Monday, July 21, 2008

My Love Squad

"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).

Care and Concern ...

One of my favorite stories is “The Love Squad” by Virelle Kidder. In this touching essay, Kidder shares the comfort she received during a family crisis. After a week-long hospital stay at the bedside of a sick child, her heart sank to find cars in the driveway when she returned home. When she drug herself inside, her closest friends were surprised to see her. “We weren’t expecting you for another hour! We thought we’d be long gone before you got home,” Judie explained with a hug.

Kidder was astonished to discover the work her friends had done. The women had cleaned house, washed and ironed laundry, changed sheets and placed flowers and little gifts throughout her home. The table was set with dinner, with more meals in the freezer. After her friends left, Kidder sobbed as she wandered through the house, overwhelmed with the enormity of their time and effort. Finally, she reveals, “In the living room, I found a note under a vase filled with peonies. I was to have come home and found it as their only identity: ‘The Love Squad was here.’ And I knew that God had everything under control.”

I have shared this story with ladies groups many times over the years, and I feel a swell of emotion each time I read it. "The Love Squad" reminds me that even the smallest acts of kindness take on greater significance for those who are hurting. And I feel inspired to pen a letter, arrange some flowers or make a casserole for someone in need.
For years I read this story and aspired to be a one-woman love squad. Until last summer. Now I struggle to keep my voice steady as I read, hoping tears won't blur the words I could have written.

Crisis Calls ...

I have struggled with lower back pain for years. Daily the pain tries to dictate my activities. Some days it whispers, and I push past it to accomplish the myriad tasks that fill my busy days as a wife and mother. Other days it nags -- grumbling as I do household chores; warning me not to twist and bend; casting doubt on my abilities to get up or stand up straight. And on the worst days it roars, taunting me that the slightest movement might be the one to put my back out. I have endured its seething rage before. I shudder remembering the endless screaming of spasms that send me to bed, robbed of independence and stripped of dignity.

I have done a lot to try to keep the interaction civil between us, my back pain and me. Ice and heat, ibuprofen, exercise, massage. I have tried to smile politely in the face of pain in hopes that ignoring it will make it go away, but when it grows stronger my frayed nerves want to respond with a foot-stomping, door-slamming fit of teenage rebellion, screaming back, "I hate you! You're ruining my life!" Numerous medical professionals have attempted conflict resolution. X-rays, an MRI, pain medication and muscle relaxers. When months of physical therapy did not achieve the results we wanted, the next step was injections.

So on August 1st of last year, I went in for an SI joint injection. I was a little apprehensive, but the procedure sounded simple enough. Besides offering hope of relief, it would be useful as a diagnostic tool. From what I had been told, I expected to either get better or stay the same.

Things did not go according to plan. Instead, they got worse. Much worse. I slept for a few hours after the injection, but as the numbing medication wore off, I felt my pain level increasing. My emotions were raw the next day. I broke down in tears as I talked to my mother on the phone, disappointed to cross off yet another possibility for relief. But then I gathered my composure, put together some sandwiches, and preheated the oven to bake cupcakes. I sat down for lunch with the children, shifted in my chair, and felt horrific pain rip through my back.

I knew I had to get out of that chair! It took nearly 10 minutes for me to pull myself up, and even longer to make my way across the kitchen, using my chair as a walker to get to the phone. I called my doctor's office and Joe, in such excruciating pain that I could barely get any words out between sobs.

The next month was basically ripped from my calendar, as seconds crept by with muscle spasms shrieking through my entire back and down my right leg. Even turning my head was enough to send shock waves through my body, so I would lie for hours trying not to move a muscle. Breathing, praying, pleading for relief. Joe kept a close watch on me, disturbed to see me lying so eerily still. I refused to eat or drink during the worst days, for fear that I would have to be carried to the bathroom. I could not sit, stand or walk, so the trek from our bed to the bathroom was torturous. When Joe lifted me from the bed, the pain was so great that I often passed out. The humiliation I felt at not being able to handle even this simple task on my own was nearly unbearable.

This ordeal was emotionally wrenching as a mother, as I missed out on so many important moments with the children. While I was flat on my back, Christian started kindergarten and Mary Ashley started preschool. It broke my heart not to have an active role in these milestones. At ages 8, 5 and 3, the older children showed understanding beyond their years; but this time was most difficult on 1-year-old Emma. With arms outstretched, she would cry inconsolably, wanting me to pick her up. Three-year-old Mary Ashley was my angel during this time. "You're a good mommy," she told me one day. "Your back is hurt, but you're still a good mommy." Those words meant the world to me, but still, I was not the mommy I wanted to be.

I had a consultation with a neurosurgeon during this ordeal, and he said surgery was not a good option. There was only a 50 percent chance of getting any relief, and he feared I would end up in a worse position. But something had to be done about the inflammation that was out of control in my spine. He was adamant that I needed to have an epidural series as soon as possible. I was terrified to think about getting more injections, but the doctor explained that without getting medication into my spine, even the slightest movement could cause my muscles to spasm.

And he was right. After the first excruciating week, my spasms eased to the point that I could very slowly roll myself over, slide my feet off the bed, let gravity pull them to the floor, then lean on a row of chairs as I used my arms to propel myself to the bathroom. The whole process took about 30 minutes, but it was freedom! Mary Ashley clasped her hands with delight the first time I managed this feat on my own. "Oh, Mommy, you went to potty by yourself!" she exclaimed. Hadn't we just celebrated that victory for her only a few short months before?

Then I woke up in the night right back where I had started. I don't know if I coughed, sneezed or shifted under the blanket, but spasms ravaged my weary muscles again. This scenario repeated itself several times as we counted down the days to my epidural scheduled for the end of the month.

The Cavalry Comes ...

Word spread quickly through our church that I was having back problems, and friends called daily to check on me and to offer their help. Although I appreciated their interest, in the beginning I politely declined offers for help with food and childcare. I was certain I would be back to normal in a day or two and completely capable of handling things on my own. But as the days stretched into a week, then nearly two, I began to wonder.

About two weeks into my ordeal, my friend Clancy told me she and her sister-in-law Missy planned to deliver a meal to me the next day. "Which would help you more?" she asked. "If I took the girls home with me for a little while, or if I stayed to help clean your house?" I hesitated to answer. Clancy and I have been friends for several years, spending time together at church and dinner group. She is a beautiful girl, always fashionably dressed and put together. Her immaculate home reflects her stylish flair also, and the prideful part of me didn't want her to see me or my home in such despair. Yet I knew that my reluctance was not about any judgment I would receive from Clancy; her outer beauty is surpassed by a kind, generous spirit. So I answered softly, "Well ... I guess ... if you could stay a little while ... I could use the help to clean."

It turned out to be a blessing that Clancy planned to come the next morning. During the night I awoke to crippling spasms, and I was unable to get out of bed in the morning to tend to Mary Ashley or get Emma out of her crib. Clancy brought a delicious meal, including my friend Missy's famous lasagna. Little wrapped gifts of note cards, a key chain and a DVD for the girls brightened my spirits. Clancy brought sunshine that day, as she set to work cleaning the kitchen and family room. She was so sweet, popping into my bedroom off and on to chat or ask where things go. She told Joe later that she left the room abruptly when she saw me struggling to get to the bathroom. She didn't want me to see her crying.

Clancy stayed until Joe came home from work. She called on her way home, and unable to get to the phone from my bed, I listened to her message: "Listen," she began carefully, "I do not want to overstep my bounds or offend you in any way, but it just breaks my heart to think of you lying in that bed all this time and none of us doing anything to help. I just feel like between me, Allison and everyone else, we could really help you." And with a few phone calls from Clancy, the cavalry rushed to my aid.

From that point on, a steady stream of friends came, bringing food, entertaining the children, sitting with me to help pass the time. Women from my church washed dishes, vacuumed and mopped. They scrubbed bathrooms and tackled mountains of laundry. Then they even cleaned windows, blinds and baseboards! My house had never shined so brightly. "We don't want you to feel so overwhelmed with housework when you get back on your feet that you reinjure your back," they explained. Family members also came to help, and my in-laws kept little Emma for more than a week.

My friend Allison called every day to see how I was doing. Her faithfulness amazed me, and I knew that each time she asked me "How are you?" she genuinely wanted to know. You will not find a friend more loyal and true than Allison. Known for her sense of humor, she always keeps the group laughing with her silly antics. Yet one-on-one, she is a sympathetic confidante whose eyes fill with tears to know that a friend is hurting. Allison came out to the house several times, often bringing meals and treats from my favorite restaurants. She kept our ladies Bible class updated on my situation and took the lead in organizing help.

We were served in myriad ways, but a few stand out in my mind. When friends came to sit with me one day, Lisa casually mentioned that another friend had sent a few snacks. She would just leave them on the counter and let us decide where to put them. When Joe got home, he looked stunned when he came in to see me. "Uh ... have you seen our kitchen?" he asked. He insisted that I come take a look, and when I did, I nearly fell over -- not from pain but from laughter. I couldn't believe my eyes; there were more than 400 snacks on our counter! Natasha figured I probably treated my children to homemade after-school snacks, and she wanted to provide easy options that would keep me off my feet. The children loved having our own concession stand, and I marvelled at such thoughtfulness!

One of my worst days forever bonded me to my friend Lara. I liked Lara from the moment I met her. I was drawn to her sweet spirit, and I have always appreciated her honesty and humor. One morning, right after Joe left to take the boys to school, I heard Mary Ashley crying from her bedroom upstairs. Soon she was sobbing, "Mommy! Mommy! Please help me! Mommy, I need you!" I pleaded with her to come downstairs, but she insisted that she couldn't. Allison and Lara were on the way, but would not arrive for another 45 minutes, so I felt I had no choice. I practically crawled up the stairs, but by the time I reached Mary Ashley's room, the muscle spasms were so intense I was crying. I collapsed onto Mary Ashley's bed, unable to lift my legs onto the bed. Lara was the first to arrive, and she did her best to make me comfortable. She found my medicine and brought it up, but the spasms were so constant that I couldn't move my arms or lift my head. So Lara put the medicine in my mouth and put a straw to my lips so I could take it. I never, ever would have thought a friend would have to do that for me, but I am so grateful Lara was there for me in that moment of desperation.

The most touching expression of friendship came the night before my epidural when friends met at the church building for a special time of prayer on my behalf. I was so thankful for the cards and phone calls that had poured in from so many places, and it meant the world to me to know that people were remembering me in prayer. But I could not fathom that my friends would stop what they were doing, clear their schedules, leave their homes and gather together to pray for me. I still cannot think about the enormity of this gift without crying!

The next morning, I was absolutely terrified to have another injection, but Joe reminded me that I had the prayer support of a lot of people behind me. And the results were amazing! When I went in for my epidural, my grandmother had to help me get out of the car. I used a cane to walk and struggled to get into the building. But after the epidural, I walked out standing tall, unassisted!

It took a second epidural to control all of the inflammation and a few weeks for me to regain my strength, but by mid-September I felt better than I had in years. I revelled in the little rituals of daily life, so happy to fix Mary Ashley's hair, pick up the boys from school and prepare our meals again.
The pace of life has moved swiftly forward since last summer. But sometimes when I sink into my bed after a busy day, in the stillness and quiet of night, images from last summer flash through my mind. And I realize that the worst time of my life was also the best. Because although I endured suffering beyond what I ever thought I could withstand, I also found myself blessed beyond what I ever dreamed I could experience.

In "The Love Squad," Kidder explains the significance of her friends' service: "I had spent a week praying through a health crisis, begging God for a sense of His presence at the hospital. Instead, He laid a mantle of order, beauty and loving care into our home through these four 'angels.' " I will be forever grateful to the women who united to become my Love Squad. They recognized needs I could not even admit, served in ways I could never have asked, and demonstrated love beyond what I ever could have imagined. Through every step of the way, my Love Squad was here. I am so thankful that when I could not walk, my Love Squad of angels carried me. Because of their friendship, I too knew that God had everything under control.

I share this story with you now because I am scheduled to have another epidural this morning. Thankfully, I have not been incapacitated by back pain since last summer, but it has gradually become a greater part of daily life. I ask for your prayers that this procedure will be successful, so I can remain on active duty on the Love Squad. I've got a lot more casseroles left in me!

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