One Bible verse disturbs me more than any other.
It’s not the one telling me to sell my laptop computer and king-size bed because “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).
It’s the words the prophet Simeon used–as he took the baby Jesus into his arms on the day the Catholic Church celebrates as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord–to foretell Mary’s sorrow: “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35).
Psychologists have noted that there is no pain worse than Mary’s–grieving the death of a child. Surely a runner up is seeing a son or daughter suffer, and being incapable of stopping or lessening it in some way.
My son David inherited my genes that predispose him to all sorts of fun stuff like mood, sensory-integration, and anxiety disorders. Even before he emerged from my womb in a scary emergency C-section–where I heard a roomful of doctors and nurses yell through their green masks, “Come on, baby, don’t do this! Hang in there, Sweetheart!”–I knew I was in for a ride.
I just didn’t realize how much it would hurt.
When he was two I took David to see a behavioral specialist because I knew his tantrums weren’t normal.
“Describe them,” the doctor said.
“For well over an hour he will scream, writhe and thrash his entire body, yelling with so much intensity that I check to see if he has broken a bone. A few times, I paged his pediatrician because I feared that he swallowed coins or something else on the floor and was suffering from bowel obstruction. The books I read say to ignore it. But I’m worried he’s going to get a concussion the way he pounds his head against the wall or the kitchen tile floor.”
“If he is banging his head that hard, then the best thing to do is to hold him tightly until he calms down,” she said.
A few days later, during his next anxiety attack, I went to hold my son. He tried to squirm out of my arms, thrashing and writhing, but I held each of his limbs tightly so he couldn’t escape. Controlling the wild 30 pounds was more difficult than swimming 25 meters of a pool with a panicked football player under my right arm (part of the test I passed to get my lifeguard license back in high school).
As I hugged him, tucking his little hands into mine, not only did I feel his anxiety, I experienced my own childhood anxiety more acutely than had I been on a couch next to an expert hypnotist. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I became the scared eight-year-old shrieking with terror in the middle of the night, sitting up in my twin bed with beads of sweat dripping from my forehead as I held a plastic rosary in my hand.
You would think the Hail Marys and Our Fathers I uttered while trying to fall asleep would protect me from the anxiety induced by my recurring dream, but it didn’t. As soon as my head hit the pillow, the image was always the same: a line–of rope or thread or yarn–moving from side to side in a slow, methodical tempo like the needle of a metronome, gradually becoming entangled as the rhythm evaporated and a chaotic mess ensued. All order was lost, and the rushed madness resulted in a ball of crinkled trash.
“It was only a dream,” my mom would tell me, as I trembled and sobbed in her arms. “Dreams can’t hurt you,” she said, as she combed my thick hair with her fingers and wiped the tears from my eyes.
But I knew better. My dreams were Simeon’s prophecies…of fears that would become reality, of order that would end in chaos, of my future.
As one scared kid trying to comfort another, I rocked David in my arms.
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to calm him and control his flailing limbs. “Breathe in,” I whispered. “Breathe out.”
How badly I wanted to take away his anxiety, to throw it into my own collection of issues, to feel the fear for him so he wouldn’t have to.
But that would mean no resurrection. Because Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead–restoring us to peace and serenity–without the crucifixion: that Good Friday, where Mary stood underneath his cross bleeding from her heart, feeling as if a sword had pierced her soul.