I used to live in Omaha on the top floor of an old house on a tree-covered lot. The dampness of the Midwest has a way of proliferating vines, trees and shrubs that still surprises me. One of the beautiful things about this apartment is that our windows were at eye level with the branches of the mulberry trees so the observation of birds and raccoons and opossums was part of the daily.
One day in the spring, I noticed a little yellow bird nearly dead on the ground. She died shortly later. I can’t remember if she died naturally or if she was mercifully killed by a roving creature. The thing that stuck with me about this bird, aside from her beautiful color and her tragic end, was her mate.
For almost a week after her death, her mate stayed in the trees over the sidewalk where she had lain, perhaps at first calling for her and then seemingly mourning her. As is typical with birds, he was more brightly colored than his companion and easy to spot among the leaves and branches.
I hadn’t thought about these birds for a long time until last week when I was out hiking. As I approached a stand of eucalyptus trees, I heard a cascading call from an unfamiliar songbird. I lingered to appreciate its beautiful call and tried to catch a glimpse. As I searched the branches high overhead, I never located the songbird, but I noticed a crow.
The crow was perched at the junction of a large limb with the trunk of the tree. I noticed her poke her beak down toward her feet and rip off a bite of something with feathers, presumably a baby bird. I watched the crow slowly devour her meal as I listened to the song of the other bird I could not see. I felt sad for the baby bird who would never feel the thrill of flight. I noticed this narrative in my mind: that something has gone wrong in the world because this baby bird does not get to live.
But then I thought about the crow. I, too, feel the ache of hunger in my belly. I, too, have babies to raise. Babies who need a strong mother. I, too, have a life to live. I have miles to fly, joy to experience. As I watched the crow, the unseeable bird sang his cascading call and the humming birds zipped in and out of the eucalyptus leaves.
I arrive at my patient’s apartment. It’s a complex of several buildings with surrounding gate. I jog to catch the parking gate as it slides open for a car. My patient’s phone isn’t working so he can’t open the gate. I walk up to his door. There is a chemical smell on the stair landing, that I have come to recognize as methamphetamine. I knock and identify myself loudly through the door. A woman I’ve never seen before answers the door and there is a small dog poking its head between her legs.
“Is Brian here?” I ask.
“Yeah, he’s coming.”
My patient appears, his face is gaunt. His eyes dart back to me as we walk down the narrow stairwell together. We sit at a picnic table in the courtyard. Brian is immediately and constantly talking, but his voice is quiet. I pick out the words and phrases I can from his deluge of speech. “Every day is new…. Pain is a rhapsody.” He speaks openly about the drugs he is using. “I don’t inject it, I smoke it.” He’s begun using heroin since I saw him last month. “I smoke it as received. It’s a great thing.” I direct the conversation as I can and search his rambling for the answers. He describes his mood as “aggravated” and tells me, “I have been existing in bed.” He said his brother has been calling him over and over about going to detox.
Part of my job is to counsel him about his drug use. It’s some version of the drugs are bad speech. People I know are dying from opiates so this conversation is emotional, but it also feels useless. I tell Brian this.
“People are dying from these drugs.”
His eyes connect with mine and he says, “I’ve already died, Michelle, many times.”
I feel my heart break, like an actual sensation in my chest. I’ve known Brian when he was relatively clean. I’ve seen him at his best. This man is never free. Because of his schizophrenia, he lives in fear every day. When he hears his neighbors talking in the apartment below, probably about something totally benign like their day or the weather, he hears a threat. When he rides on the trolley, the faces of others are menacing. No place in this world feels safe. He has taken the medications, and they never alleviated the constant fear. Brian’s life was fear and my tools were only ever very partially effective at relieving it.
I feel powerless. I am powerless. What can one do in the face of this kind of suffering? Will he slip slowly into oblivion in the protective cloud of heroin? If he pays the price to get clean, if he goes to detox or jail and wakes from this warm, easy sleep, what does life have to offer him? More fear? God, what can I do?
I no longer believe that God is in heaven, waiting to hear our prayer before he grants the wish. The power of the prayer or the fast is in the connection it gives us. We are to bear witness to each other. There is power in this. I am powerless over heroin. I am powerless over schizophrenia. But I can bear witness to the pain I see. Pain, so exquisite, that it is preferable to sleep one’s life away rather than to live it.
My patient returns to his apartment and I find privacy between a couple of buildings to cry. This is my prayer: God, are you seeing this? I can’t fix it. I want you to know that I see it though. I see his pain and I see his light and his goodness. God, help him. And if you can’t, then please be with him.
I’m trying to figure out how to explain why these two stories go together in my mind. I think it’s because THIS is all I can do. All I can do is bear witness to what I see. Prayer is my witness to it—all of it. Humility is the surrender of power over the outcome, but at the same time owning the incredible power I do possess—love. Maybe love is the only outcome I have any say over. And faith is knowing that in all this messiness, God is here. Love is here. I am here.
People are dying and still, there is beauty and joy.