In the Darkest Hours, Joy
Tonita M. Helton
Selected by Mary Angelita Ruiz, Assistant Executive Editor
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.
During a Mass I recently attended, Archbishop Chaput preached in his Homily of those stricken by painful disease and illness and said of them, that those who suffer so, and suffer well, “do more good for the kingdom than any words a Bishop like myself could ever offer.”
His comment instantly reminded me of my mother, Joy, who died in 2004 of liver failure from metastasized breast cancer. During the last part of her life, she suffered tremendously and no matter what her doctors did to try to help, and no matter how much we prayed, things just kept getting worse. When one problem was finally addressed, another more horrible situation would present itself. And so it went and because of these various, often bizarre complications, we spent many months, including every holiday during the last year of her life, with her in the hospital.
During one particularly memorable hospital stay, Mom suffered the worst reaction to chemotherapy that most of her medical staff had ever seen. She developed what amounted to a chemical burn throughout her body that did not stop burning for more than three weeks. As her condition worsened, every day brought with it new horrors. In addition to losing her fingernails and toenails, the outer skin on her hands and feet fell off in thick layers, leaving the soft dermis exposed to the air to dry, crack, and bleed. Where the skin didn’t fall off in layers, it burned a bright, angry red that was hot to the touch and continued to worsen as the days passed. The pain caused by this condition was made worse by the fact that she was also suffering from severe edema which left her midsection and legs bloated and the skin stretched taut. Around her neck and down her chest and legs, the skin developed small blisters that split and festered, leaving tiny, open wounds that required constant, painful attention to avoid infection.
The reaction attacked the membranes of her body even more viciously, affecting her eyes, nose, mouth, and perineum. Her eye sockets dried out, leaving her eyelids scabbed and bleeding. To prevent blindness, we were instructed to regularly keep her eyes moist with saline solution. Instead of a drop or two, each treatment required about a half of a teaspoon of fluid because the membranes that usually cradle the eyeball had been eaten away with the heat of the reaction. Her mouth and nose became covered with lesions that had to be swabbed and treated several times a day. Each treatment brought with it excruciating pain and caused the sores to break open and bleed freely once again. And, if all of that was not cruel enough, the process of using the restroom was pure agony. The wretched experience itself was made even worse by the fact that the simple act of walking on her battered feet made her dizzy with pain, and because she was being treated with heavy doses of Lasix for the edema, it was something she was forced to endure an average of three or four times an hour.
Because she had needed constant care for some time, our family had developed a system whereby we would stay with her in weekly shifts. I worked in Chicago, which was six hours away and, as a result, did not see her for the first week or two of this particular drama. My brother and aunt had tried gently to warn me, but in spite of everything she had already been through, I was not prepared. When I walked into her hospital room and first saw her in this condition, I stopped dead in my tracks. Her appearance was beyond shocking.
My dear mother, quite literally, looked as if she had just come from hell. She had no hair and the skin of her head, face, neck and hands was bright red with bloody wounds and the heat of the constant burn. The lines of her face were drawn with pain and etched with the weariness of extended suffering. I was choking back tears, utterly horrified, and nearly unable to believe what I was seeing.
And then I looked into her eyes, those brown eyes rimmed with scabs and stripped even of their lashes. In their depths, I did not see pain or anger or bitterness or despair. I saw peace. And I saw joy. And I saw Christ.
My mother was a great gift to anyone fortunate enough to have known her. She was a saintly woman, an amazing mother, a wonderful teacher, the truest of friends, and a very wise and selfless human being. She taught me many, many things that continue to guide me in my daily life. I have come to realize, however, that the greatest example she set for me, the greatest thing that she taught me, was how to properly meet the inevitable reality of suffering.
To quote The Princess Bride, one of my favorite cult movies, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” While true so far as it goes, it is incomplete. The fuller truth is reflected in the face of those who suffer as my mother did, who through the grace of God, accept even the unacceptable, and in so doing, enter into the great paradox of the Cross. As Lent approaches, I find myself thinking about this reality. I am reminded of the revolutionary teaching of Christ which reveals to us that God will never permit any evil unless a greater good can be drawn from it. His premier demonstration of this, of course, was the Crucifixion itself, that epic moment in time when the created were allowed to rise up against, and slaughter, the Creator himself. There is no greater evil and there can be no greater injustice than this deicide. And yet, from the agony and suffering wrought from this injustice, mankind was restored to its long-lost heritage and its greatest good.
For quite some time, I struggled to understand why my mother was dying at the young age of fifty-one when she was so important to so many people, and had so much good to offer the Church and the world. As I watched her suffer for weeks and months on end, it became harder and harder to “keep the faith” and maintain any sort of trust in God that he actually knew what he was doing. I remember sitting at her feet one day, after she had just dry-heaved into a little pink bucket for at least the fifth time that morning. There were tears running down her face from the vomiting and she was grimacing and holding her stomach from the pain. I clenched my fists and started sobbing from the frustration and anger of battered morale. And right in the midst of my little fit, the very obvious parallel struck me like a thunderbolt.
I thought of Christ and was reminded of how great he was during his life and his ministry. He was a devoted son, the greatest preacher, teacher, and healer who ever lived, not to mention the fact that he was truth, beauty, wisdom, love and God himself incarnate. But the great mission of his human life was fulfilled, not with any of those wonderful things, but in intense pain and suffering that appeared to worldly eyes to be nothing more than the futile and pathetic anguish of a condemned man. In that moment, I understood that my mother’s life, in a fundamental and important way, was a reflection of her Lord’s. She was a truly extraordinary person who was compassionate, loving and wise, and she possessed a spirit of self-giving that is rare, even in Christian circles. She was a great daughter, friend, and wife and was a better mother to us than we could have even dreamed for ourselves. She taught children with disabilities how to read, she ran the catechism program at our local parish, she spent hours on end in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and because of a serious congenital heart defect, she risked her very life to bring her children into the world. And despite all of that, I came to understand that the greatest of her life’s work was accomplished, not in teaching, praying, or even in child-rearing, as important as all of those contributions were. Her life’s masterpiece was achieved in the courageous offering she made of her pain, suffering, and ultimately, her life, while she lay helpless in a hospital bed.
We are all given a cross that we are bound to carry, whether willing or unwilling. Most of us are left to offer smaller sacrifices, like headaches, stubbed toes, the occasional cut, or the frustration of traffic or a difficult job or co-worker. And many, perhaps most, of us reject even those smaller opportunities. But, for the rare and truly blessed soul, God sometimes sends acute suffering, in whatever form, along with an invitation to crawl up on the Cross with him and, in so doing, help him to save the world. For those who know—really know—what to do with this opportunity, the growth and purification they merit for their own souls and the graces that are showered upon the world as a result of their offerings are enormous.
Perhaps the difficulty we have with this teaching is that the connection is hidden from us this side of the grave. It was sometimes hard for me to see why God, if he really loved my mother, couldn’t just give her a break every now and then, and protect her from the chemical burn, or the mutant bacteria, or the wretched nausea, or the month-long bout of constipation, or the edema, or the pancreatic malfunction, or the gallbladder pain and surgery, or the cancer itself, or at least the nightmares she had of demons attacking her. You see, there is often no clear line drawn for us between this particular suffering and that particular soul. Even so, there remains a bright line drawn across the ages and it reminds us boldly that Christ did not suffer in vain and it is his revolutionary mandate that neither must we. It remains our destiny to suffer because mankind fell into sin, but even that suffering can and should be redeemed by uniting it with his.
And so, once a year, we are challenged by the Church to enter into the voluntary sufferings of the Lenten fast. These offerings, while much less vivid, are no less true reflections of the cross we are invited to share with Christ. As we enter our Lenten fast, be our sacrifices large or small, difficult or not so difficult, we should be mindful that we make these offerings, not just because we must, or because the Church tells us to, or even because we like being part of the “Catholic club” that gives up chocolate and doesn’t eat meat on Fridays. Rather, at least at our best, we offer our Lenten sufferings as a purification of self, and in preparation for and in conjunction with the offering of Christ on the Cross. We offer them after the example of the incarnate God who set the standard, and in union with those faithful who went before us, who bravely met the challenge of their passion, and in so doing, merited for us the graces that get us through ours.
Tonita M. Helton is a graduate of Drake University and the University of Iowa College of Law.