Thursday, March 8, 2012

Grace in the ICU

             I spent last week looking for grace in the ICU. I flew out to Denver to sit with my friend, Sarah, while her husband was in critical care following an aortic aneurism. A lot of praying happens in ICU but many of those prayers go unanswered or aren’t answered the way that was hoped. As I sat next to my terrified friend – terrified myself – I listened to a woman beg her father to let her mother go from life support. Across the hall, a woman wailed with anguish when given bad news about her mother. When Sarah was told that her husband’s heart had stopped, I held her shaking body, heaving with grief. Later, when her husband rallied, I felt relief, not grace.
My own definition of grace has changed throughout the years. When I was in my twenties, I thought that I had confirmed the existence of God in a New York City parking lot. Staring out over the rows of cars I allowed myself to imagine a godless world and I felt immediately bereft. The thought was so unbearable that I re-embraced my former God within seconds, and that was that.  It was the spiritual equivalent to finding lost keys – “Oh there He is. Right where I left Him. Good. Life can go on like normal now.” At the time, I thought my parking lot reclamation of God was a moment of revelation and grace. Today I consider it simply a return to habit. A return to what was comfortable. I don’t think that grace is chicken soup for the soul.
            Now that I’m older, I believe that grace reveals more often to those who are open to it and to those who actively seek it. I have been inspired by friends who look for it through mindfulness and practice. They experience it all the time. The past two years have been very difficult ones for my family and me. As a result, I have had to train myself to wake up every morning and choose hope over despair and grace over cynicism. Sometimes I don’t succeed and I find myself sniping at Pat that we’re huge failures who will never dig ourselves out of our financial mess. Last summer, the IRS put a lien on our bank accounts and I screamed at him, “I hate you. I want a divorce.” Clearly, it wasn’t going to be a good day for grace and me.
            But on the days that I manage to actively choose it, I find grace everywhere. Most notably at my dinner table when Pat and I listen to our sons tell stories about their day and the sky outside our living room window turns orange as the sun sinks behind the mountains. This is grace for me, pure and simple. Food and laughter and beauty and love. And Stevie Wonder playing in the background. It is those moments when I am not looking back or looking forward. When I am consciously in the room, connected to everyone there and to the world outside.
            I have also, by the way, experienced moments of grace and connection when I am completely alone. I recently decided that I was going to learn how to poach an egg and I failed for several days in a row. Then one unremarkable morning, I succeeded and felt completely in tune with the universe. Practice and consciousness had brought me there. That and a capful of white vinegar.
            I did finally find grace in the ICU last week -- it wasn’t when Sarah’s husband got his mortal reprieve, although that kind of soaring hope is oxygen for the soul --and I had to look for it. I was sitting in a chair watching my Sarah stroke Rob’s hair. “I love you so, so much,” she said to him. I breathed deep and loosened my fingers that had curled into fists. I felt the back of the chair supporting me. I listened to Sarah say over and over again, “I love you so, so much.” I breathed again and then there was grace. For a moment I felt no separation from Sarah and Rob. In fact, there was no separation between me and the chair and the sun streaming through the window. There was no future and no past.
Just this. 

** Much love and many prayers to Sarah and Rob. 


  1. I have been meaning to tell you how moved I was by this piece. We have not seen each other in ages, and have not had a chance to catch up. This was a beautiful piece. Thanks for sharing. Love Shona

  2. Thank you thank you thank you. I’ve been storing your pieces like nuts for winter and decided today was a good afternoon to spend with Brett. You’ve moved me to grateful tears.