Heaven at Hand

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

–Søren Kierkegaard

He was in the intensive care unit when he picked up the phone and dialed. He needed a way out. He was going down the list, trying numbers.

The fact that someone answered was a miracle. This was the US military, where phone calls go unanswered, and if someone does answer, it’s never the person you are trying to reach. The wild goose chase can span weeks, if not months. The voice on the other end belonged to Dr. Holck, the program director of the US Air Force’s Ophthalmology residency in San Antonio, TX.

Hi, Dr. Holck, my name is Dr. Chris Kurz…

As he spoke, he stood at the nurses’ station of a hospital in California, where he was working as an intern in a Family Medicine residency. He hated it. He’d spent the better portion of the year tormented over whether to stay and make it work, or leave and try an unknown alternative. As he spoke, he was surrounded by a bay of patients in critical states, sustained by machines outside of their bodies.

This was December of 2002, the stone ages before smart phones and social media. Parallel to the unfolding of Chris’s story was me–a senior in nursing school on the other side of the country. I was tormented about what to do after graduation and struggling with the sadness of my clinical rotations, where I was surrounded by patients in critical states, sustained by machines outside of their bodies.

That Christmas, I was talking to my grandpa, a retired Captain in the Navy. I told him I wanted to get out of North Carolina and see the world. I have a hard time staying in one place. He told me about military nursing. A few days later, I called an Air Force recruiter.

By summertime, Chris and I had both become active duty Air Force officers, both assigned to San Antonio, TX. He started working as a flight surgeon in an Ophthalmology clinic while waiting to start his new residency. I’d been assigned to work as a nurse on a busy ward of Wilford Hall Medical Center, the Air Force’s largest hospital.

Hindsight highlights God’s great sense of humor. Chris said he would never leave California, and those who know me would say that the military is the last place they expected to find me—having to show up on time and wear a uniform. Anyone who knows Dr. Holck, who answered the phone that day, knows that he’s like a mad-scientist, brilliant and flighty and not one to answer a phone, let alone take a message and pass it on. Clearly, something miraculous was happening in our stories, some sort of intervention by a force far bigger than ourselves.

The year leading up to Chris and I meeting was one of the darkest times in both of our lives. Agonized by his decision to leave Family Medicine and wrestling with demons of self-worth, Chris found himself on the sofa of his one-bedroom apartment in Anaheim, CA, with no will to get up. Both his parents had passed away during college and medical school, and his dog Cody and his best friend Joe were his main support. Eventually, he was persuaded to see a therapist and get on medication.

I, myself, was wrestling with similar demons, caring for wounded troops in the aftermath of 9/11 and not coping well with the emotional weight of death and disease. I felt I’d made a terrible mistake, choosing this career and moving to Texas, where I didn’t know a soul. Yet, here I was, bound by a four-year military commitment. One morning I walked into work, changed into scrubs, and broke down in tears when I received my patient assignments for the day. My male supervising officer was overwhelmed by my emotions. He sent me to Life Skills, the behavioral health department of the Air Force. That afternoon, I sat across from a psychiatry resident and was handed a script for anti-depressants.

Young officers in a military hospital break room

Three months later—thanks to the uncanny help of a corny dating website and some match-making by our pastor and his wife—Chris and I met in the church parking lot. Our stories leading up to that moment had primed us for one another.

We’re still astonished at the threads God was isolating from the garments of our lives, pushing and pulling us along like yarn—oh, how we felt the tugging—and eventually knitting us into a new fabric, one that fits us both. It’s only now that we can see it clearly.

In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes that Jesus brings the assurance that our universe is a perfectly safe place to be. In scripture, ‘heaven’ is never thought of as far away—in the clouds perhaps, or in the moon. It is always right here, ‘at hand’. You and I both know how often life feels anything but safe, yet coupled with our understandable fear is the undeniable miracle that we exist in a God-bathed and God-permeated world, where we are nursed and sustained like patients in the ICU.

Some of God’s finest miracles are woven from critical conditions.

And I thank the Lord for the miracle of Instagram filters as we age together!

Chris and I have been married for twelve years and we still marvel. Today, he is at work, the kids are at school, and the house is quiet. On this ordinary March morning, I look outside my window. It’s 29 degrees outside, sunny with a biting wind. The trees look hideous right now: gray, brittle, and dull. But I think about what’s inside of them—soft petals, hidden color, and deep, deep roots. They’re about to break open.

elizabeth-kurz-bio-photoElizabeth (Libby) Kurz holds a BS in Nursing and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has been published in The Poet’s Billow and Relief Journal. After years of moving cross-country with the US Air Force, she now resides on the coast of Virginia with her family. When she’s not reading, writing, and keeping tabs on her three kids, she works as a registered nurse in the cardiac operating room. She is a self-proclaimed coffee snob, wino, and beach bum, who appreciates finding meaning in the ordinary moments of life. She occasionally writes at www.libbykurz.com.