I sat in the church pew, my daughter nestled beside me, my hands clasping each other to stop them from shaking. It was the Sunday before Christmas and all the decorations, the joyous children’s program, the smiling church ladies dressed in red, were arrows strung against a battered soul. While others rejoiced; I grieved.
Two months prior, our home was assaulted by a hurricane that hit during high tide on the night of a full moon. Sandy’s storm surge forced 4 feet of water into my Rockaway Beach house, destroying a lifetime of accumulated possessions and upending our lives in ways I had not, even in that shellshocked moment in the church pew, begun to fully realize.
That morning I had left our half-a-house to bring my 8-year-old daughter Mira to St. James-St. Matthew in South Ozone Park while my husband Sid stayed home with our sick 5-year-old son. It was a journey of obligation, no doubt. Mira was in the church Christmas program and her absence would have forced some last-minute cast changes. But I had spent most of the night sitting vigil with my son as he battled a stomach virus and so all I wanted to do was crawl into bed.
But even if I could have pulled the covers over my head, it would not have provided the escape from the world that I craved. With our first floor destroyed, we were camped out on the second floor. The master bedroom doubled as living room, dining room, family room and playroom. Our kitchen consisted of a microwave and minifridge crowded in the small hallway. Every morning I poured cereal into Styrofoam bowls and put them down on the floor in my kids’ bedrooms, “Just like I’d feed a dog,” I often said with a wry laugh. I wished for the simplest things, such as a table to eat at, a couch to sit on and a freezer to hold Eggo waffles. But most of all I missed space and privacy.
So that Sunday morning, when my pastor announced that he was looking for volunteers to join him for Christmas caroling to elderly and shut-in members, I raised an eyebrow. I dreaded facing my shell of a house, where the naked drywall and exposed concrete slab foundation served as a daily reminder of sudden, inexplicable loss. Add to that the possibility of being thrown up on (yet again), and I had little incentive to rush home. Plus, so many people had given us so much in the aftermath of Sandy. It would be good to give back in some way. So the decision was made – I now had the perfect excuse for hiding from my life for a while.
It was a small group of us that went – maybe five or six. I was beginning to feel the altruistic pride that comes from doing the righteous thing and even a hint of holiday spirit. Our first stop was to the home of Bert and his wife Gloria, who several years before had suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. She was now bedridden and unable to communicate. The mother in me felt compelled to warn my daughter that what she saw might be upsetting, but if she had any questions I would answer them after we left. Because I, of course, would have no problem with coming face-to-face with the hardships that sometimes befall us later in life.
Bert welcomed us so kindly and led us to the bedroom he and Gloria still shared. Gloria lay in a hospital bed, the sheets pulled neat and taut up to her chest. She wore a ruffled-collar nightgown and her white hair had the airiness of cotton candy. There was an echo of beauty in her porcelain face, but it was now concealed by puffy cheeks, swollen lips and unfocused eyes that darted around, focusing on nothing.
As someone unaccustomed to sharing space with someone so near the end of her life, the experience was other-worldly. As we sang, Bert held Gloria’s hand and smiled. He gazed into her eyes and called her name, again and again. “Gloria! Gloria! It’s the people from the church, and they’re here singing for you.” Here was Bert, trying so hard to pull his wife away from wherever she was and into the present. It seemed hopeless, yet Bert’s hope seemed limitless.
My mind started to spin. I think I know suffering, I thought? I think I know hard? Then Pastor Stumme selected “Angels we Have Heard on High,” with its “Gloria” chorus, and I thought for a moment that I would need a fainting couch and smelling salts. The beauty of the song; the love in Bert’s tear-filled eyes; set against the backdrop of pictures of young Gloria as beautiful as any pin-up model, of their family when the kids were young, of anniversary parties and grandchildren and great-grandchildren — it was all too much.
Life’s experiences, I realized, are all parts that make up a whole. At that moment, I could not comprehend why God would let nature attack my home when after all, I really tried hard to always do the right thing and be a good person. I even corralled the family into the car on most Sunday mornings, which often felt like a Herculean feat. And I was sure that Bert, and maybe even Gloria, had had the same feeling of confusion and resentment. Why God, why?
But as I stood there in Bert and Gloria’s home, I was overwhelmed by a transforming realization. No matter what it is you are asked to endure in life, you will be given the power to get through. And that power comes, yes, from God, but more directly by Him working through the people around you. And in that moment, for me, Gloria was that person.
The strength to endure comes from people asking how they can help. It comes from those who can hear your story, the real story, not the “everything is okay; we’ll be fine” mantra of stoicism but rather the “today was hard and I’m really losing it” story. It comes from having a place to go where you can forget about the troubles that morph in the middle of the night. It comes from knowing that there is a place where your children feel safe and secure, where they can run around and eat too many cookies and squirm in the pew while searching through your purse for the piece of candy they know is there if they look hard enough.
And the place I felt that more than anywhere was at church. During times of distress, when the people who were supposed to help didn’t and the waiting seemed at times unbearable, church was a welcome constant. It stayed the same. It was a rock, a safe place, and even, as I used it that Sunday, an escape from the world.
So whether it’s a hurricane that rips through your life or something more universal – an illness, death, loss, fear, unsurety – what people in crisis need more than anything is to know they are not alone. They need a sense of community, a feeling that they are supported through the most challenging times. For me that place was church. I don’t know that I would have weathered that chaotic year of my life as well as I did without that touchstone.