In his homespun mid-American mountain drawl, Craddock took his congregation back to a long, delirious night in his boyhood, as a fever boiled off terrifying visions in the trees and mists outside his bedroom window. Ghosts and “haints” stalked the fearful night — restless, relentless spirits known to hound their victims to death by sheer exhaustion.
Oh, what a night it was for the tossing, turning little boy, half-dreaming, half-hallucinating. Each dark hour seemed to unfold into another even darker; the bedsheets tangled and clutching; shadows raking across the bedroom ceiling. But daylight and the fever finally broke as one. The lonely suffering of the soulful boy lifted. His matted head found that the blazing pillow was cool on the other side, and he heard birdsong and dew dripping from sun-sparkled boughs. Joy came with the morning.
My experience of covid-19 has involved an unwelcome multitude of haints and goblins. Weeping has tarried for the night — more than one night, through 10 days, now, of doubt and disappointment. It’s not the fever and malaise one cries over, though. I don’t think even little 8-year-old Fred Craddock cried in his illness.
What will make a grown man cry is the way sickness shrinks his world. Whether it is an annoying affliction, like my “mild to moderate” coronavirus infection, or a truly catastrophic illness, the sort of suffering that makes my virus a mere trifle, sickness strips away the illusion of adequacy. One is getting the job done until — poof! No longer. Which raises the question of just how adequate one was to begin with.
What good am I in this condition to my four children who are trying to navigate this upside-down world? Their work is vanishing. Their schools have closed. Their plans are up in smoke. They’re too young to know that this is what life does to us. When it is not lavishing goodness, life is posing tests — and only later do we realize that the tests were the greatest goodness. My kids could use a father now, but theirs has been huddled on a bed, inert on a sofa or shuffling past with unseen haints before his eyes.
I have a wife whose own health is less than perfect. We’ve worked out a mutual dependency. Suddenly, I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. Worse, I’m a threat, a carrier, a vector of night terrors.
The gift of this unpleasant infection has forced me to go past self-pity and weeping to a humbler understanding of myself and my place in a community. My weakness is my community’s strength. The less I am good for, the more magnificent my family and friends become. The house is full of food. My email is miles deep in attaboys and warm wishes. I ask for a blood-oxygen monitor; 30 minutes later, it’s on the porch. Doctors I’ve never met coach me through each step of the recovery. Readers who disagree with every word I write send assurance that they’re praying for me, and friends who don’t pray at all promise a double portion of whatever their strongest mojo might be.
The pandemic is helping us to see how our individual haint-filled nights are part of a larger life force. Health is not a purely individual concern. My helplessness in recovery can be precisely what the community needs: I am surviving the virus but not spreading it. Some of us are chosen to suffer, some to console; some to isolate, others to plunge into the fray; some to give, some to receive; some to be broken, others to be healers. We are still at the beginning of this terrible teaching. We need to respect it and give it the fullness of time. Weeping may tarry for the night.
But joy comes in the morning. Joy comes with the breaking of fevers and easing of fears. Joy comes with the battles bravely won or bravely lost. With the sacrifice of self to the service of others, joy comes.
We won’t be the same country that awakens from this illness, but I believe we can be a stronger country, with a greater appreciation for the parts we each play in the only community we’ve got. We’ve dwelt too long with the dark and fitful shadows of our febrile times. We can rise up from the sickbed and walk into the day.
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