Summer 2010. I am in Indonesia.
One Saturday my shoulder freezes at the joint and I can’t lift it more than four inches from my side without excruciating pain. A few days later a cold starts, exhaustion and sniffles and some thickness in my lungs. Monday I go in for a checkup and they puzzle over me and send me home with an expectorant. The Tuesday doc thinks I have the flu; but the Wednesday doc thinks I have Dengue fever, a tropical malady carried by mosquitoes in urban areas. Then the Thursday morning doc says I have a mysterious blood virus; but the Thursday night doc says I have an undetermined blood infection and a rotator cuff injury. My thrombocyte levels are going down daily (150K, to 138K, to 123K and so on). One doctor says I need steroids, the next takes me off them, the next puts me back on them. I feel exhausted but I can’t sleep at night. My stomach cramps and my throat is sore. My lungs get thicker and I shiver in my sweat. My back, neck and shoulders ache; and my right shoulder joint is still frozen painfully in one place with no causal event. The next day I have a hemoglobin test. Each of these three doctors prescribes a whole new round of medications and has me stop taking whatever I took the day before.
Finally I am admitted to Jogja International Hospital, Room 2102, in the Camelia Wing. I am admitted Friday night because my thrombocytes continue to plummet: 123K, 117K, 109K, 103K, 93K, 86K and so on. The admitting doctors diagnose internal bleeding in my intestines and a heartbeat irregularity. My temperature is all over the place, sometimes normalish, sometimes up to 104, usually around 101. I have a sinus infection that has created swelling on the back of my skull and my shoulder pain is diagnosed as osteoarthritis. I have a pain right behind my eyes that blinds me and blurs my vision. I am nauseous but desperately thirsty, either shivering or soaked in hot sweat.
There is no adept English speaker in sight. The food is unfamiliar and nerve-wracking: transparent gelatinous branches that look like tiny bird bones, candied Asian pastries and fried tempeh floating in fishy broth. I won’t eat any of it. After a few days I figure out how to sleep in ragged scraps of time by experimenting with positions for my left hand where the IV needle juts in.
Friends visit in daytimes and we chat idly until I begin to drift off, but one day I ask them if we can pray together. The idea comforts me, although I don’t really know why. Makito from Japan is too shy to pray in English, so I ask Ruth from the Philippines to pray. I listen to her prayer. She speaks of God’s love and God’s care and God’s presence with me in the hospital. She speaks of God’s love again. She says that God loves me over and over and over again. It is not language I use and so I am struck by it. When she says amen, they gather their things and I sail off again on rising and narrowing swells of consciousness.
When my platelets hit 83K I get x-rays on my shoulder and skull because of the swelling and pain, and doctors surmise that the fever and sinus infection have colluded to form fluid blockages that need to be drained by needles. Mercifully, I receive two analgesic injections, one in my shoulder and one in my head, to cut down on the pain. I drift in and out for days. I remember the flocks of young Muslim nurses in light blue and brown, night gulls and day gulls with needle talons and shy giggles.
Five days pass. My platelets jump to 89K one day and the doctor says I might be able to go home soon. I think about God’s love and wonder what it could possibly mean for God to love me. Maybe, if love is willing goodness for the other, it means that the universe is basically a good place full of abundance and possibility where good things can happen. Maybe, if love is willing wholeness for the other, God’s love calls my wandering mind into the present moment where I can be whole, untorn by journeys into the wonderful, terrible, imaginary future and past. I consider praying, but I lose my energy shrugging my shoulders and issue a watery “please” with my eyes lifted ceiling-ward.
One day my platelets hit 98K! I can go home soon! In days I leave with the help of Mas Ipung from CRCS, pale and slow and weak but grateful to be near my own things, my books and my hand lotion and my favorite pillow. I am not usually a cooperative convalescent but my body is still weak and she tells me what she can and can’t do. I resolve to respect her and nurse her back to strength, and love her back into goodness and wholeness just as I imagine God’s love might do for me.
Was God in the hospital? There was certainly no Jewish God—since it is not a real religion in Indonesia, I had to supply “Buddhism” as my official affiliation.
But God was in my homecoming: a nap under the sun, two hardboiled eggs, and a hot shower. God’s love shining earthward, from a sunny yolk, from a Southeast Asian showerhead. Amen.
I haven’t spent much time wondering whether I believe in God’s love or not. That binary (believe-or-not) does not seem to apply. Faith in God’s love seems to be a choice, or a worldview intentionally adopted. Do I think the universe provides me with abundant possibility, that it propels me in ways I don’t understand but flourish from? Yes. Am I grateful I didn’t die, that I seem to feel a little stronger every day, that my head seems to be less swollen and my lungs are clearing? Yes. It’s not math or logic. It’s surrender to hope, I guess. To a source of love that exceeds my imagining. I’ll take it.
God knows I need it.