Finding a Place to Stand ~ Rev. Melanie Eyre
Rev. Melanie reflects on lessons learned in an unexpected journey.
Talk starts at 21:57
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A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
“Finding a Place to Stand” ~ Rev. Melanie Eyre
Aug. 16, 2020
Welcome. How glad am I to be back.
For those new to One World or new to our gatherings, I’m Rev. Melanie Eyre, the Spiritual Director here, and I’ve been out for about three weeks with my son, Nick, who had spinal surgery at Grady Hospital on July 30. He went into the hospital on July 21 and we came home a week ago Thursday, on Aug. 6. It’s been such a powerful and consuming experience, and I wanted to share some thoughts on it today.
My first thought is deep gratitude for a successful surgery and a recovery well underway. For any of us who were worried, Nick’s personality survived the surgery intact, and he is the same shining light he was before he went in. He inspires us every day.
I also have to say thank you so much to all those who have done such a wonderful job in my absence, including Rev. Linda Wendt, Reverend Chris Kell, our amazing music director Asha Lightbearer, and everyone else who jumped in to make sure that our weekly services were wonderful, that we remained connected and engaged, and that our programs during the week not only kept going but actually expanded, as we now are offering our Thursday Conversations on Equity and Justice with Danielle Wright. You all have truly demonstrated the meaning of community and I’m so grateful to all of you.
I also want to thank everybody for your prayers, your love and healing energy sent to Nick. Your cards are posted up on his wall where he can see them and he is so thrilled whenever he gets a new one. We also want to thank you for the wonderful food, the texts and the support that you all have sent to us. We are so grateful. I hope you know the difference you’ve made.
I also have to say that this talk fits so well with our theme for this month, which is an examination of our spiritual toolkits. We get to build our spiritual tools when things are going well and we truly rely on them when things are not. I can’t remember being in a place before where finding and using my spiritual tools was as critical it as it has been in these recent weeks. They really were a lifeline for me.
So today I would like to share with you some of my reflections on our Grady journey. It began with a visit to the Northside ER on July 21, and ended with an ambulance ride home on August 6, to begin his rehab and continue his recovery. It has been a journey unlike any other, for me.
I’d like to reflect on some of the thoughts I’ve had because, while not everyone faces the situation we did, we all face something at some point, due to life events, illness, need for surgery, or some other situation. At some point, we all perceive that looming darkness that rolls in and threatens to overwhelm. At some point, we all face the choice of whether we let ourselves be overwhelmed, or we figure out how to hold up our own candle, and hang on to Hope, and Faith, and our conviction that this darkness will pass.
So let me give you some context to our journey. Many watching today know our son Nick, who was born with Down syndrome and is now 29. 15 years ago he had a cervical fusion in his upper cervical spine. My wife and I learned from the doctors at Grady that when a patient has this Fusion, it can impose additional strain on vertebrae down the line, and that is apparently what happened. In addition, for reasons unknown to the doctors, at some point Nick developed an infection in his spine which further weakened it. The doctors advised that patients with Down Syndrome are sometimes particularly susceptible to degenerative spinal issues, especially since many experience accelerated aging.
In any event, in July, Nick started to develop muscle weakness and gradually began to lose muscle function. His neurologist told us to take him to Northside for an MRI, and so that’s where he and I went on July 21, not knowing this would be the beginning of a journey that wouldn’t see him home for over two weeks.
At Northside, the MRI revealed that Nick had 2 compression fractures in his upper spine. We also learned from the neurosurgeons there that the complexity of the required surgery was beyond their capacity (not something you want to hear) and he needed to go to Grady Hospital, Atlanta’s Premier Trauma Center.
This was the point at which we began to realize that “what’s next” was out of our control.
So at 3 in the morning of July 22nd, Nick and I ride in an ambulance down to Grady trauma center, with Nick strapped to a backboard, and go into a trauma bay at the Marcus Trauma center.
At the trauma ICU, doctors, techs, and nurses just swarmed him. It was amazing to see their response. I’ll say more on Grady later, but there are not enough words to express the amazing and excellent job they did.
This experience also brought home for me what is happening for so many others, here at home and elsewhere, because of the covid pandemic or simply because of the injuries Grady treats every day brought on by accident, or the deliberate injury we inflict on each other, such as shootings. Being in that place so starkly brought home for me the fear these patients must feel, who find themselves suddenly in extremis, in unfamiliar and terrifying surroundings, with life hanging in the balance and no time to even assimilate what is going on.
Nick and I were lucky because I was permitted to stay with him, but these days how many go through this alone. My heart breaks when I think about these people, and families, and the communities of which they are a part, and I am so glad that we at One World continue to hold them in our prayers as we hold the space for healing and renewal.
Over the ensuing days we were told that Nick was going to need a particularly complex and difficult surgery to repair these fractures, and to fuse more of his spine to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord, as it was that pressure that had caused his declining function.
Nick wouldn’t be home for 16 days, and I would spend 12 nights at Grady, four at home, and every day at the hospital. We were so fortunate because Grady permitted me to stay with him due to his Down’s syndrome.
The first day or two were just unreal. Nick found himself in a cervical collar, unable to move his head or neck, and wondering why he couldn’t go home. I went from leaving home on July 21 to go to the ER, to spending the night at Grady on the floor next to his bed wrapped in a blanket, wondering if this was really happening and how we get through it. I don’t say that to get sympathy but to just illustrate what a gut punch it was, especially as I knew there was no way around it. The only way was through it. How do I do that? I knew intellectually that I had every choice on how to navigate this experience, but I had to develop, or find, the internal foundation to do it.
It is difficult to articulate how dark some moments were. I felt displaced from my own experience as if my life wasn’t really happening. What if he’s paralyzed, on a feeding tube, what if he can’t eat? Those of you who know Nick know what this would mean….My wife Deborah, who loves to cook, said if he was on a feeding tube she would never be able to cook again if Nick couldn’t eat. There were so many what-ifs, so many doubts, so much fear.
So as I moved forward in this experience, my only passage through was to go back to basics, to my practices. Even in the midst of the darkness and panic, I knew that was my only lifeline out.
I have shared before that I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and that my daily practice includes reading the Daily Office, which are readings from the Hebrew scriptures, which Christians call the OT, as well as New Testament readings. It was this ritual that helped, even when I wasn’t sure that it would. I did it anyway. What I found when I went back to my practices is that sometimes the universe sustains you even when you don’t expect it. All I had to do was take that step – open the book and open myself to the wisdom that was in front of me.
When I opened the Daily Office for July 24th the reading was Psalm 40, and it was like a message directly from Spirit.
This is what I read:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
I can’t tell you what a difference this made in my heart. It was a message that I would be lifted up and that I would find a place to stand. Hence the title of this talk – when your foundation is kicked out, when you lose your footing, the first rescue you need is a place to stand.
What did this teaching tell me? If I could wait and listen and be available to the presence of spirit even in such devastatingly difficult times. I would be lifted up, given the courage, firm footing and the strength to keep on. This Universal love, this all sustaining heart of the world, will lead me to a place to stand.
The message was continued on July 27th. That day, the reading was Psalm 61:
Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I;
for you are my refuge,
a strong tower against the enemy.
What was this message? That spirit will lead me to a rock that is higher than I. And I realized that is really the journey everyday this universal love leads us to a rock that is higher than we are at that moment, and that’s all it needs to be. That love remains, and sustains me, even in the midst of fear and doubt.
The way through this challenge is that every day I am led to a rock higher than I was before, and step by step, rock by rock, I can climb out.
I have spoken before from the wisdom of author Ann Lamott. She has written of the development of her spiritual path – not linear, not predictable. She wrote:
My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.
I loved her imagery. That is how it felt, as I was led from one rock to the next.
Through the uncertainty, the tests, all the doctors coming in with their litanies of possible disastrous results, every day I held onto that image that God would lead me, and lead us, to a firm place to stand, each day a little higher than the day before.
Another scripture I turned to everyday was the Bhagavad Gita, which I’ve spoken about in the past. While the Christian scriptures gave me that outlet to seek help through what we call the second face of God, that relational aspect of the divine, the Gita reinforced for me the third face – that God, or Brahman, is everywhere, surrounding us.
The Gita reminded me through its beautiful poetry that spirit pervades all things and that there is no place we can go where Brahman is not present – in the essence of every experience, every person, and every moment.
As the Lord Krishna says to the hero Arjuna,
“there is nothing that exists separate from me. I am the taste of pure water and the radiance of sun and moon. I am the sacred word and the sound heard in air, and the courage of human beings. I am the sweet fragrance in the earth and the radiance of fire; I am the life in every creature and the striving of every spiritual aspirant.”
How can you not be uplifted by that beautiful imagery, by the reminder of what God is?
The Gita also reminded me of the power and necessity of surrender and release.
The Lord Krishna teaches:
“Whatever you do, make it an offering to me – the food you eat, the sacrifices you make, the help you give, even your suffering. 28 In this way you will be freed from the bondage of karma, and from its results both pleasant and painful. Then, firm in renunciation and yoga, with your heart free, you will come to me.”
I could not survive this challenge by railing against it or by attempting to control or change it. My job was to play my part, with devotion and humility, in caring for Nick, in maintaining a good humor, in serving as the Christian scripture puts it with a glad heart, and in doing all I could to maintain that ongoing conversation and connection to Spirit.
That was it, and if I did that, we would come through even though I didn’t know what that would look like. It was the only way to approach that horizon over which I could not see.
Of course, the journey was made so much easier because my fellow traveler was Nick. Even though he had his moments of fear, his not understand what was happening, and his constant desire to go home, he was so positive. He celebrated every doctor and nurse that came in. I love your name, I love your picture, you’re the best doctor ever – to everyone, doctor or not.
He was such pure light even in the midst of an experience that was so difficult and a situation that was so different. He was such an example and an inspiration to me. I realized the extent to which he was so much more than his physical being. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t feed himself, he couldn’t get out of bed, but he was still the same shining light that he is, and always has been. It shocks me that he is called disabled – he is so multi-abled, and so luminous.
I also was so uplifted by the skill, devotion, and compassion that I experienced every day at Grady hospital. I cannot say enough good things about all the absolute Heroes who work there. In the midst of a pandemic that I know scares them to death, they come to work every day and care for the most vulnerable, most injured, and most in need. Even though their jobs are so stressful, every one of them took time to connect with Nick, to comfort him and smile at him or play with him and just make his stay a little easier. One day a tech came in while he was watching his IPAD – she listened for a minute and said “that sounds like Goosebumps.” It was! They connected over that.
They shared their humanity with him, and they saw his, and that made all the difference.
So that is where we’ve been, and these have been my thoughts, so far. I emerged so grateful for his health and his continuing recovery and in all of the skill of all his caregivers. His surgery went better than anyone expected, and he was waking up, moving, talking sooner than anyone expected. Every day he improves. He told me today he wants a bell in his room – when I asked him what he’s going to do with a bell he held up his hand and said, “ding dong!” I’m not sure I have the spiritual tools for that, but I’ll have to see what I can come up with.
I’m still unpacking the lessons of this experience and I look forward to sharing more of them with you down the road. I am so grateful to the One World Community for holding us up through such a difficult time.
I’d like to close with a reading by Michael Roussel. The poem, by Phillip Booth, is about love, grace, and surrender, which are the ways I have found to make it through. I hope it touches you as deeply as it does me. Thank you so much for being with us.
You are the best ever.
This service aired on August 16, 2020.