A Healing Presence

"Come Lord, be with us
And bless what thou hast
given to us."

These words came to me again in meeting this morning, and I prayed the traditional blessing fervently as I have many times this year. Today beautiful spring sunshine and our gathered worship community made it easy to feel truly blessed. And I thought of many times in the past year when I have been overwhelmed with a deep sense of thankfulness and a need to express my gratitude in prayer.

The words first came to me a year ago as I lay in the emergency room at Emory Hospital, still in shock from the news that my balance and vision had been damaged by a stroke. Because I was only 56, in good health, and had a history of migraines, the doctors initially diagnosed a migraine with dizziness. When my right side became numb, my right eye no longer tracked, and I could not stand without support, tests confirmed the diagnosis of a stroke. This happened on February 12, 2003. While I waited to be admitted and throughout the hospital stay, the words played silently, constantly, like a song I couldn’t forget.

The next day in the hospital I was glad to meet the attending neurologist, a woman about my age. She asked how I was feeling, and I told her that my head felt better as long as I didn’t move. Then I asked, "Does this mean that I need to cancel a retreat that I’m scheduled to lead in South Carolina next weekend?" She looked at me with a serious expression and then laughed while she said, "You know, you have a really good excuse."

Her humor and patient instruction helped me begin to understand the seriousness of my loss and the time needed for full recovery. Dave, a close Friend from meeting who was also a neurologist, confirmed her advice and gently told me to think in terms of a year and a half. In spite of this, I still planned on giving a motivational speech for the annual volunteer banquet of the Council on Aging on March 18. After all, I thought, it’s only 20 minutes and 200 people, and I’ll just reschedule the other work I’ve committed to before that so I can do the therapy I need. The reality was that turning my head to see what was around me, even in bed, made me dizzy and the first short walks down the hospital corridor required my complete energy, concentration, and the help of a physical therapist. The words of the blessing were always there, a very present mantra that was comforting and necessary. It was only later that I began to wonder why I kept praying these words.

Other Friends from meeting visited bringing food, laughter, and the Care Quilt made of squares stitched by Friends and passed around to those in need. It didn’t occur to me when I helped make the quilt that I would need it, but the experience of resting and recovering under it was a daily dose of wonderful medicine. The Care Quilt also brought compliments and questions from the hospital staff and gave me a chance to tell them about the loving support I had from our Quaker community. My husband, Bill, was always there reassuring me that we could take this journey together. When my daughter, Lisa, came with her one-year-old daughter, Zoë, I realized not only how much I wanted to recover and watch Zoë grow, but also how much like this toddler I was as I tried to learn to walk again, unsure when to hold on and when to let go.

During the next two months, I struggled with rehab and outpatient therapy, retraining my brain to walk (and chew gum) and keep both eyes working together. The blessing was often on my mind as I rested between therapy sessions, and the questions became more persistent about why the words were constantly on my mind and heart. From early childhood, I was taught to pray from my heart with my own words, and I have continued this practice, rarely using any memorized prayer. In the Baptist church I attended through high school, and since coming to Friends, I have seldom been with others who prayed with prepared words. Even saying the Lord’s Prayer seems more often ritual than heartfelt to me. And then there was the problem with the words themselves. I believe in a loving, compassionate God—not one who would give me a stroke, cause infants to die, or send war and disaster. Why, then, did I pray, "Bless what thou has given to us"? Wrestling with these questions did not stop the prayer from being with me.

Finally, I gave up wondering why, and I simply prayed the words whenever they came. Only then did I discern an answer. The stress of my life and my genetic predisposition caused the stroke. God used many people to shower me with blessings during the time of healing. The prayer gave me a profound sense of God’s presence and the sure heart knowledge that I was being held by a loving community of family and friends. For the first time in my life, I was convinced that I was loved for who I was, not just for what I could do. Perhaps the most important discovery was that the blessings come from this year of rest and provide the help I need to grow in new ways. The physical struggles with balance and vision are akin to spiritual struggles. New life begins in darkness.

Mary Ann Downey

Mary Ann Downey, a member of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting, is director of Decision Bridges, which promotes consensus decision making.