Last week, the final day of school emptied our compound of many of its inhabitants. I expect the planes out of the sandpit that night were loaded with expectation and excitement as people made a beeline for family, friends and Christmas celebrations.
We had another week here to fill so we spent most of our time at the sports centre and park- our compound’s staple entertainment. It wasn’t long before cabin fever set in and a hospital visit to investigate my ongoing back pain suddenly offered a welcome change of scenery, even with 3 children in tow. I promised them lunch out if they behaved..,
McDonalds was looking like a rather shaky prospect even before we arrived at the hospital as toys and tempers were thrown around the back of the car. I had packed snacks and books but by the time I’d been processed by the hospital receptionist, there were only crumbs left to eat and we’d read everything several times.
After an interminable wait, we were waved towards the MRI suite, where we were confronted by an enormous, metal-plated, door like the entrance to a safe. We stood staring at it, wondering how to penetrate its hostile exterior. Suddenly, it swung open to reveal a man in a white coat, glowering at us.
He looked like his day was going as well as mine.
‘I’m here for an MRI’, I explained.
He just stood there, glaring.
‘So can I come in?’
‘Who are you?’
He scrutinized us and then stepped back. I was handed a paper gown and told to change. The children were cowed into model behaviour, acting as my attendants, gathering my clothes from the cubicle floor.
When I re-emerged, the man studied my face.
‘Are you Spider-Man (our youngest’s self-styled name for the purposes of my blog)?’
‘And you’re not 4?’
I’d love to drop a zero from my age but it should be apparent to everyone that I am not 4.
‘Well this MRI is for a 4 year old Spider-Man. You need to get dressed and sort this out with reception.’
I kept the bad words inside my head as I battled my way back into the cubicle where the children had remained to fight. I grabbed my occasionally-useful abaya and pulled it on over my paper bag and returned barefoot to reception for more surreal conversations about my age.
‘If you give me your mobile number, we can sort this out’ offered the receptionist after a lengthy and fruitless exchange. No one apart from my husband or school calls me on my Middle Eastern phone so I don’t know the number and it was back inside the cubicle, inside the bulletproof MRI suite, with the friendly man.
I muttered bad words. ‘Is it -?’ She read out a number.
‘Yes,’ I nodded nervously.
Thankfully, it was so I made my way back.
Then everything sped up and I was on a bed, being given ear plugs to counteract the noise of the MRI machinery. There was a tunnel behind my head with a hole at the other end and I was sliding back towards it.
I screamed as the tunnel ceiling appeared above my eyebrows.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked the man.
‘Are you claustrophobic?’ asked his colleague.
‘Yes I am. That’s why I ticked on the form that I am CLAUSTROPHOBIC,’ I explained.
‘Oh,’ he said. That was it.
‘Can I go feet first?’ I suggested.
‘Is there a different procedure if you’re claustrophobic?’
‘So why do you have a question about this on your form?’
No reply. It was like when my friend was asked by a supermarket cashier as she was paying for her groceries whether she wanted cash back. She said ‘Yes’, she would like cash back. ‘We don’t do it,’ the cashier replied.
My MRI guy clearly didn’t do claustrophobia. I realized I was either going to have to abandon my medical or rapidly deal with my childhood fear of confined spaces that resulted from being rammed inside the boot of a hatchback with a group of fellow Brownies.
I turned to look at the tunnel. I focused on the opening at the end of the tunnel. If I could be brave enough to go through the tunnel my head would be near the opening within seconds. I indicated I would try again and off I slid backwards.
Cue more screaming.
‘What?’ bellowed the man.
‘I can’t do it,’ I said. ‘Are you sure there’s no other way?’
‘This is the only way.’
I looked at the far end. That circle of light didn’t help in the slightest.
‘I will stay with you,’ the man said. He looked seriously fed up with his own suggestion and yet I felt marginally better. I decided to close my eyes, pray and breathe deeply. And this time, as I inched backwards, I resisted the urge to open my eyes and scream. When I stopped moving I could see the opening beyond my head. I caught sight of the man behind me before shutting my eyes again.
I managed to stay still for half an hour, occasionally peeking round to see the man pacing back and forth by my head, each time wearing more and more white blankets until he eventually looked like the abominable snowman. It gets cold in there.
I had time to think in that tunnel. I thought about the times I have told people who are in a bad place about the light at the end of their tunnel. Being able to see a light at the end of the MRI tunnel demonstrated that it doesn’t always help.
If actually being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel didn’t help me, then how much less must it help when people talk about a theoretical or even actual light at the end of their problems or suffering. If that person is still in a tunnel, the help needs to meet them where they are, not as something dangled like a McDonalds somewhere in the future.
I cringe now at the thought of two letters I have sent grieving friends, at different times over the years, sermonizing about the light at the end of their tunnel. I imagine those letters didn’t bring much comfort at all. They probably made things worse.
More than the light, the thing that helped me most when I was struggling in my MRI tunnel was knowing someone was nearby. Even a grumpy man who clearly didn’t want to remain with me! In fact, it was his presence that enabled me to focus on that light. By staying with me, I felt brave enough to head for the light. I didn’t actually need him to do anything for me. Simply by being present in the room with me he was acknowledging my fear and meeting my need.
When my husband used to go to Iraq and Afghanistan for months at a time and I was by myself with the children, people would sometimes say things like ‘It’s going really quickly- only another 2 months.’ That really didn’t help. What helped most was when someone said ‘That must be so hard.’ Rather than glossing over what I was experiencing and pointing me to some future point in time, they were entering my tunnel, my world.
Just recognizing the reality of my situation was often more powerful than anything anyone could do. There were occasions where people would offer to help me in some tangible way. I didn’t always accept. Often, it felt more complicated than just soldiering on. An offer to put us up for a weekend meant me packing us up with all of our clobber, a lack of routine and over-wrought children not sleeping in strange beds. An offer to watch the children for a morning meant expressing milk and writing lists of instructions.
But that didn’t mean I didn’t like getting the offers. The significance of those offers was they demonstrated I mattered to someone. They meant I was on someone’s radar. I remember my friend ringing one Friday night when I was alone with ‘X Factor’ to say her and her husband were ordering a Chinese and they could drop off something at my house on the way back if I wanted to order. I had already eaten with the children so I didn’t take her up on the offer but I still recall how touched I was that I featured in her thoughts that night.
For as long as I can remember, Jesus has been the light in my dark times but I haven’t always been able to reach him alone. Sometimes I have needed someone else’s presence in my life to help me connect with him, especially if my own faith has been burning low- someone to point me towards the light by standing with me in my tunnel.
Parents, grandparents, siblings, godparents, Brown Owl, church leaders, Sunday school leaders, Padres, mentors, friends, my GP, a parent support advisor, neighbors, strangers even. These are just some of the people who have lit up my path, like cats eyes on a dark night, only it wasn’t my headlights illuminating them; it was Jesus shining through them.
Our son, the self styled Spider-Man, has recently developed a fear of the dark since catching 5 minutes of The Grinch in the run up to Christmas. He has been waking up screaming most nights for the past fortnight before climbing into bed with us.
Last week, after he got into our bed again, I told him to say ‘Jesus’ when he was frightened. For the next hour or so, he snuggled into me, intermittently shouting out prayers. He would have just have lain awake screaming if I had put him back to bed. He needed me there to pray.
We may offer to help people we see struggling and get rebuffed but it doesn’t necessarily mean we should stop offering to help. When a person’s in a tunnel, they may not recognize your help as help. They may see it as interference or a nuisance. But on some level, maybe subconsciously, it may help them to know they are on someone’s heart, even if they don’t accept the help. Knowing someone is nearby may be the help in and of itself. Not to be told the tunnel is short or that there’ll be a light at the end of it. It may even be that you are the light in their darkness until they can see the light for themselves.