If possible, I think the next phase was even more frightening and lonely than the two weeks I had just been through. After all, just days before, Michael had finally woken up and started to talk to us. I had found hope that he could recover. But when he started having violent tremors, combined with a very high fever, sky-high blood pressure, high blood sugar as well, and pneumonia, I felt on the verge of despair.
As soon as I complained about Michael being on a normal ward, the doctor decided to put Michael into the intensive care unit. I came to know this unit very well, because day after day, Michael just wouldn’t wake up. At one point, they put him in an artificial coma to see if that would lower his blood pressure and stop the tremors. It did, but they couldn’t keep him like this. In addition, he wasn’t swallowing well, and the doctor feared that the breathing tube going from his lung through his mouth, the same thing he had had in the previous hospital, could be causing the pneumonia. Having my husband in an induced coma was also no fun, but it was better than having him sleeping day and night, when he should have been awake.
The picture the doctors were forming of my husband didn’t help,either. The tremors turned out to be epilepsy, at least some of the time. How much new damage had occurred? In addition to all the other monitors, he now needed regular EEGs. One doctor said to me, “Your husband is a very sick man. He has an awful lot of fronts to fight on – the stroke, pneumonia, high fever, high blood pressure, epilepsy, and diabetes.” Another doctor told me not to expect linear healing. “Healing with stroke victims occurs in waves,” he said. “Look for patterns, tendencies, but remember that waves always go down before they come up again.” This was helpful advice, but with each trough I would tend to panic. Was Michael going to experience any recovery at all? Was he going to survive this? He wasn’t getting any better – in fact, some days the nurses would despair of finding ways to lower Michael’s fever, or for the blood sugar count to come down. They kept trying new anti-epileptic drugs to stop the tremors, but these drugs may have also contributed to his being asleep all the time. The “astronaut” tube food he was being fed was not good for his diabetes.
One day a nurse came to me and asked me if the living will we had said anything about resuscitation after heart failure. I had no idea. The wife of another patient in the ICU told me her husband had received resuscitation, and that was their mistake – now he was alive, but brain dead.
I went home and woke up the next morning thinking about the living will. Technically, from what it said in the will, I reasoned, we should be letting Michael die. It said he should be receiving no life-prolonging measures. That meant no oxygen and no tube feeding. What was I going to do? I didn’t want my husband to die! But they might make me do it because I’d signed that in the will!
I panicked. I was at home, all by myself, and started to scream and cry uncontrollably. I don’t remember the details clearly, but I must have called a friend to help me, because I knew I couldn’t be alone. She came right over, and I also called another friend who could spend more time with me. Together, my friends managed to calm me down, and one of them took me to the hospital to talk to the doctor.
The doctor told me not to worry, that they would do nothing without my permission, and that at this stage, when Michael’s life was at stake, he needed all the things he was receiving. This was not the time to think about pulling the plug, he assured me. I was tremendously relieved.
I kept writing emails every evening to all my family and friends, both in English and in German. It was always a struggle to write in German, knowing I would make many mistakes, and it was more difficult to express myself in German than in English. But the responses I got made it all worth it. “We’re praying for you,” was the tenor of most of the emails I got back. Sometimes I got emails from people I barely knew. People were passing my emails onto other people, onto strangers. Churches I had never heard of were praying for Michael. I made a rough estimate of all the people I had heard were praying. I came up with about a thousand people! My husband is well-known in the Christian circles where we live in Germany, and all the pastors he knows asked to be on my email list, and they forwarded my emails onto other people.
It was comforting to know that so many people were praying for Michael. But the prayers weren’t helping to wake him up. Day after day, I would go to the hospital to visit him, who remained day after day in the ICU. No change. The tremors were still there, and he was still out, dead to the world. Where was God? Why hadn’t God heard our prayers, given so sincerely before Michael went in for surgery, for protection? Even Michael, normally so fearful of doctors and hospitals, had gone into the hospital, trusting that all would be well. Was there a God at all?
It is very difficult to bear the pain of watching someone in what looked for all the world like a coma, wondering if this person would ever wake up. His face looked peaceful, and that was a mercy. But it was too much for my heart to take in, watching him. I longed for the days when life with him was so difficult. At least I had him, back then! If only I had appreciated him more. There was so much goodness in him that I couldn’t see because I had been so focussed on his glaring faults. Now I knew that I had no idea in those days how deep despair could go.
The emails I was receiving were mostly encouraging, but not only. Sometimes I felt the pressure of the spiritual expectations of my friends. “I pray that you receive a word from the Lord for each day,” one person wrote. A word from the Lord? I was wondering how the Lord could be so unkind as to let the worst imaginable thing happen. What could be worse than living in a coma for the rest of your life? Other people wrote, “I pray that you will feel God carrying you.” Some reminded me of the piece about the footprints in the sand. I thought of that myself nearly every day, but I certainly didn’t feel carried. I had never felt so alone before, even though I was being carried by friends, who kept bringing me food and offering to help in any way they could. That helped. But God carrying me? God felt far away. “I pray for strength for you to endure,” some said. I could relate to that prayer. I was somehow enduring. I prayed every day for strength to endure, and somehow I did. I couldn’t feel or sense where the strength was coming from, but I was enduring.
I decided to read the book of Job at this time. I found it comforting to read that he also felt alone in his misery. He also wondered where God was, and how God could allow this to happen. He knew that he was a righteous man, and so his fate could not be seen as punishment for his sins, as his friends so wrongly interpreted. I knew that Michael had many unresolved issues in his life, issues making life impossible for himself and for me, but I didn’t think any of his weaknesses warranted this calamity that had befallen him – and me. I was bereft, more than ever before.
But I kept looking for God – all day, every day, even when I couldn’t find any traces. One evening, though, while out walking the dog, I suddently remembered a line from a gospel song we used to sing in church when I was a teenager. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future.” This was a thought that had come out of the blue. God had spoken to me!
I also remembered the strange thing that had happened to me on my wedding night. Just as I was getting ready to go to bed with my new husband, I heard these words, not audibly, but clearly just the same: “Married life won’t always be easy for you, but I will always be with you.” At that time, I had never “heard” God, and I was surprised by the message I heard, because I was looking forward at that time to a lifetime of “happy ever after”! What a comfort those words have been to me over the years, as I’ve discovered that life isn’t necessarily as happy as we would wish it to be
I endeavored to accept the situation, however disastrous I considered it to be, as it was just to let it be. Every day I prayed the prayer those of us in twelve-step programs say: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage t change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I put all my energy and will into accepting this horrible thing that had thrown us off our feet. Actually, knowing there was no way to get out of this desolate place was a help. This was the place I had to live in now, and there was no running away. No more agony of too much choice. Now there was nowhere to run to, except into God.
Writing this blog is proving to be a very difficult thing to do. The feelings of months ago come rushing back to me and I feel the pain and horror of those days, coloring whatever my present days bring me. I still often wish I could run away somewhere.
In my past, leaving difficult situations was my typical solution, albeit after long, long deliberation. I left Minnesota, where the winters were cold and desolate, and where I felt little warm approval from my strict father and passive mother. I hated Minnesota, with its strong cool Scandinavian influence. I escaped to sizzling hot New York City, where people are so expressive, they talk with their hands. But there, I fled an unhappy love affair, returning to Minnesota, only to leave it again, still dissatisfied with the environment I had grown up in. A brief stint in Boston, then back to New York, where I started to find myself in God, but then the opportunity to leave New York for Germany. I soon found Germany to be cool in temperament, and had the opportunity to leave with my husband for Brussels, where I lived in semi-contentment until our posting there ended and we were forced to come back to Germany. It took a broken elbow and a wrist that won’t quite let me hold my fork to my mouth in the German style, for me to come to terms with living permanently in this country. When things got too bad with my husband, I left him. But now I know there is nowhere to run to, and this is where God can catch me.
Sunday I was driving home from visiting Michael, listening to a folk music program on the radio, when they played a woman from Norway. Her voice stunned me so much, I almost drove to the side of the rode, just to listen to her music. Her voice captured the solitary state, the loneliness I so often feel in my soul. There was deep longing in her voice, but also warmth, as if she had also found hope, or even possibly fulfillment in the midst of her longing. That was exactly the state I found myself in. I thought, either this woman is longing for what Jesus can give her, or she is singing about Jesus. Suddenly I heard the word, “Jesus”, the only word I could understand, and I knew.