With No Purpose

Every year I look forward to the passage from winter to spring. This year I hardly noticed it. During this year’s transition month, I was admitted to the hospital three times, each time sicker than the last. Surgery was the last option but the eventual outcome. Then ICU, then complications, and then, finally, I was sent home. My surgeon practically kicked me out of the hospital doors, so afraid I would catch this new virus.

While I traveled home from the hospital, the governor of our state announced a shelter-in-place mandate. As if I could do anything else. I had been sick for a month, and in that short month, the world shifted. This shift barely affected me because I was so focused on survival, on simply walking from the bathroom to my bed successfully.

For weeks, I did not leave my bedroom. My husband and son kindly ate their meals with me while I sat in bed. And they did everything else. Everything. Cooking, laundry, shopping. I did nothing.

The crazy world spun on, and I read posts and texts from my friends and family who were stuck at home and finding new activities—cleaning out closets, trying new recipes, baking bread.

And I lay in bed, doing absolutely nothing. I found myself praying, “What should I do?” I felt purposeless, worthless, needy. A ghost of myself. Blank.

I bore and raised four sons. Homeschooled them all. Led ministries. Read numerous books, never fiction. Worked through my “issues” relentlessly. They never seemed to be enough, these activities, and I knew I should have done a better job, so I labored on.

I am no stranger to earning my air.

For a time after I had each of my babies, I had a strong desire for everyone else to go away. I wanted to envelop my child, to breathe him in, to cherish him. I spent hours marveling at his sleeping, breathing form. I felt such a depth of love for this little lump of need; it made no sense. Mothers are in the perfect position to understand the love of God, but we rarely do.

Suddenly, in my illness, all my air was borrowed, and strangely, in my weakness, I didn’t care. I didn’t worry that this grace would run out and didn’t make plans to pay it back. One day, as I lay in bed, absolutely empty, I understood that this is the me that God loves. I wasn’t especially grateful. I just was. I was a sponge, taking everything, offering nothing.

But God is not my husband, and he is not my son. Surely, I owed them my usual performances. At least I owed them the courtesy of eating at the table. Oddly, when I announced my determination to do just that, they both told me how much they preferred sitting next to me in my bedroom. My husband expressed his delight in figuring out the best nutrition he could offer me, which he pulverized in a blender and brought to me on a tray.

I realized the answer to my prayer of “What should I do?” was “Nothing. Just receive. Be still. Shelter in place.”

I was taught from childhood to serve, to disregard my own feelings, and to be hypervigilant to the feelings of others. This translated for me into a comfortable control, and I was never in anyone’s debt. But curiously, I experienced this new way of living—my own purpose being a total lack of purpose—like a rolled-up map. I needed to be rolled the opposite way for a time before I could be displayed on the wall.

There has always been pleasure for me in serving my loved ones. Now it was my turn to say, “Thank you,” and theirs to say, “You’re welcome.” And I realized that my need, my inability to serve, was my gift to them.

I gave my family the gift of a burden, the acceptance of an unreciprocated favor, the exercise of their muscle of sacrifice. To deprive them of that, as I so wanted to, would have been patronizing at best, even demeaning. And it would have made me selfish and exposed my pride.

Instead, I watched the reactions of my loved ones, curiously felt my own impulse to pay back the gifts offered to me, and let it go. And, surprisingly, without my usual efforts, life went on. And I was loved.

Marcia Thomas lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband of 38 years. She has raised four handsome, self-actualizing sons. She has found healing in exploring her story in the presence of others and treasures the opportunities she has to be that presence for others. She is surprised and pleased to find that the glad work of healing does not have a retirement age.