Underneath are the Everlasting Arms

The weekend before spring break, God declared openly to my heart that my life matters. Three days later, Jordan swept me up off the couch, as my fever burned my body into seizure, and I was diagnosed with sepsis, only to be wisked into the ICU with a blood pressure of 60/ 30, followed by a devastating double-lung collapse, and a sequence of miracles.

Twelve days later, Jordan picked me up from my horribly isolated stay in Welsey Woodlawn’s ICU, and drove me home on eerily empty roads. I stared out the window, in shock, as I observed what thirteen days before had been a heavily populated city of Wichita. Now, a week after spring break, it appeared as though spring had sprung and the apocalypse had occurred:  Not only had the trees bloomed with white, pink, purple, and fresh green buds, but the streets were abandoned. Parking lots stood vacant, and not a soul was in sight. I joked with Jordan, asking if the rapture had taken place while I was trying to evade death in the equally empty ghost town of the hospital. A week or two later, they acutally closed Wesley Woodlawn in order to move all valuable care and supplies to the larger hospital for the “wave” that COVID-19 would wash in to our city.

The kids surrounded me with loving hugs when I precariously spilled out of the Mountaineer, and I tried to assimilate this strange, unfamiliar environment that was now our home:

My kids had transitioned to attending school outside of the home to being homeschooled at our kitchen table daily. Because there seemed to be no other way, Jordan had established a militant schedule, and the kids seemed to find comfort in the rhythms that daddy had established. Jordan’s location of work shifted during my absence as well. He now fulfilled his pastoral duties from home, as the church office had been closed as a result of the stay at home order now set in motion by the Kansas state legislature in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Coming home after medical trauma is always a strange and confusing transition. As I remember my experience after surgery and respiratory failure three years prior, I recall the sense of displacement upon my return home. During my nine-day stay in the hospital during lent of 2017, I straddled death, teetering between this side of eternity and heaven. I settled awkwardly back into the home of the mortal world, but the transition proved to be a painful adjustment.

This 2020 experience was so much more extreme than my experience three years prior. After three days in ICU, on Monday March 23rd, the hospital issued a lock down: No visitors allowed. Jordan, my husband, my beloved, could not sit there with me while I fought for my life. We had no way of knowing that I would survive. In fact, the doctors were pretty clear that the prognosis was bleak, but even with the reality of my potentially fatal prognosis, my husband was not allowed in the building to spend what could have been my final days with me. As I span my perspective out, I think of the many people who had similar experiences as ours, but who suffered through a much more devastating outcome. My only companions were the masked nurses and doctors, who looked over their masks at me with fearful eyes, their voices muffled by but another barrier that cut me off from the rest of the human population.

When a masked nurse wheeled me out of the hospital, my husband had to meet us at the curb. And as we drove home, he briefed me on the changes at home. Coming home from near-death three years ago was a nearly intolerable culture shock. Coming home in April of 2020 in the midst of the COVID crisis felt like The Twilight Zone layered on top of Stranger Things. Where was I, and what did they do with my world?

In addition to the abrupt and overwhelming shifts in my life, I was thrust heavily and swiftly into stay-at-home-mom and teacher role. All of the sudden, I carried the work load of a full time job. It was clear that Jordan was running a tight ship, on a boat that I was not to rock. And so, we soldiered on. Recovery from sepsis is a long road, and I came home on a continued regimen of IV antibiotics. But the rhythm of life marched on, and it was sink or swim, so I caught stride the best my weak and atrophied muscles could manage.

Now here we are, seven weeks later, at the end of Lily’s first grade school year, and Elijah’s pre-k school year. No one has field days, preschool graduations, or class parties.  They are absolutely sick of sitting at the kitchen table for hours a day, trying to honor mommy’s role as teacher. Lily informed me today that my job is “Mommy”, not “teacher,” and she will absolutely not consider continuing any form of schooling into the summer.

We are exhausted. All of us. It has been seven weeks since I nearly died. The doctors say that it was scary for them, and when you scare the doctors, you know it was serious.  Layer all of this on top of arguably the most traumatic trauma of my adult life, shifting into quarantine life as a high-risk individual with small, school-aged kids has been totally nuts.

And as it stands, though the governor is slowly lifting some restrictions, my world remains precarious. With a clear-cut diagnosis of a progressive autoimmune condition, we look at a new immunosuppressant medication that will alleiviate pain and decrease joint fusion, but it will also set me up as even more at risk for contracting a virus that has no end date, cure, or vaccine in sight. We are preparing for Jordan’s new appointment in less than two months, and I have no idea what wisdom looks like for me as we venture into this “brave new world”, COVID version 1.2. It’s still out there, and I’m still vulnerable, cubed.

I saw a picture depicting 2020 as child sliding down a metal slide that ends as a cheese grater. That is certainly how it feels for me.

But here’s the part of the past two months that is the truest of all the truth: I have grown mightily. God has used our family (Jordan, Lily, and Elijah) to nurture me and heal me from all of the layers of trauma in ways that only He can accomplish.

My new full-time job that doesn’t seem to offer many breaks, and certainly no days off, is the best job that I have ever have. In fact, I look forward to it each day. I adore the mornings that I spend perched at the head of the table, facing my kids’ hunched over silhouettes, outlined by the rising sun cascading in through our kitchen bay window. I don’t even miss the mornings when both kids were in school, and I could sing, sleep, play guitar, or crochet.

I love working through shapes, letters, numbers, and writing with Elijah. I love seeing Lily’s face light up as she discovers the difference between a numerator and denominator, and as she completes the next level in her Lexia program. I love walking them each through their daily tasks and being given the privilege to be the one who walks Elijah through practicing how the “magic c” can be used for so many of the different letters as we draw mountains, slopes, straight lines, and curves to write lower-case letters. I love watching them proudly demonstrate their new talents in music, play, and sports as we navigate our stay-at-home world together. I even feel honored as I hold them in my arms as we process fear and grief that comes with having a sick mom and facing the unknown of a world-wide pandemic.

Life right now, in May 2020, is potentially the hardest life that we have ever faced. And here’s the funny part: I absolutely love our life right now, in May of 2020. It is rich. It is beautiful. It is messy, but this mess is somehow the most radiant mess I have ever seen. I am standing in the midst of a bazillion unknowns, but in the midst of so many uncertainties, I know greater peace than ever before. I often feel exposed, vulnerable, and out of control: And through the sovereignty, love, and goodness of God, I am covered and held. Therefore, I am perfectly safe. In all honesty, I have felt this sense of overwhelming peace since my first day in ICU. As the room was filled with frenzied panic, doctors barking orders at nurses, and an urgency that should have felt unsettling, I rested in the knowledge of God’s love and in the presence of His Spirit of peace.  He showed Himself to be the great Counselor, and the One who heals.

I can’t say that I knew that I would survive. I don’t remember that certainty, but I do know that I was not consumed by fear. I was held in the everlasting arms.

And as I reflect on this time of uncertainty, I consider Deuteronomy 33:27, which says, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Our refuge and our foundation are never going away. He is present in life and in death, in sickness and in health, in joy and in profound pain. He is present when the evil presses in and when the holy is within our grasp. He is holding us when we feel like we have lost everything and when we cannot contain the abundance that overflows in our life.

He is unchanging.

As a result, we can be unshakable. And we will continue on in that manner: As children of the Most High God.

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Pastor Al Gilbert

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