Eight adults join hands, forming a circle around me. I sit on a simple bench, head bowed, as they pray over me, asking God to bless their speaker.
Yes, I think. Please God put the right words in my mouth because I have agonized over this for days, and I’m still not sure what to say to these kids.
I am miles from my comfort zone. Speaking to a group of 7th-12th graders at the local church camp is actually a huge leap from presenting to elementary school groups about Lyme awareness. The focus tonight is not my disease, but how God has used it in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
The theme of camp is Be a Hero. Apparently, one of these crazy kids think I am a hero, so I was asked to speak.
A little voice inside my head keeps whispering…how can you be a hero? How can you speak about God? You shouldn’t be here.
I doubt myself. What do I know about heroism? I’ve never saved anyone’s life. I can’t quote scriptures. I don’t attend church every weekend. I don’t pray as much as should or read the Bible as often as I should. I agreed to be here because I am trying to share my story to raise awareness for more than just Lyme disease, and I thought God would put in my heart what to say. I tried writing all week, but the words refused to come. My health compounded this struggle. Tonight I’m hindered by the darkness, by the lack of a presentation on laptop to keep me on track, by the heat from the campfire. Surely, God will take over when I stand.
Please, please, please put the right words in my mouth. Okay, here goes.
I am… or was….an English teacher. I never know which verb to use –am or was. I guess the fact that I just used the word “verb” in a sentence probably means I am still an English teacher, even though I’ve been on medical leave for almost eight months.
I have to share a little bit of my story to bridge what I want you to know about being a hero.
I lay out the timeline. Before sickness me –active, busy, normal. Before diagnosis me –symptoms, tests, desperation. After diagnosis me –treatment, depression, solitude. I share enough for them to understand that I was gravely sick and in an extraordinarily dark place in my life. I felt worthless. A burden on my family. I questioned why this had happened.
All eyes are on me. They are enthralled.
That’s the thing with Lyme disease. It is random. It knows no age, gender or race limitation. Everyone is susceptible. Anyone could be in my position. We think bad things won’t happen to us, but some of these kids were my students just a few months ago. They know it can happen, it does happen, and it turns everything upside down. One day I was teaching them about thesis statements, and the next I was in the cardiac unit struggling to breathe.
I tell them about feeling God’s nudge, but not listening to it. Writing but not sharing. Being angry at God for doing this to me. Wishing for death because living was too painful. I tell them about my “fall apart day,” when I cried and cried because I didn’t know how on earth I could help people with Lyme when I was far from recovered. I tell them about the ways God spoke to me. Other Lymees. Songs. Church messages. Finally, I say that it took this disease for me to listen, to grow closer to God, to realize my busy life was not necessarily the good life. Lyme is not what I would have chosen, but God is using it in simply amazing ways.
I write and am now brave enough to click publish. I speak to kids and teachers about Lyme disease prevention. I support those with invisible illnesses via social networking. I try to inspire others to keep fighting, to find the good, and to believe that God’s big pictures are more beautiful than we could ever even imagine. He takes broken crayons, like me, and creates a vibrant tapestry of life.
Still, I am not a hero. I can’t bend steel bars or spin a web. I don’t see through walls, deflect bullets, or fly past the moon. I haven’t saved anyone’s life.
But I have people in my world who saved mine, one act of kindness at a time. They did nothing our society would deem heroic. I wasn’t rescued from a burning building. But it doesn’t take superpowers to be a hero; you just need to show up.
The kids look confused. This goes against their definition of a hero.
I tell them about the ways my friends have loved us through this illness. Oodles of get-well cards. Little notes reminding me that I’m missed. Thoughtful gifts. Nothing fancy, just a CD of handpicked songs or a bottle of bubble bath.
My cousin sent a box of sunshine. It was the dead of winter and the worst of my illness. Perfect timing for a bit of light. Inside a simple box was an eclectic mix of yellow, from Butterfinger bars to lemon hand soap, nestled in yellow tissue paper. Sprinkled on top were cutouts of yellow suns with sayings like “You are my sunshine.” The idea that my cousin, a student in the middle of her residency at WVU, took the time to select each of these items, wrap them lovingly, and mail the box to me brought tears of happiness and awe. Creative love.
Colleagues sent food. Delicious mountains of food. Soups, chicken casseroles, chili, bread. Delectable love. Both refrigerators overflowed. My husband was spending so much time caring for me and kids. Not having to fix dinner beyond pushing a couple buttons on the microwave was such a relief, freeing him to do the other things that needed to be done. After all, laundry is relentless. It doesn’t stop just because mom is sick.
One friend sent a dish every week. I’m not exaggerating. Every single week food appeared in John’s truck. The crock pot was usually accompanied by a Post-it with the words “Love, Bex, Zoe & the vegetarian.” I saved each note. Although Tiff is not a meat-eater, she knows we are. She prepared meals my family would prefer and said she hoped it tasted okay because she couldn’t try it to see. Is that love or what? Homemade Philly cheesesteak from a vegetarian is BIG love.
These people didn’t have any superpowers. They simply showed up in my life when I desperately needed it. Showing up doesn’t mean that they actually came to my house. Few did. (Thank goodness because our home was a wreck.) But they were present in my life. Every card, every dish, every Facebook message meant I was loved. People were rooting for me. I had to keep fighting.
Another friend sent text messages everyday. Even when I was too sick to respond, she showed up. She sent funny pictures, inspirational images, and simple words. A “Jena check” came daily. She listened to my fears, my pain, my sadness. She read articles on Lyme disease so that she could better understand. She was my digital rock. She wasn’t resentful when I didn’t respond for hours, occasionally days. She was selfless, a good friend even when I couldn’t be. Digital love.
Electronic devices keep us connected more than ever before. Thanks to my blog, I have become attached to individuals all over the world. Some have sent private messages, sharing how my words or my story have impacted their lives. A man with a tick bite was taken to the doctor and treated for Lyme after his wife, a faithful Broken Crayon reader, noticed the bull’s eye rash starting to form. She thanked me for educating her and for, consequently, indirectly protecting her husband. Another reader sent a beautiful orchid in a vase of broken crayons. No note or card. Just anonymous appreciation. Quiet love.
You can be a hero today, right this second, to someone. It only takes a few minutes to send someone a message to let them know that they have impacted your life. To tell them to keep their head up. To tell them you love them. To show up in their life. Don’t wait. Don’t claim to be too busy. Don’t use the excuse I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what to do.
Here’s a secret. That person doesn’t know how you can help either. She just knows she’s hurting, and when you show up, she’ll know you love her. You don’t have to take food. You don’t need to send flowers. You can, but the important thing is that you are present in her life. Sometimes that isn’t easy.
We spent last weekend with a couple who I’d barely seen since my illness. Jeanne and I are the kind of friends who can be apart for months, but then fall right back into our closeness the second we’re together again. She is my tell-me-how-it is friend. You probably have one. If not, you need to find one. She is blunt and filterless, but sometimes we need that kind of friend to tell us the truth, as in yes, your butt is getting big or why in the hell are getting married…again? There’s no sugar-coating with Jeanne.
We’d made our annual pilgrimage to see Kenny Chesney (which is a whole other blog post someday). While tailgating and laughing, Jeanne looked at me and said, “I’ve been a bad, bad friend. I just didn’t know what to do to help you. I know when I’m sick I just want to be left alone, so I assume everyone else does too.” She was being honest, as always, and my heart hurt for her.
See, when you don’t show up, you then feel guilty about it. You may find reasons to justify it, but you still feel guilt. Subsequently, a vicious cycle begins. Since you feel shameful for not showing up when you should have, you avoid the person even more. To show up six months late is HARD. A lot harder than showing up on time.
But do it anyway. There is no expiration date on love.
I guarantee there are people in your life who need you. Some needs are obvious –a death in the family, a serious illness, a divorce. Some needs are quiet and hidden. That’s why you need to express your love or gratitude constantly without expectation. It’s not easy. Nearly a year ago, I walked into a woman’s home just hours after her daughter was killed in a car accident. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. There is no instructional manual for tragedy. I cried. I hugged people. I was present. Staying home and crying by myself would’ve been so much easier. Showing up was HARD and awkward and gut-wrenching.
But I did it anyway.
My heroes are the ones who have loved me through, on time or a tad late, via text messages or pepperoni rolls, through laughter and tears. One day my hero was my teenage son who curled up in my hospital bed and watched tv with me. It was my nurturing four-year-old when she washed my hair because I couldn’t. It was my son’s sweet girlfriend when she attempted to make me a sugar-free cake for my birthday. It was a fellow Lymee who sent a message on a particularly bad day reminding me how far I’d come. It’s my husband who looks at me like I’m the most beautiful person in the world even when I’m a train wreck. Heroes are every age. There are no requirements beyond LOVE.
The bottom line is this. God shows up for you every single day. That’s love, and that’s what we should try our best to do for others. Digital love, quiet love, big love, delicious love. The ways we can love each other are limitless. Be present. Be a hero.