Why wasn't there a cure for his wife's debilitating illness? Prayer was the only answer.
Posted in , Mar 1, 2006
I watched my wife, Rebecca, open her gift that Christmas of 1992. She dug through the tissue paper and uncovered the small sign lying inside the box. She picked it up and read the words aloud: "Prayer changes things." She looked at me and I nodded. "Let's hope it does," I replied. I was a minister. I was all about prayer. Never, though, had I been tested like this.
That past spring Rebecca had gotten sick. Just the flu, we'd thought. She'd be back to her old self in a week or so. Instead, she just got worse. This was more than just the flu. But the doctors couldn't nail it down. Her symptoms kept changing. Dizziness. Nausea. And headaches. Terrible headaches. Then the headaches disappeared, only to be replaced by muscle and joint pain.
Worst of all were the days I'd see her sitting with a vacant stare. Rebecca called it a "brain fog." She forgot simple things and couldn't think clearly. She became chronically exhausted. Eventually she had to quit her job. I knew the doctors were trying, but I couldn't help feeling frustrated. Why couldn't they help her?
Finally one ventured a diagnosis. "I believe you have fibromyalgia," he told her. "And possibly chronic fatigue syndrome along with it." The pain, headaches, cognitive impairment, muscle and joint stiffness were all symptoms of fibromyalgia. "We're not really sure what causes it," he said. As for the chronic fatigue syndrome, that would explain her exhaustion. Neither condition was usually fatal but there was no known cure.
Except prayer, maybe, I thought. That's why Rebecca got the sign for Christmas. When the weather warmed, I planted it in our garden. Every time we left the house, every time we pulled into the driveway, we were greeted with that message of hope.
Not that I needed the reminder; I'd been praying like crazy for my wife ever since she first got sick. But sometimes my prayers sounded empty and desperate. I said the same things over and over and got the same results as if I were praying to a void.
And Rebecca got worse. I took a leave of absence from my job. Now I could clean, grocery shop, do laundry. "I wish I could help," she told me, "but I'm just not up to it. I feel like every bit of strength I have is slipping away."
Just like my faith, I thought. I tried to shove that out of my mind. What was a minister without faith? And yet when I would see that sign in the garden, promising me that prayer would work wonders, I felt betrayed. The more I prayed, the worse Rebecca got.
For 13 frustrating years the situation went on. I took a job as an account manager for an insurance company. We needed the income, and it was less demanding than being a pastor. I have to admit that the work was a welcome break. But every night on the drive home, a cloud would come over me. I knew what was waiting. Rebecca would be in bed or lying on the sofa. "Been there all day?" I'd ask. She'd nod.
Some days were a little better than others. But on those rare occasions, she would often overextend herself. She'd do a load of laundry or try to vacuum and feel like she'd been run over by a truck. And that's how I felt inside. Run over. Crushed. Frustrated. Powerless.
One day I let all my feelings show, for the first time telling Rebecca of the despair that was eating away at me. "I'll get better," she said. "I will! We just need to keep hope alive, to keep faith alive."
The words were like a knife in my heart. I'd been hoping. I'd been praying. So hard. For years now. Only to be met with stony silence in response. "Why?" I asked her. "Hope hurts."
This was not the woman I married. Why was God taking her away? Rebecca became completely bedridden. She couldn't speak in more than a whisper. She could barely lift a fork. Soon she would be on a feeding tube.
One day while driving home from work I thought about what was ahead. I'd have to feed Rebecca, wash her, change her clothes and bedding. There wouldn't be any "How was your day?" conversation. I knew how her day had gone. She'd spent all day in bed. And in that room I felt more like a nurse than a husband.
I pulled into the drive. There it was, that sign from so many years ago: "Prayer changes things." I stopped and put the car into park. I hadn't even noticed that sign in a long, long time. I opened the door, got out and stomped into the garden. I bent over and yanked the sign out of the ground and tossed it into the bushes.
I went inside and up to the bedroom. "Rebecca," I told her, "I don't know if I can take it anymore. I don't know what to do. I don't trust God anymore. If I don't believe God can help you, what do I believe?" I slumped down on the edge of the bed and looked into my wife's eyes.
All day, I thought, all day she lies here and waits for me to come home. And all I have to offer is my own pain. "I'm sorry, Rebecca," I whispered, laying my head on her chest. I can only imagine the effort it took for her to raise her hand and stroke my cheek.
We talked things out that night and came to the conclusion that I should find a full-time home health aide for Rebecca. I hated to admit it, but I could no longer care for my wife.
At least I had more time now. I went to church, and to a Bible study group. I don't know, maybe I was just going through the motions. I wanted to believe. To feel that deep down inside there was a part of me that still wanted to hope. No matter how much it hurt.
One night our group was studying the Book of Job. "Let's do a little role-playing," the leader said. "Randall, why don't you be Job?"
I started slowly, reciting the litany of what Job had lost: house, servants, camels, sheep, crops, children. Everything destroyed or killed. As I went on, something took over in me. I clenched my fists and stood. "What are you doing to us, Lord?" I wanted to scream and shout. "What have we done to deserve this? Who are you to punish us?"
It may have been just role-playing, but to me the rage was real. It burned like a fire in my heart. Yes, I was angry, but angry at a God I still believed in.
In 1999 a ministry colleague invited me back on staff, part-time, which was good because I'd just been downsized out of my job at the insurance company. I took him up on the offer. I might as well get on with my life. After all, my wife was only going to get worse and worse, until...
One day when I went to the bedroom to check on Rebecca, she motioned for me to lean in close. "I don't know if I'm going to make it," she whispered. "Sometimes I don't know whether to tell you hello or goodbye."
I felt my face flush with shame. Shame at what I'd been thinking, shame that someone with so little strength was strong enough to face death. I was the weak one. I couldn't accept Rebecca's death. I squeezed her hand. "All through this, you've made me feel loved," she said. "You suffered because you love me."
Lord, I prayed in confusion, do I deserve any of this, the good or the bad?
In February, our home health aide called me. "I went to wake Rebecca," she blurted out, "but she wouldn't move. She's breathing, but unresponsive!" I phoned the doctor. "Monitor her for the rest of the day and through the night. If she's still in this state tomorrow morning, or if she gets worse, get her to the ER."
Was this how it would all end? Suddenly, in my mind's eye I saw the sign I'd once planted in the garden. "Prayer changes things."
Lord, this is the last time I'm going to ask you to heal my wife. If it's not to be, well, then that's your will. Help me please to accept it. I will do anything you ask. The only thing I know anymore is that I can't change things myself.
I fell into a fitful sleep. When I woke, I heard a voice. "Take her to the hospital," the voice said. "Trust me. She will eat again, and she will be healed. Take her now. Trust me." You might say that it was my imagination, or a dream, but I know it wasn't. I heard that voice. I'd never been so sure of anything in my life.
I went to check on Rebecca. Her eyes were rolled back and her arms flailed. I called 911. The ambulance rushed her to the hospital. "She's in a coma," the doctor told me after examining her. For three agonizing days I sat by her bed, remembering that voice and trusting in its promise.
The third night—it was February 11, 2005—I heard a rustling of sheets. I looked up. Rebecca was moving! Her eyes opened. She turned her head toward me. She opened her mouth, and I heard her strong, even voice, something I hadn't heard in years. "I'm hungry," she said. I jumped up out of my seat, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and threw my arms around her.
Within a few weeks she was back on solid food—bread, vegetables, meat, all the things she'd gone so long without. There'd been no change in treatment, no new medication, nothing different. She simply started getting better, her body repairing itself with each passing day. The doctors tried to explain it. I didn't.
Before long Rebecca was back on her feet walking short distances. I walked with her every morning, our hands intertwined, the intimacy returning, deeper and fuller than ever. Soon we were walking a mile, then two. One beautiful spring day we were walking up the drive. I stopped and went to get that old sign. I wiped it off and pushed it into the soft earth. "Prayer changes things."
Yes. Yes, it does.
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