I answer my phone with a joke.
“Did you lock yourself in the chicken coop again?” It wouldn’t be the first time she’d gone out in the morning to feed the chickens and collect eggs to find the latch had fallen into place and locked her in with the flock.
But the voice on the other end wasn’t joking. “I fell, I’m hurt…I think I broke my back.”
The voice is my mom and yet not my mom, strangled and gasping for breath. I’ve never heard her sound like that.
I am out the back door scanning our property for her, I take off running towards the chicken coop, my bathrobe flying open like a madwoman, hair wild from sleep. I see her then, crumpled down in the dirt, the giant compost bin pinning her. She is flat on her back while it crushes her. I am scared to move it and scared not to. I see her one red muck book laying off to the side of her body as if the impact had thrown her back and as her leg flew up it launched from her foot. I cannot lift the bin straight up so I push it to the side, I’m terrified I’m breaking her more but I can’t leave it. She squirms over inching herself away from it while her cries of pain ring through the tops of the pine trees. The chickens watch momentarily with side eyed wonder and then go on about pecking the ground.
She is able to move her feet and legs, and as we move towards the house, her tiny body flung onto mine and walking in tandem, I let myself think maybe she will have a terrible bruise and walk with a limp for a week or so. Maybe it’s not so bad.
But then I see her face, and I know. I know the look of someone trying to hold all the pain in, to make others comfortable. To not make a fuss. To pretend to be ok so the world doesn’t fall apart and days aren’t ruined and plans aren’t canceled.
I know the look of someone hurting where you can’t see it.
She lies across the back seat of our minivan, tucked on her side and I glance back at her tiny 4’10 frame and think of the road trips we used to take as children, the back seats laid flat, the cooler tucked in next to us, and blankets and pillows making makeshift beds for me and my brother as we drove through the Arizona sun. I think of what it cost her to make a life for us, the sacrifices she made, the way she has always been there for me.
We didn’t fuss with car seats or seat belts. We were children of the 80’s. But as I prepared to settle my mom in for the drive to the hospital, I unbuckled my youngest’s car seat and handed it to my oldest to keep, along with my other children.
They are solemn and dutiful, grabbing her a sweater and the phone charger, a clean change of underwear and a toothbrush, just in case she needs to stay. They retrieve my purse and the car keys. I run a brush through my hair and throw on some clothes. I didn’t wash all of my mascara off the night before and my eyes look black and smudgy, hollow and haunted. I was going to shower when she called.
My children trot out the things I’ve asked them to find and present them with wide eyes. They are praying. They are kids acquainted with crisis. They have seen me packed up and whisked off to the emergency room and they know the drill, pray and wait. There is nothing else to do.
I navigate potholes and the drive on our windy pitted dirt roads inches minutes by like hours. I hear her praying, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus through her tears and moans. We are not the type to call for ambulances, she is not the type who will allow me to pull into the Fire Station and wail for help. She doesn’t want to make a fuss. She has been stoic all her life, she’s always been the caretaker.
But the drive to the hospital is long and my foot is heavy on the gas once we hit the highway. My hands grip the steering wheel exactly at 10 and 2. My eyes are straightforward, I stop glancing in the rearview mirror because I can already feel the swell of anxiety cresting up my abdomen, the clench of nerves and cortisol and adrenaline and my heart pounds wildly like rams horns battering my chest with rhythmic thuds. My eyes are leaking tears and the road is getting blurry.
“I was listening to the Bible on my phone,” she murmurs softly. “That’s why I was able to call you. It had just finished the passage in 2 Corinthians about God’s grace being sufficient for His power is made perfect in weakness. And then it toppled on me, right then. It is, you know, no matter what. Be calm, Alia, it’s all going to work according to God’s purposes, you know that, right?”
I tell her to rest, to stop trying to talk because I can hear her breath catching. She is trying to comfort me. She goes back to praying. I hear her praying peace over me, for God’s will to be done, for relief from the pain and for grace to endure whatever comes. She has always been a woman who prays.
I nod my head but I can’t help feeling that this is too much. I am angry that she hurts and is broken and that fear and panic is causing my breath to come faster and hitched. I am angry when we pray for Jesus to come and take the pain away, He says His grace is sufficient.
Right now, grace doesn’t feel even remotely sufficient.
At the hospital, I call for help and they come with a back board and brace. It takes three of them to get her out of the car. My brother shows up and I hand him my keys to park the car as I follow her into the ER. We pray and wait.
The doctor is abrupt and relatively condescending. He talks to my mom like she’s a slow child. We are used to this. The ER is overflowing with people gathered in pain. I wonder why some doctors get their medical licenses when they seem to care so little for hurting people. As children, did they want to help people? Did they bandage up stray animals or wrap their dolls arms in gauze while saying soothing and prescriptive words? When they dreamed of being a doctor and doing no harm, did they realize how unseen hurting people are?
The x-rays come back hours later showing she’s fractured her T12 vertebrae. There is no spinal cord damage and her nerves are all working as they should. My whole body floods with relief and I’m thankful for small and not so small grace.
I am thankful for a greater body of believers, both known and unknown to her that are lifting up my mother is prayer.
They outfit her with a clunky black brace that wraps around her core and up over her shoulders. They have to cut it down for size because she’s too small for an adult one and children’s ones have to be specially made. I am glad that they don’t have a surplus of braces for the backs of broken children. I am glad when the tech tells me that children are much more resilient and it’s much more rare.
I see her dwarfed in the hospital bed, tucked on her side where the pain is the least. Hours of waiting have left her face sunken in and drained and I cannot look at her without demanding they do more to help her pain. They finally give her a shot and her face goes watery and soft. Her teeth unclench and her fists unroll loose and hang limp and open next to her. Small hands with a smudge of dirt still smeared across the palm where she had pushed and tried to escape from the compost bin.
They tell us there are no beds. That protocol is bracing and pain management and that she’ll have to follow up with a spine specialist next week. She wants to come home and I fear this is the lull of the painkillers and momentary relief. She has no idea how bad it will be once we get home. I imagine the drive back and the potholes. I imagine trying to get to the bathroom and shuffling down our small hallway. They want her to try standing, to sit in a wheelchair and be escorted to the exit. She can stand but barely. She tries to be accommodating.
I see the pain flash across her face again. They write prescriptions that are woefully inadequate to touch the pain, and she shuffles down the hallway in her hospital gown and brace. They told her she might lose up to an inch of height when it’s all said and done but she looks even smaller. Frailer and more stooped. I get the car.
When I circle back to pick her up she is standing at the entrance to the ER alone. They have left her propped up against the stone column, wobbly from the dilaudid and percocet, wincing in pain. I am so angry I want to storm back inside. I think of lawsuits and filing complaints and our complete and total inability to do anything at all about the way she was treated or not treated. But we are used to this. And I have to get her home.
We move her into our room and Josh opts for the couch so her room will remain clean and untouched. I get all her things and make her as comfortable as I’m able. I tell her to wake me up if she needs anything at all. I tell her that’s what I’m here for. I tell her not to attempt to move or get up herself. So I am up with her to the bathroom, to give her more medicine when she begins to moan and cry out, to refill her cup and to pray silently throughout the night for the pain that is essentially untreated.
She says she’s sorry every time she has a need.
“I’m sorry I messed up your travel and speaking plans and you have to stay home.”
“Could you get me more water?” I’m sorry.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go to the bathroom.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to wake you but can I have more pain medicine yet?”
And with each request, I see it clearly. How ridiculous it is to apologize for her weakness, her pain, her healing. How ludicrous it is to ever have to apologize to someone who loves you and is willingly serving you and would, if they could, take away that pain in an instant even if it meant taking that pain onto and into their very own flesh. I tell her to stop.
“Mom, I want to do this stuff. Please stop saying you’re sorry. You have nothing to be sorry for.”
And with every apology, I know that this is love. We do not have to apologize for our needs. We come hurting and desperate and empty to the God of lost things, and the God of found things and find them to be one and the same. God works all things together for good just like my mom said. I must bank on the goodness of God, I am my mother’s daughter and she’s taught me that with her whole life. I can’t not see Him in this too.
We come with our weakness and God’s grace is sufficient. We meet the pain with every good and holy offering even when it seems like too little. We see the wounds and we do not look away. We recognize the face of the hurting ones and we say, you don’t have to pretend, you can make a fuss here. We see you. God sees you. You don’t have to apologize for your pain.
I am with you.
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.~ Romans 8:25-28