I can remember a conversation I had, that unbeknown to me at the time, would one day shape my entire attitude towards life and make some of the most painful and challenging and testing experiences that were yet to happen, bearable. And not just bearable, but valuable.
It was only 8 words in response to a question I posed to my mother, but I knew even at the time by the way the words struck me dumb that I had heard something that was significant and somehow, would shape me.
My infant son was in the back seat of the car and my mother was driving us somewhere out of my hometown, Whangarei.
Don’t worry, you wont be able to sound that word out properly. I lived there half my life and still don’t know if I pronounce it correctly.
Its fang-ga-rey if you were wondering, but the way the maori say it, with the nggg in your throat.
I was thinking of a woman we knew who had recently lost her young son in a tragic accident.
I couldn’t comprehend it.
Though my son was several months old, that initial flood of love I felt for him the first time I saw his face was still threatening to drown me and I knew upon our meeting that from that moment on nothing would be more destroying than if I were to lose him.
Before you were conceived I wanted you. Before you were born I loved you. Before you were here an hour I would die for you.
I thought of this woman who had to live through this very nightmare. No preparation for it, no warning. Just one morning he was there, by that afternoon he was gone.
‘What I don’t understand’ I said to my mother ‘Is how she is still here. I don’t understand how she still breathes, still lives because if I lost my son I believe I would just die. I can’t imagine life after pain like that. Don’t you think Mum? Isnt that just the worst pain fathomable?’
And then she said them. The 8 words that have made me.
‘Yes, Vanessa. But that is what makes life rich’
I wonder now how many people have read that and do not understand why she said that, or how it could move me. That is why I am writing this tonight, to share with you the single most important conversation I ever had and why it taught me that the heart of life is good.
While I was still pregnant I made the decision to not only have my son at home, but without pain relieving drugs.
My reasoning was that I wanted to tackle birth head on and truly experience it. I wanted to know the work, the pain, the endurance and the exhaustion. I felt that if I understood the testimonies of other women who had delivered babies drug free, that it was to be the most challenging, raw, intense and defining experience I could possibly face.
My labor was 21 hours long. There are no words to even try to express the way that those 21 hours took me to the very edge of myself. The pain is indeed unfathomable but the endurance, the exhaustion, the never ending wave after wave after wave, each one taking me to a place where at times I truly believed I may just die.
I went deep, deep, deep within myself. It is the only time in my life where something has been so unbearably physically painful that I have succeeded in going somewhere else in my mind in order to cope. There truly are no words, nor will there ever be to explain that experience. The only way to truly understand is to go through it yourself, which is exactly why I chose to do what I did by making pain relief unavailable to myself.
I wanted to know.
The point I want to make about this experience however, is not how I coped, but rather, what happened when suddenly, about 15 hours in, I wasn’t coping and I panicked. Up until then, while engulfed in a hurricane of pain and force and thunder I was not resisting the process.
I did as my mother instructed and chose to be in agreement with the pain, the work, the chin-to-chest-detirmination… But at one point I can clearly remember resisting. I was tired, I had been in agony for 15 long hours and the contractions were coming around one minute apart meaning that I had less and less time to refocus before the next wave crashed down upon me. I began to fear the experience and coupled with my exhaustion, physically and mentally tried to resist the next contraction and then the next and then the next.
While being in agreement with the process, understanding that nothing was going wrong, the pain was just labor being as labor is, it had still been desperate pain but mentally I was almost offering my body up to the moment and saying, ‘here, take it’ But as I resisted and tried to claw my body back from the pain, things went wrong. My breath, my mind, my sight…. I lost it all.
The 21 hours of labor with my eldest son, combined with the 9 of my youngest means that I have spent 30 hours of my life enduring something so unfathomably painful and exhausting and mentally challenging that I believed at times I might not get through it.
And yet, those hours are I believe, some of my finest. I recall a quote I read once that said something along the lines of: I never understood why people say rain is bad weather.
I love this quote. Rain isn’t bad weather. It’s just weather. In the same token, would it be fair to say that pain, disappointment and loss isn’t to mean a bad life, its just… life? And perhaps though uncomfortable at the time, it holds as much purpose to our character as rain has to our land.
It makes us grow.
The meaning of life is to experience. But to experience what? Just joy? Just abundance? Just blessing? Or is it to experience all things? Joy yes, but sorrow? Disappointment? Ruin? Repair? Loss? Love?
But what then is the point of pain? Of suffering?
I believe that the point is, that there are lessons and virtues that simply can be found nowhere else. I have never heard someone say ‘yes, I learned courage in the candy store….’
This year, around December I was supposed to be graduating with a Bachelors degree of Nursing. Do you know that nursing is one of the great loves of my life? I breathe it. I hear of someone who needs and I suddenly need them too, drawn to illness, suffering and pain not as a spectator but as someone who just desperately wants to be close to those who are vulnerable. Over the last 2 years at university I have submitted countless papers, sat countless exams and cursed this very degree countless times.
I have sat on my sofa with a soaked blouse from tears and more tears and more tears because I have been awake for 24 hours trying to perfect an essay on O2 therapies in Myocardial infarctions, I have cried the whole way home after intense examinations because self doubt punched me in the gut, I have entered mock clinics and trembled from head to toe as I treated mock patients under the intense stare of a marker and left believing I had failed to only receive a near perfect mark.
But enter into a real ward, where people actually are hurting and losing and fighting and praying and aching and I feel Vanessa. I feel me.
I will walk onto a ward for the first time and feel new and unconfident and scared and then I will be called for that first handover and as I step into the room to see 1, 2, 3, maybe 6 faces of patients it all dissolves and the only thing I feel is love.
I have had the privilege of seeing a woman cradle the face of the husband she loves 7 months after a tragic accident turned him into a vegetable, thrown back to the age of an infant. I have spent time with a courageous WW1 spy who now, riddled with advanced dementia cannot remember what an orange is, yet 7 days later sees my face and whispers: Vanessa!
I have watched the face of a woman as she is wheeled back from surgery knowing the cancer was inoperable.
Nursing is my heart. It means everything to me.
Several weeks ago I heard a ding on my computer notifying me that I had an email. The email told me that my application to transfer my degree from one University to the new university had been declined. I would not be graduating this year. I would not be a nurse this year.
I feel sick writing that. Even now as I sit here writing that I feel sick, I don’t know what to write next because there is no way to copy and paste the tears. I am in deep grief.
I said ‘no’ to the computer screen over and over again. I shook my head. I said no, no, no again and then I just sat. Ok, I thought, this is just the way it is. There is nothing I can do to change it now, so accept it. Chin up, square your shoulders, it’s going to be ok.
A few more minutes.
No change. It still hurt. It hurt so much that I couldn’t even breathe properly. It felt like a death or something that would take all the most terrible things and blend them together in a cup.
I realised that this was not ‘just the way it was’ or that ‘nothing I will do will change it so just accept it’. I couldn’t square my shoulders and face this. This was not one motivational speech away from being ok, this was horrible. I realised that this was deeply painful, and rightfully so. This was the death of a dream and this dream had driven me to more late nights, no sleep, tears of joy, sacrifice, trying to turn in assignments when there are two kids at home that miss mummy….
This was a loss. And with that I remembered the words of my mother
‘Yes Vanessa, this is what makes life rich’
With that thought I sat back on my bed and closed my eyes and just let it hurt. I didn’t resist the pain like I had in the agony of labor with my children, I didn’t try and reason it away, I didn’t seek an anaesthetic, I just let it be as hurtful as hurt is and let it pain me.
I cried and cried and cried and cried.
I called my mother, I cried to her. I called my friend, I cried to him. I threw words at God, I said ‘no’ one hundred times and you know what? It didn’t feel better because of any of it, it just kept right on hurting.
And that’s ok.
It hurts? Let it hurt. What you are going through can be understood perfectly by nobody, so let it hurt. Hurt is supposed to weaken your neck so that your head throws backwards. It is supposed to make a physical ache in your heart.
Hurt was named perfectly. Loss too.
It will hurt. You will at times, lose.
Let it be so.
As you let pain be painful, it is vital you understand that pain is not a symptom of ‘life going wrong’
Rain is weather just as sun, pain is life, just as joy is life.
I will tell you though, that there is a way that life can not just be life, but be wrong and that is when a person, looking about the world and the pains of it, concludes that life is cruel and that life thus far has gone wrong, takes it personally and then with the mentality of a victim proceeds to sabotage the remainder of it. Life can be as true to its word as it possibly can and deliver days of drought, flood, gain, loss, night and day but it cannot destroy you. The only thing in the universe that can destroy you is you.
Even after the body dies a single human being can live on forever in the legacy they left, the memories their face and works appear in and the hope they stand for due to their courage, endurance, perseverance and achievements.
Consider Nelson Mandella. An anti-apartheid activist, revolutionary and politician he was born July 18th, 1918.
When will he die? Well, I don’t believe he ever will.
His life has become as a light upon a high mountain that gives hope to not just liberated people of color, but to people of all races across all generations and probably, for many generations to come. But his life! The persecution!
27 years spent as prisoner 46664.
I have seen the place of his capture in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and it was a powerful thing to consider that this one man has known loss of many kinds and not only endured it, but used it.
He understood that no man could take from you that which you do not give away. Life is never stolen, not truly. Life is only ultimately taken when it is surrendered. I know this is true because despite what agonies I have faced and crimes I have endured the only time any of it threatened to destroy me is when I momentarily believed it was too much and planned to take my own life.
I have heard many times the testimonies of survivors of violent crime, sexual crime, or abuse and the common statement they all make is ‘They took from me this, but I refused to let them rob me of life or joy or enjoying the remainder of a fulfilling life’
I marvel at this. I marvel at it because had the strength for them to do this was simply not found by them when they needed it, would you not understand? Who would not understand a mother, so driven by grief for her lost child simply give up the life of her own? Who would not understand how 27 years of jail and persecution would break a man.
If Mandela had endured for 20 years and then thrown his arms up, broken spirited and said ‘I cannot do this anymore! I am a broken man!’ would the world not understand? Of course! And there lies the key to living forever. To see life as life is: painful, rewarding, harsh, fair, wonderful, devastating.
To face circumstances to which no one would ever accuse you should you simply not be able to endure, and yet, you endure. To face a storm so fierce that no one should turn on you because the winds kept you down, and yet you rise.
To understand that when things are hard, when you are hurting, when you have lost, that it is not that something has gone tragically wrong with life… it IS life! It only goes tragically wrong when you fail to grasp this and in your grief you then surrender to it and either sabotage your future or become dysfunctional and sabotage the life of another.
Though the disappointment of not being able to graduate this year may be considered by some to be rather small in the scheme of pain or loss, I would suggest that loss is loss. Heartbreak is heartbreak. For me in this moment, considering the work I have put in, the longing I have for this dream and the reality of the dream coming true being so close, the sudden realization that it was for a time, gone is devastating.
I do not look at this pain and the pain of say, the abuse in my past and see one different from the other. It hurts and hurt is hurt.
But I am ok with hurt now. I have changed my view of it. The 8 words spoken by my mother so many years ago have sat in my mind and developed in my late night thoughts for so long that I feel like I truly understand now how she could possibly suggest that loss and pain join hands with gain and enjoyment to make life rich.
I look back on my 28 years and I see the landscape of a very rich life. There are mountains, which capture the sunlight, there are valleys which are darker and sit in the shade of those mountains. There are empty roads which wind long and dusty, there are fields of grain and produce.
This is a beautiful picture but it is the darker valleys and lonely dusty roads which are just as beautiful as the sunlit mountains.
My life I believe has been, and is still, very rich.
I say that not in spite of life that at times was agony, but because of a life that at times was agony.
I am still in deep grief over the delay on my dream to be a nurse, I still wear the fading scars from nights I nearly didn’t survive as a teen and tomorrow I may receive news which will break my heart and if not tomorrow then this news will ultimately come in some form or another but this too, is ok.
You may be grieving hard for the loss of a friend, the betrayal of a lover, the ruin of a dream or the pain of deep disappointment. You don’t have to square your shoulders and it doesn’t have to be ok with you.
Let it hurt.
Let the experience of this disappointment sink into you. If it overwhelms you, it will overwhelm you. You don’t have to be brave today. Explore this grief and get to know this pain. Embrace it.
But then, survive it.
If you can do this and resist bitterness then you will one day look back on these moments and see a beautiful landscape that is only a work of art because of this pain.
Wherever you are in it right in this moment, whether in a paradise or in a barren, empty land, this is life, and this experience you are facing whether good or bad, hurtful of joyful is what makes life rich.
Note to the reader:
I explore the idea of pain being the most valuable qualification one can posses in: Qualification pain I recommend this story if you are facing, or have faced any pain which you need to make sense of.
This story was named after this song by John Mayer.