Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The God Question

I grew up going to church.  Although my mother became a minister a few years back, she has been a church musician, and choir director since she was a teen.  Both my parents worked for the national offices of our denomination.  And my mother is now the minister of a small church, while my father is a church business administrator at another church not far away.

To say religion and faith are a big part of my life is an understatement.  The funny thing is that for many years now I have called myself spiritual, but not religious.  I believe in a God, but I haven't found a religion that depicts God in the way I feel.  You see personally, I'm beginning to wonder if the closer you get to religion, the further you get from God.

Around 1999 I began to question my faith.  I was 16, and like many teenagers I was trying to find out who I was, and where I belonged in this world.  My parents were loving and accepting of my faith exploration. A bit more than they had been about my fashion exploration several years earlier when I dyed my hair with Kool-Aid and wore all black. (Story for another day, lol.)  But the fact was that my parents allowed me to ask questions, buy books about faiths they knew little about, and even when they didn't like the one I chose, they accepted my weekly change of faith.  That same year though my entire life was turned upside down when just before Christmas, my mother became very sick.

Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) is a rare blood clotting disorder causing small clots to form in blood vessels throughout the body.  My mother was diagnosed with TTP the day before Winter Break my Junior year of high school, on December 18, 1999.  At the time the fatality rate for TTP was around 80%, and because of how rare it was few doctors knew how to treat it, or diagnosis it.  By pure dumb luck though, my mother happened to go to a local hospital that was one of only a few in the US at the time that was familiar with the disorder and equipped to treat it.  Within hours of getting to the hospital, she was being treated using plasma exchange.  This didn't guarantee recovery, but it definitely was a good thing.

My mother went through treatments of plasma exchange daily, as well as going on chemotherapy, steroids, and basically any treatment they thought might get her body to stop clotting, and return to normal. Daily blood test results gave the entire family anxiety. Were her numbers any better, showing that the disorder wasn't winning? Or were the numbers dropping, making everyone nervous she may never leave the hospital?  Christmas was spent opening gifts at my sister's house, with my mom on the phone from her hospital room because her blood numbers weren't good enough to get a day away from the sterile four walls of the hospital.  New Years Eve, ringing in the new millennium, was spent in much the same way.  For over a month my mom fought for her life, and I spent every day trying to make sense of what was happening.

The night my father took my mom to the hospital, I saw a woman I had never seen before.  My mom was pale...REALLY pale.  She was in and out of consciousness, vomiting, and when she spoke she didn't make much sense.  Her body was shutting down, and she was literally dying in front of me.  Our parents are superheros, they're always there for us, and even when they get sick, they still take care of you. As a kid, your parents are invincible, and nothing can stop them.  You never expect to see your parent so vulnerable, and when you do it's horrifying as a child.  That night I prayed.  I didn't care if it was a Christian God, or a Jewish God, or a Muslim God, or a "Higher Power".  The name and label didn't matter.  At that moment I needed the comfort of knowing that I wasn't alone, it was alright to be scared, and at a time when I felt entirely helpless, it gave me a purpose.

The days I spent at the hospital after school were often spent in the hospital chapel.  A small room with stained glass doors, six pews, and a cross hanging on the wall at the front of the room.  Although a message outside the room stated the chapel was non-denominational, a hospital with a Christian denomination in it's name was going to be a little bias.  I spent many days sitting in that chapel, not necessarily praying, but just trying to find God in everything that was happening.

Although many of the days I spent visiting my mother meld together in my memory, two days stand out, my birthday and the day after.  I had been picked up after school by my father and we had gone straight to the hospital.  They had been speaking with my mother about removing her spleen in a last ditch, hail Marry attempt to get her blood numbers to even out and hopefully send her into remission.  A surgery that can be seen as routine, had high risks for my mother in her condition.  Because of the blood clotting issues the disorder caused, and the high levels of blood thinners she'd been on for a month, it was very possible she could bleed out and die in surgery.  This also wasn't a sure thing, and if it didn't work she would most likely be in the hospital for the rest of her life, dependent on plasma exchange to keep her from clotting and dying.

They had wanted to do the surgery on January 20th, but my mother refused because that was my birthday.  She had lost her father at 17 to cancer, and hated that I was going through a similar pain at the same age.  So reluctantly the doctors agreed to move the surgery to the 21st as long as her blood numbers seemed to be in a safe range.  My birthday was bittersweet, with surgery happening the next day.  When my sister got off work and arrived at the hospital that night I opened gifts, even one my sister had shopped to find from my mother.  Comedy and Tragedy mask earrings, I still have to this day.  That night as we readied to leave, I hugged my mom, kissed her and told her I would see her the next day.  I didn't sleep well, and when my alarm went off for school, rather than getting ready to go take English tests, learn about the invasion of Pearl Harbor, or the square root of 93, I got ready to say goodbye to my mother.  Because it very well could have been the last time I saw her.

That morning before they took her into surgery my mom hugged me, still unsure if she wanted to go through with the surgery.  All night I had been praying, and my prayer had been selfish, but at 17 years old there was a lot I still needed my mom for.  So I prayed that my mom would be all right, that she would survive the surgery, and things would go back to normal.  That morning was emotional, and as I hugged my mom she asked me if I thought she should go through with it.  I knew I couldn't answer that, so I answered in the only way I could through my tears.  "I just want my mom back."  The same prayer I'd been saying all night.

She did go through with surgery, her blood numbers returned to normal and remained that way, and 42 days after she had entered the hospital as a practically lifeless individual, she came home.  Ten years later, she got to stop going back for blood tests, and they considered her in remission.

During this time a lot happened, I had to grow up rather quickly. I realized my parents are not the superheroes we all think they are.  And my faith faltered.  You would think the fact that my mother survived such a grim outlook, would mean that my faith would be stronger than ever.  The fact was that I had a difficult time understanding why God would have my family go through such a difficult time.  Since then I've found myself asking that question a lot.  When a good friend who was only in his twenties died from cancer.  When my grandmother passed away unexpectedly and quickly.  When a friend lost her child.

There have been so many times I've found myself asking "What kind of God allows this pain to happen?!"  I don't have an answer, and I still falter in my faith and ask "why" often.  I never expect to get an answer, and I'm all right with that.  For me, quite often, simply asking the question brings me peace.

Someone once explained to me their belief when I shared my faith question with them.  They said that God has granted us free will, but with free will comes pain and hurt that we can't always prevent or control.  It doesn't mean God wanted us to have that pain and hurt, but by giving us our free will that meant those things couldn't always be avoided.  The important thing to remember was that when we hurt, and we are sad, so is God.  At the same time, when we are happy, and we celebrate so is God.  If we ask God how such pain could happen, we also can't forget to ask God how such happiness happened.  And we need to remember to thank God for both, because we were given both with our free will.

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