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On Pain and Faith

It was the first time I had cried in ten years. It was the last time I cried for another four. The day my grandfather died is the day I shut down. In some ways, it was the hardest day of my life. I think I died with him. The one person who told me I could do anything, the one who said my opinion of myself was the only one that mattered, and the one that was always there...suddenly wasn't. The world shuddered, stopped. Then exploded. A million sparks of light faded into the universe, consumed by the dark. The death of a firework. Boom, fizzle, gone.

He'd been in the Navy in World War II. Stationed in the engine room on a cargo ship in the South Pacific, he'd mixed fifty-pound bags of powdered asbestos with water using his bare hands. Asbestos is a mineral, mined from underground. Anyone exposed to it has a good chance of dying in thirty to forty years of cancer (called mesothelioma) or of its slower counterpart, asbestosis. The particles, like tiny fibers, are inhaled or swallowed, attach themselves the the lining of your digestive tract or your lungs, and begin to harden the lining. It's sort of like concrete. It takes away your ability to eat or breath, depending. Slowly destroys your body until you've basically reverted back to the dependency of childhood.

That night, my mother had mentioned allowing my sister and cousins having time with him first because they hadn't gotten to come as often. Only two or three were allowed in the hospital room at a time, and my grandmother, understandably, never left his side. From five o'clock to the end of visitation, I had not received my turn to go see him. The next day, my father called me from the hospital to tell me that my grandfather had passed away. I didn't get my turn to say goodbye. To say to him all those wonderful things I had kept inside--the love and laughter. To tell him that of all of the people in my life, he was the only one that I could really depend on. The only one who had shown me what love and honor and pride and kindness and courage really meant.

I walked around in a fog of pain and ache for years. I didn't understand. I could comprehend that he was gone--understood. I was old enough to get it, on the verge of true adulthood even. You live, you breathe, you die. I could not understand the why. Why did he have to be the one to die? Why, when so many other people walk around doing nothing for others--causing others so much pain. Why when there are murderers and rapists, why him? And I hated God. I hated myself for hating God.

For four years, there was nothing to bring me back. I had caught a virus and could not shake the overwhelming agony of the sickness. There was no medicine. There was no cure. Time doesn't heal all wounds--you just get better at shoving the pain back inside where others can't see it. Like hiding a fatal disease so others don't pity you or treat you differently. But you can't live your life putting tape on things. Eventually, all those kinds of things fail, which is how I found myself sitting on my kitchen floor sobbing.

I knew exactly how I'd reached that point. Even at that moment--even while worried I was going to pass out or suffocate from the lack of oxygen I was receiving--I knew. It had been a long journey to that point, but it was like playing connect the dots. First, and foremost, I had already spent my life in church and had grown up with very religious parents and grandparents. I hadn't attended or even prayed in four years--I had all but said I didn't believe in God. But I knew that He had just been waiting for me to connect those dots. I had also, in the meantime, taken a Western Literature course in college that the professor had taught from the Hebraic viewpoint. We read the Book of Job, the Gospel of John, Augustine's Confessions, The Consolation of Philosophy, Dante's Inferno, King Lear, and Crime and Punishment. The culminating theme of the entire course was "We sin; God still loves us. There are two choices: Believe or Don't. If you believe, the world is a better place because of the teachings of Jesus."

The dot-connecting started on a Friday. A friend and I went to hear a Christian author speak. It was amazing some of the things he had confessed to doing before he found God. I bought his book and read it that night and all Saturday. On Sunday morning, I was finally putting it all together. I loved my grandfather and God loved my grandfather too. Because God loves us all equally, but uniquely, He has to do what is right for each of us. My grandfather was suffering; God wanted to end that suffering. My pain was not because God hated me or was punishing me; it was because I had lost someone I had loved, and that hurts. God did not cause me pain on purpose; it was a by-product of healing my grandfather, and even though I had spent four years hating Him, He still loved me. He loved me enough to wait and to send me a way back to Him.

In that instant, I was on fire. It was like I'd been drenched in menthol cream--my skin breathed, my eyes opened, and all the anguish from before burned out. I was floating and drowning. I was at peace and happier than I had ever been. A galaxy of warmth and love and freedom spiraled out of my soul and lit up all of the darkness in a haze of reds and blues and bright shining joy. There weren't any shadows that day.

A firework may die, may fizzle out and be gone. It is too overwhelmed by the encroaching darkness. But a firework can be reborn as something else. Something new and resilient and far more beautiful. Something everlasting that shines brilliantly in the inky blackness.

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