Eternity Etched On My Eyes
Before the surgery, my spine was curved in the shape of a C. It was twisted and it was deforming my rib cage.
After the surgery, two rods, sixteen screws, and several hooks now held my spine perfectly straight.
They said the next year would be a painful recovery as I waited for my spine to fuse in the eight places where they removed the discs.
“I’m so weak. I’m so weak. I’m so weak,” I whispered from the floor where I lay in my room, overwhelmed with the ongoing pain day after day. I looked up at my nightstand where the little orange bottle sat containing the narcotic medication. If I took a bunch, I wouldn’t feel the pain anymore. I slowly lifted myself off the floor and sat on the edge of my bed.
Taking up the bottle, I poured a pile of small white pills into the palm of my hand and sat staring at them.
“Don’t give in to drug addiction. God is stronger than anything you will go through. He will give you the strength” were the words ringing in my head as I stared at the fatal mound in my hand. An elder and another good friend from church frequently reminded me of this truth and admonished me not to be overcome. “But it’s not like I want to kill myself, I’m just going to take enough to help the pain” I reasoned. Then I thought if I were to die by taking these pills how God would ask me why I didn’t believe His promise that He would be my strength when I was weak. I began weeping, and poured the pills back into the bottle. “I don’t have the strength Lord, I don’t. Give me your strength, please Lord, if I have to go on” I pleaded.
The pain didn’t go away.
The weakness was still there.
Bouts of depression frequently hit me.
But God did give me His strength, and I continued on three years in pain not knowing why. The doctors all said my spine had fused. A pain management doctor prescribed more narcotics and a lifetime of pain. Dad often came home from work to find me writhing in pain on the floor. There was nothing he or mom could do but sit next to me –hold me in their arms. How many silent prayers went up I’ll never know. And when I was turned away from physical therapy because it wasn’t helping, we sat and cried together. Mom promised they wouldn’t give up looking for answers, and Dad reminded me that God is sovereign and we don’t have to understand in order to trust Him.
I prayed every day and read my Bible. But God didn’t feel close.
I began to think he had brought me into this pain and forgotten about me. As time passed I began to think perhaps God didn’t exist at all. I was ashamed for these thoughts, so I kept quiet. But finally my shame and despair led me to admit my doubts and I brought them to my dad. He said, “Our faith is grounded in the character of God and his promises. Our emotions change all the time. How shakable would our faith be if it were found in our emotions? But God promises, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ Whether you feel God’s presence or not, you can know He is there.” I began to pray God’s promises, “Lord, even though I don’t feel your presence, I know you are there…”
My parents wouldn’t give up searching for answers. Mom spent countless hours doing research and eventually found a doctor in California who had invented the first surgery I had. He agreed to see me and within only minutes Dr. Picetti knew my spine had in fact not fused. The surgeon had made a mistake and not removed all the discs –a necessary step for fusion to take place. A second surgery was required to redo the fusion process and more rods and screws were placed into my spine.
Each day that passed lying in the hospital in California, a greater fatigue set over my body. My stomach weakened and I felt a pressure in my chest. The pain was rising. Everything, including my limbs, ached. The muscles in my back, my stomach, and everything throbbed. My ribcage and especially my spine burned with intense pain.
Then that welling feeling that begins in the stomach and crawls up through the chest creating a horrible knot in my throat –wanting to cry, but –No! I can’t cry. Crying makes my body tense and that makes the pain worse. I felt hysterical with the mounting pain. Mom sat next to me looking into my desperate eyes.
“It’s okay to cry Katie” she said.
“I can’t” I whispered. “It hurts too much.”
Suddenly my body reached the pinnacle of what it could endure and turning my head away from mom I threw up, drenching my pillow, clothes, and hair. Fatigue so overwhelmed me I was content to lay in my own vomit and close my eyes. For a moment I felt a slight relief over my body. I didn’t care to be cleaned up. A few single tears managed to escape. A nurse came in and she and mom got to work cleaning everything up.
Again my pain began to mount. The room seemed dark. Fighting the physical pain took energy and concentration. Energy I didn’t have. How would I get through this?
There didn’t seem to be an end in sight, and I knew I had no choice but to be in it.
An elder and his wife from church had come to be with my parents and me and I could hear Karla’s firm but calm voice, “Katie, I’m going to help you, we are going to work through the pain. You’ll get through it.”
I felt frustrated because I didn’t think I would get through it. I didn’t think I would get better. I thought about the option of not dealing with the pain, and I began to realize the pain was driving my mind insane.
With Karla sitting to my right I faintly heard her calling my name, but it seemed to the left there was utter darkness –a place where I could let my mind go and not fight the pain. Give up. Lose grasp on reality. If I let myself go there, would I ever return? Her voice began to call me back from slipping into this blackness. As I thought about fighting the pain all I wanted to do was scream and cry and go crazy with the fatigue and frustration that had my stomach bound in knots.
But everything I felt like doing would only cause more pain.
I wrestled with the options. I could let the pain drive me into madness, or I could take hold of Karla’s claim that it would get better. “Katie you must stay calm. Now listen to me. You need to take a deep breath.”
There was just enough command in her voice to grasp my attention and just enough gentleness to provoke a response. I took a deep breath.
“Good, now slowly let it out” she continued. “Good. Take a deep breathe… now slowly let it out. Good.”
I felt a slight calming from the anxiety and began to pour all my focus into listening and obeying the instructions. She spoke as if we were fighting the pain together, even though she couldn’t feel it.
“We’re going to get through this” she was saying. There was something even more calming in her speaking this way. I began to feel like I didn’t have to fight the pain on my own. I knew she was going to sit there and keep talking me through it until it was better. As she continued walking me through the pain I began to feel my body relax, and the room became distant behind my heavy eyelids. Unknowingly, sleep took me in. When I regained consciousness I heard Jeff’s voice to my left softly reading the words, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us…”
The year following that surgery, I moved in with my sister Christy and her husband Ken for some independence, but still to have family close by. The pain improved enough I started working, but I was still on narcotics and in enough pain I couldn’t take on the full responsibilities of living on my own. But soon the improvement plateaued and another year later, not only had the pain quit improving, it was getting worse. I could no longer lay flat on my back. A hospital bed was moved into my room so I could try to sleep sitting upright. I spent most nights searching for a way to become comfortable enough to sleep. Dad, Mom, and Christy would often take turns sitting up with me into late hours of the night as I fought through the pain.
Mom and I flew back to California to see my surgeon. I laid face down on the operating table waiting for the injection procedure –sedated enough so I couldn’t move, but not so much I would fall asleep. They needed me awake to cry out in pain when they pushed the needles into the most painful places in my back.
At the end of an hour, Dr. Picetti determined the cause of my pain were the rods irritating my spine. They were situated close to the outside of spine and protruding out like knots in my back, causing especially intense pain when I would lean against my back as they pushed on my spine. I returned to the hotel room bruised, traumatized, and fear-struck. The only solution was to have the rods removed and this meant, surgery. I laid on the bed weary and weeping. Knowing too well the pain of this surgery, I called Dad, uncontrollable weeping, wishing desperately for a way out. He told me the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He told me it’s not wrong to be afraid, but we cannot let our fear lead us away from trusting God’s will. He said, “If this is what God has called into your life, you have to trust His will in this and that He will give you the grace to go through it once again.”
Dad was right. Once again, God gave me His strength. The greater battle following this third surgery soon became the fight against withdrawal and the strong pull of the addictive medications I’d been on for years. They had begun to take a dangerous effect on my mind as well as my body and one night in particular I felt every physical and mental aggravation. I went into my room and closed the door, turned out the light, and laid down on the floor. I wanted to cry but tears wouldn’t come. I wanted to pray but found no words. I felt deep frustration, anger, cramping in my stomach, pain shooting throughout my body. I dug my fingers into my scalp, pulling on the roots of my hair. Then I remembered Romans 8 where it says the Holy Spirit prays for us when we don’t know how to pray. So I asked Jesus to pray for me. As I lay there in the darkness and silence of the room, suddenly, I was surrounded by the closest presence of the Lord I’d ever known. No words were spoken, or tears shed. But a consuming peace and deep joy filled my heart as the presence of God filled the room.
The intimacy of knowing God’s comfort in my deepest agony gave me a longing for heaven that only knowing God in suffering could bring. If such joy and peace can be known in the agonies of this suffering life, how much greater will it be when I am made perfect with Him in eternity?
The prospect of living potentially many more years in this earthly life seemed bleak and daunting. Along with the effects of withdrawal, the fear of “living” caused me to fall into depression. I shut the world out as I sat alone in my room, staring at the floor or out the window, ignoring phone calls and refusing visitors. Everything in life was associated with pain, so the thought of returning to an active life felt overwhelming. I wanted to die. When I sat once again staring into a pile of pills in my hand, God reminded me, as He had before, that He was my strength and I must believe in Him and claim His promises even when I couldn’t understand His purposes.
So instead of killing myself, I began to pray that God would take me out of this life. My motives were wrong, but I longed for Heaven. I longed for the closeness of the presence of Jesus. But I longed mostly to be free from pain, and I cowered in fear of the future rather than trust God for His strength to live. Eventually, I began to change my prayer. I started praying that if God would not let me die, that He would give me the ability to live life and with that the desire to live.
As I so often had done over the years, I sat in the office of my pastor, as the weight of suffering sat heavy upon me. I didn’t have anything new to share –it was the same old pain and the same weariness as always. What new thing was there to say? He scooted the Kleenex box over towards me and began talking about the suffering of Jesus that He endured out of love for me –though I was sinful and undeserving. What I remember Jared saying most vividly –words I will never forget, with tears in his eyes as he spoke them, “If your suffering causes you to draw even one step closer to Jesus, it’s worth it! It’s worth it! It’s worth it!”
That is what I needed to know in my suffering. That was the only answer I needed. If my suffering served no other purpose than to draw me closer to Jesus Christ, it was enough. As 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 says,
“For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
Six months after my third surgery, for the first time in years, I came off all the pain medications. God answered my prayer –not only did he give me back the ability to live life, but he gave me a great desire for it and with that many opportunities to be active in life. I went to college at Purdue University, got a job at Purdue’s radio station, and joined the jail ministry team at church doing Bible studies with the inmates every Sunday. Dad and I began receiving invitations to speak on the topic of suffering. While God had taught us most significantly through the trenches of suffering we walked together as a family, we continued to learn what God has to say about suffering as we prepared our talks. We spent hours talking together about God’s purposes in suffering. In my last semester at Purdue I got a job working in the field of substance abuse prevention. But the greatest earthly blessing God gave to my life was meeting Ben, who would become my husband.
Yet, God is never done refining his people. A few months after Dad walked me down the aisle and gave me to my husband, he was diagnosed with melanoma cancer. He went through surgery and multiple different treatments, but his body did not respond. The cancer spread aggressively. I found that when I went home to visit, the roles had reversed—I was the one now holding Dad’s arm in support as he walked a few meager laps around the dining room table and returned to the couch, in too much pain to go on.
In a last attempt to attack the cancer, he went to Chicago for another treatment. Mom and Christy and I spent the week in the hospital room with him, watching as the treatment slowly caused him to slip away. He began the week in his regular optimistic and cheerful spirit—joking with us and the nurses. But as the week went on he quit joking, he quit talking, and he quit eating. Only a few days into the treatment he went into toxic shock. He was moved to the ICU and within a few hours we knew he wouldn’t make it. My three brothers came to the hospital, all knowing it was the end. We each took our turn going into his room alone to say goodbye.
“Hi dad.” My voice trembled. I placed my hand on his arm. “Thank you, Dad … for teaching me how to suffer … to keep my eyes on Christ.” —Weeping. “You’re going to get to be with Jesus soon…” —Long silence. “I can’t wait to be with you there someday.” —Sobs. “Goodbye dad. I love you.”
And then I walked away from him—eternity etched more finely on my eyes. The only way forward was to cling to the promises of God and find comfort in His words, “Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).