By Christine Venzon
I met my friend Freda on Saturday afternoons for Bible study in the nursing home where she lived. For physical affliction, Freda rivaled Job. Rheumatoid arthritis confined her to bed and splayed her fingers. Lesions on her esophagus required periodic scraping. A skin rash would erupt into pustules without warning, subdued by daubs of medicated ointment. She had lost nearly all her hair.
But no physical disability could cripple her spirit. Freda was an artist. Undaunted by twisted fingers and inspired by HGTV, she experimented with sculpting, stamping, stencils, and pastels. (Some days we spent more time searching for the right shade of acrylic paint in the stacks of plastic bins stashed under her bed than exploring Scripture.) Most of her materials were provided by benefactors and friends—she acquired both with ease—and all her projects were made to be given away, each custom-designed for the recipient.
She had an artist’s appreciation for culture, too. When she wasn’t listening to a Three Tenors CD, she was watching Burt Wolf on PBS. When she learned my family was from Italy, she wanted to know all about life in the old country. How had my parents come to Illinois and how had I come to Louisiana?
Freda was Cajun. This was bayou country, and Freda was native born and bred, a repository of tradition and lore. Our spiritual discussion inevitably wandered to recipes for turtle in sauce picante; and whether the Saints would ever have a winning team, what with the Superdome built over a graveyard.
Shades of Gray
There were quieter conversations, too, when we shared life’s darker side. The body’s betrayal wasn’t the worst Freda had known. There was the cheating ex-husband who now lived with the other woman, their high life financed by cockfighting. “I ask the Lord to forgive me,” she confided, “because I struggle to forgive him.”
There were the four kids, whom he’d managed to turn against her. The few times we met in Freda’s room, they seemed to have somewhere to go and were impatient to get there. The barbecued chicken they promised from their Fourth of July cookout never arrived. The grandkids’ Christmas presents, handcrafted with love, sat on her shelf into spring, waiting to be picked up.
Life in a nursing home could be frustrating, even degrading. Freda longed for the simple pleasure of walking down Main Street for shrimp po’boys at Bon Creole; the satisfaction of locking her door if she felt like it; the dignity of using a toilet.
Eventually afternoon shadows would lengthen. Carts bearing dinner trays and evening meds clattered in the hallway. I would stand, sighing, “Guess I’d better be going,” and drift toward the door. “I love you, Dear,” were always her parting words.
As much as I cherished our time together, I felt relieved when it ended—relieved and guilty. I didn’t know why. I had assignments due and editors waiting. I could stay all day—I could spend the night—but it wouldn’t change anything. Freda would still be stuck in that bed. Her family would still ignore her. Some crosses you just had to bear alone.
A Grim Picture
Then one day I experienced what I can only call a freak napping accident. (If you ever have the chance to sleep on the floor with your head on a booster seat cushion, pass.) I woke with the oddest sensation in my neck—not painful, but worrisome. I felt as if I were wearing a turtleneck under my skin, that my neck muscles were weighted with sandbags. The nerves tingled and recoiled at the scratch of a comb or weight of a necklace.
I made a doctor’s appointment, concerned but confident that medical science could fix anything. The doctor prodded and probed but found nothing amiss. X-rays came back negative, so he gave me muscle relaxants and referred me to a physical therapist.
The pills made me loopy. Therapy left me sore. I gave up both.
Next came MRIs and CT scans. Nothing wrong here, they agreed. I started wondering whether these small town doctors knew what they were doing. I took my X-rays to a sports medicine specialist in Lafayette. He shook his head and handed them back: a touch of arthritis, maybe.
Days stretched into weeks and weeks into months. With every disappointment, my fear swelled. I would stop working to weed the garden, watch TV, buy toothpaste—nothing brought relief. I wandered the rooms of my house like a sick dog. Long, sobbing phone calls to my mom comforted for a while, but always the anxiety returned, relentless as the tide.
At least I can still write, I thought. I can still earn a living. But a dreadful question prowled like a panther. How long before I wound up crippled, useless, totally dependent on friends and paid strangers for basic needs and companionship? How long before I wound up like Freda?
No Pain, No Gain
Now I realized why I was so relieved to shut the door to Freda’s room. I was shutting away her suffering. Not the physical ugliness of grotesquely gnarled fingers and crusted sores. It was her emotional pain—the pain of loneliness, of helplessness, and, most terrifying, of facing a future that only looked to get worse.
After we’d talked about everything else, talked ourselves into silence, we had nothing left to share. All my listening and consolation felt hollow, because inside I knew I was safe: I could go home, physically and emotionally, and leave that suffering behind.
Until I Couldn’t
At times we tend to play hide-and-seek with our suffering. We hide and hope it won’t find us. Jesus, on the other hand, calls us to be “it,” and shows us how to play the game. Jesus chose the suffering we would happily avoid. He accepted the humility of depending on others for meals and lodging. He grieved with Martha and Mary. He associated with tax collectors, prostitutes, and the demon-possessed—the whole ugly lot. He endured a shameful, agonizing death on the cross, rejected, abandoned, and alone.
He wasn’t simply showing us how we should love each other, but how—and how much—God loves us. As Paul wrote, “He too shared their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death . . . and . . . make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:14-17).
Scrapes and Scratches
Imperfect as we are, we’re called to be imitators of Christ in all things. I couldn’t save Freda’s soul by sharing her suffering. But I could show her Christ’s love. I could strengthen her faith, and my own, by helping bear her cross even when it scared me, even when I didn’t have to.
In Caryll Houselander’s haunting poem, “The Kiss of Christ,” Jesus warns the narrator from the cross:
If now I should embrace you,
My hands would stain you red.
And if I leaned to whisper,
The thorns would pierce your head.
It’s true. To get close to Jesus, you have to risk getting dirty. You have to risk getting hurt.
After a year, my mom finally prevailed on me to see a chiropractor. Today, thanks to his treatments and a regimen of regular stretching and excruciatingly correct posture, my injury doesn’t bother me nearly as much.
And thanks to God’s grace, it doesn’t scare me as much. Suffering loses its horror when seen in the light of Jesus’ love. That love strengthens me to embrace him in the suffering I see around me: in a homeless friend, a father who has Alzheimer’s, and neighbors and family as they died—including Freda.
“Jesus Christ who died . . . is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:34-37).
Christine Venzon is a freelance writer in Peoria, Illinois.
Comforting Sufferers—Suffering Comforters
Be bold and creative: find ways to do the things you’re able to do—and the things you love doing—to help and encourage others. Here are a few ideas.
1. If you have a condition that requires frequent visits to the doctor, make your doctor’s office your mission field.
2. Send encouragement to those who pour their lives out for others in ways you can’t—like hospice nurses, school bus drivers, and drug and alcohol addiction counselors.
3. Have your kids make crafts for hospital patients and nursing home residents. Bring your kids with you to deliver the gifts.
4. Use chronic illness as a call to worship. Pray when you take your medicine, and take the admonition, “Be still and know that I am God,” seriously every time you’re unable to be up and about.