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The Grace of Suffering

Last year, I spent the Sunday night after Thanksgiving in the ER.

My husband, Joshua, had been battling persistent pneumonia for months and had finally been cleared right before the holiday weekend. That Sunday, a mere ten minutes before friends arrived for a Thanksgiving leftovers dinner, Joshua started not feeling well. He became nauseated, had trouble breathing, and started having violent chills and a fever.

He quarantined himself in our bedroom through the whole dinner, chills shaking his body, while I worried and our guests made turkey-brie-cranberry grilled cheese sandwiches on sourdough. At least the food was excellent. One should always remember the food.

We put a plan in place: Our friends would take our kids to their house to spend the night and get them where they needed to be the next morning in case Joshua got worse. Better to make this plan with a clear head at 8 p.m. than with a panicked one at 3 a.m. So we packed up the kids, got everything they needed for the next day, and sent them off.

Joshua’s fever started spiking, so we decided to go to the ER. I did all the dishes and tidied up the house because no one wants to come home from a trip to the hospital and have to deal with dirty dishes. At the hospital, we didn’t even have to wait—they admitted him immediately. We thought, “This will be quick. He’ll get an X-ray, get some meds, and we’ll go home.” This is what is known as wishful thinking.

Joshua quickly went downhill. In a span of three hours, he went from feeling fine to lying in an ER bed, involuntarily curled into the fetal position, shaking violently, and vomiting over the side of the bed (into a bucket, thankfully). We had no idea what was happening, and it terrified both of us.

They ran a bunch of tests, and the verdict came back. He had a big pneumonia.

That’s what the doctor called it: “a big pneumonia.” That’s the technical, medical term. So much for having been cleared the week before. Joshua would have to be admitted for at least a couple of days for a regimen of IV antibiotics and treatment. We were shocked. There went our entire “get meds and go home” plan.

We were in the ER for a long time until he got a room. After getting him settled, I went home at 2:15 a.m., had some food, definitely had a drink, and tried to get some sleep. Then I got up early, went to the hospital for a while, and then went to teach my Monday morning classes. The next few days were a blur. Our friends kept our kids and got them everywhere they needed to be. I went back and forth to the hospital a lot and tried to take care of all the responsibilities at home. Joshua tried to get rest and not be the boredest he’s ever been in the hospital.

When he came home, he remained sick for a long time. Things were difficult for us. Almost a month after the hospitalization, he went to the doctor to get checked—he still had pneumonia. We were at the end of our rope, and it was frayed. He wasn’t getting better, I was carrying way too much, and we were about to crack.

Then, four days before Christmas, he was fired from the job he’d had for ten years.

At some point, you have to laugh, mostly to keep from screaming. But something else happened that day as well. While Joshua was at work getting fired and returning home that morning, my doorbell rang at 8 a.m. There was a man from Walmart with a grocery delivery full of ready-to-go staples. A friend, who lives in Connecticut, had arranged for the delivery since she couldn’t bring us a meal in person. I found myself in tears.

Around lunchtime, my doorbell rang again, and on the porch stood a friend from our homeschool program, her hands full of bags of food from the hot bar at Whole Foods. I found myself in tears.

My doorbell rang again right before dinnertime, and a friend from our former church stood on the porch, her hands full of bags with soup, salad, rolls, and wine. Once again, I found myself in tears.

None of these friends knew he had been fired. They only knew that we needed help, that we needed community, that we needed love, and they showed up ready with food. One should always remember the food.

It’s easy at this time of year to remember to be thankful. It’s easy to be thankful for the many blessings we have—for our marriages and children and homes and friends and jobs and health. When those things begin to be stripped away, and we find ourselves suffering, we find out who we really are. It doesn’t matter whether we suffer because of things beyond our control, like sickness or job loss, or because of things that are our own faults, like consequences or folly. Suffering is suffering, and it doesn’t care whether you deserve it or not. Other people’s suffering may look different than yours, but it’s not a contest. You still find yourself bent to its mercy.

When we, like Job, suffer deeply and cry out to God, asking for answers, we still have much to be thankful for. It’s through the depths of suffering that we find the depths of God. To suffer is to be human—it’s something we all have in common.

We toss around the word “thanks” so often, it can lose its meaning. I sign most of my emails with it. The word has become commonplace. It’s through suffering that thankfulness really takes on its full meaning. It’s in the midst of pain, anguish, and tears that I truly understand the depths of gratitude. It is through suffering that I remember I am loved.

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