On August 10, my phone rang in an antique store, just as I had been dreading it would. I creaked the door open, leaned against the building brick, and waited for the words.
“Grandma passed away last night.”
We say someone is “acquainted with grief” as if grief makes polite introductions. Pain, too, has little regard for propriety. Neither asks whether this time is convenient: what time could be?
Six weeks after the funeral, my phone buzzed in the living room.
“Probably forgot my book at church,” I told my housemate, reaching for the screen with a laugh.
But the text was from my sister: “We are taking Dad to the ER; he’s going septic after his biopsy surgery.” By the next morning, the sepsis had led to cardiac arrest. And our long night in the ER stretched into a week of waiting for tests, worrying about results, and preparing for ICD implantation.
In Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon, a cloud of sorrow hangs over an entire town, fogging memories along with the sky. For centuries a witch has lived in the Protectorate, feeding off every grief, every ache, and every additional horror the Elders create in exchange for power. But as a small hope grows, bit by bit, the people begin to remember things. A baby’s gurgling laugh. Scattered stories of the past. And the questions love makes clear.
In the ICU, I made cup after cup of chamomile tea for my mother: in this, at least this, I knew what to do and how to help. But I could barely pray. I could barely even speak God’s name without tears. My Bible and a book of Psalms lay in my purse, and I could not manage to open either.
Flinching at the words in my fingers, I typed in group text after group text. My father’s five siblings. My mother’s eight siblings. My parents’ friends from Iowa, their friends from growing up, their friends from across the street. My friends.
“Mom, I think they’d want to know. We need their prayers.”
I tried to read the messages aloud, and each time my voice failed. My parents’ friends from college had driven to the hospital to be with us, and they read the texts for us, speaking the words we could not.
Sarah Bessey, in Miracles and Other Remarkable Things, writes of the struggle to make “eye contact with our unanswered prayers and keep praying anyway.” In the hospital room, even by the graveside, I could cling to some answered prayers: the joy of knowing my grandmother, the wonder of CPR and AEDs, a diagnosis of a heart condition rather than awful uncertainty. But suffering, any suffering, always feels like unanswered prayer to me. For myself, for others. This should not be, this should never have happened in the first place: the shout is loud, and it is angry. In most times I am mild-mannered, terrified at any suggestion of disagreement, but in this I crave a God of anger. I want God’s presence, and I want his fury—his sorrow—ringing just as loud as my own, louder than the thousand unvoiced questions and answers beside me.
After my grandmother’s death, in the hospital room, I turned to my bookshelf for comfort and found exactly the wrong sort of books. A novel about a woman who inherited her friend’s dog after his suicide. A book highlighting the psalms of lament. A Newbery Medal winner in which, I was sure, the grandfatherly diner owner would die of cancer.
I needed no reminders that illness, injury, sorrow, and grief could be horrible and real and present.
I turned to other stories for escape, the pages that would tell me what pain would have me forget. I clung to the goodness of humor, linguistic trivia, and a well-constructed sentence through a Bill Bryson book on the English language. I clung to the goodness of chili, fresh fruit, and the wonder of creative collaboration through a Ruth Reichl memoir about her time at Gourmet magazine.
“I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien. “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”
“Looks like you’ve moved in,” the nurses said to us as they entered, noticing the many blankets, boxes of tea, stacks of books, and Nutter Butters stacked beside Dad’s bed. One afternoon we curled up, all four of us lined up as if on the couch at home, and watched Crazy Rich Asians on the hospital TV. A silly rom-com with the family—not our typical About a Boy or Notting Hill, but a step towards normalcy, a reminder of home and family rhythms.
I started to pray again, haltingly, slowly, mostly in the shower. I prefer to be the one who is praying, not the one who is prayed for. But when making eye contact with pain, with God’s presence distant and close all at once, I know this is not a one-on-one conversation after all. When we cannot speak to God, cannot even say the barest “I love you,” we are carried. Memory by memory, little by little, the cloud of witnesses surrounds the cloud of sorrow.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.