As always on Easter, this past Sunday our family arrived early to church. Unsteady on my super-duper high-heels, I ushered my two grumpy sleep-deprived children (diving into Easter baskets at 5:30 AM is so darn fun!) into a pew near the front of the church. Because we were so early, my husband and I let them bring books to read before the service.
Sitting between my eight-year-old son, Atticus, and six-year-old daughter, Amelia, so they wouldn’t fight, my husband, Shawn, and I talked quietly to people around us and admired the beautiful flower arrangements around the altar and balconies of our Episcopal cathedral. The drizzling cool morning was supposed to give way to a brighter warmer afternoon. I had a spiral cut ham seasoned and ready to pop in the oven when we got home. I had a coconut cake ready to slice. And miraculously, I had cleaned my house. (Well…at least the living and dining rooms.)
By the time the organ music started and we stood to sing the first hymn, Amelia was already whining that she was hungry. I looked down to see Atticus hunched over, fast asleep over his Where’s Waldo book in the pew beside me. He was particularly cute in his brown tweed jacket, red bow tie, and his untamable blonde curly hair. Chuckling, Shawn and I just let him sleep. Then, just as the choir processional began down the Cathedral aisle, Atticus, slumped further into the pew, I turned to pull him back up but he went rigid and fell hard onto the wooden floor—hitting his head on the pew wall and drooling excessively, he began convulsing in a grand mal seizure.
“He’s having a seizure,” I hissed as Shawn and I struggled to get him off the floor in the narrow pew aisle. Quickly, Shawn whisked him outside through a side door. Telling Amelia to stay where she was, I slipped outside the church to make certain that the seizure had stopped. I found Shawn outside holding him—Atticus was still, his pupils dilated. We’d been through this before and we knew what would happen. Soon he would fall asleep, so Shawn took him to the church library, where he waited with Atticus as he slept through the rest of the service.
Returning to my seat, I wiped Atticus's drool off my open hymnal and whispered to the concerned and kind parishioners around us that our son has epilepsy and he is alright. But I was distracted—throughout the hymns, throughout the Eucharist, throughout getting sprinkled with Holy Water, I kept seeing Atticus falling hard into the pew aisle.
At this point, we’re used to dealing with these seizures. He has a childhood form of epilepsy where sometimes he has seizures when he falls asleep. Usually he’s in bed when he has one. This was the first time he had one during a nap and in public.
For me, the Easter service suddenly became difficult. My mind was on Atticus and how managing this epilepsy has become part of our lives. I thought of how we’ve been told that Atticus will likely outgrow these seizures, but they’ll likely peak when he’s eight and nine years old. So we’re at the beginning of about a two year span where they’ll be more frequent.
I think the season of Lent has helped me to accept things that I don’t want to accept—like Atticus’s epilepsy. Since leaving evangelicalism and becoming Episcopalian, practicing Lent before Easter forces me to face truths that I don’t want to about suffering. A Buddhist friend of mine said once that the only thing we can know for certain about everyone around us, strangers or friends, is that they suffer. It’s universal. Inescapable. We cannot live unscathed.
A few years ago, I posted a wonderful NPR interview with Anne Lamott about Easter on my Facebook wall. She describes Easter and the season of Lent. She talks about how we’re living in a Good Friday world and Lent is that time where we face this reality and instead of soothing ourselves with divergences such as IKEA runs, we use it as a time for reflection and spiritual growth. I posted the interview on my Facebook wall, hoping to inspire and comfort friends, but within a few minutes, some evangelical friends and family members started criticizing the post, claiming that she never mentioned the “resurrection”—that she never affirmed the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Too weary for a Facebook fight, I sighed, pushed myself away from my laptop, thinking that’s what you get from the interview? Really?
Growing up evangelical, we didn’t celebrate Lent. Easter was the day when my siblings and I got baskets loaded with candy. It was the one day of the year when we wore hats to church and at the service there was a bit more extra fanfare—a few more songs, lots of lilies around the altar. My sisters and I, high on chocolate bunnies, squabbled and pinched each other in the pew. Our preacher described the resurrection and, depending on what denomination of church we were in at the time, sometimes there was an altar call. Not always, but often the sermon was defensive, in the same way that our Christmas sermons sought to prove that the virgin birth was authentic—a real deal event—on Easters, I heard countless arguments about why Jesus was really, literally resurrected. Maybe this is comforting to some and I respect that. But by the time I was fifteen, I wearied of such sermons. In my own spiritual experience, these sermons never motivated me.
I recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Truth be told, I often struggle to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, an afterlife, or that people will one day be resurrected Lazarus-like in the Gospel stories. It isn’t that I don’t believe these things, but like I said, it’s a bit of a fight for this natural-born skeptic. Truth be told, I’ve become OK with my doubt. I’ve begun to feel less guilty about it. For me, this uncertainty, this not knowing, has become an essential part of my faith. In my view, it’s the most marvelous truths about the world that would defy our comprehensive understanding.
What I do know, what I do see clearly with my own eyes, is that something is fundamentally off-kilter with the world around me. It’s why we miscarry babies, why so many of the mentally ill are homeless. It’s why we have drones, famines, drunk drivers, school shootings, and yes—why little boys get epilepsy. Lent forces me to reflect upon these afflictions. I can never ever make sense of them, but I can step back and face them—acknowledge this world often does indeed seem more Good Friday than Easter.
After the Easter service, shaken, and honestly—feeling sorry for myself as a parent that I have to deal with this—I found Shawn and Atticus in the church courtyard. Atticus, his bowtie crooked, sat on a stone bench, slumped and pale as he tried to eat an iced cinnamon roll. The sun had broken through the clouds and several of our friends stood nearby comforting us and sharing some stories of friends or relatives who also had epilepsy—many of them worse forms than the type we’re dealing with.
In that courtyard and throughout the afternoon, I kept reminding myself that after Lent comes Easter. Even though on Maundy Thursday, our Cathedral altar is stripped, the communion wafers and wine taken away, the crosses all covered in black material, there is always Easter. And in spite of my doubts, my skepticism, my sarcasm, and my general limitations as a human being, I do believe that the Gospel story of sacrifice and resurrection is true in a much greater sense than a literal one. The Gospel story of Jesus is the story of how we’ve been offered undeserved grace in spite of ourselves and our world. Because of this, I choose to embrace hope amid the shitty cards dealt to us by our genes or the world. It’s not a rose-colored glasses view, but a fundamental belief that compassion, honesty, and our sloppy attempts to be unselfish have genuine and radical implications in an off-kilter world.