I don’t post this picture to elicit sympathy. (Though I’ve never been one to run from a little self-pity.) I post it to try and tell a story. And to put in context some things I have learned over the last 2 months that I hope will be helpful. Here’s the story.
Early in August, I began to have a different kind of headache. I’ve never had a migraine headache but I told Doris (and anybody that would listen, I refer you to the paragraph above.) that I thought I was having a migraine headache. It would not go away and got progressively worse. On August 14, Doris and I had tickets to a tennis tournament in Cincinnati that I had looked forward to for a long time. We drove up on Friday and checked in to our hotel. I didn’t feel great but I was determined to enjoy the weekend. Saturday, we went to the tournament. Fun day. Gorgeous weather. But as the day went on, I got worse. By Saturday evening Doris took charge. She checked us out of the hotel, drove us all the way back to Murfreesboro, TN, and early Sunday morning marched me into the emergency department, and the journey began for real.
By this time the pain in my head was excruciating. It would come in waves that would make me audibly catch my breath. Any light was unbearable, especially in my left eye. Doctors, tests, MRI’s, and by the afternoon the diagnosis came back, of all things, shingles. Herpes zoster is the medical term and that’s even scarier. It is a reactivation of childhood chickenpox that produces a painful rash (there’s an understatement) on any part of the body. I happened to get it on the really fun part, head, face, and eye. Everyone I have talked to that has had shingles has given me these comforting words, “Oh, my goodness. I cannot imagine having it on my head and face.” I thank them kindly.
The biggest fear from the ER doctor was that it would enter my eye. It can cause nerve damage, vision loss, and even blindness. I was referred to an ophthalmologist that agreed to see me the next day. To date, the good news is that it is ON my eyeball but not in my eye. I do praise God for that.
Well, let me end this pity party by saying the last 7 weeks have been a time of such prolonged and severe suffering that I never dreamed possible. I have sat for hours, rocking back and forth, my eye itching so bad that it was maddening, my head pounding to the point that I would stay nauseous. I endured a second trip to the hospital, halfway through this ordeal because of the awful side effects of the pain medication. And yet, I would sit staring at the clock, pain meds in my hand, negotiating with myself if I could take them 15 minutes early. By the way, pain meds for shingles don’t eliminate the pain. They just bring it down to a dull roar.
As I sit, at the beginning of week nine, the rash is gone. The pain has moved from the left side of my head to the left quarter. My eye itching has gone from maddening to irritating. And I am usually able to have 3-4 productive, relatively manageable hours a day, where I am not trying to sleep the pain away or pacing the driveway waiting for my next medicines. I am so much better and claiming the full healing that is on the way. Every doctor I talked to said, “Now you know there is a good chance of postherpetic neuralgia.” Which is another term for the same pain that can last for weeks or even months after the shingles is finally gone. Thanks guys, we will let God deal with that when the time comes.
So, here are a few things I have done in the last few weeks that 2 months ago I never imagined.
- I have worn sunglasses to church AT NIGHT. And still had to come back and go to bed early to let the pain subside.
- I have sat on the front porch, in a bathrobe, and wept as my sons mowed my grass for me.
- I have listened to my grandsons playing in the family room but have been unable to get out of bed to go in and see them.
- I have had long meaningful conversations with my Nurse Practitioner daughter-in-law about my bowel movements so she could help me write my med chart.
- I have had a med chart.
- And finally, maybe the bravest thing I have done, today I sat on a chair on the deck while Doris gave me a haircut. The first time she has done that in, well, ever.
By now you should be thoroughly disgusted or feeling really sorry for me. Either will do. Listen, in the great scheme of things, there are much worse calamities. No doctor, at any time said, “You might die from this.” This is not COVID, my life has never been on the line. I also know, and love, people who have suffered excruciating pain for years, not 8 weeks. I know all of that. I am just trying to put my suffering in perspective for you so that I can share these fast four lessons I have learned.
Lesson number 1: Life is fragile. Do not take one moment for granted. 8 weeks ago, I was preparing to PLAY in the state tennis tournament. Today I can’t keep both eyes open enough to toss the tennis ball to Caleb, my youngest grandson. Each minute is precious. Stay in it. Relish it. Thank God for it. Don’t waste it.
Lesson number 2: Faith is strongly attached to feeling. Don’t let that happen. When you are hurting, or frightened, or in despair, the enemy of your soul will jump on the feeling side and do everything in his power to diminish your faith. And he will…if you let him. There were nights, lying in bed begging for sleep to take the pain away, that I would hear that voice saying, “God has deserted you. This is what hell is like and you are headed there.” It took every bit of my power to go back to what I know and not what I felt.
Lesson number 3: With lesson 2 in mind, there are weak spots in our lives that the devil will leverage in the middle of our suffering. Clear them up now. I confess, there are grudges I have held, jealousies I have harbored, fantasies I have indulged in. Every one of those came up as the accuser said, “See, this is why God isn’t answering your prayer.” One by one, in the dark, despairing nights, I would go through those, ask for forgiveness, offer forgiveness, give each one to God and beg Him to accept my repentance. Do that today before the suffering comes.
Lesson number 4: God is faithful. Count on it. I had two guys that sent me texts EVERY SINGLE MORNING at 7AM saying, “Praying for you.” I had a group of Bible study guys that would check in over and over again. The staff at Branches sent me cards and came and prayed for me. My kids called and texted and came by and took pictures and loved me. My wife, God bless her, my wife was an angel in a sweatsuit, watching over, making meals that usually went uneaten, counting out medicines, applying eye drops, and praying over me as she anointed me with oil. ALL OF THAT IS GOD’S FAITHFULNESS. Someone might say, “Where was God when you were suffering?” I would say, He was in the texts from my pastor, the pats from my grandkids, the songs on my playlist. Faithfulness doesn’t always mean the pain goes away. Faithfulness means He will be there with you.
About 3 weeks ago (I’m a slow learner) I was weeping and praying for God to take the pain away. God said. “You’re praying the wrong prayer. Pray that you would feel My presence in your pain.” I began to pray that and it changed everything. When the headache would throb or my eye would itch, I would say, “Jesus, help me to feel You here with me.” And…I would.
Look, I know this is way too long. And probably way too personal. My prayer is you never suffer pain like this. But more than that, my prayer is that the faithfulness of God would be so real, so evident, that whatever you are going through you would know that He is present with you. Thank you for being in my life.