Seeing my son wheeled out of a complicated emergency surgery and intubated broke me. The nurses in the pediatric intensive care unit tried to assure us that intubation was hard for every parent, and that kids bounce back. It would be OK.
But it wasn’t.
My husband and I watched as child after child came and went from the PICU with ailments that seemed far worse than my own son’s, but drug-resistant pneumonia was killing him. His lungs looked like Swiss cheese. When the first chest tube draining puss was removed, air leaked into his chest cavity causing a pocket of his skin to breathe up and down like something out of an alien movie. Sometimes air would hiss out from beneath his bandages. His blood was frequently being tested to see if his white blood cell count was beginning to go down, or at least not going up. X-ray machines were drug to his bed at least twice-a-day. After endless complications, the head of pediatric surgery took us in a small room to have a heart-to-heart. There was one more surgery he could try. Our son was very sick. The surgery wouldn’t cure him, his body would still have to do that, and it wasn’t looking great.
I wanted it straight, and asked in haste if he could die.
He calmly told me, “Yes, there is that possibility.”
My husband and I and all of our family had already been praying for the many days he was in the hospital. He had been given a blessing. His name was in numerous temples. We couldn’t do more.
We gave our consent for the procedure and I left my husband to sleep on the fold-out chair by our son’s bedside, the chair he had slept in for three weeks. I went home to take care of our other son and our newborn who wouldn’t take a bottle-but was appeased long enough for my hospital visits by the breast of my sister-in-law.
My prayers were as earnest as they had ever been that night. I felt a keen sense of the reality of the resurrection, and fear for his life left me. And I felt an incredible peace that if he died, it would be OK.
He didn’t die.
Trying to find consolation in purposeful suffering, months later a friend who was watching her own, young son go through serious health problems asked, “So what do you think you learned from it?”
Her query was understandable. But my answer brought no comfort.
“Nothing,” I said, “The whole thing was horrible.”
Looking back, my answer hasn’t changed. That experience was horrible. I’m grateful we happened to be with extended family when it happened, that we had people around us that loved us. I learned even more that they cared, but nothing else. Yet as Joseph Smith internalized in Liberty Jail, I believe our suffering was not for nothing. God is good at making lemonade.
Too often, I think, a mark is missed by looking for a specified lesson, certain that life is a paint-by-number designed by God; an idea that if we just paint the right colors where and when specified, we will return to Our Maker having learned all the specified lessons God set before us. But ultimately, God-as-puppeteer nearly negates the need for an atonement; and negates our need to urgently care for one another.
I believe not that God handpicks, or that we handpicked in a pre-mortal realm, the conditions of our suffering here; but that the conditions of mortality enable us to suffer. Our physical bodies are necessary not to only come humbly before the throne of God, but to learn to succor others. In some small way we become like Christ as Alma described, “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”
I’m not sure we could quite understand what it means to succor others without the painful experiences that result from having a physical body; often experiences thrust upon us by others. It seems that perhaps even the Savior could not take on our suffering without the physical element of experiencing it himself.
God is not a puppeteer. Not everything that happens, even the most terrible things (or of course not the most terrible things), for a reason.
When Paul says, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man,” I think he means all our trials and tribulations are common to man. He is stating the obvious conditions of mortality. There is nothing so terrible that God won’t allow it to happen. I think we misunderstand, “[God ] is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” Or at least I have misunderstood.
It would have been OK if my son died; not because it was part of God’s plan, but because in Him all things are made whole. That doesn’t mean if he had died, the pain would not exist. It does not mean when I sin, the pain I inflict on others goes away. Or when I am hurt or injured or ill, or in emotional turmoil that Jesus heals it. But I go back to a heavenly home broken, made perfect in Christ. We can bear all things because he is God.