Leap of Faith
When I was in seventh grade, my Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Stern, attempted to explain suffering to our class. As she walked back and forth in front of the room, her long, black skirt swept the floor. Her wig, however, stayed perfectly still. Not one hair out of place.
"I want you all to close your eyes," she said. "Close your eyes and imagine a beautifully embroidered tablecloth. Every stitch is done by hand and the colors are dazzling. Absolutely magnificent. Everyone picturing their tablecloth?"
I nodded, my eyes closed tight. Images of silver threading raced through my mind.
"Okay, good. Now take this tablecloth and turn it upside down. Underneath it, you'll find that there are knots and hanging strings and imperfect stitches. But this is normal. This is what most hand-stitched designs look like from the underbelly. And it doesn't detract from the beauty you saw on top, right?"
I shook my head emphatically, my eyes still closed.
"Okay everyone, open your eyes."
We all looked up at her expectantly.
"That tablecloth represents your relationship with God. We are only human; we see horrible things going on in this world, and we experience horrible things in this world, and we can't help but think, Why me? Or, Why is this fair? Or, What did I do to deserve this? And it's because we only see the tablecloth's underbelly. We look up at it from underneath and see all of the hanging threads and knots: the fight you had with your mother, the spelling test you studied for but failed, the party you weren't invited to. All of these things.
"But God looks down on us and sees the finished product; He sees how each stitch will contribute to the masterpiece. And even when we can't understand why something is happening to us—especially when we can't understand why something is happening to us—we just have to trust that God knows what He is doing. Because He sees the tablecloth from the top down."
She paused for a moment, and smiled.
"Okay, that was our introduction to the Splitting of the Red Sea. Let's learn some Exodus."
Everyone around me pulled their bibles from their bags, seemingly satisfied with the speech. I could tell that my friends had been affected, and impressed, by the whole presentation, but I couldn't help feeling as though, somehow, I'd just been cheated.
I'd been expecting to discover some kind of secret. Like why we suffer, or how to be okay with suffering, or what the point of life was if suffering was beyond our control.
But Mrs. Stern had stood there talking about failing grades on spelling tests and party invitations that got lost in the mail. At twelve years of age, I just couldn't reconcile the idea of real suffering—pain and loss and disappointment—with the silly examples she had given us. And yet, my friends had seemed captivated by her words. Enthralled, even.
He sees how each stitch will contribute to the masterpiece.
Try telling that to those who suffer.
I was eight years old when my mother first took me to see Dr. Solomon, a highly recommended neurologist in New York City. The waiting room was painted like a jungle: monkeys swinging from the walls and exotic birds perched by the ceiling. It didn't make the office any less intimidating, though; the sharp, clean hospital smells were still there, and I could still hear hushed cries from behind thin curtains.
While we waited, my mother filled out what seemed like an endless number of medical forms, stopping every so often to ask me about certain questions.
Circle one of the following
An attack will last: 1-2hrs Until I Take Medication Until I Fall Asleep Other
Describe the pain: Searing Burning Pulsating Other
Rate your pain (1=barely noticeable): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
If you experience auras, they are: Flashes of Light Spots Blurred Vision N/A
How frequently do these episodes interfere with:
Your career: Never Rarely Sometimes Monthly Weekly
Your personal life: Never Rarely Sometimes Monthly Weekly
Your sleeping patterns: Never Rarely Sometimes Monthly Weekly
The questions seemed fairly straightforward to me, and the answers came easily as I went down the list.
When we finally met with Dr. Solomon, she asked me to perform a whole host of odd tasks. "I'm going to need you to remove your shoes and walk back and forth across the room heel-to-toe, heel-to-toe."
My mother saw the confusion on my face and immediately tried to explain things for me. "Shoes help us balance, and I think Dr. Solomon just wants to see if you can walk in a straight line without any help." I nodded and untied my sneakers before hopping down from the examining table. It was cold in the room, and I could feel the chill of the floor tiles through my thin socks.
When I finished balancing, Dr. Solomon showed me to a desk where I was seated and asked to write a number of sentences that she dictated in a monotone, message-machine voice.
I looked at my mother, and she smiled. "Let's see that beautiful handwriting."
For the next few minutes, I copied down carefully constructed sentences about boys and balloons and dogs named Spot.
"I just need you to follow my index fingers now." Dr. Solomon swiveled my chair around and came very close to my face before waving her fingers in different directions: up and down, side to side, near then far. In the background, I saw my mom raise her finger and do the Saturday Night Fever dance. She winked.
"Okay," Dr. Solomon said, "so now, tell me what it feels like." She looked at me with a very serious face, and I got nervous; I wasn't accustomed to being treated like an adult.
"Umm, my head hurts a lot. But it's only the left side. And—"
"Never the right side?" she interrupted me.
When she spoke, the white spit at the corner of her mouth moved up and down.
"No, it's always the left side. The left temple and my left eyeball always throb and it feels like my head is splitting down the middle. I have to lie down in bed and I can't have any sounds or any light—not even my night light. Or my watch, because the ticking sound becomes really loud. And I throw up some times because I get really nauseous."
The diagnosis was Chronic Migraines, a condition that entailed a minimum of fifteen migraines per month. Dr. Solomon prescribed a preventative medication that I would take on a daily basis: an anti-seizure pill. It wasn't available in liquid form or chewables, and I hadn't yet learned to swallow pills, so I was told to practice with blueberries. ("They won't get stuck while you're swallowing," Dr. Solomon reassured me. "Their soft consistency allows them to crush easily and they won't cause any trouble breathing.")
During the years before my prescription medication, however—during those early years before I was given an actual diagnosis—I had no choice but to lie in bed, hoping to fall asleep, hoping to wait it out and wake up migraine-free. I'd lie there, thrashing my legs, pulling off sheets and covers, shrinking away from any kind of touch. I'd pull my hair, or slap my face, or hit my fists against the wall, not knowing how to cope with the pain. Not knowing what to do with my body, not yet capable of lying there silently and letting the pain wash over me.
Not yet knowing how to accept.
I wasn't always coherent during migraine fits, but if words could be deciphered in between the screams, they were usually the same thing: "I'm dying. I'm gonna die, Mom. I don't wanna die."
My mom would sit by the edge of my bed, curled up in a corner, silent and still, afraid to make any kind of sound at all. And then one time, I heard her pray.
"Please, if You take away her migraine, I'll be better. I won't wear pants outside of the house when I exercise. I'll only wear skirts."
I must have fallen asleep shortly after that, but the memory has stayed with me: my mother bargaining with God, insisting that she would be better, that she would dress more modestly, that she would change her exterior...if only He would change my interior.
Back then, I saw my mother as a religious woman. I saw her as a woman who believed my migraines were from God (like everything else in our lives), and I saw her as a woman who would strengthen her religious practice (even if it was something small like wearing a long skirt while she exercised) if it meant that my suffering might be alleviated.
Today, I still see her religious devotion, and I still appreciate her religious devotion. But I am also able to see past it; I am able to see her as my genetic link, the person from whom I have inherited the migraine gene.
But this is not to say that I blame her.
Because I don't.
She may be responsible for my migraines, but she is not culpable. I understand that my condition was fairly inevitable, something my mother could not have prevented or stopped.
I don't, however, understand what my mother has endured over the years. To think—to know, even—that she was, and still is, largely responsible for her own child's pain? I cannot imagine what that kind of suffering feels like. Worse than a migraine, possibly, because the pain that comes from this knowledge never really subsides. I wouldn't fault her if she tried to pin my pain on someone else. Someone, say, like God.
So these days, when I find myself thinking about my mother's religious devotion, I find that it is complicated. Because the truth is this: while it was probably difficult for my mother to wrap her mind around the fact that God—our Father to whom we prayed for health and happiness—could possibly inflict such pain on her little girl, it was still easier for her to believe that my pain was a direct result of God's decisions, still easier to point a finger at Him rather than acknowledge and accept her part in all of this.
She was more willing to plead and bargain because the alternative to these things was accepting what the medical field had already established: the existence of a migraine gene and a 70-80% chance that women will pass this gene on to their daughters.
"Okay, that was our introduction to the Splitting of the Red Sea. Let's learn some Exodus."
Many people are familiar with Exodus and the Splitting of the Red Sea. As the story goes, the Jewish nation fled from Egyptian slavery, but they were caught with nowhere to go: the Red Sea prevented any forward movement and the Egyptian army chased from behind. Orthodox Jewish schools don't stop there, however. They also teach commentaries on the Bible. And, in seventh grade, this is what I was told.
"Girls, it wasn't an Abracadabra kind of moment where God mumbled a few inaudible words and made the sea split just as the Jewish people approached its shore. God gave us instructions! He told everyone to ignore Egypt's army and jump into the sea."
"Wait, He told them to just jump?"
"Please raise your hand, Wendy," Mrs. Stern said. "But yes, He told Moses to tell everyone to jump in. As you can imagine, though, people were afraid. They didn't want to endure the pain of slavery anymore, but they also couldn't bring themselves to jump; they were afraid of drowning. People were crying, screaming, praying for help.
"And then everything changed. A man named Nakhshon ben Aminadav stood beside Moses at the water's edge. He gazed at the approaching Egyptian army before turning around and surveying the rough waters of the Red Sea. And then he walked right into the water. The waves splashed past his shoulders and the sea split only after Nakhshon's head was completely submerged.
"Now let me ask you, has anyone here heard of Nakhshon?"
We all sat in silence, none of us raising our hands, and she waited a few dramatic moments before continuing.
"This is the point right here, girls. Nakhshon was a regular guy. Just an ordinary person like you and me. Nobody really talks about him like they talk about Moses or David or Solomon, right? We don't hear much about Nakhshon before this incident and certainly not afterwards. But he alone walked into those waters, and it wasn't because he didn't have fear; he was just as scared as the rest of them. He simply walked into those waters despite his fear. While everyone else prayed for a miracle—for the Egyptians to slow down, or die, or for the ocean to drain—Nakhshon prayed for something else: the ability to accept the situation at hand.
"Girls, he asked for the strength to walk right into the sea."
When I look at an overview of my life—and my life with chronic migraines, in particular—I seem to think about it in flashes of four.
At eight: Your migraines are classified as "chronic", but they ARE treatable.
Twelve: Migraines typically even out once you hit puberty.
Sixteen: When the hormones calm down and you pass the teenage years, your migraines should definitely decrease in frequency and intensity.
Twenty: People usually grow out of this. And you know, pregnancy is oftentimes very beneficial to those with migraines. So when you're ready for that, one day...
But I had stopped listening by then. By twenty, I had stopped hoping.
I am now twenty-five years old, and the migraines are still there. They still sneak up on me when I am writing papers, going out with friends, or getting dressed for a date. And when the pain interferes with my life, I try to think of Nakhshon, a man who, in the midst of chaos and suffering and uncertainty, prayed for the strength to trust.
I remind myself of this story, this prayer for trust and faith.
And it makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I can do that, too.
On each side of our head, we have a temple.
I do not think that this is coincidental.
When my left temple throbs during a migraine episode, I am past the point of praying. I am incapable of doing anything but lying face down in bed.
But when I am feeling healthy? Those are the moments when I pray.
I do not, however, pray for the pain to subside, or vanish, or disappear altogether; it seems like a waste of breath when I have already accepted what genetics has determined to be the outcome.
So I ask for other things.
Sometimes, I pray that the pain will wait. Wait until I have already parked the car, wait until my flight has landed, wait until I have handed in that final exam, wait until the gorgeous guy walks me to the door and says good night.
Other times, I pray that my mom will one day accept what science has already informed us about migraines. And I pray that God gives her the ability to forgive herself for something she never could have changed.
Mostly though, I pray for the strength to trust God and accept the pain, even when my head feels like it is splitting down the middle and I am in the midst of chaos and suffering and uncertainty.
Mostly, I pray to be like Nakhshon.