Friday, December 23, 2011

A Quiet Peace: Christ with Skin On

About the author: Alissa Goudswaard is an introverted 20-something Episcopalian living in Indiana who, when she is not busy with graduate studies in rhetoric and composition (and even when she is), blogs about her experience as a churched Millennial at episcotheque.  

The day Frederick Buechner’s father died was, for Buechner, “the first tick of the clock that measures everything into before and after,” when his “once-below-a-time ended and [his] once-upon-a-time began”—when he began to live with the knowledge that everything, even he himself, at some moment ceases being. 

My own story lacks such an eloquent or piercing divide, or I don’t yet have the perspective to see it, but I first brushed with mortality, mine and others, as a nine-year-old child. Lake effect snow and slick pavement sent a car careening into the Honda carrying my parents and I home from a visit with friends. A fraction of a second separated safety and normality from disaster.

I remember the smell of burning plastic, of metal, of blood. The confusion of waking up in a cold and broken car with little idea of what had just happened. The kind passers-by who let a little girl stay warm in their car while waiting for the police and EMTs to arrive. The long and uncomfortable ambulance ride with my semiconscious mother, unable to move in my backboard and neck brace as we careened around icy corners, sirens blaring. 

At the hospital, my critically injured mother was brought into emergency surgery and my father taken for examination and treatment. For a few minutes I was the center of a flurry of activity—questions and exams, a pair of pliers to bend straight my cockeyed glasses, a glass of water and children’s Tylenol. Apart from my headache and the sharp tang of blood from a cut lip, I was uninjured, but soon left alone. After settling me in a children’s room with overwhelmingly cheery decor, and someone paged an on-call chaplain to come in to work and sit with me.

I don’t remember much about the chaplain, his age or appearance. I don’t remember the register of his voice, though I know it was kind. I can’t recall his affiliation, or whether he wore a collar. I don’t know if we talked about God, or about what I was feeling. 

I do know we talked about my purple junior bridesmaid’s dress for my brother’s spring wedding, because I was astounded to learn that the chaplain was colorblind, unable to distinguish purple shades from blue. I’d never met someone with this sort of affliction, and lover of color that I was (and am), I felt sad for him, sad that he was missing so much. What I didn’t see then was that, colorblind or not, he saw more than most. On a dark and tumultuous December night, this flesh-and-blood chaplain was, for me, Christ with skin on. There, in the hospital, my very own Incarnation. 

The chaos didn’t end that night. My brother came to the hospital and, in the wee hours, drove my father and I home, but my mother was slow to heal. My grandfather’s health took a dive and less than two weeks after the crash, I witnessed his final breaths on another floor of the same hospital that treated my family. Christmas must have been chaos—days after my grandfather’s funeral, my mother’s hospital bed in the living room. I can’t remember if we had a tree, or gifts, or our traditional Christmas-morning waffles. I imagine my child’s world was utterly shaken, yet as I look back, even all the chaos and confusion and pain can’t dim the warm light of the kindness of strangers.

Like Mary, who amidst the chaos surrounding her son’s wild and painful birth and its resounding aftershocks “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,” I keep that quiet moment and return sometimes, rolling it in my hands like a smooth pebble. When all was shadow and chaos around me, I found peace in the most unexpected place. I met Christ seated beside a hospital bed, warding off the dark.