Chapter Eighteen: I Have Thanked Thee For My Roses…

“My God, I have never thanked You for my thorn. I have thanked You a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorn. I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensation for my cross; but I have never thought of my cross as itself a present glory. Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn. Show me that I have climbed to You by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbows.” –George Matheson.

May & June of last year were honestly two of the most difficult months of my health journey. There were definitely a lot of mixed emotions. Dr. Cherry, my vascular surgeon at UVA, had officially offered to perform a Left Renal Vein Transposition Surgery. My current diagnosis was Nutcracker Syndrome, which is caused by a compression of the left renal vein (that carries blood purified by the left kidney) between the Superior Mesenteric Artery & the abdominal aorta. Because of the severity of the compression, my blood flow had been compromised which made it very weak. Often when it couldn’t go where it’s supposed to go, the blood found alternate routes, causing spinal congestion, midline congestion, & pelvic congestion in addition to causing my chronic pain + other symptoms. This surgery was an opportunity to permanently fix that. The transposition would move the vein to where it would no longer be compressed, allowing it to flow openly & therefore hopefully solving my problem.

At this time, we were still very new to the health game. These syndromes are so rare, it’s incredibly difficult to find accurate information regarding them & the few treatment options there are. This was completely uncharted territory for us. At that time, with the information we had, knowing what we knew, this surgery seemed like the very best next step for me. We were beyond grateful to God for Dr. Cherry’s willingness to offer me the surgery, as it was definitely not something he did often. You only know what you know.

However, there were a lot of variables to consider, & they were scary ones.

  • It is one of the rarest surgeries performed in the United States. Dr. Cherry was the best at it on the East Coast, although he had only done about ten in his entire career. We were incredibly blessed to be located so close to him & UVA, as some people actually would travel from as far as Texas just to be under his care.
  • It is a major surgery….full open abdominal. I would be cut from the base of my sternum to right above my pubic bone. This would mean permanently altering my body, learning to live with a huge, jagged scar. It would be roughly four hours lying completely open in the OR, two days in the ICU, & 5 days admitted to the hospital. For me, this was one of the most concerning aspects of all. I had already had so many traumatic experiences in hospitals, & had had an extremely difficult time staying even just a night or two. I couldn’t even fathom being able to last an entire week.
  • The recovery is quite intense. There were obviously risks, as there are with any surgery….but especially with operating so close to a major artery. There was a real possibility they would have to cut into my thigh as well to graft a vein, which would complicate an already difficult recovery. We hoped with me being tall my vein would be long enough to stretch to where it would be relocated, but we knew it could have to be done, nonetheless. I was told it would be 3-6 months before seeing any improvement in my symptoms, & a year total before I would be fully recovered.
  • But the biggest unknown, the most terrifying variable was the fact this surgery was not a guaranteed fix. There was a huge risk. It was a 50/50 success rate. Dr. Cherry had had half of the surgeries work, & half of the surgeries fail. 50% chance it would be successful & I would find the healing I so desperately longed for. 50% chance it would fail & I would’ve gone through all of that agony just to be right back where I was before, & with a huge scar to boot. The very thought of the latter happening was enough to paralyze me with anxiety.

But despite all of this, looking back I realize the truth is it wasn’t even really a decision at all. After all the fun activities of April, you could say I started my 18th year off with a bang. 😉 My body completely crashed. It was maxed out from everything I had put it through, the strain of me pushing so hard through the pain. Just a few days after my 18th birthday party I had a severe pain attack coupled with dehydration & ended up at our local ER, the UVA ER, & finally after all that, a consultation with Dr. Cherry. It was a huge wake up call for all of us, including him. & as soon as he walked into the consultation room, looked me in the eye, & informed me he would be willing, I knew I was going to do it…whether I admitted it to myself at the time or not. Because for the first time in awhile I actually had options. I actually had a way out.

I could either:

  1. Go for the “safe” route & opt against the surgery. But this would mean living in my current state for who knew how long & my current situation was hell. In fact, one of my journal entries from May reminds me of just how insane the situation was. “My sickness has really escalated. I’m in so much pain almost all the time. I have pain in my left thigh, spine, left & right abdominal, groin, & under my ribs. I’m so tired all the time. I feel like I’m living from my bed. But is this really living? Lately the pain hasn’t been suppressed by the medication, & I deal with intense side-effects. I haven’t been able to go out & it drives me insane. I daily battle doubts that I’ll make it. The surgery is so far away.” The simple fact was I wasn’t even sure I could make it to the end of June till my surgery date, much less an indefinite period of time. That in itself told me everything I needed to know.
  2. I could take a terrifying leap of faith, gather every ounce of courage I had, & pray like I had never prayed before that I would be in the 50% success rate. & despite the unknowns, I truly believed that because I had already gone through so much if I did this God would reward me & my trust in Him. I believed He would help me find healing. I believed this would be it. Because I desperately needed this to be it. Because I needed to find healing as soon as humanly possible. & I was willing to walk through hell one last time to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. Whatever it took.

So I talked in-depth with my parents, thought it through, & prayed my heart out. & just one week later….I decided to have crazy faith & take the risk. I had to try.

But it was anything but easy. Truthfully, I was absolutely terrified of what I was about to endure. Petrified of the unknowns. Frozen in fear. My darkest thought was, “maybe something will go wrong in this surgery so I won’t come out & this will all be over.” I was petrified that this–my seemingly one & only shot–would fail. I was desperately crying out for someone to help me in the way I needed to be helped yet not communicating my needs out of fear of judgement or condemnation. I felt like so many people were looking to me to be strong & to fight but I was just surviving & that was taking literally everything I had.

Bottom line….I was scared out of my mind.

Because of my fear of leaning on others, I did the only thing I knew to do: lean on God. Even when my heart felt nothing & it felt like I was talking to a wall. Even when I didn’t have the strength to pray out loud. Even when all I could do was ask “why” as tears streamed down my face. Sometimes that was all I could do, & even if I didn’t know it at the time, that was okay. 

One afternoon in early June, I was sitting at my desk having my time with Jesus. I opened my devotional to the designated chapter of the day, “When the Pain Never Ends.”  Immediately–simply based on the title alone–God opened my eyes, heart, & mind. “Daughter, surrender your heart to Me. I am about to teach you something very, very valuable…something you’ll cling to for the rest of your life. One of My most important lessons yet. Trust me.”

I knew something life changing was about to happen.

I start to read & instantly feel my heart begin to awaken. & then comes the transformation, the revelation, the secret, the miracle. “My God, I have never thanked You for my thorn. I have thanked You a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorn. I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensation for my cross; but I have never thought of my cross as itself a present glory. Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn. Show me that I have climbed to You by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbows.” –George Matheson.

I’m sitting there at my desk in the quiet in my chair with my lavender candle burning & the taste of my favorite tea lingering on my tongue just like any other day & it hits me like a bolt of lightening.

The crushing, scary, raw truth is this: in this life there are some trials in which the pain never passes. There will be ongoing, heartbreaking struggles that grind away at us. Chronic illness. A broken marriage. The loss of a loved one. A broken dream. Depression. Unfulfilled longings. A miscarriage. It’s so easy to wish them away, to fantasize about what life would look like without them. It’s easy to believe the lie that if just this one thing was different, you would be able to handle everything else no problem. I know because I’ve done it.

But I’m learning that these struggles, this pain that never ends, is a gift wrapped in black. I’m learning the value of suffering. Because these trials are the ones that shape me into the woman I am today, mold my character, draw me closer to Jesus, & enable me to see His glory. So despite it, I have made it my life mission to always, always thank God. But that’s when it hits me….I have thanked Him for my roses, but not my thorns. You see, I have thanked Him for His presence, His hand upon my life, the ways I have seen Him work. I have thanked Him for the various blessings despite the pain. I have thanked Him for His grace, comfort, & sustaining power in the trial.

But I had never thanked Him for the health journey itself. I have never thanked Him for these trials in which the pain never passes. Not one time.

Because in the words of Joni Eareckson Tada, “maybe this wheelchair felt like a horrible tragedy in the beginning, but I give thanks to God in my wheelchair….I’m grateful for my quadriplegia. It’s a bruising of a blessing. A gift wrapped in black. It’s the shadowy companion that walks with me daily, pulling & pushing me into the arms of my Savior. & that’s where the joy is. Your wheelchair, whatever it is, falls well within the overarching decrees of God. Your hardship & heartache come from His wise & kind hand & for that, you can be grateful. In it & for it.”

So with my heart bowed low, my hands held high, my legs shaking, & tears in my eyes, I took a deep breath, gathered every ounce of strength & courage I had, & for the first time ever I thanked God for my thorn. 

& I immediately felt the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. I immediately felt a peace that surpassed all understanding gently wash my fears, doubts, & anxieties away like a beautiful, redeeming spring rain. I immediately felt the arms of God providing the comfort I had been seeking all along.

& I took a deep, life giving breath in, slowly let it out, & for the first time in several weeks, allowed myself to really, truly smile.

Because for the first time in several weeks, I felt free. 

That seemingly normal morning in June changed my life, my faith, my perspective. It taught me to view my cross as a present glory. It taught me the value of my thorn. It taught me that my tears are making my rainbows. But most importantly, it reminded me that I am climbing to my Father by this path of pain. This seemingly never ending pain is only temporary. It will end someday, whether on earth or in heaven. So for now, I am allowing this precious pain to push me into the arms of my Heavenly Father who loves me with a reckless, passionate love, & is faithful to provide His dreams for me. My gift wrapped in black. & I will always not only thank God in it, but for it.