And Hearts are Brave Again

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“Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” Joshua 1:9 — Photo from May 2017

On 17 March 2017 I was diagnosed with a tumor that is neither malignant nor benign.

That this particular brand of tissue growth tends not to metastasize was welcome news indeed, and you’d better believe I thanked God for it. All the more so because the diagnosis—and the blood tests and the brain scan that led to it—fell right-smack in the thick of midterms. It was hard enough to pretend I still cared about school. How much harder would it have been if the prognosis had been worse? Praise be to the Father, I do not have cancer.

But why do we call noncancerous tumors benign when they still can still rip the rug out from under your feet and leave you sprawled and dazed and aching and bruised and unsure how to pick yourself up from the dust?

Sometime in the whir before our wedding, I remember chatting with Nathan in his little red car. Like all almost-newlyweds we carried hopes in our hearts, and whispering those hopes into words we could share was a shivering sacred pastime we never tired of. We were piecing together a future—our future. It felt warm and right. Nathan held my hand as we committed to welcome any and all children God would send to our marriage, and never to bar their arrival. We stitched that commitment into the tapestry of our plans.

We wed, and soon my body beckoned the symptoms I knew to watch for. I walked on weak legs to the nearest CVS and bought a ClearBlue test—

—which I bombed worse than my Statistics 121 midterms in college.

In spite of all the tell-tale signs, I was not pregnant. It didn’t make sense, but the failure stung worse than it confused me, so I tried not to think much about it.

Except that the symptoms persisted. They were hollow each time, but they were real and they were there—and some of them I couldn’t just chalk up to stress. Month after month, my body acted pregnant. Month after month, my faith spiked and dashed. Nathan and I clutched what we could, but I’ll be honest: Hope became an increasingly untrustworthy verb.

A couple meets the medical definition of infertility after they’ve sent twelve months’ worth of invitations for a child to join their family without getting so much as an RSVP, so by the time our first anniversary rolled around, we knew it was time to drag my body to the doctor to investigate the ongoing cycle of lies. This essay is not a Wikipedia article, and I promised Nathan I’d avoid publicizing the gruesome details, so suffice it to say that the physician knew exactly what to test my blood for when she heard about the symptoms. In short order I was bouncing back and forth between campus and the hospital for tests and consultations and an MRI, memorizing flashcards for school exams when I wasn’t Googling stuff like hyperprolactinemia and pituitary adenoma.

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Post-MRI selfie, 16 March 2017

Early morning on St. Patrick’s Day when Dr. Goundan explained the previous day’s MRI results she used a plastic diagram to show me what a tiny pituitary gland looks like and how close it is to the optic nerve. She reassured me that the tumor on my gland is still small and that medicine might mask its effects—might even convince it to shrink some. “Yours is a good ways off from the nerve,” she explained, “but just to check, have you noticed any trouble with your vision?”

Vision as in eyesight? I wanted to ask. Or vision as in hopes and goals and who I want to be?

My eyes function just fine, but the adenoma attached to the pea-sized gland just behind them has wrecked a fundamental part of my vision.

This tumor doesn’t threaten my life, but it does threaten my ability to give life.

So long as it sits there pumping out pregnancy hormones for no discernible reason, Nathan and I will not be parents. Whether we will have children is no longer a commitment; it’s a question. And if we do bring souls to our family, there almost certainly will not be very many, because we’ll have to fight a little lump in my head every time. And who knows what else we’ll battle? There could yet be other factors at play, which is why I’ve still got on the calendar five more trips to the hospital for ultrasounds, examinations, and—undoubtedly—more blood tests. I’m collecting prick scars on my right arm from all the vials of blood I’ve had to fill. And I’m collecting receipts from Walgreens Pharmacy too for the medicine that blocks my tumor’s industrial-strength prolactin production.

So much for our whispers in Nathan’s little red car.

So much for our dreams and vocation.

So much for our vision.

I promise it’s not off-topic to switch now from talking about what’s in my head to what’s in my heart. The heart, after all, plays a central role in this saga for at least two reasons. First, because my heart holds congenital defects, and because I ditched the last cardiology check-up I was supposed to have four years ago, my primary care physician insisted that I visit a cardiologist to ensure that my heart is strong enough for a pregnancy anyway. So among the ten hospital trips I’ll have racked up by the end of July, three will have been to examine the broken thumping engine in my chest.[1]

Second, any person who’s lost grip on a longing must examine his or her heart, for—in words an ancient Israelite probably tole-painted and hung in her kitchen—“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12).

Aye, that it does. I’ve leaked liters of salty tears over the past several months, most recently on a train home from the library because the sore was raw that day and I lacked my typical resolve to hold in, chew my lip, and wait for privacy. I’ve scoured the scriptures for comfort, drifting again and again to my friends Sarah, Rachael, Rebekah, Hannah, and Elisabeth. I’ve chastened myself for wimpiness (Others have gone through way worse, you know), and questioned the purity of my motives (Isn’t it self-centered for adults to make child-bearing all about themselves?). I’ve even slipped toward pseudoscience, wondering whether all the Ukrainian babushki I met on my mission were right to warn me against sitting on cold concrete benches (“It will freeze you—you’ll never have children!”).

Questions like these do not live in the head, where my tumor lurks. Questions like these pulse in the heart, and they squeeze a tad too tightly sometimes.

Which is why Nathan and I have redoubled our efforts to flee to God’s House—the great Hospital of the Heart. When I say that there’s peace in the temple, I’m not spitting out platitudes; I’m speaking from uncounted experiences of bringing my bruised heart to the altar and walking away renewed.

On one such occasion—after my physician had said there was likely a tumor but before we’d run the tests to confirm it—I sat shaking in one corner of the temple, scared of the abyss Nathan and I would likely have to cross before we could ever realize the promises God planted inside us. I wrapped my arms around my midriff, tucked in my chin, and prayed.

As I did so, a song sung its way through my mind. Not a metaphorical song; actual music got stuck in my head, and I couldn’t shake it out for three hours. It was a hymn I enjoy but hadn’t really thought of that often—a British Protestant anthem we Mormons have claimed, perhaps because all folks of faith can resonate with words like these:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long

Stills on the ear the distant triumph song

And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong,

Alleluia, alleluia![2]

I swear, at that moment Our Father Who Art In Heaven crooked His arm around my shoulders and drew me close so His lips could whisper that “distant triumph song” right into the ears of His twenty-six-year-old infant who desperately needed a lullaby to calm her heart and make it “brave again.” He reignited a trust that months of false leads had tarnished, and He bolstered the hope I’d let slip.

At that moment, God was Fathering a woman who cannot yet mother.

Nathan and I do not know how long our warfare will be, nor how fiercely we’ll have to strive. We do know, however, that a very real God handles very real hurts in our very soft hearts. He has whispered words through scriptures and prayers. He’s blessed us with blogs to read and doctors to consult. He’s sent family and friends and church fellows and utter strangers to buoy us, to remind us about the “song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26). Most of the time that song is distant and the music is metaphorically masked as a breeze or a bird or the babbling Charles River. But in at least one important instance, that song was literal music that washed through my mind in the House of the Lord.

It’s enough to hold on to. It’s enough to get by. Grasping for faith and for each other’s hands, Nathan and I are poised to accompany the throng of soldiers who’ve fought for their children, who are fighting today, who are singing and shouting the music of God.

In spite of the hurts, our hearts are brave.

Alleluia.

 

 

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[1] Essayist Brian Doyle calls the heart the “wet engine” in a beautiful book by that name, and because Doyle’s own heart will soon be still, everyone ought to read the book and cry and thank God for making such a lovely, gifted man.
[2] From William Walsham How’s “For All the Saints,” #82 in the LDS hymnal.
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