It was pain clinic day and Jack needed a designated driver to bring him home after his treatment. The clinic, held in our local hospital, is small and busy so I waited in the seating area by the emergency department. I found a chair positioned back to back with three women and dug out a book to read.
Conversation started between the women behind me. You may think of it as eavesdropping, but the woman to my right was hard to ignore for anyone in that crowded waiting room.
She cleared her throat. “What time was your appointment?” she asked.
“Forty-five minutes ago,” came the reply. “Yours?”
“Half an hour. How long have you been coming here?”
“Two years,” said the other.
“This is my first time,” said the woman in the middle.
“It’s been six years for me,” said the first woman.
I glanced over my shoulder to get a look at her. A large woman, probably 40-something, her hair hung in a ponytail and one tattooed leg crossed over the other. Her cane dangled from the arm of the chair.
I settled back into my reading, filtering out as best I could their exchange of ailments and injuries. But the voice to my right became louder and more irritated as she recounted her issues and all the failed remedies she had tried. I found myself drawn into this sorority of suffering.
The middle woman sat quietly, but the one to my left gently responded with her own experiences. I missed the part about what exactly had happened to her. But she had apparently been a very healthy person, with “never so much as a headache” in her earlier years. She didn’t even take aspirin back then.
“Now I’m on meds so strong I can barely look after myself. I’m thankful my kids are grown and my husband helps me.”
“You’re lucky,” said the first woman. “I’m on my own, raised my kids alone. One moved to Ottawa to get away from me. The other is a paramedic and enjoys telling me how I’ve screwed up my life.”
The other woman said, “My daughter told me she can’t stand to look at me anymore, to remember how I used to be compared to what I’ve become. I used to be a swimmer, loved scuba diving. I’ve gained 50 pounds in the past two years. I can’t even go snorkelling anymore.”
“Aren’t kids just wonderful?” said the middle woman sarcastically.
“Oh, she’s young and a solid athlete herself. She just can’t handle what’s happened to me.”
Just then her husband appeared. “Your turn,” he said, helping her up.
A kind-looking woman, she held her husband’s hand as they walked down the hall. Twenty minutes later they returned, her neck and beautiful face now swollen and red. She leaned heavily into her husband and they shuffled out the exit door.
A few minutes later Jack showed up. “Okay, let’s go dancing!” he said with a relieved grin.
All afternoon I thought about that dear woman. I wished I could tell her that her daughter has it wrong, that she is still a lovely woman, still a worthwhile human being; that her suffering has only revealed who she really is and given her something truly valuable to offer her daughter and the rest of the world – an example of courage and perseverance in the face adversity.
That would be too easy for me to say, wouldn’t it? Considering that I’m not the one debilitated by chronic pain, sleeping with ice packs around my head and enduring monstrous treatments in the hope of a few days’ worth of relief. Who am I to talk?
But others have proven my point. Beethoven was deaf at the age of 30 and still composed some of his most significant work; Fanny Crosby – blind from birth – wrote over 8,000 hymns, some of which endure to this day. Or consider Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic who has discovered “God’s hand in hardship” by which she ministers to countless others.
Instruments of glory
Contemplating the challenges of aging J.I. Packer said, “. . . usefulness is much more profoundly a matter of the kind of person you are than of the particular things you do.” Agreed. I want to be useful in God’s hands, an instrument of his glory. But I’d like to be a noble, respectable, important instrument, and I prefer not to suffer for it. I proved Packer’s point. The kind of person I am is the self-centred kind.
So I prayed for that woman whose name I do not know. And I prayed for the Holy Spirit to help me overcome myself and to be truly content to serve God as it suits him, trusting his purposes above mine. To borrow Fanny Crosby’s words: “To God be the glory!” No matter what.