The sweetest suffering
I write this today from Oscar’s bedside. He spent the night vomiting. For a child on a ketogenic diet where every calorie and gram of carbohydrate counts, and on multiple medications and supplements to keep him from seizing, it is a harrowing, watchful process keeping what we can inside his body and nursing him back to health. The dangers of any run-of-the-mill illness are always multiplied in medically fragile children, as is the sympathetic suffering parents endure alongside the suffering of their little ones.
But it’s forced me to set aside my plans for the day, and cuddle my baby. And it’s been a long, long while since I had a day with nothing to do but Cuddle The Baby. Every hospital stay is a bit like this: time stops, the din of the world fades, and cuddling becomes literally the most important task before me. There’s a simplicity in that, a suspended sweetness that does not often penetrate my go-go-go everyday existence.
And in a seemingly, but not really, unrelated turn of events, my other five children got up, got dressed, fixed their own breakfast, and prepared breakfast in bed for me. All while I slept in late, and all without knowing I had spent a long troubled night with a sick baby. Before my feet even hit the floor, they were acting as instruments of God’s grace and love to me, a sweet reminder that no suffering, not even that of a sparrow, goes unnoticed by the One who created us. (I do especially appreciate that last night’s weariness, unlike other moments of suffering, was sweetly compensated in such a timely manner!)
The words sweetness and suffering don’t usually get put together. Here’s what I mean by the sweetest suffering: the suffering, or cross, that is chosen perfectly for you. God chooses the particular Cross that he wants you to bear, moment by moment, year by year, life by life. He promises that his yoke will be easy and his burden light, but that promise is true only if you take up the yoke that he has fitted perfectly to your shoulders. It only works if you don’t try to take on someone else’s yoke, someone else’s idea of perfect holiness or a perfect life. And sometimes that even means your own idea,if it conflicts with the idea that God has in mind for you.
Motherhood is a path (one among many) for mothers to sanctify their families, and for mothers, in turn, to be sanctified by and through their families. And in order to do this, God gives you the family that you need. He doesn’t give you your neighbor’s family, or your best friend’s, or your frenemy’s. He may not even give you the family you want, the family you hoped and prayed for, the family you dreamed of since you were a young girl. For many of us, it means a family bigger or smaller than we imagined.
And for many of us reading here, it means a family that includes a child who needs us in a profoundly different, desperately dependent, exhausting, exhilarating way.
But he gives you the family that will sanctify you.
Did you know that sanctification is not often a beautiful process? I picture it as a sanding away of my rough edges and sharp places, the habits that catch and grab at the people closest to me like thorns and gravel. In sending us a child with special needs, I can only assume that God could see I needed more sanding than usual, in order for my heart to be softened, smoothed, and polished to a warm glow. My selfishness and brokenness runs deep.
This tiny child — all my children, but this one in particular — has a way of derailing my best-laid plans on a regular basis, insisting that I put myself aside and put him first. In truth, he shows me that what matters is not how perfectly my days and weeks are going according to plan, but how perfectly I surrender my plans to God. Hubert van Zeller, in the book Holiness for Housewives and Other Working Women, wrote:
This is the first lesson for the Christian wife and mother today: to let go of what may once have been, and under other circumstances might now be, and take on, with both hands, the plan of God. The whole business of serving God becomes simply a matter of adjusting yourself to the pressures of existing conditions.
The pressures of existing conditions. Sounds familiar.
In other words, God gives you the grace for the day He wants you to live, not the day you have in your mind. He gives you the grace for the children before your eyes, not the life you had planned in your imagination. All those interruptions? Medications? Sleepless worried nights? Those are His plan for you.
Sometimes, yes, the repetition, the setbacks, the worry, the heartache, they are all enough to break your heart. And in truth, God is trying to break your heart. But not for sorrow. He uses parenting to break your heart so that it breaks open enough for Him to come inside and reign there. All of those cracks are to empty us of ourselves, so that God can fill in the spaces. Parenting a special needs child (all forms of parenthood, really) is designed to bring us to the very end of our own ability so that we recognize our powerlessness. before God, and His mercy pouring out and filling every minute of our lives.
The results are not up to us, but the everyday effort, the work and the offering, the receiving and bearing forth of grace, living in the present moment… that rests on no one’s shoulders but our own.