Stop me if I’ve told you this one already. When I was young, a late teen perhaps, my grandfather in Illinois was hospitalized. I don’t remember the details, other than driving out there with my parents to visit him. I didn’t know this grandpa well. He was my Farmer Grandpa, and I had been raised in Philly near my Urban Grandpa. Farmer Grandpa had ears that never stopped growing, ancient overalls for everyday and clean overalls for going to town, and big milk bottles for me to feed the calves. Urban Grandpa told me to go play in traffic when I was annoying him, with just the right twinkle in his eye to instantly take the edge off that statement. Farmer Grandpa wrote letters to the local paper telling them everything that was wrong with our godless country. When he died and we went to clean out the many-gabled house that he built by hand, the reams of paper that we scooped from the floors to the burn pile popped with bullets firing. Urban grandpa recited poetry and scripture, didn’t drive, and always wished he had gone to college.
I remember little of Farmer Grandpa, except one thing from that trip to the hospital: him rubbing his weathered hands together and saying quietly, “You can use them, but you can’t use them.” I did not see him alive again.
Not long after that, in a National Geographic, I clipped a photo of the weathered hands of an old farmer. I kept that photo for many, many years. It reminded me of hard work, and persistence. The tenuousness of it all. The beauty in the fissures.
In my teens, I struggled. I struggled with purpose and worth. I struggled with belonging and love. My parents, in tandem to my suffering, suffered. They fought for me, and they loved me, and they did what my parents do best: found the positives and endlessly hauled them to the surface, reminding us all of life’s gifts. On the refrigerator in their kitchen, for years, hung a simple sign that stated: “Joy in Suffering.”
I’ve thought of that sign for years. It’s meant different things to me at different times. Sometimes, it seemed to channel directly from the Old Testament God: a mandate, and a dare. Endure this! Show me you can! At other times, it has felt like a gentle reminder: There’s something in the cracks here, some grace and beauty to find. It whispered, Find it.
Yesterday, Mark’s hands looked like this:
In his sedated state, he worked those mitts and restraints, his engineer brain alive and functioning in there. He fought to go nowhere other than not here. Not this.
Today, his hands looked like this:
When we unclipped Marks’s wrist restraints, his hand could pick up a cup of coffee. Use a fork to eat a brownie. Hold mine, squeezing gently to say “I’m here, are you?”
At lunch, I went outside to let my face be in the sun and to take off my mask. I lay in the grass, and stared up at this sky.
I ate my lunch and watched the mockingbirds watch me. I watched the higher altitude clouds move east while the lower altitude clouds moved west. I wondered about mockingbirds, and clouds. I closed my eyes. I breathed in the air.
Every day, there is a lot of struggle.
Everyday, there is a lot of joy.
My hands can do a lot of things. They can pack goldfish crackers for my mid-day hospital snack. They can drive me to see Mark. They can pour him water and adjust his blanket. They can drive me home and help the boys have a somewhat normal night. Soon, I will use them to call Mark’s nurse and see how his night’s been. They will help me get to sleep and help me be ready for another day.
There is a lot of suffering, and there is a lot of joy. I can find it. No matter what, I can always find it. Thank God.