Viral Voyage: Prayer Matters
I was raised by parents with graduate degrees in theology, whose understanding of Christianity embraced intellect, heart, and soul. Their Christian practice also embraced the world and other religions, not as substitute faiths, but as worthy of study, with acceptance toward others of different faiths. The bookshelves in our home proved as much. If you want to scare the daylights out of a toddler, a photo of a Tibetan lion is perfect. My sister and I deserved no small dose of hellfire for doing that to our little brother. Now, six decades later, with my own set of books on religions, my elevator pitch is this: God is the substance. Everything else is style. And, I choose to be a practicing Christian.
One part of this faith has never come easily to me, though, and that’s prayer. In my parents’ world, prayer was either personal and silent, or congregational and spoken aloud. Our joint confession was scripted for our congregation, and we read it together. I knew before-meal prayers, before-bedtime prayers, and some traditional benedictions and blessings. I learned hymn lyrics quickly. Even as a young child, I felt the Divine near me, an extra presence sometimes so palpable, I might speak to it. But I couldn’t call this “conversation” prayer as many know it.
I’m one of many who have said, “All I can do is pray,” as though it were the least and not the best thing I could do. I’ve harbored skeptic, petty thoughts when someone says, “I’ll pray for you,” such as: “I’d rather have cash, find me a babysitter, free therapy, a winning lottery ticket, or help me avoid surgery.”
I’ve been a writer since high school. Yet, in prayer, my words do not “flow.” I have friends who can pray on the phone, in the car, on a walk in the neighborhood, in a meeting — or standing over me in my study as I start to cry, finally acknowledging the fact that I won’t see the grandchildren I kept those books for. The friend helping me pack answered my tears with a spontaneous, beautiful prayer. I felt better. Why? I have no reason to think the prayer will help me see my grandchildren, although it might help me shoulder the sorrow of not seeing them. That’s not quite an “answered” prayer, is it?
I benefit a lot from memorized prayers. The Rosary has helped me sleep and ward off panic attacks. The soothing rhythms of the Lord’s Prayer (The Our Father) speak to my heart. Soon after I came home from the hospital post-Covid, I found a tiny prayer card to the Virgin of the Knots given to me 20 years ago by an Argentinian friend. It simply appeared, loose in a drawer where it “shouldn’t” have been. Then there’s the oldest prayer I know, attributed to an Eastern Orthodox pilgrim, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In a former study group, we often shortened this to repeating, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” This was what I said in my mind over and over from Covid ward to ICU to tracheotomy and finally to rehab.
My experience with prayer goes from being completely sure a prayer was answered or a request in prayer was granted, to experiencing life in a prayer desert. I still wonder why others’ prayer requests are granted, why some important part of their life was fulfilled, while mine wasn’t. I can talk myself out of this after just a few minutes of world news. I don’t live in Afghanistan. No one is shooting at me (although that’s become a greater possibility in Texas now with new laws). I have shelter, a basic income, a car, and a remarkable circle of friends. Still, my major life “dreams” and goals will not be realized. There are days when this digs at me like the devil.
On one day when I felt particularly dejected, I wrote: “If you can’t answer your own prayers, don’t give them to God. Vegas is better, given the odds.”
Covid-19 made its way into my body as silently as a prayer wafting toward heaven. I’ll never know exactly when it started moving through my body nor exactly when it found me. I’d followed all possible protocols, yet it found room to grow in the company of a congenital heart defect, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Epstein Barr Virus, and Lyme disease. I’d been lucky in finding ways to beat those odds for a decade. One day while working on a video shoot, I suddenly couldn’t move my legs. I don’t know what caused the temporary paralysis, but it was clear I couldn’t hide my physical problems any more. I forfeited my marketing job and entered the world of official disability. I sold my home, a brick cottage sheltered by enormous live oaks, pecan and pine trees, American elms, and Mimosas; an ecological miracle in the hot South Plains. I’ve never returned to see how they are, the trees. I rented an apartment in a four-plex in a “senior” community in September, 2019.
July, 2020: I began having nausea unlike any other I’d experienced before, staging a storm beneath my rib cage. It felt like someone was tracing over my abdomen with a sharp knife, as a TV criminal would menace a victim. The diarrhea grew worse. The toilet bowl filled with ink-black liquid. I’ll never be able to eat squid again. Food disgusted me. Crackers barely made it down. I got insanely weak. Leaning on a cane, I walked to the kitchen and put out food for my cats.
“I hate to tell you this,” my doctor said when I called. “One of Covid’s symptoms is horrendous diarrhea. We’d better get you tested.” I shared this news with close friends. No sooner was it shared than the prayers began. First, prayers for no Covid-19. Next, prayers for symptoms to get better, then for me not to go to hospital, for my breathing not to be affected, for, for …. and so the prayers went until in the middle of one night, my oxygen level went from 92 to 72. The next day, I was lifted onto a stretcher, heaved into an ambulance and driven to the hospital.
In the ER, a lovely blond nurse clapped a clear disk over my nose and mouth. I could feel the blessed oxygen pouring in. I could inhale, exhale, and repeat — effortlessly. A chest X-ray revealed “Covid lungs,” looking as though crystals were forming inside the airways. I wasn’t worried. I had six liters of air being piped into me! It was glorious, going from an oxygen level of 72 to 95. The nausea did not relent, however.
Over the next two days, I was tended to and cared for by an extraordinary, mostly young nursing staff. There were moments when I felt heaven in my hospital room.
The staff were brave, attentive, dedicated, and kind. I was too weak to stand. They moved a toilet chair next to my bed. Once I stood up from the chair and fell face down on the bed. I would call this an insufferable indignity, but for the kind nurse standing beside me. “This can happen to anyone,” she said reassuringly. “You’re very sick. Don’t apologize and don’t feel bad.” Perhaps I felt a touch of heaven in the hospital and remember these nurses as angels, though I cannot remember all of their names, because I can still recall each unique, ministering presence. I see their features, the concern in their eyes, and remember their many reassuring gestures. “Fear not” seemed seeded just beneath their speech.
It took days for the nausea to go away. Phenergan helped take the edge off and later stopped the vomiting which kicked in on day 2 of the hospital stay. At that point, I’d not heard or read how explosive Covid-19 could be. I thought it was just about the lungs — and quiet. I was approaching the point where it was about everything, from heart to nerves, stomach to brain, in addition to the anxiety of not being able to consume enough oxygen.
While nurses, respiratory therapists, and a nurse practitioner worked tirelessly to make me better, texts came in steadily over my phone, my only “personal” visitors. Almost every text included an offer to pray for me or a prayer itself.
A Facebook message group my brother started sent out more prayers and prayer requests. The prayers spread. People from my previous job. Friends of my friends. Friends overseas. People whose names I’ll never know. A Bible study group in Bowie, Texas. The Methodist church in Wichita Falls, the Baptist church in Burkburnett. A prayer group at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. A friend in Florida, more friends in Austin, and towns all over West Texas. Then prayers from Instagram friends in New York and Utah. One prayer still brings tears to my eyes. It came from one of my oldest, dearest friends who lives in Scotland. He sent me a recording of “Mi Shebeirach,” a healing prayer in Hebrew, sung by Debbie Friedman, blessed be her memory. To this day, I cannot listen to it without tears in my eyes. I played it over and over in the hospital. I see on YouTube that other Covid patients listened to that song. And you know the saying, when you sing, you pray twice.
During the first week I was in the hospital, it appeared those many prayers were being “answered.” I was eligible for Remdesivir® and the plasma antibodies. With each new treatment, I would get markedly better for 24 hours. The prayer circle would spread the good news in ripples that grew outward from my brother’s messaging. After each new treatment, my oxygen would soar to 96 or higher. I’d be stronger. The nausea finally disappeared. The hospital’s tilapia with rice dinner, my first meal in more than a week, could have come from The Ritz Carlton.
After each improvement, though, things got worse. I needed more Lovenox® injections to prevent blood clots. My oxygen would drop as quickly as it rose. The respiratory therapist told me to lie on my stomach. My repeatedly injured neck and slippery vertebrae didn’t do well in that position, but my oxygen reached 99%. Until I turned over. And then it dropped again. I’d been able to stand and walk the day before. Now, it took every ounce of strength I had to get on my feet. “Lie on your stomach again,” the respiratory therapist said. She could encourage and command in the same sentence. I smiled at her through my fear.
With every change in my condition or treatment, the prayers and prayer requests would change accordingly. Prayers for lungs to open up, virus to stop, oxygen level to rise, stay out of ICU, avoid the ventilator.
What, exactly, is an answered prayer? We still don’t know. We conflate answered prayers with requests granted. We do know that the answer to a prayer is not the same as granting what is requested in prayer. And, I’ll venture to say that I believe now that prayer, answered or not, its request granted or not, is necessary to life. It may not be the answers that matter, but the act of praying. And no, I cannot explain why I believe that now. I’m still working on the idea.
When “new” nurses came to move me to a more “comfortable” place, I knew I was being moved to ICU and on my way to being one of those patients in the news. My New York friend texted me, frustrated. “Why are my prayers not being answered? Am I praying wrong? I’m adding the Virgin of Guadalupe. I’m going to pray harder. You have to get better.”
But I didn’t. The nurses moved the oxygen monitor screen behind me so I couldn’t see it, which was wise. Night came. A male respiratory therapist appeared with something resembling a c-pap machine and tried to fit a soft plastic mask closely over my face. I’m extremely claustrophobic. I remember feeling like I was drowning in a tiny plastic pool, then seeing the therapist’s face through the haze of the plastic, and then — nothing.
I awoke with my throat full of hard, green tubing, and six liters of oxygen per minute flowing through those tubes directly into my lungs. I had traded my voice for my breath. As scary as it was not to be able to talk, breathing with less effort was a relief. The relief was short-lived. Covid continued its dirty work.
Soon, each breath took a full-body effort. I couldn’t feel any breath going in or out of my right lung. When I breathed in, I thought I could feel a breath in my left lung. I worked hard to draw it in, and just before I felt it squeeze through, I would wonder if I could complete that breath. My temperature rose. I remember a gathering darkness, thinking this would be a disappointing way to die, wishing I’d updated my will and cleaned out my closets.
I’ve had close medical calls before. This was different. I could feel my body shutting down. The last thought I remember is, “All I have now is prayer.”
Then I descended into the temporary, artificial death that is a coma and, weeks later, returned to a thoroughly different life.
I can’t describe my viral voyage without acknowledging the role that prayer played. I cannot tell you why or how; I can say only that I know prayer kept me alive. I say this as both skeptic and believer, as someone who studies faith practices and also practices her faith, as someone who believes the prayers for me to live were answered even as the prayers to avoid the ICU were not granted. I can say this as a lone pilgrim whose most cherished life plans were skewered, and prayers for the priceless things — love, family, health, the ability to serve others — are prayers I’ve stopped praying. Part of growing older is reaching the point where you know there’s simply not enough time left for those prayers to “work.”
In the past, I would have written about this viral voyage without making much room for prayer, but to leave prayer out would make me dishonest to a degree I can’t live with. I learned to count on prayer as surely as the medicines for pain and nausea. I asked for prayers for everything possible, from getting a “good” nurse, to stanching bleeding, to not having a meltdown as I recovered from Covid-19 and the effects of being pumped full of Fentanyl during the coma.
My prayer is that you’ll continue to join me on this “voyage.” I believe that my story can be used to learn or improve something for someone else or yourself.
So much is not visible to the human eye, not this virus, not prayer, nor the God / Divine Source to whom we pray. These things are winds in our lives, only more mysterious.
We can see what wind moves, and how and where it moves. The winds beneath the wings of prayer are not so direct. I dare not promise a refugee of war or natural disaster or a traumatized veteran that prayer will change anything for them. Nor do I dare to promise that it won’t. I do know that prayer serves. It moves, it stirs, it owns its being.
In the case of the violent Viking of a virus that strikes unseen and wages war on almost every organ, it makes sense to include an invisible weapon in the medical portfolio of options.
I came out of the darkness. The first memory I have of being on a ventilator is euphoria. I would live. I’d have to pray one more huge prayer, though, before being given that new chance at life.