Upon the Arrival of Illness
On the day that I sent out my "goodbye" email to over 200 colleagues at the large non-profit I had worked in for nearly three years, I found myself obsessing about a typo. There was one small word that I had missed as I tried to craft a meaningful message between countless office interruptions, a few meetings that I no longer cared about, but for some reason had to attend, and a Hail Mary question about research ethics on my way out the door. I sent the email two minutes before I took the elevator four floors down to the IT desk in the basement of the building to turn in my laptop. My best friend-league then quickly ushered me to a nearby happy hour at a bar called Succotash to celebrate my last day.
When I got on the train to ride home, drunker than I had been in years, I felt alone and disoriented. It was too early to be this tipsy, but also too late to say "goodnight" to my two boys who would be sound asleep at home by 7:30pm.
On the train, I opened my phone to obsess over my imperfect email, as the first of seven stops on the yellow line ticked by. The responses read, "If you ever want to do research for our team, let us know!" "Good luck with your son, my wife is a child psychologist if you ever want advice!" "I know a good occupational therapist, let me know if you want her number!"..."We will miss you!" I felt disconnected and tired and intensely annoyed at every use of an exclamation point.
Then I scrolled past one email from a young, quietly brilliant researcher who I had worked with occasionally over the years:
She shared in her message,
"When I was diagnosed with a disability, I found the poem below by John O’Donohue provided me with some comfort in the midst of all of the challenges that come with a disability and I find myself turning back to it fairly frequently for a sense of perspective. Sending it your way in case it resonates for you."
For a Friend, Upon the Arrival of Illness
Now is the time of dark invitation
Beyond a frontier you did not expect;
Abruptly, your old life seems distant.
You barely noticed how each day opened
A path through fields never questioned,
Yet expected, deep down, to hold treasure.
Now your time on earth becomes full of threat;
Before your eyes your future shrinks.
You lived absorbed in the day-to-day,
So continuous with everything around you,
That you could forget you were separate;
Now this dark companion has come between you.
Distances have opened in your eyes.
You feel that against your will
A stranger has married your heart.
Nothing before has made you
Feel so isolated and lost.
When the reverberations of shock subside in you,
May grace come to restore you to balance.
May it shape a new space in your heart
To embrace this illness as a teacher
Who has come to open your life to new worlds.
May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Toward what is difficult,
Painful, and unknown.
May you learn to use this illness
As a lantern to illuminate
The new qualities that will emerge in you.
May the fragile harvesting of this slow light
Help to release whatever has become false in you.
May you trust this light to clear a path
Through all the fog of old unease and anxiety
Until you feel arising within you a tranquility
Profound enough to call the storm to stillness.
May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness:
Ask it why it came. Why it chose your friendship.
Where it wants to take you. What it wants you to
What quality of space it wants to create in you.
What you need to learn to become more fully
That your presence may shine in the world.
May you keep faith with your body,
Learning to see it as a holy sanctuary
Which can bring this night-wound gradually
Toward the healing and freedom of dawn.
May you be granted the courage and vision
To work through passivity and self-pity,
To see the beauty you can harvest
From the riches of this dark invitation.
May you learn to receive it graciously,
And promise to learn swiftly
That it may leave you newborn,
Willing to dedicate your time to birth.
That night I cried myself to sleep, with my baby blanket wrapped around my head, tucked into the trundle bed downstairs. Like every night, I slept in a separate room from my husband, who I love dearly, but couldn't stomach the thought of missing one ounce of sleep after the sleepless nights of the past few years.
That night I didn't know that just a few weeks later, my husband, J., would get a job in Michigan - my home state - and that we would pack up our lives a few weeks after that. That we would move from Washington D.C. to a small, rural town in southeastern Michigan where my sister lives and where I could finally take breath. That the small typo I obsessed about on the last day wouldn't enter my mind again, but that the John O'Donohue poem would come back to me over and over.
May this poem also bless the space between you and me today, to provide salve on the most difficult days you face, and to invite renewal, which I will also seek in the months to come.