So our little girl has her first ear infection. This has been accompanied by sniffles, a cough, and a low-grade fever as well as a particularly difficult sleepless night. During this sleepless night, the first in many months, I was the attending parent. She slept soundly until around 1:30, when she awoke with loud weeping. The pattern that followed was thus: 1) Get her out of crib. 2) Attempt a remedy. 3) Rock her until she settles. 4) Lay her back down in crib. This pattern was repeated about six times over the course of nearly three hours, with about a five to ten minute interval between step four and the reappearance of loud weeping, followed by step one of the next cycle. Each cycle, a different remedy was attempted in step two: feeding her and changing her diaper, spraying saline in her nose, and giving her ibuprofen.
After the third cycle, I was out of possible remedies. There was nothing more I could do, and so cycles three through six skipped step two. During the ten minute interval between each cycle, I lay in the twin bed in the guest room next to the nursery, praying that she would fall asleep, hoping for her rest but expecting her tears. And when they came, I sighed to myself, cursed softly in the darkness, and headed back into her nursery knowing there was nothing I could do. Each time she saw me, she reached her arms up to me, grasping for me as she cried and settling almost immediately once nestled against my chest.
As tough as it was for me to lose sleep and watch my little girl suffer her own sleeplessness and sickness, I treasured those moments holding her and rocking her in the darkness of her room. She laid face-first against my bare chest, and as soon as her skin touched mine she’d stop crying. Slowly I’d move back and forth in the rocking chair, and I could feel her warm breath stir the hair on my chest. At one point I could feel drool running down my chest and I couldn’t help but smile. When I would lay her down in her crib, I the warmth of her impression would cool on my chest and I would again whisper a prayer that she would sleep.
Damn, I wanted to fix her so bad. That was the aim of the remedies I tried: to fix whatever was keeping her awake so that she would go back to sleep and everything would go back to normal. But it became clear those remedies wouldn’t work and there was nothing I could do in that moment to make everything better. And yet, she was always comforted to have me pick her up, even after I quit trying to fix her.
As a parent, I have never wanted so badly to find solutions to another person’s problem. Of course, there have been plenty of people in my life who I have wanted to help by fixing their problems: friends, my parents, and certainly my spouse. But when it comes to the suffering of my own child, nothing compares to how badly I want to fix it. And, sadly, there are plenty of occasions when I just can’t do that. And I know there will be lots more to come: illnesses to be sweated out, broken hearts, circumstances completely outside my control.
In my work as a chaplain I carry with me the story of Jesus and his disciples in the storm at sea. I included it above and left off the last half of it, the half that usually gets the most attention, where Jesus miraculously stills the storm, exerting supernatural meteorological powers. Honestly, that part is much less interesting to me than how the disciples respond to the storm. Amazed that Jesus would be sleeping through such a catastrophe, they frantically shake him awake and ask him, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” What they don’t ask him is, “Will you please fix this for us?” They don’t ask him to save them, to make the storm go away, to help them bail out the boat. They ask him to care.
That’s really what we want, isn’t it? I mean, solutions are great, don’t get me wrong. I love it when someone can fix a problem of mine. But I know that most of my problems are without solutions, or at least without quick and easy solutions. When I go into a patient’s room, I know I can’t fix their problems. I also know that fixing their problems is not what they need from me. They need me to care.
I can sit at the bedside of a patient with terminal cancer without being overwhelmed with the need to fix their problems; I can listen to a chaplain intern struggle with a theological dissonance without needing to solve it for them. I’m rather comfortable providing a safe and empathetic professional presence. And I would have thought this would have been tremendously difficult to do with my own daughter, and it is harder to do without the remove of professional identity. But I was amazed at the purity and simplicity of my role as the person who just loved her without trying to solve everything. Of course, if I could have fixed it, I would have (I tried every remedy we knew to try). But she cried through every remedy I offered. The only times she quit crying were the times when I just held her. What she wanted and needed most was for someone who loved her to care that she was having a rough night and comfort her by being there.
I occasionally have night terrors, through which I struggle to wake myself in order to head off whatever nebulous evil my subconscious projects is nearing. And I know how frightening it is to awaken in the middle of the night, surrounded by darkness, wishing that someone were nearby to touch me and reassure me. If the terrors are bad enough, they wake up my spouse, who never fails to whisper softly to me and caress me until I can settle and know that I am not alone and threatened. So there’s no hesitation on my part to offer this kind of reassurance to my little girl when she wakes in the middle of the night, crying out for someone to comfort her.
I won’t pretend that I’m not cranky when she wakes in the middle of the night; I grumble all the way up the stairs. But when she’s in my arms, and I can feel her settle at my touch, it’s amazing how my love for her floods over me. I still want to fix her, make it go away, settle her down so she will sleep and then I can sleep and everything goes back to the way it was. That’s definitely my favorite narrative. But that’s not how it goes all or even most of the time, so how blessed I am that there’s a more holy and sacred narrative: that I love her and that this love is sufficient. It’s the love that Jesus’ disciples sought from him and always found, the love that I believe God offers to every one of us in the middle of our darkest nights, afraid and hurting. I want to be this tangible vessel of love for all of the patients and students I meet, but if there were only one person I could offer this to, it would be my little girl.
She’s on antibiotics and feeling much better now. I’m thrilled, of course; I’m glad that modern medicine can pretty easily fix this problem, and I certainly don’t wish for the next problem to hurry up and arrive. But it will. And when it does, my love will meet her and hold her. And I will always treasure that in my heart.