Our family recently lost a dear friend, and my husband and I have had to digest and process the immeasurable loss with our children. Soon after the death, my oldest daughter told me that she would never pray again. I asked her why. She said that she had prayed and prayed that our friend would heal, and God didn’t answer her. I hugged her. I tried to say the right things–that God always hears our prayers, even if God doesn’t respond the way we want; that perhaps our prayers did have some effect that we don’t understand; that there is always so much more to pray for, and we have to keep trying; that praying is good for us, it helps us feel that we are doing something, even if things turn out so differently from what we hope.
Not long after, I found myself spending the entire day in the emergency room, with severe abdominal pain. Apparently, these things happen, especially on days when one’s babysitter texts at 6 a.m. that she’s home sick with strep (which she caught from your kid). While the doctors were puzzling over my cecum, I was left lying supine, unable to see beyond the privacy curtain. Those curtains are not soundproof, though, and it’s hard not to hear the pressing experiences of the other stricken human beings in the room. I was left with no choice but to eavesdrop.
There was the guy across the way that came in with his daughter, cursing like a sailor and complaining of a terrible neck spasm. In the span of a couple of hours, kindhearted, patient nurses brought him something after something, yet nothing seemed to help.
Then there was the older woman who had fallen, and was in for some X-Rays. She had been driven in by “young people,” strangers who had found her on the floor in the supermarket and who were waiting to drive her home.
What really got me, though, were the Russians. They were there for a while, and were lucky to be treated by a nurse on staff who spoke Russian, and who could not have been kinder. I was a Russian major in college, and so I was able to understand what they were saying. They exchanged niceties with the nurse, first figuring out which region in the FSU everyone was from and how long they had been in the States. The mother was having trouble breathing, so they got her some oxygen, fussed with the pillows to get her comfortable, and wheeled her in and out over the course of a few hours to do tests.
Each time they returned, after his mother was comfortable again, the son started to lay into her: “Ya vam skazal sto raz, nye sidi u otkritovo okna!”–“How many times have I told you,” he said, “don’t sit by an open window!” Then she’d murmur some excuse, like, “It was only a little bit open,” or, “I didn’t sit for too long.” The nurse finally came back with her EKG results. “They’re abnormal,” she said, “something’s going on with your heart. You’re going to have to be admitted to the hospital.” When the nurse stepped away, the son was off again, saying, “I told you! You see? Don’t sit by an open window! Don’t sit by an open window!”
Oh, how I wish we could attribute everything to sitting by an open window! If only we lived in a world in which we understood why things happen to us. If only we could explain life’s mysteries, sometimes terrible, sometimes incredible, to ourselves, to our children, to our parents. This Russian guy had been told his entire life of the dangers of sitting beside an open window, and here he was, desperately trying to hold on to this fragile piece of logic as a piece of his world unraveled. The longer he was in the emergency room with his mother, the more he repeated the phrase, as if he realized how futile it was, and yet had nothing else to say.
I didn’t tell my daughter the theory of not sitting beside the open window. I didn’t tell her that we have no idea if we have any ability to influence anything, because it is so impossibly hard to live in that way. And it is depressing, and possibly harmful, too. It is good to live in a way that affirms belief in causality, and understanding that one’s behaviors and choices in life affect life’s outcomes. It pushes us to do more, to do good, to strive. It prevents us from throwing our hands in the air and giving up.
But, at the end of the day, we are nothing more than tongue-tied, heavily accented fragile beings, clinging to our beliefs, our open windows, as the gales of the world whirl about us.