“We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” That is a line from American fiction writer John Updike’s short story “The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island.” I read that story, along with many other Updike stories, and even an excellent biography of John Updike, over recent days and weeks.
That line sounds deep chords within me because I am in a place where I have never been, at least to this degree, before—on the receiving end of medical treatment. Heretofore I have been healthy. I’ve never broken a bone, never had major surgery. My mom tells me I had tubes in my ears when I was a baby and I know my tonsils were removed when a child, but that’s it. I have been fortunate in the field of physical health.
But on 2 April 2019 in Iraq, that changed. My right shoulder and bicep ripped during physical training, the right shoulder dislocated, the dumbbells fell, and I collapsed onto the mat.
Now I am back in the States undergoing physical therapy, spending a lot of time in medical appointments and waiting rooms (where Updike’s fiction has been my companion), and I am likely looking at surgery.
I have been forced to slow down. It has, to return to Updike’s image, felt like a snail’s pace. But I have been able to read carefully, not just in the various doctors’ offices, but also in my room at night when the shoulder pain keeps me up.
Doctors’ offices are not my preferred environments. Sitting in the cold plastic chairs, removing my uniform top, having my blood pressure taken, being asked my height and weight, being told to wait (“The doctor will be with you shortly, sir”), flusters me. I do not do well in this environment; I want to return to work.
I look around these waiting rooms filled with soldiers (current and veteran) and family members. Some have black hats on advertising their wars: VIETNAM VET; KOREAN VET; and a few, WWII VET. Of course, these waiting rooms are filled with soldiers from my generation’s conflicts and wars: IFOR/SFOR in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
I watch the people. The young ones have their phones out. The viewers are hunched over them, streaming videos, scrolling social media, or playing inane games that keep their thumbs and index fingers twitching.
Overhead hang TV monitors. Daytime entertainers don perfect smiles, show tanned skin, and speak through teeth white as Chiclets. They blather about an Elton John movie and politics in the Middle East. They smile, give hugs to each other, clap like penguins, and smile again.
On cue, their audiences transition from subject to subject unawares. Yesterday, Kathy Lee and Ryan talked about dangers to dogs in the summertime, an Elton John movie, and Robert Mueller. They and their guests all smile, they hug a lot, and there are lots of ooos and ahhhs. They smile, sip coffee from giant porcelain cups, emote. The TV audience smiles, applauds, and seems so happy they are on the verge of erupting into hallelujahs.
And I have lots of questions: Why this injury? Why did it occur less than two weeks before I was slated to return to the States with my unit?
But I know it would make more sense to ask different questions: Why not me? Why not this injury or even worse? What makes me think I get a pass? Why should I think I get a pass on suffering or hardship?
I return to my reading. Later in the same Updike story referenced above, the main character describes the prayers of his local pastor come to visit a family whose grandfather had just died, and Updike writes: “His prayers seemed to chip pieces from our hearts and float them away.” Yes and amen.
To be snail-like and “leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves” is a beautiful line, I believe. Some find their callings there—to call attention to our own and others’ plights, by expressing them through writing or ministry.
Paul phrased it this way: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor1:1-4).
I admire Updike’s fiction. He does indeed “give the mundane its beautiful due.” But does not that desire need an ought, a reason, a justification? If it does, could it be that we desire to “leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves” because we sense we are here as part of a greater design, one ordained even, where not even a sparrow falls to the ground except by way of the will of God?