Puzzle games have always fascinated me; hang-man, word searches, crosswords and scrambles. One of my favorites as a child was Connect the Dots. Start at #1, follow the dots in order and voila! A picture would emerge. As an adult I find myself trying to connect the healthy emotional dots—love, trust, safety, security— in search of the picture that has always alluded me. The problem is that the unhealthy dots of rejection, abandonment, shame and loss have been added to my puzzle and are preventing me from completing the intended picture.
My daughter spent ten days for spinal surgery at Stanford Children’s Hospital in June, 2010. It was one long exercise in holding my breath as we waited through surgery and recovery and then navigating her fragile body through a crowded airport for the plane ride home. It wasn’t until we arrived safe and sound that I broke down from lack of oxygen. The tragedy that we saw in other children and the fear for my own daughter’s well-being was like clinging to the wrong dots and circling for two years before I could see clearly to move to a healthy place.
Tiffany had three different roommates during her stay; the first had a brain tumor that was cancerous, I can’t remember the second, and the third little girl had a giant head. I’m not kidding. She was a real life Sponge-Bob. Her neck and head came all the way out to her shoulders and rose up high like a big block making her 5’9” tall. Her tiny little face was smack in the middle; her features looked smaller than they obviously were around all that swelling. She had beautiful Indian skin and long dark hair. I could barely allow myself to look at the girl. It was just so awful I had to turn away each time she shuffled passed the end of Tiffany’s bed to take a walk.
The encounter with Tiffany’s first roommate, the one with the cancerous brain tumor, was the trigger on my emotional dot-to-dot puzzle to start circling around anger and frustration. The girl was a cute blonde-haired blue-eyed six-year-old with a sweet temperament. At night she asked her mom more than once if she was going to die.
“I don’t know, baby. I don’t know.”
During the day, the girl’s mom was overwhelmed with tasks: organizing surgeries, treatments and flights, applying for a long-term stay at the Ronald McDonald House, and trying to comfort her daughter. Her husband was in Colorado where they lived. They couldn’t afford for both of them to be at Stanford. He had to stay and work to pay for the mounting costs. Phone call after phone call the mom made and kids’ meal after kids’ meal she brought from McDonald’s to her daughter. The little cancer patient was eating chicken nuggets and fries every single day. That’s when my heart revealed itself.
The curtain was pulled between the two girls. My daughter was asleep in her bed. I got up to use the restroom; which meant going to their side of the room since the girl had the corner bed. I glanced at the girl eating her Happy Meal while mom made more calls. As soon as the door closed behind me, the dialogue in my head began to rant.
The girl has cancer! Why are you feeding her junk food day after day? If she’s going to beat this thing, she needs fruits and vegetables! I was so outraged that the mother could be so “careless,” that as I passed back through the curtain I pronounced the final judgment in my head: white trash.
The depravity in my heart was unparalleled. I had nothing to offer her. No compassion. No comfort of any kind. Not even a nice word or a shoulder to lean on or, God forbid I would offer her help of some kind since she was all alone! As soon as I was back in my chair, I turned the contempt on myself: I can’t believe I just thought that! How could I be so cruel? Why am I so angry? What’s preventing me from showing love and grace?
Fear was leading my soul. I watched the six-year-old with brain cancer, the thirteen-year-old with the SpongeBob head, listened to the girl screaming from the other corridor at all hours of the day and night, kept vigilance over my daughter, and I was afraid. I kept saying, “God forbid.” I swallowed all of the emotions and tried to remain stoic, “for Tiffany,” but what came out in every direction was judgment. I wanted everything to be “right” and safe. I wanted the peace from a structure that made sense, one that would be predictable and give healing. In my mind, the girl’s mom wasn’t “doing it right,” she wasn’t taking care of her the right way. She was adding high fat and high cholesterol and no nutrients to a cancer ravaged body. This felt like betrayal to me. Like the mom couldn’t be trusted to take proper care of her daughter. It felt dangerous.
Oh my poor, fearful heart! Thank you Jesus that God is a God of love and forgiveness, of grace and mercy. How I needed to accept His grace that day.
This mom’s behavior was triggering the abandonment and rejection from my own childhood, the neglect during times I needed proper care, and I was responding with the anger I wasn’t permitted to have as a child. Those are the dots from my childhood that were planted in my picture like sores and when a connection is attempted it hurts. The truth was, this mother loved her daughter and was doing everything in her power to get the proper treatment at a hospital she and her husband respected. She was a loving, attentive mother who was doing the best she could under the umbrella of a fatal illness. It wasn’t my place to judge the food she gave her daughter; that was a boundary crossing from a closed off heart.
God calls me to love with the love He gives me; to offer grace with the grace He offers me every second of the day. My job is to receive it (vertically) and pass it on (horizontally). If I don’t allow Him to love me properly with His perfect love, I cannot love others properly. I need to allow Him to connect my healthy dots of love, trust, safety, identity and security and to erase my unhealthy dots of rejection, abandonment, loss and trauma. If I don’t go back and connect my dots the right way, my picture will always remain a mystery.
–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble http://www.NoArmsNoLegsNoProblem.com