Prayer Most Desperate… Paisley, Part 10

If not now…

How gentle the rise, I thought, as they lifted me on that gurney. Two teams of paramedics had swept noiselessly into my kitchen, to find me collapsed on the floor. Chest pains had dragged me to the earth, coupled with strained breathing and the distinct sound of blood rushing through my ears. Crumpled to my knees, and then pulled further down, I had finally been flattened out on the stained concrete. I felt myself on the brink of losing consciousness, coupled with the sense that I would stop breathing if I did. The color had entirely drained from my face, and my frightened wife called for aid. A great hand had reached down and simply flipped the switch, or opened the valve, and the vital force had bled out of me. So they shuttled me by ambulance to the hospital, leaving my tearfully anxious wife alone with her fears until someone could come to relieve her. Paisley had not yet been born, or even conceived, but our three other children had remained fast asleep in their rooms.

The circumstances precipitating that episode matter little at present. Yet it was in that uncertain hour that I can recall gazing into the pre-dawn sky, as they wafted me to the yawning hind end of that ambulance, and being astonished at the silence from above. In truth, I was unafraid. But I had expected to feel some sort of presence in that hour.

The paramedic watching over me during the ride asked me about my children. This I took as a measure to both keep me conscious and to bolster my will to live. I suspected this as a standard practice with those who are ebbing. She was very kind. Nevertheless, it was to heaven that I looked. I had thought there would be some consoling assurance. Puzzled at the seeming vacancy, the thought flitted through my mind:

If not now, when?

The believer lives out the Christian life, content in the knowledge of truth, and patient for the day when the curtain will finally part, and all will at last be revealed. Meanwhile, we are left to interpret the everyday events of life through a theistic lens. We see God’s presence in the love of our brothers and sisters, in the eyes of our children, and so on. We see Him ever, and solely, by proxy. Yet there remains a closeted expectation that, in the hour of greatest desperation, His comforting presence will be more explicitly with us. We will know and feel Him in those narrow moments.

What if we do not?

All turned out well in the end. I managed to close away the recollection of that odd silence and isolation. In fact, I went on to post an account of the experience, along with an admonition that friends should keep their accounts with the Almighty in good repair. We know not our time, I said, and the master switch can be flipped quite without warning.

Prayer for Paisley

Contrasted with the siren and lights episode just recounted, I was very afraid indeed when we took Paisley to the hospital. At least one theoretical question was laid forever to rest in my mind. We parents fear the death of our children far more acutely than any jeopardy to ourselves. We love them more than breathing. Thus, my own inward condition during Paisley’s desperate hour could not have been more distinct from my own ambulance ride.

Yet one dreadful aspect was precisely the same – something which I long labored to forget, and which I kept very much to myself.

Sitting helplessly beside Paisley in the ER, with eyes begging upward, the heavens answered with indifferent vacancy. My wordless and desperate prayer went out like a ping that found no return.

All of the other unspoken eye-lines of that day had been two-sided. My children’s eyes to me. The doctor’s eyes to the nurse. Between my wife and me. These candle-lit beams of wordless communication had been unmistakable. Yet in that prayer between God and me, I could perceive no presence. No consolation. I pleaded into the receiver, almost like my daughter’s life depended upon it, and I heard not even a dial tone. Amid the tumult of that moment, a flitting thought echoed back…

If not now, when?

The room throbbed with machinery and irregular monitor chirps, but the consuming sound was silence. With the receiver still hard against my cheek, my heavenward eyes slowly fell, following the hint of a barely audible pant. And tracing the coiled phone-line that hung from my hand, I inched down it toward the murmur. Then finally seeing what swayed gently at the end of the cord, I convulsed away, snapping my eyes shut against the ghastly thought. My mind fled from the image, in which the sound of those halting breaths whispered out of a second handset, dangling from the one at my ear.

Alone in Good Company

It was a very long time before I told my wife about that silence. It seemed unmentionable, even between us. I think that I had been ashamed. The defect must have been my own.

When I finally told her, over a year later, she was taken aback. I watched her run inventory on that awful day. Bit by bit, a suppressed thought found the surface. I found myself dumbstruck when she quietly admitted the unspeakable: she had felt nothing but emptiness too.

I have since talked with others who have beheld the murky visage of the abyss. They have conceded an identical silence.

Well into my departure from the faith, I read Mother Teresa’s posthumously published diaries and letters. In them, she describes the affliction of this felt absence, which persisted for her over many tormented years. She too felt both distressed and ashamed. I have perhaps never read an account of someone more haunted by it than she.

Making Repairs

We find ways not to remember. We repair our beliefs in the wake of crisis. We reconcile ourselves to the outcome and, when necessary, to the absence. We relocate God to secondary causes. That way, we can see Him in everything that happened. Without doing so, He is not there to be seen. We rug-sweep our haunting memories. Our faith communities stand eager to help.

If not now, when?

With Paisley, the question was elbowed aside in our recollections, winged away on the joy of her perfect recovery. The same was true of my gurney ride to the hospital.

For those left in mourning, how impossible might it be? A further danger remains ever present in faith communities: those who fail in the reconstruction attempt must sometimes shoulder the compounding shame labels of doubt or insufficient faith.

How many friends, I wonder, might leverage this personal disclosure as grounds for dismissal? “It sounds like he never was a true believer.” Ah, but I did believe. I believed hard enough to suppress the forbidden memory. Hard enough to repair and invert the whole thing, spending a year to craft a song that focused on the efficacy of prayer. Like everyone else I know, I wanted and needed it to be true. Enough to doctor the data.

No Predictor

Somewhere along the way, I became more honest. I have now put aside attempts to square a number of circles. Flatly put, the revisionist impulse is immoral. The truth is something I now allow myself to speak:

The heavens have been silent and unconsoling during the darkest hours of my life. My desperate and upturned eyes of faith saw nothing. My heartfelt expectation of presence was left hollow and unreciprocated. By faith, we may choose to forget that reality, but faith cannot change that reality.

Prayer is no predictor of outcome. Prayer is also no predictor of consolation, presence, or peace.


[to be continued…]

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  1. Like everyone else I know, I wanted and needed it to be true. Enough to doctor the data.

    Amen. The silence is deafening. Somehow it’s hard to admit the real reason for the silence; that perhaps it’s not because absence makes the heart grow fonder, but that absence means that there is nothing there. If we ever needed to hear and to know that God was there it was in our darkest moments.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. After the birth of our last child, I had lost tons of blood and passed out. I wasn’t dead or near dead that I can say, but I do remember the abrupt wakening with the smelling salts that the midwives carried. What unsettled me too, in that hour, was that there was nothing. All I remember is blackness and then waking up. I was not afraid, either, but confused.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blood loss is interestingly close to what happened with me. I had what is called a vagal reaction, in response to athletic dehydration from marathon training. Very odd. Hadn’t run in 48 hours. Coffee and beer contributed, actually. Extreme low blood pressure followed, and a deeply depressed pulse (in the 30’s). The vagal response of the body is to issue the command, “be thou horizontal”, because the body just can’t pump blood uphill to the head any more. Sometimes this is a finger snap passing out, but in my case I got to be awake for the gradual takedown. Classic heart attack scare, apparently. But the cardiologist informed me after detailed examination a week or two later that my ticker is near flawless. I now know some warning signs. But it was confusing enough that the paramedics couldn’t tell what was happening at the time with any certainty… Blood loss would do much the same – not enough blood to pump anymore.


  3. Still here, bro. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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