One afternoon, when I was in fifth grade, my father bent down to pick up an ice cream freezer in the carport of our home in Lusaka, Zambia. The freezer was well-used and I have fond memories of sitting on a towel folded across the top of the gears as Dad cranked the handle to make homemade ice cream. That afternoon, however, the freezer was empty and he was simply moving it. When he picked it up, something snapped in the small of his back — a bone deformed from birth, we would later find out — that left him in a great deal of pain. The doctors in Zambia discussed surgery, but the consensus was the operation was best done stateside. In 1966, however, getting across the Atlantic was no easy feat. Our next scheduled leave from the mission field was about eight months away, so my father had to learn to live with the pain until the days could be accomplished for him to get help and relief.
And he did. They fashioned a brace that held his back rather rigidly so he could on about life; he put a piece of three-quarter inch plywood under his mattress so he could sleep. I don’t remember him talking about it much beyond the matter of factness required to get things done. He just lived with the pain and didn’t complain.
One of the consequences of his stroke a few weeks ago was he was unable to swallow thin liquids. He could chew steak or swallow thick liquids — he kept asking for ice cream — but he couldn’t drink water without choking. One of the nurses explained to me that one of the things the voice box does is to move over the windpipe when we swallow liquids. Larger heavier things move it over with simple gravity, but the liquids require it to move on its own. However the circuits blew in the stroke, one of the results was the voice box quit moving over, so he could no longer swallow a simple sip of water.
The two stories connect for me in these days because of the ways in which my grief has found physical expression. I went with a group of folks from our church to Washington DC on Friday and Saturday as our pilgrimage to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. Two of the folks in our group were there fifty years ago. The drive home took almost twice as long as it should have because of inexplicably heavy traffic on I-95. By the time I got home, my back was in a knot. And it has stayed that way. I feel a deep abiding pain just about the place where my father’s bone broke just a couple of summers after Martin spoke from the Lincoln Memorial. Then last night, as I was watching baseball with Ella, our remaining Schnauzer curled up next to me, I felt a catch in my throat and then pain, as if someone had punched me in the voice box. It was Sunday evening, and Sunday has been the hardest day for me. Worship pulls me into a deep sadness for reasons I cannot completely articulate other than to say grief is a thin place and the air is heavy there.
I’ve spent the last couple of days doing what I need to keep going. Tomorrow is my first day back at work and a return to a regular schedule follows. I will need to get back to keeping my promises, even if that means carrying my pain with me. No. Of course it means carrying my pain with me. We all do that in some sense everyday of our lives. This is just a new kind of pain for me, and it is one that feels as though it colors everything. As I think about my dad learning to live with his back pain, I am aware that it is my turn to do the same. Not to be Stoic and act as if there is no pain and just soldier on. No. I mean to learn to live with the pain, to weave it into the story, to figure out what it means and how it might shape me for the days to come. Long after my back settles down and my throat relaxes, he will still not be here. I have to learn to live with that, as my wife, Ginger, did when her father died almost two years ago, and countless others have done as well. Grief is a primary color in the art that is our lives.
And so is grace.