One June summer day, after spending time on the water with our children and my father in law, visiting from his home in Montana, my husband complained of a headache.
His headache grew as we got off the boat, so he handed me the keys and asked me to drive home. As I drove his headache worsened until he was keening in the back seat of our minivan, and my trip home turned into a panicked drive to urgent care.
Thinking he had pinched a nerve on the boat, I imagined a short recovery. Instead, over the next twelve hours he was sent by ambulance from one emergency room to another until he landed at Dell Seton, our city's trauma hospital, awaiting brain surgery for a brain hemorrhage and aneurysm.
His story - unlike many others in our lives - had a happy ending. He did not need brain surgery after a follow up MRI the next morning showed the hemorrhage without an aneurysm. After saying good bye to our children that night, awaiting his impending death, he walked out of the ICU a week later with no brain damage, stroke side effects, or physical or cognitive impairments.
The nurses said his recovery was 1 in ten million.
During that time, and in the weeks after, I was blessed over and over by prescient visitors - ways the past rose to meet and greet me, here, in this place of need: the trauma training that I'd studied four summers previously that helped me recognize and care for my children's PTSD in the wake of the accident; the insight of the wisdom school whose shores I had just left, three weeks earlier, and whose words were the exact words the brain surgeon said upon meeting us in the hospital room; the check from a friend that arrived in the mail on the very day I had no idea how we'd pay our bills.
That autumn, when I went back to Canada for the last session of my wisdom school, the co-founder said to me, when she relayed that my tuition had already been anticipated and paid for, weeks ago, by a generous anonymity - "I hope this helps you appreciate all the ways you are loved and cared for, even as they may be unknown to you."
To be on the receiving end of such largesse - and such beauty - changes you. The gifts of that time come to revisit me, over and over, reminding me that we are not as alone as we might think, and that our calls for help are answered by each other - the miraculous way life weaves us together.
The title of the poem is the name of the sign that awaited me in the ICU waiting room in the wee hours of the morning when we arrived there. I remember thinking at the time, "Area of refuge, what a perfect name for this place!" Later, I came to find out that the sign was for a tornado shelter, not the waiting room. In more ways than one, a perfect name: another way I was on the receiving end of a kind of grace.
This poem was written in gratitude and honor of that grace and her weaving. May you find yourself in her threads.
Area of Refuge by Karly Randolph Pitman
It is a mystery
how just what we need
rises to meet us
in the exact moment
of our loss and undoing.
Need is a tender hand.
She says: you did not know, then,
how you would need me, now.
But I knew, and was in the wings
I listened for your cry –
the plea for the sweet milk
of my particular mercy.
And though I flowed
into your hollow riverbed
in what may have felt like miracle
It is my nature to flow,
to fill the banks of your aching.
It is your ripeness
that hastens my arrival –
the need before the need
and the cry under the cry
that pierces the veils of space and time
to connect what once seemed singular.
I am here to remind you
that even though
you feel terribly alone
you are not, and never are.
I am the spiral that says –
what is before you is also behind you
and who is behind you is also before you.
I am the caravan of saints
whose footsteps you follow
even as we are unnamed
and often unknown.
You call and we answer.
We hear and we rise.
We come to greet you, over and over.
We meet you in the river
and there, we dance.