I never used to pray for people. In my younger days, I might have offered to pray, but I never really meant it, much less delivered on my promise. I didn’t exactly see the point. In the face of hardship and challenge, my resilient and independent twenty-year old self believed that I could do more than just pray. I could mend what was broken. I could fix what needed to be solved. I could outsmart the obstacles. And then my brother got cancer.
Two years my senior, he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer. He was 27 years old at the time and married to his college sweetheart. I was at work when I got the call. Rage pulsated through my body. I slammed down the phone, uttered a swear word that sent my officemates running, and walked out of the building. The sting of cold air felt good against my face.
Within two days of his diagnosis, my grandfather had a heart attack and my aunt was given less than six weeks to live, her cancer having metastasized to her kidney and lungs. Life suddenly felt like a crystal ornament careening toward the hardwood floor. My grandfather went home later that week and lived four more years. But my aunt was not so fortunate. For reasons I could not understand, some part of me knew that no matter how hard I prayed for my Aunt Judy to live, she was going to die.
What did that mean for my brother?
I told him he had one option: Option A. He’d remind me that the word option implied there was more than one possibility. But I was steadfast. “You have one option: Option A.” I started calling him every day just to talk. And when that didn’t feel like enough, which it never did, I began to pray that my brother would feel surrounded by love. Miles kept us apart, but I wanted my love and the love of my family to be with him every step of the way, when he walked into the oncology ward, when his baldhead stared back at him in the mirror, when an overzealous infection took him to intensive care.
For the first time in my adult life, prayer became a companion, sitting with me on the train ride into work, following me down grocery store aisles, lingering in my thoughts as I drifted off to sleep. I started focusing my attention on the mystery of things and less on the rules of my faith and the misguided belief that if I did the right things and said the right prayers my brother would be okay. I went back to church, mostly to listen. Sitting there in the pew, I began to discern the whisperings of acceptance. Whatever was going to happen to my brother was out of my control. It was bigger than me.
More than twenty years later my brother is still with us. He is still married to his college sweetheart, and they have a beautiful son. And I am once again praying with the same fever pitch. At a very tender age, my son (whom I adopted last year) was placed in the care of a hospital. He was asleep and when he woke up, everything he knew was gone. There were different sounds and different smells, different hands holding him, and a different name being given to him. From the hospital he went to an orphanage. And from there, three years later, he came into my loving arms. Unlike me, my son is not a fan of going to sleep. He is not a fan of staying asleep either. He does not trust that all will be as it was when he wakes up.
Adoption counselors tell me that his frequent night-wakings, as they call them, are all trauma-related. The pediatrician told me we are in unchartered waters. Losing a parent at any age is traumatic. As an infant, the loss is unspeakable. The specialists project that he will eventually outgrow this pattern of sleeplessness over the next several years. And, that once he’s school age he’ll learn to read books in bed until he drifts back to sleep. Trauma, I’ve learned, is not so easily fixed. It is experienced and endured, and prayerfully transformed over time. I’m trying hard to surrender to this new shared reality.
I used to pray desperately for sleep to find us. And I grew quite angry at God, as the hours slowly ticked by, for not honoring such a basic request. But now as I sit and rock my son, I pray for anyone who is up and feeling alone at such unreasonable hours. I pray for the homeless teenager, cowering in a darkened corner of the bus terminal, hoping to go unseen. I pray for the men and women who empty trashcans and vacuum floor after empty floor in the cavernous skyscrapers downtown. I wonder where it is they would rather be. I pray for the children who survived Sandy Hook and the nightmares their families must endure. I pray for families in Chicago who live with constant gunfire. And I pray for the solitary security guard who stands watch so others can sleep.
Night after night, I offer up this litany of prayers. I do not know if they change anything, if they make the nightmares go away or the solitude give comfort. But I feel calmer inside and more compassionate. I am even slightly less consumed by how little sleep my son and I get. Something in me is being stretched beyond the immediacy of my own struggle and offering me solidarity and peace in return. Suffering and compassion now sit side by side on the arms of my rocking chair. Perhaps that is the grace of surrender and the gift of prayer, that they honor our pain and somehow free us from it too. Together they lead us back into communion with those around us and with the deeper parts of ourselves, the places in our hearts where the sacred dwells.