A Stroke of Grace

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19

“I don’t know how you’ve lived with this in your head for eleven days. It’s completely occluding blood flow on the left side of your brain. You must have a hell of a headache”. Those were the neurosurgeon’s words to me at 6:45am on October 25, 2016.He said I had a CVST, a rare form of stroke. He also explained that if it started bleeding again, I would have to be transferred to the University of Florida (five hours away) for very delicate surgery but that they prefer not to operate on this part of the brain unless they absolutely have to because it houses the venous system that flows to the heart and there are too many risks. It sounds silly but after 11 days of trying to explain to various medical professionals that I was experiencing the worst pain of my life (including natural childbirth), I was relieved to know what the heck was wrong with me, even if it was serious and life threatening.

They started me on IV Heparin and I remained in the hospital for seven days. As I lay in the hospital in critical condition and as I learned how much my life was going to change physically, my family life was imploding back at home. It’s not something many people were aware of nor is it something I will write specifics of here, as it is not all my story to tell, but suffice it to say that October 25, 2016 was the beginning of a very difficult year for our family.

I was discharged from the hospital on Halloween and I came home to a house that was eerily quiet. I was barely able to walk with a walker, due to weakness on my left side and severe vertigo, and needed a wheelchair for any type of distance. I needed assistance to get dressed, to shower, to use the bathroom. My husband and the three children still at home became my caretakers and I hated that.

I was angry. I was angry at some family members for making a difficult situation even more difficult. I was angry at my husband for babying me. I was angry that I couldn’t move without the world spinning and needing to vomit. I was angry that my 19 year old son was helping me up from the toilet. I was angry that I could never be alone. I was angry that I couldn’t write in my journal. I was angry that this was not the first life threatening blood clot I’d ever had. I was angry that I even though I sang on the worship team and served on the leadership team of my church and tithed every week and fostered teenagers and cooked for the homeless, God still kept letting crappy things happen to me {yes, I know this is bad theology. But in the thick of a crisis, your head knowledge isn’t very helpful}.I was angry at well meaning friends that offered advice that was anything but helpful. I was angry that every single thing in my life that made me feel useful and needed and purposeful, I was now incapable of doing. I was angry as a Type A control freak that I had ZERO control over anything happening in my life. Friends, I was seething mad. Mad at myself and really, really mad at God.

Then the election results came in while I was still in a vulnerable state physically and emotionally. I know that was an answer to prayer to some. And, that’s fine. I’m not here to argue politics. But, to fully explain where my head and heart were at, I can’t leave out how the election impacted me, as a woman, as a mom of black children and as a Jesus follower. Evangelicalism began to feel like a coat that no longer fit. I couldn’t be a case manager anymore, at that point I couldn’t go to church because the noise and activity exacerbated my headache and vertigo, I didn’t feel like I was able to fulfill my motherly and wifely duties and now my church girl hat didn’t feel right either. I was facing an identity crisis of epic proportions.

The blood clot was still in my brain when I was discharged from the hospital last October. I was told to keep my blood pressure under control and come back to the hospital immediately if my headache worsened and most importantly, to avoid stress. How exactly does one avoid stress in the most stressful year of their life?  I became a ball of fear and anxiety, as if that would somehow help my blood pressure. I was afraid to close my eyes at night, wondering if I would wake up. I wanted to know how it happened. How did I develop an extremely rare blood clot when I had been on blood thinners for eight years? I was sent to specialist after specialist who could not provide the answer to the one question that would help me sleep at night. WHY?

And I’m going to say this-I truly appreciate every thought and prayer and card and visit and I have never felt so loved in all my life as I did in those first months after my hospitalization. My husband didn’t have to cook a meal for a solid eight plus weeks! My friends and family were too good to me and my family and I am eternally grateful. But, {you knew there was going to be a but, right?} telling someone whose mind is racing with anxiety about dying in their sleep and who is consumed with anger at the injustice of their situation and who is drowning in the cesspool of self pity to pray harder or to ask God for peace or to inquire of God what sin is blocking their prayers from being answered is NOT what they need in that moment. They need empathy. They need someone to sit beside them and hold their hand and tell them “you have every right to be upset. This isn’t fair”. There is a time and place for holding a friend accountable but 2.7 seconds after the crisis is not that time. Those friends that sat on my bed {and brought coffee} and let me vent and cry and made me laugh in those first two months were my literal life preservers.

I withdrew from most people. Didn’t return calls or texts, let emails sit unopened. I didn’t have anything to offer anyone. I was completely empty.

I turned into a person in those first four months that I didn’t even want to be around. Frustrated, angry, bored out of my mind, tired, defeated, and did I mention I was angry? My sweet son, Matt, bore the brunt of my crazy as he was my primary caregiver and chauffeur while his sisters were at school and my husband was at work. Bless his heart, he listened to me drone endlessly on and on about existential matters as I tried every which way to make sense of all that was happening in my life and in our family.

{If I’m completely honest, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit all of that. But, I’ve always kept it real in this space and as I begin to crawl out of the angry, anxious cave I’ve dwelt in over the last year, God has laid it on my heart to share what that journey has looked like. To share what it has been like for a rooted and established Christ follower to have a legitimate, soul searching, bone crushing, heart breaking crisis of faith. I will warn you it’s not pretty and I won’t sugarcoat it. But, if one person can be encouraged that it’s okay to question and be angry and tell God what you really think of His stinky plan and to bawl your eyes out when you finally open your Bible, then it will be worth the vulnerability I’m feeling at the thought of hitting publish.}

Six months of physical therapy and twice daily blood thinner injections gave way to oral blood thinners and walking with a cane. FMLA and short term disability became resignation and long term disability. A leave of absence from grad school became one class at a time and now two and preparing for internship. A need for health insurance required selling the Florida home that I loved and waited for and moving back to West Virginia. While I did NOT want to come back, I’m happy here. And, the medical care available in the greater DC area is superb. Medicines have been tweaked and I’m functioning better. And the best news is that the clot, that was there at my 3 month scans in January and my six month scans in April is G-O-N-E gone on my 9 month scans in August!

The timing of the clot dissolving is not coincidental. God’s timing is perfect, hilariously perfect. Just as I rounded the corner of leaving anxiety, anger and bitterness behind me, He gave me the gift of freedom from the clot and not a moment before. A stroke of grace.

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I learned a fascinating thing about trees and how their roots help them weather storms. According to Purdue University, moderate rain storms allow for water to be absorbed into the soil and this supports the development of tap roots, the deepest roots of a tree. With healthy tap roots, a tree is able to remain firmly planted in the ground, even during a severe storm. Moderate wind storms help to thicken the bark of a tree and make it stronger as well. Storms may come and go. Severe storms may even cause damage to the branches of the tree; whole limbs might fall off but the tree will still stand. The weak, surface roots might be impacted and even uprooted but the tap roots will remain intact and keep the tree sturdy.

This is how I made it through the last year without completely losing my faith. God and I go way back and the storms we’ve been through in the past have put down some tenacious tap roots. Tap roots that wouldn’t let me forget that He loved me ferociously and that He allowed the events of the past year for a reason.  There were lessons for me, lessons for my kids, lessons for my husband and more lessons for me. I will unpack some of those lessons in this space over the next few months.

 

Until then, if you’ve read all this I pray that you take a moment to consider the condition of your tap roots. Does your tree need watered? Does it need pruned? Are you allowing the minor and moderate storms of life to strengthen your tap roots so that they are strong enough to withstand a hurricane force wind? There is no substitute for being rooted and established in the love of Jesus.

If you are facing a storm of your own, I would be honored to pray for you. Over the last year, God has placed people in my path to remind me that it was not His will for me to feel anxious and angry and defeated. I would love to be one of those people for you. Please email me at kmelissasmallwood@gmail.com if you need prayer or encouragement.

 

Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither–whatever they do prospers. Psalm 1: 2-3

 

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