My thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult and tragic time. May you be well. May you be safe. May you feel carried by God’s grace. May you feel surrounded by love.
“Will you pray over her?” she asked. My hands began to sweat. Erica had not left her daughter’s bedside in over five weeks. Her grown daughter had a rare brain tumor that many months later would be removed. In that moment, though, in the dry recycled air and windowless hospital room, the swelling on her daughter’s brain seemed unstoppable. All her daughter could do was slowly raise her finger to concur with her mom. She had lost the ability to speak.
I felt frozen, unworthy, not strong enough to hold the terror in the room. Erica’s fear of losing her only daughter. Her daughter’s fear of losing the chance to raise her four-year-old, to embrace her husband without monitors and tubes attached, to feed herself. A photograph of her family was taped above her bed. All three of them radiated. I turned toward Erica and the expectation in her eyes seared through my insecurity. I slipped my hand into hers. “Gracious God,” I began.
Erica is a survivor, that I already knew. Petite and fierce. We met years ago at Inspiration Café where I volunteered to serve breakfast to men and women who had no place to call home. Erica overcame homelessness. She overcame breast cancer too. I had no doubt she would overcome whatever would become of her daughter’s brain tumor. I simply could not find the words to tell her why her request had caused flashes of heat to spread like wildfires inside me.
“We know you are here with us, God.” I continued. “In this room and in this moment.” I haven’t always been afraid to pray in public. I used to pretend to be a priest as a child. I offered Lay’s potato chips as communion and insisted that my friends stop saying “God” (more from fear than devotion). Still, by age 20, all outward expressions of piety, perceived or otherwise, dove under the covers and there they stayed. Asking me to pray out loud seemed as foreign as the cacophony of monitors beeping in surround sound.
Erica knew something of foreign lands. She had spent two years in a homeless shelter on the opposite side of the city. She’d slept in abandoned cars. A few years after her father-in-law passed, the family lost the house he’d worked two jobs to secure. Erica was living with them at the time. She and her husband found a one-bedroom apartment for his mom, and she invited them to stay. “Our place,” she told them. That was until Erica’s sister-in-law moved in unexpectedly. “Nobody made me homeless,” Erica told me. “It was my choice.”
“Gracious God,” I repeated, squeezing their hands as the words rose up. “We ask for your grace and your mercy right here and right now. Please find us just as we are: scared and unsure.” Erica knew something of fear and uncertainty too. Strangers used to rummage through the apartment at all hours, often standing over the couch where she slept. Her belongings went missing. Others were destroyed. The harder her sister-in-law fell into addiction, the more she endangered her family. Erica’s husband put a padlock on his mother’s door to keep her safe.
“I understood why my husband didn’t put her out,” Erica explained. “She was his only sister. She didn’t have nowhere else to go.” I poured her a fresh cup of coffee. She never ordered much at the café: eggs scrambled soft, bacon, and a piece of toast. One day, fed up with her sister-in-law and not wanting to burden her children, Erica checked herself into a shelter. Her husband of 23 years joined her. “He didn’t really want to leave his mother, but by me being his wife, he come up here with me. It wasn’t a thing he wanted to do, be in no shelter. Neither did I.”
“Gracious God, we trust you. We don’t know when this swelling will stop God, but we trust in your mercy and your love.” Erica’s grip tightened. Every time she and her husband went back to visit his mom, her sister-in-law either refused to let them in or kicked them out late at night. The shelter was closed. The only place they could go was to walk to their son’s house. He always welcomed them in. But the more frequently that happened, the more Erica’s shame sought shelter in an abandoned car or building instead.
That same year, Erica’s mother-in-law died. Her daughter was too incapacitated to care for her, so Erica went regularly in the final months. She bathed her mother-in-law. Combed her hair and fed her. At the same time, she worked with Inspiration Café and applied for a single room occupancy even though the waiting list was 12 months long. She met weekly with her counselor. “The past two years took me through a state of depression,” she told me as she fingered the key ring hooked on her belt. “I’m doing much better. I have my own keys now.”
“Wrap us in your love, God. Free us from our fear and worry. Carry us through one more day.” The words flew out of my mouth. Erica’s grip softened. We both exhaled. Tears slipped down her daughter’s cheek. Erica turned toward me and nodded in approval. Something had felt oddly right about praying with both of them. Her daughter’s prognosis had not changed, yet something in me had been rearranged. Lost in prayer, and steeped in their pain, I had touched a wholeness that had long escaped me.
Erica made a choice for her life, all those years earlier, and it caught fire in her soul. It propelled her down a path—merciless, humiliating, life-giving—far beyond anything I have known. That fire saved her. When I asked her what it meant to tell her story, she summed it up: “I am a survivor. I can say that. I don’t plan on going that way again. What I do appreciate and love about that is that my husband didn’t stick with his family. He chose to be here with me.”
Erica’s daughter walked out of the hospital six months later, leaning on her mother’s arm and talking to her daughter as she skipped down the hallway. The tumor was benign. Walking out those same doors, all those months before, I could not have fathomed such a triumphant ending and new beginning. I only felt the stir of one inside of me. Erica had needed me to step into the fullness of who I am—and that was the choice I made. I vowed to do it again—and again—and again.
It is a promise I am still working to uphold. In the ten years since, I have come to understand that our wholeness has less to do with whether or not we doubt (because I still do) and more to do with trusting the sacred and the depths from which the essence comes. “There is a goodness, a wisdom that arises,” the poet China Gallard wrote. “Sometimes gracefully, sometimes gently, sometimes awkwardly, sometime fiercely. But it will arise to save us if we let it … like the force that drives green shoots to break the winter ground.”
We are all more than who we think we are. Especially now.