Blessing and Responsibility

By Allison Backous

At work last Tuesday, I found myself in a familiar place: my right side aching, my skin burning, my office walls a blur of florescent white and blue. Every month, I cycle through these symptoms and assume that they are normal. That all women carry this kind of pain. That the migraines and the blood and the surreal tenderness of my flesh are just par for the course, and that I, like any other woman on her period, should just suck it up and deal.

I’m not exactly sure what made me think that, this time, the pain wasn’t normal. Maybe it was the fact that the pain reminded me of the appendicitis I had five years ago. Maybe it was these past months I’ve spent in therapy, renaming the old signs of pain, giving words to the new ones.

Maybe I’m more alert these days to what healing requires: self-examination, honesty, the guts to pick up the phone and ask for help.

So when I called the women’s health clinic and described my symptoms, I didn’t hesitate to follow their advice: call a friend, get in the car, and drive to St. Mary’s emergency room.

I spent the afternoon in a tent of a gown, napping on a bed covered with a paper sheet, Friendsplaying softly on the hospital room television. I felt stupid for being there; my cramps went away as soon as I stepped into the hospital, and when the doctor’s intern pressed her finger to my side and felt nothing, her eyebrows raised.

“If it’s just pain you are concerned with, you might want to see your regular doctor,” she said. “It sounds like you are fine.”

Strength, as I defined it growing up, was about endurance; bearing up under the impossible. We carried our crosses like trophies, turned laments into victory songs. “This is what God has done for me!” I would cry out at youth group, my fist in the air, the crowd of teenagers clapping and waving their hands.

I did not know, then, that I was simply ignoring the wound. I did not know that what I proclaimed was bad news, a gospel built on the power of the self to transcend circumstance. I did not know how wrong I was.

After an ultrasound and another episode of Friends, the doctor brought me other news—the ultrasound showed a picture of a cyst on my right ovary, right where the dull ache has faithfully announced itself, month after month.

“Everything looks good,” he assured me, “but you’ll need to be examined further. Just to rule out endometriosis, which can keep women from having children.”

He gave me a prescription for painkillers and a packet on ovarian cysts, covered with penciled illustrations of the womb, the fallopian tube, the long stretches of scar tissue that could be lining my right ovary. That could be rendering me barren, four months before I wed.

I know that nothing is official. That I have no further diagnosis, no way of proclaiming any kind of news for myself. I have been frantically optimistic—“We can adopt, some day”—and completely fearful, my eyes lingering a bit too long over the children I saw at a park the other day, their red curls, like mine, bouncing in the wind.

In the early days of my faith, we celebrated our wounds because we believed that, by renaming our suffering, we could transform it. If we had the eyes of faith, we would be made well. If we believed, we would be blessed. And in my aching and hoping, I saw a husband and children as the ultimate blessing, the ultimate proof I had arrived: no more setbacks. No more curses. No more of the old life.

My friend Kirsten, who runs the organization “cino”—culture is not optional—wrote an article about blessing that has haunted me for years. She writes: “A blessing is never just a bunch of free stuff God drops down the chimney for eldest sons and chosen people; rather it’s a granting of responsibility and the mysterious overflow that results from the faithful acceptance of that responsibility.”

I used to believe in a gospel of prosperity. A system of rewards. Children as sign and symbol of a blessed life.

And now that I face this, I know that what I believe, what is true, is far scarier than I could have imagined. That I would believe in a God who could withhold babies from me, a God whose love both heals and breaks me, a God who is so different from the god of desire I fashioned in high school, noble as my desires may have been.

I know that it is too early to prescribe an answer to myself. I do not know what will happen. But I cannot help but be fearful; I cannot help but ask for help.

Five years ago, when I had my appendicitis, the doctors worried that the rate of my infection would require removing part of my colon and half my reproductive organs, including this ailing right ovary. The morning after my surgery, one of the doctors, a brightly dressed woman with a Polish accent, smiled at my bedside.

“We did it,” she said, her voice singing above my bed. “We saved your ovary. God bless you.”

I hold tightly to that memory; I pray to accept what I have been given, whatever that may look like. I pray to hope and to believe.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.