My mom says that before my first birthday I was talking in full sentences with most of them ending in question marks. In later years, on the drive to school, my dad would lovingly ask me to take a breath and sit with my questions so he might have time to think about his answer before I peppered him with the next one.
And in college, when I was dating my now-husband, Jay, he almost swore off watching movies with me because of the number of non-stop interrogatories concerning what was happening next and why and where and to whom.
I make no apologies for it. I’m a woman — asking questions is what women do; it’s how we make sense of the world around us. And, quite beautifully, at the heart of this very ordinary action lies a real vulnerability, an invitation to a communal experience of the world as we offer to each other, “I don’t know … but maybe you do?”
Yet, sometimes it seems our exploration becomes more stifled with each passing year, as if we should already know all the answers, as if questions are for children or for those who don’t know any better or for those of little faith. Ironically, it’s only after years of really living life that we come to know just how much we don’t know, but by that point, we may no longer feel safe to admit it out loud. In that stifling, tragically, we can start to lose our wonder.
The world stopped making sense to me when I almost died at 26 years old, and that’s when the real questions began.
On April 21, 2008, out of the blue, without a sign or symptom, I suffered a massive brain stem stroke while my six month old baby, James, slept in the other room. Jay just happened to come home between his final law school classes and saved my life. The prognosis was so grim it was unlikely I would even make it through the night. After 16 hours of micro-brain surgery, I miraculously survived, but parts of my brain had been removed, and no one knew what would be next for me: Would I be vegetative, would I be “locked-in”, would I be paralyzed, or would I die?
And yet, within 24 hours, that subconscious need to communicate my inside questions to the outside world fought its way through a medically-induced coma, and I began to respond to the nurse’s commands by wiggling my fingers and toes. I stayed in the ICU for 40 days on life support, my foggily racing mind far outpacing my near-lifeless body. This straining toward truth, this longing to make sense of such a profound reversal in my life’s circumstance was the beginning of my healing.
Two months later, I was still nearly incapacitated in the hospital’s rehab ward, hardly able to sit up, much less eat or walk or talk, but I was given a letter board to help communicate. It was like releasing the drain of a bathtub; my long marinating questions began flooding out. The yellow boxes of the alphabet were blurred by my double vision and only my left hand worked, but I meticulously punched the letters which formed sentences that an artificial voice would say aloud.
My father-in-law, who is a pastor, graciously bore the brunt of my questions, most of which have been asked by all of humanity:
Why did this happen to me?
How will I go on?
What is the purpose of so much pain?
His thoughts enlightened, challenged, and motivated me, yet so many questions remained. Sometimes, the asking is more important than the answers, because it reminds us that we still have a voice and we are not alone, even in the midst of the great mysteries of our lives.
Sometimes, the asking is more important than the answers, because it reminds us that we still have a voice and we are not alone …
Months later, I had made progress at a new brain rehab facility; I was now talking but still unable to walk or eat. In the hour-long swallowing therapies that I endured six days a week, I would ask my therapist, “How long does this recovery usually take?” “Do you know many people who cannot eat?” “Will I ever eat again?” Like my dad during those childhood commutes, she wisely let me sit with my questions more than offering me answers, answers which I was actually not yet ready to hear, answers which had the power to steal the hope I so desperately clung to.
It seems that the questions we ask may not nearly be as important as to whom we ask them. If the receiver is someone we trust will handle our searching hearts with the utmost care, then no question is beyond the asking.
Thanksgiving soon came and it seemed the most perfect day for my swallowing to return after seven months with no eating — a beautiful resolution to so many unanswered longings and prayers. The thought of the ensuing holiday feast put a crooked smile across my paralyzed face. And yet, that day I failed the swallowing test and wept from my wheelchair, my neck barely strong enough to hold up my head, as Jay played with one-year old James across the room. It was as close as I’ve ever come to true despair.
If questions signify a straining toward understanding the mystery of life outside of ourselves, then perhaps the end of our questioning might signify a falling toward death. In that moment, my heart felt crushed by the weight of the answers I had received and the silence that remained. My life-long optimism was battered, and even my heart-felt faith had been tested to the breaking point. There were no words left for my family or even for myself, but my soul groaned as broken souls do, forming a final question that could only be heard and answered by one trustworthy receiver. This cry from my depths shot up like an emergency flare in the middle of a dark ocean, “God, did you make a mistake?”
And in one of the great turning points of my story, it seemed all my questions combined were illuminated by an answer, one that would influence the rest of my life. There was no opening of the sky or audible voice, but rather I experienced a spiritual infusion, a vivid reminder of the truest things I had always known, the scriptures and the prayers and the answers I had found in all the years of asking. In the dark, they all came alive like never before. And I felt God saying, “I don’t make mistakes. You are still here for a reason. Just wait, you’ll see.”
There was no opening of the sky or audible voice, but rather I experienced a spiritual infusion, a vivid reminder of the truest things I had always known …
In the seven years since that day, I have experienced more healing and more hope than I could have ever imagined, but mystery remains. Yet, I suppose there can never be answers if there aren’t first questions.
Could I ever be a mom again?
What does it mean to be healed?
What is my purpose now?
Just when some resolution seems near, a new unknown is never far behind and we get to decide all over again whether we will choose control or community, hardened hearts or hopeful souls. It seems that our great task for the rest of our lives is not to finagle these answers on our own, but rather to find the humility to ask the questions together, to each other, to ourselves, to God.
Then, find the courage to sit in the silent stretch that follows … and listen.
Images provided by Katherine Wolf