, sweet not with pity but love. They wondered if snuggling their daughter might be what I needed? I began to cry at the thought, both longing for that closeness and also recognizing that I was too weak to safely hold her, and I told them so. No matter, they are clever, more so than I could be in my pain. They lifted her to me so I could nuzzle her goodness, smell her warm babyness, be reassured that there was such perfection as this fresh incarnation. They didn’t need me to do anything. All I had to do was to be held up by the faded, lumpy couch and receive their love.

Their presence struck me as a kind of in-between space. I was not well, and yet our time was not about fixing my body. Instead, it was host to a different sort of healing. It was the kind of restoration that begins in simply existing. It comes in stealing away to the quiet, in taking that absurdly expensive ointment and pouring it on even though it will cure nothing, stop no death. This in-between space is one where pain and love mingle freely — there is no requirement that the pain be gone, or even dampened, for the love to arrive. There is no prerequisite that anything be solved or accomplished, which turns out to be its own kind of balm.

I feel like I ought to be more practiced at this lesson. As a priest, I spend plenty of time supporting others in these situations — joining them in the wake of surgery, or in the uncertainty that follows a stroke, or in all the worry of waiting to hear about their beloveds before any answers come. The truth is that it is far, far easier to see that this rest and support makes sense for someone else than it is to recognize my own need for it. My hunch is that I am not alone here: professional or not, so very many of us work as caregivers. We tend to our kids, our parents, our neighbors, our friends. Often the need we encounter in others is so great that it eclipses what may be rising up in ourselves, those aches that are asking for our attention but perhaps not yet demanding it loudly.

There were plenty of responsibilities that I did let languish all summer. Weeds took over my flowerbeds, and racoons and squirrels stole most of my tomatoes and strawberries and every last peach because I was too tired to pick them promptly or cover them with netting. The pile of dirty laundry grew on my desk, next to the pile of impulse purchases I needed to return, things groggily bought while trying and failing to rest. And this is a good start, the overrun garden and cascading stacks of disorganized life, but it’s not enough. We need to stop, by which I mean we need to cease our doing and ask for help and let this care infiltrate our days and our worries.

Hours after I tested positive for Covid, a friend offered to bring us a meal. I politely declined; we had this under control! I said no to the second and third offers, maybe more. But finally, days in and worn down, I admitted to one kind soul that a dinner or two would be helpful. That evening, a hot meal was on our doorstep — and the next night, and the night after that, all through the week as I healed. My husband and I were grateful for the help, but more than that, I was struck by my kids’ awe. At seven and ten, they were delighted to have these surprise dinners keep showing up. They reveled in the kindness of church members they only vaguely knew, and they had no doubt that accepting this straightforward help was a very good idea.

The truth is, I shared their delight. It is a wonder to stop thrashing against my frailty and find that I am held, even there. It seems that I will be held in this in-between for as long as I may need, if only I will slow down and welcome the care.

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