Eight squares of pain, measuring two feet by two feet, each a different shade of ceramic tile. The other shoppers at Home Depot would have never guessed it. She looked so normal, so rational, so calm. It didn’t show on the outside. Hers was an internal pain, an internal scream far beyond her ability to express or release.
She inspected each tile looking for the most beautiful, the most decorative ones, for they would represent the beauty of her life and it was important to her that the tiles be valuable, as her life had been. She lifted one. It was heavier than expected so she considered smaller ones but decided against them, knowing the larger ones were more suited to what she had in mind. She carefully lifted the first one into her cart, then the next, and so on, then slowly pushed the heavy-ladened cart to the check out.
She never told anyone and never shared, until later, what she had done with the tiles. Each was to represent a different aspect of her life that had been crushed by the Beast of Illness. She gave each tile a name, many graphic in nature. In that season, cussing came as natural to her as breathing. It seemed to be the only way she could find to represent how intense her feelings, how toxic her anger, how deep her bewilderment and grief.
And so, once home, with magic markers and colored chalk in hand, she articulated with graphic words the tangled web of emotions she felt and placed them on large ceramic squares outside of herself where they could be seen, touched, and hopefully lessened.
The first tile got the name “Life in the **** Stall.” She hated the stall. Before the Beast, she was able to run free like a wild mare, face first into the wind across mountaintops and meadows, restrained only by the limits of her courage. She loved to go and do. Hers had always been an adventurous life. Through the years, with each successive swipe of the Beast, she had lost more freedom. Now it was as if she was tethered, alone, in a dark narrow stall in the back of the barn. Gone were the mountaintops, pasturelands, and even the more spacious parts of the barn.
In the last 6 months the Beast had come with such fury that she was now essentially confined to her house, and often her bed. She was out on medical leave from her job for the second time in 12 months, with her resignation due to illness soon to follow. Gone were the days of perfect attendance awards and accolades for her excellent work. Now she considered it a good day if she took a shower.
The “Life Goes On Without Me” tile had phrases depicting the pain of being sidelined by illness: replaceable on the job, social events go on, church goes on, not a part of life, can’t keep up, left behind, better to not even know, stuck in bed, can’t even emotionally engage with people without it setting me back, missing out on life, absent, invisible.
The “Acute Turns Chronic” tile reflected her feelings after recently being told her illness had no cure and was likely life-long: the beat down continues, sickness I hate your * guts, loss of solution, meaninglessness, purposelessness, no dreams, no hopes, dark tunnel ahead, no help to be found, burden on others, no * escape, waiting around to die, losses are here to stay, more losses on the way.
The tile named “Spiritual Bull****” had the most descriptions. This tile represented a huge loss for her, her faith as she knew it and the crumbling of her theology at the time. On that tile, she spilled the disillusionment, the disappointments, the times she had wrongly been blamed for being ill, the words others had carelessly spoken who didn’t understand, and all the fruitless teachings she had followed for healing that had left her disappointed and heartsick. Thankfully, Jesus Himself remained constant and unchanged. It was many of the theological boxes others had taught about Him that crumbled under the pressure of the trial, not Jesus Himself. Nonetheless, this area evoked the biggest response from her and the Spiritual Bull**** tile had filled up quickly with deeply felt, bitter words.
“Brain Fog, Memory Loss, and Diminished Thinking” each got their own tiles. These were troubling symptoms to her and though she had already lost many things physically, these were particularly vexing, as she hadn’t realized the Beast might go for her brain. It was an angle she hadn’t considered.
“Sense of Well-Being” also got its own tile, through which she drew thick black zigzag lines symbolizing the impact illness had on losing the blessed sense that one’s body is relatively well or will be well again.
As her anger, shock, and frustration made their way onto the tiles, the extent of her pain lay there, now visibly strewn across the living room floor. The breadth of devastation could not be denied. One glance at this room of pain testified that illness had deeply marred her life. It was as if she was looking at the charred remains of what had previously been a beautiful cathedral.
Once the tiles bore the words they were meant to, she lifted the heavy squares, nearly 20 pounds each, and loaded them in the back of her car, out of sight, but not out of mind. Not just yet, that is.
Her chance came on a rainy Sunday morning a few weeks later. She had been waiting for such a day, one where fewer people would be outside, and one where the rain might keep people home. Windshield wipers swooshing back and forth, she made her way toward the nearby state park, a place of solace on the edge of the large city where she lived.
Before the Beast, she used to go to such places to compete in races. Her first adventure race had been held there, a trail run, kayak, and mountain bike course. Her mind was not on such things anymore. She had given away her cherished racing bike several years before. It had brought such freedom to her in the earlier seasons of her life, but had become a constant reminder of her inabilities and the grief of who she used to be. She had parted with it out of a desire for someone else to enjoy such a finely crafted bike and as a way to move forward with what was left of her life.
She drove toward the lake looking for a private spot to park the car where no one would notice her. She pulled in as close to the water as she could. There was a large rock jutting up above the water and on shore, a small bunch of trees, making this the ideal location.
She hardly noticed the steady rain beginning to soak her clothes as she opened the trunk of the car and lifted out the first tile. They weren’t in any particular order but almost as the actual storyline had played in real life, it was the “Sense of Well Being” tile that would go first.
Unceremoniously and with surprisingly little emotion, she carried it down to the edge of the water, lifted it high over the jutted rock and dropped it. As tile met rock, it shattered into small pieces and fell in a jumbled pile beneath the shallow water, with the words “Sense of Well Being” far from recognizable. The shattering had been loud, piercing, and disturbing. That’s just how it felt, she thought.
She retrieved a second tile, dropping it as the first, and watched with satisfaction as more and more of the tile shattered and fell haphazardly to the bottom of the lake, forming a pile of devastation. It was strangely validating to see a physical representation of what she’d experienced. No two tiles broke the same way nor sounded the same. Each shattering was unique and the cumulative effect of one shattering after another brought recognition to her heart. She continued her trek back and forth from car to lake until all eight squares of pain laid jagged, raw, and fragmented under the water.
She had thought tears would come but they didn’t. She noticed how the pieces of tile had intermixed as they fell atop one another. She considered saving a few pieces to make a mosaic someday, in hopes that something beautiful might arise from the rubble this pile represented. She dismissed the idea as quickly as it had come. This wasn’t about that. That would be for another day, if that day ever came. The heart knows what it needs. Today, her heart needed drenching rain, loud piercing sounds, destruction, and a shattered pile of fragments left behind at the bottom of a lake.
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