Towards the end of his life, my father in law got a terrible wound on his ankle. No matter what was done, for months, it would not heal. He saw wound doctors and vascular doctors and infectious disease and orthopedists, and he was close to losing his foot. But then, we took him to another facility for yet another opinion, and they had a new diagnosis. He didn’t have one particular cause for his seemingly terminal condition. He had a lot of them. He didn’t need an infection treated in isolation. He needed an infection treated, plus dead tissue removed so new could grow, plus improvements to his circulation to improve blood flow, plus surgery to reconstruct the skin and muscle tissue he had lost. For six weeks he went through vascular procedures and wound debridement and IV antibiotics and physical therapy. I went to his house twice a day and did what I could, but eventually he ended up staying in the hospital for a full month, had a muscle and skin graft surgery, and he healed. I need to tell you why I think this is what has been happening to me.
For a long time now, I have been broken. Different ways, for different reasons. Sometimes it was assumed to be from the death of my father-in-law, or my grandpa’s unexpected brain tumor followed shortly by his death, or my grandma’s sudden death walking into her house after being discharge from the hospital. All these traumas are reasons to be broken, right? Then it was, “Well maybe it’s because my dad is sick. I feel protective of him and I need to make sure he gets better and nothing happens to him.” It’s a reason to be broken right? And then came the biggest blow— the death of my mother, completely unexpected as the result of a surgical complication. All the while I’m still mothering, still being a wife, still working full time, starting a blog because that’s what my mom wanted me to do before she died. All of these reasons lead to broken, right?
There’s only one problem. Not a single one of those issues alone have been the thing that needed healed. All of them needed healed. The root issue has not been any specific adversity I have faced. It has been my need for control. I was the kid who cried at school every day because she wanted to be at home. I now recognize that as a need to be near my people, to be vigilant in watching over them so I could make sure they were safe. And then, as the oldest child, I was the one who wanted to make sure my brother and sister were taken care of. And then as a type A over-achiever I went to college and double-majored so that I could have options. I always seem to have a contingency plan. I always need to have my hands all over something, protecting it, nurturing it, convinced that absolutely no one can do it like I can, and that if I don’t do it, and something bad happens, then I will have to live with the guilt and blame. This can be a noble effort at times, but eventually it becomes suffocating. It becomes something that steals the breath from your lungs and leaves you lethargic and exhausted, cheek pressed to the cold floor, mind racing with all the ways you have failed.
I was so very angry for the longest time. Angry that my family was suffering. Angry that I couldn’t protect them. Angry about a pandemic. Angry that I lost my mother. Angry that my father is sick. Angry that my kids have seen more loss in their short lives than many adults see in decades. Over the past month though, I’ve started to recognize some things in my life are changing, and seeing flickers of my old self along with some newfound courage.
Going back yet again to my favorite book, Begin Again by Leeana Tankersley, I started to hear in my mind, “Burn it down.” This has been chanted in my mind. For the past month I have been re-evaluating my professional ambitions, my mothering, my failures as a wife or a friend, my inadequacies in so many areas, and then something happened that was a direct affront to one of my most prized friendships. And something incredible happened. What should have been, at its outset, a situation which was the final blow of destruction for me, became instead an impetus to change my entire perception of how my life could be.
Before all of this, I needed to protect my stability, the things that I could control. I needed to have or not have certain people, I needed a predictable trajectory professionally. I needed an immediate ten step plan for how to get my dad better. By adding one extra ball up in the air, everything could have fallen apart. At first it was. Then Other Half said to me, “Hey, let’s go out of town. We won’t go far so you can get back to your dad if you need to, but I think you need a break. You’re falling apart.”
Y’all he took me to the most beautiful place. It was so relaxing, and it felt isolated enough that it was safe and hidden and nothing could get to me there. After the first night, I got up at 6:30 the next morning and went to sit on the porch (not nearly a fancy enough term for what it is) and drank my disgusting black coffee thanks to intermittent fasting, and prayed and read Jentzen Franklin and Oliver Sacks, and wrote for the first time in months, and I started to process what loss has meant to me so far. It had been a gaping hole. A slap in the face. A slide into despair. It made me feel weak and helpless and at the mercy of my circumstances. And because I couldn’t control any of it, I felt like such a failure. But the beautiful thing about failing to control things is that you finally see that you’re not in control. It’s not your responsibility.
I started brainstorming. I started asking myself what I really wanted. I started asking myself if I was living the life I was living because I enjoyed it and thrived in it and actually wanted it, or if I was living it because it seemed safer than the great unknown. (Spoiler alert: I decided it’s the second one). I felt happy for the first time since my mom died. But on the drive back home, my chest started to get tight, and my mind started to race, and I felt as if I were an animal who had been set free to roam in the jungle but was now being put back in the zoo, trapped behind iron bars for people to walk by and gawk at while they had snacks and bought expensive souvenirs.
“Burn it down,” I thought.
Everyone looks at me and tells me they think I’m strong because I’ve survived so much. I disagree. I’m not sure I’m strong at all. What I am is fed the hell up. But hell is made of fire, and fire can burn it down. Fire purifies. Fire destroys those things that are not strong enough to stay, and leaves behind the best and purest and strongest elements. Fire sets into place the most vivid colors and patterns. Fire is beautiful.
When you have lost and lost and lost, and you finally hit rock bottom, and you stop being mad and start to process what the losses mean to you in your new existence, something beautiful happens. Something no one tells you to expect. You feel free. You learn that you can survive. You learn whatever state you are in to be content. You learn that your life does not have to look like you thought it had to look. You have options. When I was a kid and I would be at a sleepover, or a party, or a movie or whatever, my mom would say, “Remember, you’re never stuck anywhere.” This is what I have been learning. I am not stuck. If I don’t like how something looks in my life, I can change it. I don’t have to go the same places and be with the same people and do the same things just because they are comfortable. I am made for more than that. I can dare to imagine a life that looks completely different, and I can take steps to make that happen.
I’ve been sitting in the stillness, listening (another suggestion from Leeana Tankersley), and one day recently I asked God if my dreams were some manic identity crisis like a kid who wants to be an astronaut when they grow up, or if they were legitimate desires He had placed in my heart, waiting for the moment I would realize that I did not have to be a slave to ambition. And he said to me, “I’ve always loved dreamers. Who do you think is the giver of dreams? And what do you think I meant by abundant life anyway?”
A woman who has decided to believe God is faithful in spite of the circumstances around her that all seem to show evidence to the contrary is the woman on the verge of a breakthrough. I am more convinced of this than anything I have ever believed in my life. I am standing on the edge and believing I will fly.
So here’s what I’m saying to you— I am standing smack in the middle of rock bottom and I have a handful of matches and I am so freaking excited. Do with this news what you wish, but if you see a big glow coming from near the NC/SC state-line, don’t worry. It’s just me. I’ve decided to take my life and burn it down. I’m not stuck anywhere. I’m not a slave to a life that has been draining my spirit.
There is indescribable power in having a husband who believes your crazy ideas might just amount to something, and kids who tell you that binge-watching Netflix counts as quality time, and friends who tell you that you’re better than the chains you have been bound with. There’s freedom in letting go of all the things you thought you couldn’t live without. There’s freedom in saying, “Yeah, no, I’m not afraid anymore. You didn’t give me this freedom and you can’t take it from me.” There’s freedom in having a horrible day, and coming home to see how excited your kid is that he learned to ride his bike, or finding that your daughter’s art talents are growing by the minute, and being thankful for a soft place to land at the end of a brutal day.
Begin Again opens up with a poem by Fr Francis Dorrf : “I’ll know I’ve been raised from the dead when everything becomes a door—every brick wall, every dead end, every Judas friend, everything we see and smell and taste, everything we think and feel and are, every mountain top and valley bottom, every birth and every death, every joy and every pain, every ecstasy and infidelity, when every single thing becomes a door that opens to eternity and we pass through as we could never do before.” I think I’m alive again. Alive and holding a handful of matches.