I was working steadily in the fields that I love, music and theology. I had a small apartment in a great location. I had wonderful friends near and far and was in complete control of what I did with my time. My life was a lot like it had been when I turned 25, and I didn’t want anything to change.
Two months later the man who would become my husband sat down next to me on the train. Though we lived nearly three hours from each other and both considered ourselves too old to waste time on relationships that weren’t going anywhere, a few weeks of phone calls proved that we wanted to see more of each other. Suddenly, I wasn’t in control of my time anymore, having learned that my suspicion was right: when I met someone who made me want to rearrange my busy schedule for them, I would know I’d found the real thing.
We lived apart, and as hard as that was neither of us wanted to compromise our careers by moving without the right job in place. So we waited, and waited, and waited.
Meanwhile, I started throwing up all the time.
In an effort to get to the point, here’s the short version: I developed Crohn’s disease, managed a chronic illness and a long distance relationship for more than three excruciating years, and finally had to have surgery on the day my dear one finally started a job in the same city as I am (which also happened to be the day a blizzard landed in Boston). My surgery left me with a temporary ostomy which was reversed ten days before our wedding. We bought a condo and my disease is in remission and we live in the same place and I am thirty-five and I can’t quite believe everything that happened.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
The importance of listening. I am ashamed at how poor a listener I can be. I learned through sharing my own story of illness how essential it is to have someone who listens to you. I also learned that one can learn to listen.
That I was right to be so busy in my twenties. I shudder at the prescience with which I chose to work my tail off in my twenties. I knew that someday I wouldn’t be able to work as hard as I was then, I would be glad to have amassed some social, artistic and financial capital. Make hay when the sun shines, as the saying goes.
People will surprise you with generosity. I was one of those smug self-sufficient “I don’t like taking help from people” people until I needed help. My coworkers covered classes when I was too sick to come in, my mom walked through a blizzard to accompany me to the hospital, and my friends gave me books when I was out on medical leave. One of my cousins threw me a Pinterest-worthy bridal shower (also during a snow storm) a few weeks after my surgery, when I was in so much pain I could barely see, helping to redeem a very difficult season in my life.
There are way more important things to worry about than what people think of you. Or how you look, or how much you weigh, or how pretty you are compared to other people. Let’s all agree not to waste time on that.
I will always have something to contribute. When my illness was nearing its worst I went to Zambia with some coworkers to work with a school in Lusaka. I came back home exhausted and still sick, but comforted by the realization that I am not doomed to sit on the couch for the rest of my life contributing nothing. Being productive is important to me; it didn’t have to stop because of my illness.
What I contribute does not define who I am. Even when I can’t be productive, I still have value because I was loved into being. I am fortunate that the people around me love me ferociously, but even if I didn’t have that example of God’s love, I would still be beloved.
Most importantly, I learned to live with the inevitability of change from which I had hidden for so long.
I learned that each day dawns with hope and promise even when I am in pain.
I learned that there is always, always joy, even when surface bears pain and tears.
I learned that this is what it means to pray always.