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Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness. (88:9-18)
I have almost died several times in my life. I was born near death. I was a premature baby in a time when the odds for premature babies were much more grim. Despite being more than six weeks early, enduring significant time in an incubator, having surgery at 1 month old for peloric stenosis (a closing a the bottom of the stomach), battling pneumonia 4 times during my first year of life, suffering regular asthma attacks and several more severe pneumonia episodes during my elementary and teenage years—despite all of these near brushes with death, I had not yet died. Nevertheless, I have always been able to relate to this verse: ‘Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors.’
I almost died again on Friday morning.
The simple, standard procedure was not simple for me. I am one of a select population whose bodies reject anything going down their throats. I suffered what is known as a laryngospasm. My throat completely closed when the camera barely touched it. As a consequence of my throat closing, combined with my pre-existing pneumonia, my body thought I was dying. So it filled my lungs with fluid—pulmonary edema. I almost drowned to death in my own bodily fluids.
Some scholars believe this form of death is what actually kills those who are crucified. They receive enough bodily trauma from hanging for hours, their bodies pulling on their chest muscles, that their lungs eventually fill with fluid. Which is why blood and water poured from Jesus’ chest when they poked it with a spear.
I turned blue. They slapped me to wake me from the anesthesia. They rushed Sarah into the room. I coughed so hard and my throat bulged so quickly that the oxygen tubes draped from my nose to the back of my head turned into a hanger’s noose, leaving scratches and bruising on my neck. For hours, I coughed up watery, blood-tinged mucus. They gave me pills to rush all of the fluid out of my body.
They sent me to the ICU for 24 hours of observation. The TEE procedure was a failure. None of the doctors or nurses working on me had ever seen anything like what happened to me. They had heard that it could happen, but they’d never seen it before. They didn’t get far enough to see my heart. They performed a second ultrasound, which unveiled the same, extremely ambiguous potential spot on my heart. It could be something. It could be nothing. And I had almost died to discover it.
I was weak. Sarah was devastated. Fortunately, unlike the psalmist, my friends and neighbors did not shun me. A pastoral colleague visited me. One of the pastoral counselors from the hospital came to talk with me for over an hour.
Despite all of this love, I felt betrayed. At first I thought I felt betrayed by God. I trusted. How could this have happened? Then, I realized that I really felt betrayed by my body. Why did it have to be me? Why was my body one of the rare, rare bodies to suffer from laryngospasm? Why couldn’t they perform this simple test, the only test to help them discern what was going on with my heart?
I slept fitfully. My heart raced. My blood pressure soared and stayed high for the next several days. God, why? Sarah couldn’t stay with me in the ICU. She couldn’t stay anyway. We have a one-year-old and a three-year-old who couldn’t understand why Daddy wasn’t coming home.
Psalm 88 is the only psalm to end without hope. The NRSV translates the last line of Psalm 88 ‘my companions are in darkness.’ In truth, the Hebrew is only two words: yada’ (my companion) machshak (darkness). As Robert Alter puts it in his translation and commentary, “The sense is either that the speaker’s friends, because they have rejected him and withdrawn their presence from him, are nothing but darkness to him, or that now the only ‘friend’ he has left is darkness.”
Even though I knew that the fact that I was alive was miraculous, it felt like those closest to me—both God and my body—had rejected me, and my only friend was the darkness.
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