Dark night of the soul

National | On a cruel April day, every parent's nightmare became our family's reality, but God had mercy on us

Issue: "Rockwell's resurgence," Nov. 24, 2001

"April," T.S. Eliot said, "is the cruelest month." On Tuesday, April 24, our 7-year-old daughter Elizabeth suffered a cruel accident. Playing, she jumped out of the window of a parked mini-van and landed on a 1/2" iron rebar pole nearly 3 H feet long. She was impaled from her groin to her clavicle. Since no one saw the accident, we still don't know how she managed to remove herself from the bar and run to her mother. We thought she had a puncture wound requiring some stitches. We took her to a local hospital, where it became clear that her injuries were more serious. A scan showed air in her lower stomach and a partially collapsed left lung. Elizabeth was composed. She talked to us and communicated without tears or complaint to the nurses and doctors who examined her. She watched cartoons on the emergency room television. Elizabeth's stomach and chest hurt, she said, but she was not visibly distressed, so the doctors underestimated the extent of her injuries. When they decided to send her by ambulance to a larger hospital, we waited two hours for the ambulance, since her condition was not considered grave. The accident happened at 11:30 a.m. We arrived at Westchester Medical Center at 6:30 p.m. A new scan revealed a fully collapsed left lung. Doctors inserted a chest tube and put her on oxygen. As we stood by her table in that bustling ER it became clear that the attending physicians were increasingly concerned. They decided to perform exploratory surgery to assess the damage, but the pediatric surgeon, Dr. Alfred Chahine, needed to close on another surgery before he could start Elizabeth. At 8:00 p.m. Elizabeth was wheeled off. She looked up at Cheryl through her oxygen mask and said, "I can't kiss you with this mask on, Mommy." We waited in the cold, dark post-op waiting room. Family members of other patients milled about on the stained carpet. Mothers of seriously injured patients slept on the couches-sometimes for weeks. It was a convention of horror stories. The staff called us with updates. 9:00 p.m.: "We're just getting started, she's doing fine." 10:00 p.m.: "She's doing well, Dr. Chahine is still doing the exploratory surgery." We knew this could not be good. 11:30 p.m.: We wandered the hallways looking for some blankets to keep warm. On our way back to the waiting room we saw the surgeon, standing at a candy machine getting a snack. "Good," he said, "I need to talk with you." Here's when we learned how far Elizabeth had impaled herself, and the extent of her injuries. The rod had missed her aorta and her heart by 1mm. Dr. Chahine said the rod, "as if directed by a computer guided chip," had also missed other major crossing arteries and all vital organs. He said her survival was miraculous. He expressed wonder as to how she impaled and then "dis-impaled" herself without losing a drop of blood. That remains a mystery. However, Elizabeth's injuries were "life threatening." The rod had torn her rectum, colon, scraped her pancreas, entered her stomach, exited her stomach, split her diaphragm, punctured her left lung, torn four inches of her esophagus, and even scratched her clavicle. At this point we went numb. Between one another and the walls we managed to stay on our feet. "Will she make it?" we asked. Dr. Chahine paused and said, "I think so, but I have a lot of work to do yet tonight." Back in the waiting room we found ourselves face to face with that most horrid of prospects: the death of a child. Even if Elizabeth survived we wondered about the damage. We wept, we trembled, we prayed, and we hoped. Mostly, we waited. We spoke sparingly, keeping vigil through the night. We felt we were tottering on the edge of a psychic abyss inhabited by eviscerated souls, parents mourning inconsolably over four-foot coffins. Rachel weeping for her children refusing, absolutely refusing, to be comforted. These hours have a way of personalizing all the wretched, seemingly meaningless suffering and misery that rains down upon human beings in this world-the stuff that always happens to someone else. The stuff we've been anesthetized to. The nameless and faceless hordes whose quasi-real stories are recounted on the evening news. Now they have faces. Now they have names. They are somebody's Elizabeth. Inevitably, in such a dark night of the soul, one asks: Why? Why can a freak accident kill my child? What could possibly be the meaning of such an event? Maybe the world is a random and senseless place. It's not as if those who say so are without ammunition. Why would a good and loving Providence permit such an insidious mangling of His creatures? The mind moves from the particular to the general. Has my faith really come to grips with the Holocaust? With Bosnia? With innumerable Gulags? With much of sub-Saharan Africa? Can the God I confess be extricated from this panoply of disgrace? These questions, dealing as they do with the nature of evil, are shrouded in mystery. Christians have a framework for viewing such things, but it's a framework that does not yield easy answers. Suffering repels platitudes. Would I survive? Would Cheryl survive? Would our faith survive if Elizabeth did not? We are left with Job's choices: Trust God though He slay us or curse God and die. By nature we yearn for a third option. The Incarnation provides a uniquely Christian response to human tragedy. God stands with us in it, bearing our sorrow, responding to humanity's suffering by entering it. Finally, in that most desolate of cries, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" we see Christ at the bottom of the abyss. We see God wearing our humanity, entering our desolation, and drinking the cup of all that contradicts His own goodness. Draining the venom of human misery from the inside out, by death He tramples down death. 2:00 a.m.: We heard from surgery again: "She's doing well. We're finishing up the colon repair work." We wondered how long a small child could be kept under anesthesia. By this point a number of people were praying. Some later told us they were awakened in the middle of the night to pray. In retrospect, Christ was sustaining us and healing Elizabeth through the prayers of His body. 5:30 a.m.: At the first glimmers of dawn, a resident surgical assistant came with the update. Elizabeth, he said, was doing well. He was thoroughly amazed at what he was witnessing. They had finished all the repair work except the esophagus, which would require a separate incision and an additional two to three hours of surgery. He said, careful not to offend, "I don't know what you do, but when this is over you need to go to church!" He clearly believed, as he expressed later, that her life was miraculously spared. 8:00 a.m.: Dr. Chahine came out. He'd finished with the surgery and Elizabeth was being moved to the intensive-care unit. He was amazed at her strength. He explained the injuries again and the many risks, particularly over the next three to five days. He felt pretty good about the repair work, but he warned us that it would be a long and emotional road back for Elizabeth. She would be in a medically induced coma and on strong paralysis medications for the next few days to prevent movement and allow the healing to begin. The risk of infection was high. The ripped esophagus was difficult to repair. Elizabeth would have a colostomy and a feeding tube for a few months. He estimated a three-week hospital stay if all went well. Seeing our daughter in ICU after the surgery was hard. She was so swollen. Her body was so cold. I was reminded of Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstoff's gripping book, Lament for a Son, where he describes touching his child's dead body and being startled by the cold. Death is cold. She was hooked to a bewildering array of tubes, drains, and machines. An angry incision ran almost the whole length of her torso. Another, less drastic, ran across the left side of her back. Elizabeth came home on Monday, May 7, 13 days after her accident. On July 9 she had 4 H more hours of surgery to reverse the colostomy and remove her backup feeding tube. She now has returned to all her normal activities. "April," T.S. Eliot said, "is the cruelest month." He wrote that in his 1922 masterpiece The Waste Land. It is the first line of the poem, in a section subtitled "The Burial of the Dead." There was to be no burial this time. Death will have to wait. Elizabeth now bears scars that will serve to remind her not only of God's merciful sparing of her life, but of the Master, impaled on a Roman gibbet for us all. Elizabeth is, I believe, a living parable, for, apart from Christ, we are the hollow inhabitants of The Waste Land plowed down in an endless "Burial of the Dead." Like Elizabeth, we are a heartbeat from death, spared only to worship and serve the living God. Her courageous bearing of her affliction makes her much more like Eliot's "Lady of Silences / Calm and Distressed / Torn and most Whole." Those 10 words are from Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," and we all know that the death pall of that day does not end with a coffin.

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