Monday, September 24, 2007

Doubt is a privilege of the faithful

It is rarity to have a performance, whether it be a play, an opera, musical or other type of concert strike a chord deep enough to have complete recall of all the thoughts, feelings and emotions it evoked. One such performance for me was of the play Doubt which I saw on Broadway over two years ago. The opening monologue was so powerful that even sitting here today I recall the hair on my arms standing on end and a faint stinging in my nose and eyes as I struggled to hold my emotions back. Just over this simple opening:

FLYNN: What do you do when you're not sure? That's the topic of my sermon today. You look for God's direction and can't find it. Last year when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation. Despair. "What now? Which way? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself?" It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow beings was your despair. It was a public experience, shared by everyone in our society. It was awful, but we were in it together! How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity? "No one knows I'm sick. No one knows I've lost my last real friend. No one knows I've done something wrong." Imagine the isolation. You see the world as through a window. On the one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people. On the other side: you. Something has happened, you have to carry it, and it's incommunicable. For those so afflicted, only God knows their pain. Their secret. The secret of their alienating sorrow. And when such a person, as they must, howls to the sky, to God: "Help me!" What if no answer comes? Silence. I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank, and all her crew was drowned. Only this one sailor survived. He made a raft of some spars and, being of a nautical discipline, turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home and, exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky. For the next twenty nights, as he floated on the vast ocean, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. As the days rolled on, and he wasted away with fevers, thirst and starvation, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations -- had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen Truth once and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? That was his dilemma on a voyage without apparent end. There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. I want to say to you, Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen. (He exits.)


"Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty." This was the line that struck me the hardest. Somehow my doubt is what keeps me close to my faith, something I rarely discuss let alone write about publicly so forgive me this indulgence.

My doubt also allows me to drift and float to an unrecognizable place where I am no longer striving to learn but allowing doubt to overpower and cripple me to a point I question whether I ever had faith to begin with. I doubt that brief moment when the sky was clear and the stars were twinkling clearly overhead and instead decide they must not be there if I cannot see them now. I stop calling upon God because of the silence. My truly spiritual faith affirming moments are rare and less than dramatic, so they are easily forgotten, cast aside as imagined or coincidental. I allow Doubt to take over the silence.

But tonight I must confess there is vast and inconceivable power and overwhelming sense of comfort that results from the concerted and united focus of prayer for one individual. No matter the religious persuasion, when people selflessly align their thoughts in a private moment for the healing of one, prayer is an overwhelming force. My problem is I don't do it. I forget it. Ignore it. Push it aside as inconsequential and I Doubt its power.

Late Wednesday night I sat in a chair at the foot of my dad's hospital bed and I doubted him as he promised that he knew he would be fine. Tears rolled down my cheeks as he promised me happiness if I would open myself to it. The unstated part of his sermon was I needed to stop shoving aside happiness with Doubt. That night I prayed as I fell into a restless sleep.

The next morning, my mom, sister and I returned to the hospital at 6:30 a.m. and I began a reluctant fast with my mother as my dad was wheeled down the hall toward the operating room. I confess I considered eating breakfast when my sister and I returned to her apartment to shower before returning to the waiting room. My mom would not know and at least my stomach could be at peace. But something stopped me, I knew this would be a bond between us - a unified fast for a successful surgery - even if I doubted its impact.

The three of us sat in the waiting room hour after hour, waiting for the brief and non-specific updates from the nurse which I quickly typed into my blackberry and emailed to the family. I struggled to concentrate on the work I had brought with me. Fatigue made reading nearly impossible and even flipping through the magazines my sister bought when she took a walk took more concentration that I could muster. So we sat. Hopeful. Optimistic. Yet acknowledging with our restlessness that at any moment we could find our name scrawled on the door labeled "Crisis Room" and be given the unthinkable news. We each knew our thoughts occasionally got away from us as we tried to wipe away visions of life without him. I couldn't. I refused. Not because he was so overcome with optimism and faith and spiritual assurance that he had more to do in this life but simply because I KNEW it wasn't time.

I knew I still needed my dad.
I knew he needs to see his first granddaughter born sometime this week.
I knew he needs to see me happy.
I knew that he needs to share a daddy-daughter dance with me at my wedding.
I knew he needs to spend a Christmas in Mexico like I've been promising for the last couple of years.
I knew, more than anything, that he needs to continue to be my mother's companion and best friend for many more years to come.

Doubt had no place in that waiting room with me.

After saying farewell and good luck at 730 am, it was with great relief and gratitude that we met with the surgeon at 5 pm and listened in awe as he described how he performed a miracle and reconstructed my father's heart. How he removed the overgrown tissue of the aorta and patched the holes around the aortic valve and stitched in a new artificial valve, how there was severe arithmea they managed to contain and control, how they saved his life in seven relentless hours of surgery.

We were then ushered back to ICU to see him - still asleep only an hour after the operation. I was grateful my mother had warned me how he would look from her experience at this last time. Other than the seemingly exaggerated rise and fall of his chest from the tube in his throat that was breathing for him, he looked dead. His head was leaned all the way back flat, not propped up with multiple pillows as he prefers. His face was ashen and puffy, his eyes were closed and tubes and wires were shooting out of him in all directions connecting him to multiple screens with zig-zagging lines and changing numbers and dripping bags. His legs, especially his feet were so pale. The nurse had not yet cleaned off the iodine and whatever else was staining the skin across his chest and neck a burnt orange and in the center of his chest a thinner than expected strip of pristinely white gauze gave away the point at which they had so recently closed his chest. The nurse encouraged us to talk to him and I stood at his head stroking his hair murmuring how much we love him as I noticed how he seemed to have gained more gray hair in the last seven hours. My mother stood on the other side of the bed holding his hand looking somehow lighter when his eyes fluttered briefly in recognition of our voices. The stress and tension seemed to lift up and float out of the room and the tenderness of my parent's love and strength touched me. I thought of that moment again the next morning when I had a few minutes alone with my dad and the first thing he said to me was "your mother is a rock." And she is.

Doubt continued to plague me and I failed to recognize the power of the fast I was breaking in the rush of typing a hurried email to the family as we walked across the hospital parking garage and as I explained over and over to my uncle, my brother and others the doctor's reassuring words and the nurse's statement that he already looked better than expected between ordering and subsequently inhaling my Cafe Rio salad. What I did feel was a solidarity with my mother after fasting together for such an important purpose. But this took time to sink in.

Soon we were able to laugh and focus on other matters over delicious pastries from The Bakery on the covered patio where we met my aunt before returning to the hospital. The warmth of the sun was a shock after the chill of the overly air-conditioned waiting room and we lingered, grateful for other distractions.

It took days for the import of what had happened to sink in. My dad is doing amazingly well. Better than anyone expected. So I got on another plane and went to my friend's wedding and there, sitting in the temple witnessing his marriage vows I re-discovered my faith. Doubt slipped away and I was nearly overcome with joy at the realization of what prayer and fasting did for my dad. For that brief moment, the clouds parted and a vast array of stars winked down at me filling me with peaceful silence.

6 comments:

lizzie said...

alyssa, thanks for sharing. i really needed to hear that today. simply beautiful. thank you.

autumn said...

That was a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing. I'm so glad everything is going okay with your dad.

tiff said...

Stunning. Thank you so much for sharing this. I will be reading it again and again. I'm so glad your dad is doing well. :)

Beck said...

Oh! This was just heart-rendingly beautiful - and I'm so happy that your dad is recovering quickly. Best wishes.

Robert said...

Alyssa, remember that we are together through all the eternities - you will always be my little girl, even when you have your own worlds without end. Happiness right now, right here is our heritage. I heard a beautiful thought from Isaiah today - sorry that I am too lazy too look up the verse, but the verse says we should come to the Savior while we are near to Him. The point is that we are either getting closer or further away, and so we are closer right now than we will be unless we come to him.

Ma said...

I am sitting at my desk at work wiping away the tears that kept coming as I read your post.

Thank you for doing such a beautiful job of expressing your feelings.

Thank you for being with me during this trauma. You'll never know how much I appreciated having you and Erin by my side as we waited for the surgery to end and to hear from the surgeon. It was another one of those moments that bind us together for eternity.

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