Voices

Dark days

Suffering demands desperate faith and desperate friends

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

Sometime during the midnight hours of Wednesday, April 25, a portion of the optic nerve in my left eye died. I didn't know it at the time; I was sound asleep. When the alarm sounded at 6:15, I noticed a yellow-green spot in the center of my vision, like the after-image from looking at a bright light. It was glowing, gossamer and fixed, a thin and annoying mass of colored cotton candy.

That was the first day, the day of yellow-green.

Afterward came the days of mud-brown. The yellow-green spot panned to the right, painting itself a mud-brown stained with the red of rusted iron. The doctor nodded when I spoke about red-"the color of blood" is what I think he said. He said a lot more-but not before asking seemingly irrelevant questions. Irrelevant until, putting them together, I startled and responded, "You don't think I have a tumor, do you?"

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"It's a possibility," he answered. I was stunned and disbelieving. "Things like that happen to others; they can't happen to me." I was right-and I was wrong.

The next day, another day of mud-brown, an MRI ruled out malignancy. Of course I was thankful. But mud-brown was still there. So more tests followed, a long series of them. Tests to scrutinize my retina. Tests to check blood chemistry. Tests to measure my field of vision. Tests looking to the right, tests looking to the lower left, tests with pupils at rest, tests with pupils dilated. And in the end there came the pronouncement: ischemic optic neuropathy, which means that sometime during the midnight hours of April 25 the blood supply to my left optic nerve stopped long enough for vision cells to die.

Is it one thing to be told I don't have cancer and another to be told I have lost some sight? Bad news is bad news. A different death, but death nonetheless, was crouching at my door. What then began were gray-shadow days, days of darkness and fear. What caused the blood interruption? Am I at risk for cardiovascular problems? Could this happen to my right eye?

My gray-shadow days have been days of darkened paralysis. I mix metaphors to speak with candor. Given the condition, a pastor like me should quickly fix on a Gospel text where Jesus heals the blind. But not so. Instead, I identified myself with the paralytic lying on the mat, carried by four friends. The man was immobile; his friends were desperate. So desperate that they climbed the roof where Jesus was teaching, clawed through the mud and tiles, and lowered their friend down through the opening. Such determined and desperate faith deserves commendation, and Jesus gives it. In response to "their faith," i.e., the faith of the four (Mark 2:5), Jesus eventually raises the paralytic.

And all the while the paralytic simply lies there.

Like me in my gray-shadow days. Days in which the emotional and physical drain of my eye trauma conspired with the endless impossibility of simple routines (cutting my food, shaving my left cheek, signing my name) and paralyzed my spirit. Like the man on the mat, all I was able to do was lie there and allow others to carry me, to have others pray and encourage and provide and love. They did so in great numbers. And it has been their desperate faith, their faithfulness, and their loyal love that carried me back to Jesus.

Unlike the paralytic, my restoration has been slow and gradual. But it has been a restoration nevertheless. With the passing of days, gray shadows have given way to the fair glow of sky blue-the color of hope.

From the start, hope was beyond me. Just as surely as the paralytic could not walk, so in shadow-gray days I could not look ahead. But others could. God saw their faith, and, mercy of mercies, blessed me. And so, while my sight loss remains the same, my spirit has been raised, my heart recreated, my hope renewed ex nihilo. And it has come to pass that in this day, the day of sky blue, darker days that once were are now fleeing away.

In His wisdom, God sees all this, and in His grace He calls it very good.

-Matt Ristuccia is a pastor in Princeton, N.J.

Matthew P. Ristuccia
Matthew P. Ristuccia

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