Emily HawkinsComment

Narwals and the Joy of Absent Suffering

Emily HawkinsComment
Narwals and the Joy of Absent Suffering

I watched the walls, my eyes lingering over their aquatic vignettes. Paintings of narwals, angler fish, bemused sea creatures. I wished the whimsical sea dwellers could soothe me — soothe my sick daughter. We sat exhausted after sleepless nights, after too much of my child crying for me as I caused her pain in order to clean and care for her. It had been days of stomach sickness, tender belly and skin, and emotional fatigue. A parent's heart knows no greater agony than to inflict pain on the one who looks to you for comfort.

Sunday night, we made our way to Seattle Children's urgent care clinic. Our pediatrician's office recommended we go in as the pain was intense and prolonged. It seemed a virus had taken a turn for the worse, and her digestion kept her in a ceaseless cycle of hurting. My eyes wandered to our waiting room companions. Some families dozed, small children draped over arms and shoulders. Others chatted, as if over coffee and donuts instead of waiting to be called into an exam room.

The deja vu was tangible. This was all too similar to the last time we were in a children's hospital. A medical scare complete with a scheduled skull surgery and trip across the country to see the best doctor. A false diagnosis. Relief. Back to normal.

But this trip to a waiting room was normal. It was a virus after all — routine. Other families staring at these neutral seascapes wouldn't find themselves so fortunate. Their kids wouldn't be in pain for a few days and then return to health. Yes, our visit felt rough. She screamed and said she was scared and hurt. And that made us hurt. But we went back home after all of that.

So many families are well acquainted with tragedy. With hospital stays so long you take up residence. We are the lucky ones. 

The sentiments of Thich Nhat Hanh circled into my mind as we waited for our names to be called. Sometimes, there is joy in the absence of pain. We do not know we have joy until we subsist in pain. We are not grateful for our functioning limbs until one ceases to function smoothly. In the onslaught of pain, all is gratitude in hindsight. What fulfillment, what beauty was ours. We were drenched in our abundance.

Before recent bouts of tears and trouble, we had so much. Still, we found minutia to fret over. And now, we find ourselves back at home, our walls completely lacking whale paintings. As the sun rises again after the night we remember as "the worst," we know full well that this too is lavish. This shuffling progress, this dawn, marking slight newness. I accept the likelihood that we may soon forget the sweetness of a sunrise. But in this moment, I want to dwell in remembering. Remembering the deep joy that lives in the absence of suffering.