Yesterday morning I received the phone call I’ve been dreaming of since March: “Your CT scan came back negative; your blood clots are gone.” Although I’ve been taking warfarin for pulmonary embolisms for six months, waiting for the day I would be healthy again, I didn’t realize how strongly that news would affect me until I called my husband to tell him the good news and started crying.
Yesterday was a big day for me, and with that comes a certain amount of reflection on what the last six months have taught me. This summer I was talking with Mark Roeber about my experience with pulmonary embolisms and this very question came up: what have you learned? I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, and it turns out there are a lot of things I’ve learned. If you’re interested, here are some of them.
My body has limits. As a dancer, I’ve been trained to believe that if I feel weak, I just need to work harder – that pain is weakness leaving the body (unless it’s joint pain; that’s never good). When I got out of the hospital, I had to stop dancing for three months and drastically reduce my physical activity. I would get out of breath just by talking a lot, and pushing through the weakness wasn’t going to help – on the contrary, my hematologist warned me that I could give myself a heart attack if my oxygen saturation got too low. Sometimes you have to stop. Now that my blood clots are gone, I hope that lesson will stick with me.
It’s okay to ask for help. I am a Type A personality, a control freak; I don’t like feeling helpless, and I really don’t like asking other people to help me because then I feel like I’m mooching. So being virtually helpless for two weeks after I was discharged was really, really tough. But it gave me an opportunity to be blessed by people around me who cared about me. My husband took over the grocery shopping and housework, and several families helped us out with meals. That was humbling, but also very encouraging. So if I forget later, somebody remind me that I can’t do everything; sometimes I need help.
God is faithful. I’m not just saying that because I’m alive, because to be honest, not everybody comes out of these things alive, and I have to believe God is still faithful then. The truth is, I don’t really know why I’m alive when so many other people die. I’m told God has a plan, and I believe that, but I don’t think I’ll really get it until I can see the whole plan from a better vantage point. Instead, what I mean by God being faithful was how he provided for my family and me during that potentially very scary day when I found out I had blood clots. I am a worrier. My mom is a worrier times ten. My husband isn’t a worrier as a rule, but when it comes to me and my safety, he might be the worst of all of us. We’re the kind of people who could easily be destroyed by the news that I had a life-threatening condition and could drop dead at any moment without immediate medical attention. And yet, just before the news came, as I was sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for the results of my CT scan, I felt a sort of calmness come over me. I felt quiet, and weirdest of all, I felt safe. When the doctor came in and told me I had massive pulmonary embolisms, I was ready for it. The peace that I had carried me through that week. And perhaps more miraculous was my mom’s reaction. She didn’t freak out. I think she knew, like I knew, that it was going to be okay. My husband wasn’t with me at the time, but he told me afterward that as he was driving to see me, a song started playing on the radio (I have Positive Life Radio on in the car all the time) which assured him that God would take care of me, and he was able to find peace as well. I think God shielded us from fear that day; I think the way he protected our hearts was almost more amazing than the way he protected my body.
There will always be trials in my life. This is the part that comes directly from my conversation with Mark, because at first when he asked about what I’d learned, my response was “to trust God.” But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that’s a very limited and not completely truthful answer. It seems like there’s always something really stressful going on in my life. Projects, injuries, a postponed wedding, financial woes, illnesses, family crises, you name it. After the storm has passed, I always marvel at how God provided for me and feel this huge sense of gratitude, and I realize He was there all the time and I didn’t need to worry after all because He was taking care of me, and then I think, “Wow, I really learned to trust God during that situation.” If anybody at Belhaven looks up my oral presentation for my senior project, you will see that pretty much the whole thing is about how all the stuff that went wrong taught me that God was there for me and I could trust Him to get me through it all. And yet, as soon as a new stressful situation enters my life, I go through the same process all over again – the fear, the anxiety, the sleepless nights all come back until I’m finally past the worst of it, and I look back and feel the awe, the gratitude, and the newfound trust. Why do I seem to unlearn my lesson every time something harder comes along? Maybe I’m just a really slow learner – maybe we all are, and maybe that’s why life is so long, because learning how to live takes a lifetime. I’ve realized recently that deep down, I’ve been waiting for the time when my life will be stress-free because I will finally have arrived. Either I will have learned not to worry because my faith in God will be so spectacular, or bad things will just stop happening to me. And maybe I never thought that consciously or said it out loud, but I think that’s been what I’ve believed. Someday things will be different; someday my life will be nothing but flowers, sunshine, and baking amazing desserts. And as foolish as I sound for not figuring this out earlier, I’m just now starting to see that life doesn’t work that way. To quote The Princess Bride, “Life is pain; everyone who says differently is selling something.” I think maybe the trick is learning not to let that pain keep me from living. Sooner or later, another stressful circumstance will come up, and it might be even scarier than being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, or it might be a trial of the more everyday variety. These things shouldn’t surprise me – I know that probably is not the feel-good message people are supposed to write about in blogs, but there it is. There is a feel-good side to it, though, and that is this: in everything I’ve been through, no matter how trivial and no matter how serious, God has been with me and has carried me through. Whether the storm was great or small, I came through it a little wiser, a little more mature, and a little more secure in my faith in God. The next time something difficult comes up, I can look back and remember how God was with me in the past, and maybe that will help me hang on.
Every moment of life is a miracle. Everybody who’s been close to death experiences this, I think; there’s something about coming face to face with your mortality that gives you a brand new outlook on life. For me, it wasn’t so much a smack-in-the-face sudden reality – I mean, I wasn’t in an accident, I didn’t lose consciousness, I didn’t have a surgery, or anything like that. So I never felt like I was close to death; in fact, except for the extreme fatigue, racing pulse, and heart palpitations, I felt fine. The reality was, I had been dying for months and didn’t know it, and I’ll probably never know how close I came. That sounds morbid, I know, but when you consider how many people die of undiscovered pulmonary embolisms, combined with my dancer instinct to work through the pain and the tiredness, and my aversion to going to the doctor, and the fact that I went to the doctor and was sent home with nothing more than a new inhaler prescription (thus increasing my reluctance to go back for a second opinion), the conclusion I come to is that it’s a miracle I’m alive. But when you really think about it, isn’t it a miracle that any of us is alive? Life is such a fragile thing, and our bodies are these incredibly complex machines composed of many different systems all somehow working together, and in spite of our centuries of research and scholarship, so much of it remains a mystery. A life is like the flame of a candle that can be snuffed out by a small breeze – and we so often take our lives for granted! I’m sure in the months and years to come this narrow-escape-from-death high will wear off, but when it does I hope I will remember that even though life is sometimes complicate, messy, stressful, and scary, it is also good and beautiful and precious. And maybe, just maybe, that will inspire me to live more fully, to savor the moments, to make my time count. I guess I’ll just finish with a quote from Ruth Ann Shabacker:
“Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons . . .”