Of Dragons and Diagnosis



My mom is sick. She comes from good genetic stock and is never sick, so this has come as a surprise. When my dad texted and said “Your mother is in the hospital and it’s serious,” I was confused.

Surely this was a different mother, somebody else’s mother, my dad was writing about. After the confusion subsided and acceptance settled in I felt hollowed out, like a Halloween pumpkin, but without the grin.

In the couple weeks since she was admitted to the hospital, the hollowed feeling as been replace by a feeling of great fullness. I’ve carried the reality of my mother’s illness (and lack of diagnosis) around with me like something large and growing that requires constant attention and tenderness, like, say, a baby dragon—something powerful, dangerous and totally riveting.

The challenge of living with an attention-riveting dragon is to somehow stay present to the power of God to heal and to the goodness of God in the present moment.

To help meet this challenge, I remembered a story my sister told me that is often recounted in meditation circles. It goes like this: a man is chased by tigers to the edge of a cliff. He sees a rope and starts to climb down only to realize there are tigers down below as well. In his despair he looks up and notices a mouse gnawing on the rope. As hope drains from him, he looks to his left and notices a ledge no wider than his hand. On the ledge grows a strawberry plant with one perfectly ripe strawberry. He reaches, picks the strawberry and savours it.

I ruminated on this story as the growing dragon of my mother’s situation threatened to overwhelm me with fear and anxiety. And as I ruminated, I worked in the garden and heard a warbler in the tree. So I sat down and listened to the warbler’s song. I stayed present to the warbler.

I told my sister about this little moment of “nowness” and my attempt at warbler-listening detachment and she said, “Well, the point is to also stay open and present to the pain.” Ah, now there’s the rub: I’m not sure how I’m supposed to stay present to the bird and the dragon at the same moment!

Maybe (my sister would want to say) eating the strawberry isn’t so much about distraction as pausing to take a deep breath before looking back down at the potential doom that awaits. Maybe it’s about not forsaking the nourishment even if it seems inopportune and pointless.

Maybe pausing to register the beauty of creation in the present moment gives one the courage to pause and also tenderly name, with honesty but without judgment, the emotion of fear in one’s heart in the present moment.

Maybe savoring the gift of beauty emboldens one to pay attention to the not-so-beautiful emotions.

And then to let them go.


Image credit: Nic Piégsa