We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it."
By the time the cardiologist was available to meet with us, it was after hours the evening before our daughter’s open-heart surgery. My husband and I sat in a basement hallway at the children’s hospital, waiting for him to arrive in the otherwise abandoned wing of offices. It was our last appointment after a day of tests, hospital tours, and other preparations for the five-hour surgery that would happen first thing the next morning. I had a raging headache.
I still marveled at how easily we chose the day our daughter would live or die on an operating table. Two months earlier, I’d gotten the scheduling call: “Mrs. Stanford, the surgeon has availability on April 15th or April 18th. What would be best for you?”
I wanted to ask the receptionist whether the surgeon would get a better night’s sleep on the 14th or the 17th. Is he better before a weekend or after a weekend? On which day might he be more preoccupied about an argument he had that morning with his wife? Because this was my daughter’s heart we were talking about.
We had chosen the doctor because he had a two-percent higher rate of patient survival for this kind of surgery than the other doctors in the highly respected hospital. Bedside manner? I didn’t care with this one. I just wanted him to know what he was doing.
Finally, the rumpled and tired surgeon came to introduce himself that Thursday evening. My husband and I, carting six-month-old Eden in her car seat, followed him into his conference room.
The three of us sat at a table and looked at the images of Eden’s heart that had been taken a few hours earlier. With his elegant French accent, the surgeon explained that, despite many earlier explorations, the hole in Eden’s heart was bigger than anticipated. Her chance of surviving the surgery fell from 93 percent to 91 percent.
So, a nine-percent chance of not surviving, my mind interpreted. But the greater thought in that moment surprised me: The hole is still there.
For months, we’d heard stories of hearts healing, bodies living, God showing up.
The grandson who seemed to have a birth defect in utero and then was born . . . perfect! “We just had people all over the country praying,” the proud grandma told me as I held newborn Eden in my arms.
The friend of a friend whose child also had a hole in her heart and it closed on its own.
The neighbor of the checker at the grocery store whose daughter surpassed all doctors’ expectations in her fight against cancer.
Children on the teeter-totter of life and death landing softly on the side of answered prayer.
I recognized that these voices meant well and spoke of true miracles — and miracles shaped to children’s lives seem the richest of all. But I was already on the wrong end of the statistics, giving birth at the age of twenty-eight to a baby with Down syndrome. After months of praying for a healthy baby, I was already on the wrong end of prayers, too.
And yet people prayed, as they do, and I was grateful. They prayed for Eden not to need the heart catheter, then for the catheter procedure to go well, then for her not to need the surgery, then for the surgery to go well. Along with our church, our friends, and Eden’s four prayer-immersed grandparents, we were children trying to throw the ball over the fence again and again even though it never quite makes it.
It wasn’t until I saw the picture of Eden’s heart on the cardiologist’s conference table that I realized I’d believed her heart would heal before surgery. I had acted as if the surgery would happen — I had brought two weeks’ worth of clothes to the hospital, after all — even as I’d cradled the expectation that it wouldn’t be needed. Somewhere in the first six months of her life, I had eased into belief that all the prayers pooled at our feet would mean that the hole formed in darkness would close in darkness as well.
Staring at the final scan, I tried to listen to the doctor’s words even as I wrestled with a sense of betrayal. God knew that scan before we did, just as the doctor had reviewed it before our appointment. God knew we would have no second chances at that particular miracle. Yet God allowed us to pray.
The next day, Eric and I took our eleven-pound baby to a corner of the pre-op room to pray over her again, kiss her head again, before handing her to a kind nurse. Because to let her live we had to let her go.
Every day for ten days after that, I followed the yellow line in the floor that led to the cardiac intensive care unit. Each time, I craned my neck around the corner of the reception area so I could see what was happening at Eden’s bed a second before my body committed to going in. If just two nurses stood by her bed, all was as expected. If several doctors gathered at the foot of her bed, I hurried in to hear their discussion. If one or two doctors hovered over her, acting rapidly, my body rushed in even as my emotions resisted. Because too often in those ten days, something was wrong. Too often we found ourselves curled around desperate prayers again.
During one doctor’s midnight vigil sitting at the foot of Eden’s bed, he realized why she kept flat-lining — our latest, and most frightening, development. He gave her the medicine no one else had figured out she needed and watched her heartbeat hold, finally steady.
Eric arrived back at the Ronald McDonald House that early morning with tired gratitude toward this young doctor whose name and face I don’t remember. But we didn’t use the language of answered prayer. It seemed too easy, too pat.
During her remaining time in the hospital, Eden acquired multiple infections, reacted to medication, changed beds and nurses and residents-on-call. Friends read her The Cat in the Hat as she slept, brought Chipotle for me to eat in the hospital cafeteria, and Scotch-taped hymn lyrics to her metal crib.
After five helpless days, I was allowed to hold her once more, to look deep into her terrified, bloodshot eyes. I willed her to know that I would not let her go again even as I wondered if I would have to.
For nearly two weeks I let our clothes spill out of suitcases in our room, not wanting to admit we were there long enough to put things away in drawers. Then came the late afternoon when we bundled Eden into her car seat with her oxygen tank and drove the hour and a half home to a garden overflowing with yellow tulips.
Loving friends welcomed us home and said, “What an answer to prayer!”
I guess it depends on which prayers you’re counting, I thought.
I do believe God answered our prayers for Eden to live through her surgery, for the doctors to have wisdom, for her heart to heal. And I am aware, as I write this, of parents who have to leave hospitals alone, of griefs far deeper than mine.
Maybe it was because that year had already soaked in so much pain, the dye reaching for months and years beyond, that I had trouble admitting that prayers had been answered. In every way, we were just at the beginning of this new life.
In any circumstance, “Praise God!” falls flat without a deeper understanding of what we praise God for. Because answered prayer is more than looking out for a “God thing” — a walk through any children’s intensive care unit reminds us of this. It is more than manipulating our take on circumstances to make God look good.
It is so much better than that.
* * *
Here is a different kind of story.
You are Jacob and you are tired. Since before you were born, you have fought to be loved the most, to inherit the best, to win. You have hustled your way into blessing, grasped again and again.
Now you find yourself alone, away from home. It is getting dark. You put a rock under your head for a pillow and you fall asleep. You dream.
In your dream you see a ladder, settled on earth yet reaching to heaven. Angels ascend and descend. God is with you. He has been, all along. He speaks promises, He speaks blessing, He speaks hope. He gives to you more than you understand.
When you wake up, you know fear. “Surely God is in this place — and I did not know it!” you say. But this time, in your fear, you don’t run. You take that pillow-rock and set it firm on the ground and pour oil on it. You name the place, because this is the place where you realized God is with you. And you continue on your journey.
* * *
We build our altars, one after another, to mark where we have been. To mark that God was there too, even as we slept. We build our altars to remember that God remembers.
A year or two after Eden’s heart surgery, I learned that the hospital where Eden had her surgery would move into new facilities across town. So one summer afternoon after visiting the Denver Botanical Gardens, I asked if we could stop by the old hospital one more time. Leaving Eden and Eric in the car, I jogged up the cement steps to the cardiac ward and took a picture of that yellow line in the tiles leading to the ICU. We had taken pictures of Eden after surgery, tubes snaking in and out of her. But it was only in retrospect that I realized the significance of that yellow path. I wanted to remember.
The other day I was cleaning out the guest room closet and came across a bag of baby bottles with a hospital label on each stating, “Stanford, Eden, Admit: 4/15/05, CICU.” I winced. Not only did the bottles remind me of the heart surgery, they reminded me of how Eden was too weak to nurse for the first year of her life, how we battled to keep every ounce of milk inside her, how food even now is a tremendous challenge for her. I threw out the bag, then reached in the trash can and pulled out one bottle. I wanted to remember that too. I brought it upstairs to my computer and journal, where it sits in front of me now.
Every altar worth anything starts in pain. Every drop of oil poured, a sacrifice. But now I realize that the yellow line, the pictures, the milk bottles speak of more than loss. They speak of God’s presence. Even then. Even when I had nothing in me to “conjure” Him, when I simply lay back in a dream, God was there. And I was safe. Safe not because circumstances were “working out” but because God was with me.
What difference did God’s presence make if Eden still had to go through heart surgery, still battled infections, still looked at us with a fear and confusion too old for her tiny body? It means God knew us then. God experienced those nights with us. God remembers and grieves.
What a gift that we don’t will God to be with us by the hospital bed. He is already there. Even our desire to notice Him is a reflection of His presence.
But there’s more: Does an acknowledgment of God’s presence bolster me now when Eden battles pneumonia, when she still resists chewing solid food, when she falls further and further behind her third-grade classmates? Is God still in this place — and does it matter?
So I remember this, as it happens: This week, our younger daughter, Elizabeth, has been sick with a fever for seven days. At the end of each six-hour window of medication, her temperature soars to 105, even 106. We cover her with cold washcloths, put ice chips in her mouth that melt instantly, and wait for the latest dose of Ibuprofen to kick in. All tests to find a cause have come back negative. She simply has a virus that her five-year-old body, unused to kindergarten germs, is fighting hard to beat.
I’ve been sleeping in her bed with her, nervous at listening to her uneven breathing and feeling her body radiate heat, but more nervous to be in the other room. Throughout the night, she says, “Mama?” and asks for water, more blankets, fewer blankets, or the ice pack that fell on the floor. She is constantly aware of my presence. “Mama?” I love to hear her voice asking for me, assuming I am there. Most of all, I love her arm reaching to me in her sleep, not needing anything. Reaching because, even as she dreams, she dreams of me. Surely God is in this place.
It is this image, in the mystery of faith, that reminds me of why God’s presence matters. It matters more than answers. More than if the fever breaks or the fever burns. It matters because what we need most is God’s love, present, noticing, remembering. A love that brings peace beyond what we can understand.
So may we pray for awareness of God not out of guilt but in response to a holy invitation. As our faith grows up into the faith of children, we will live out our awareness more and more, the rootedness of God with us. Emmanuel. We will reach for Him even as we sleep. Surely God is in this place.
God’s constant, living, breathing answer to prayer is His presence. His presence when we are alone in a desert with a stupid rock for a pillow and circumstances are not conducive to a God-sighting at all. Still God is there, anchoring ladders to earth and heaven, calling angels to our side, and one day, when we wake, making space for us to build new altars from our pain.
Elisa Fryling Stanford is a writer and editor living in Colorado. She is the author of Ordinary Losses: Naming the Graces That Shape Us. Elisa and her husband, Eric, have two daughters.