We’d waited for three months to see the neurologist. Her specialty, we’d been assured, was “to consult with patients in whom causes for their strokes have never been identified (‘cryptogenic’ strokes) and partnering with them in hopes of finding answers.” After navigating the gauntlet of scans, monitors, blood work, and multiple ER visits for over nearly a year, my husband resolved to take his place among the 30% of stroke victims who don’t know why they had a stroke. All the standard tests had come back negative. He didn’t fall into any of the risk categories. David’s stroke didn’t make sense to anyone — especially not to us.
I’m at peace knowing that some mysteries in life can’t be understood this side of eternity. But the lack of diagnoses had significant practical implications. Disagreement between doctors on the best plan for prevention going forward was at the top of the list. We were physically worn out. We were emotionally weary. We needed answers or, at the least, direction. “Cautiously hopeful” best describes the mood in the car as we followed the bread crumbs dropped by the hand of the Divine. After a two-hour drive and the requisite stop at Starbucks, we had arrived.
The massive stone building looked more like a medieval castle than a research hospital. Its bright wide hallways were filled with knights and ladies engaged in a modern kind of battle. One waged with weapons called “chemotherapy” and “integrative therapy” and “clinical trials.” The epic heroes of countless stories rolled passed us in their chariots made of steel, tethered to standards brandishing fluid-filled bags. Their faces, gaunt with the gravest of diseases, smiled and greeted passersby with a unique warmth and generosity born only of hardship. They were at home in a bustling village that boasted healing as its primary trade; we were foreigners in the community. We’d made the pilgrimage with the “hope of finding answers.”
The long-awaited doctor entered the room as many had in the previous months. So much was familiar: white lab coat, computer on desk, crackling white paper wrapping a faux leather gray examination table. She introduced herself, we shared a few words about the kind speech therapist who’d connected us, then she turned toward the piles of files and disks we’d brought for her review. “I have all your records,” she began, “but first, I want to hear your story.”
We spent the next hour and a half recounting the horror and the miracles that composed the narrative entitled, “David’s Stroke and Recovery.” The doctor responded to our story with a refreshingly gentle confidence, “I think I know what’s going on with you and I think we can help.” With a few simple phrases, she’d moved the mark on our family’s storyline from upheaval and uncertainty toward the possibility of resolution. We were stopped. “Cautiously hopeful,” it turns out, had fallen tremendously short. She seemed to answer the questions for which we weren’t sure there were attainable answers. Sometimes the wizard behind the curtain really can help. We spent the remainder of the visit discussing practical implications, changes in medication, and the suggested protocol going forward.
“I have one more thing to ask you,” I said, acutely aware that we’d run well over our allotted appointment time. “I’m not even sure what I’m after, but if you were in our position, what else would you be doing?” I was thinking of suggested nutritional supplements, innovative treatments, or additional specialists who may be able to help with rehabilitation.
“Do you want to be healed?” the gentle Healer had asked.
The questions we deem too large to be answered are often, in reality, too small. We want to know the formula for healing and safety and the road that leads (back) to normalcy. We want control over our lives, our story, and the stories of those we love. But the richest of stories are rarely predictable. The stories that lead to better characters and deeper insight, the ones spun by the most masterful storytellers, catch the reader off-guard. Disruption commands attention, then in turn engages imagination. When the soil of the imagination has been tilled and fertilized and open to possibility, we are finally prepared to receive a kernel of truth.
The doctor paused from gathering charts and test results. She smiled, ever so slightly, as she considered my question. Then she answered the question we didn’t know to ask. “Medically, you’re doing all you can do. When I have patients with aphasia, I have what seems to be a strange recommendation: if you have the means and the time, consider taking a vacation out of the country to a place where you don’t speak the language. You’ll enjoy the landscape and the food and the people. For a little while, you’ll forget that you struggle with speech. I don’t intend to minimize your struggle, but sometimes the best medicine is to look beyond your struggle and be reminded of the beauty and richness that the world (still) has to offer.”
We were stopped.
To our surprise, we discovered that our doctor, the one who had trained and healed and risen to the top of her field, was an artist. She didn’t minimize. She didn’t patronize. She saw and understood every detail of the body’s brokenness and the upheaval and pain it represented. Yet she had eyes that could see beyond the chaos. That’s what an artist does, after all. She takes the what is tangible — paint, clay, notes on a page, words, charts and medical records — and uses the imagination to make them into something beautiful. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the artist takes the raw materials of life to reveal what is eternally beautiful.
The best artists don’t do all the work. They drop the bread crumbs that lead down the path of discovery. Every day, we’re given glimpses of eternity if we’ll only be willing to look beyond our circumstances and to see with eyes of faith. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
“Do you want to be healed?”
Surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.
We’ve had unthinkably difficult days in the past months, but my husband and I fervently believe it’s been the richest period of our marriage. He still struggles with speech, yet he’s said a number of times that he’d rather not be healed than forget what we’ve learned.
Upon return from our hospital visit, I glanced at my dining room wall. For the six years we’ve lived in our home, I’ve wanted a painting in that room, the room where we’ve celebrated birthdays, enjoyed the company of dear friends, and endured Christmas dinner while David rested through the fragile first stages of recovery in the Neuro-ICU. Given the significance of that room and the significance of our year, I knew it was time. I wanted a panting to serve as a memorial stone for the unexpected miracle we’ve experienced. The miracle of hope.
I’m deeply grateful to say that displayed on my wall today is a piece of art that will forever mark the significance of this year for our family. The artist knows our story. She took the pieces of brokenness and the slivers of light and bathed the process in prayer to the One who restores all. The first strokes applied create a faint road in the distance. A road that brought help. A road that leads to the future. A first glance at the landscape reveals forms that are familiar. Perhaps a house. A tree. A bridge. But the longer I linger in front of the painting, the more I can see. Deeper beauty is revealed. “Look for surprises that I’ve hidden,” she said.
Good words for life. Good words for healing.
Get out of the way. Be patient and willing to linger. Develop eyes that see beyond what is obvious. Look for the surprises that have been hidden and anticipate their discovery.
Go and be healed.
"Bright Road" painted by Nita Andrews