Hope = S+E+C (part 1)

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Sandra, Erica, and me at Oracle Park – August 10, 2019

A few weeks ago, Sandra, Erica, and I spent the afternoon with our compadres and their family in San Francisco watching our beloved Giants. It was an awesome day hanging out with dear friends and watching great baseball. Given the nature of my health challenges over the years, I felt incredibly blessed to be among the more than 39,000 people cheering on our team on a beautiful day.

Between laughs, ooohs and aaaahs, and a couple of handfuls of Cracker Jacks, my attention drifted to the journey that brought me to that seat in Oracle Park. I thought about my heyday on the diamond. I was the winning pitcher in our Little League championship game when I was 12 and selected captain of the high school varsity team. I chuckled at my own self-perceived brush with baseball immortality.

In spite of those youthful illusions of grandeur, the role competitive athletics played in my life has been more impactful than any algebra equation or geometry formula I may have scribbled on a piece of scratch paper in high school. Let’s see… (2x+3) (x2) = whatever Mr. Neff said it did.

Mr. Harris: What is the area of that circle?

Eddie: Um…I dunno, Mr. Harris.

Mr. Harris: Try this. π =π(radius)= πr2

Eddie: Um…I think it’s a pretty big circle, Mr. Harris.

It became clear early on that math wasn’t my strong suit. I wasn’t that good of an athlete either. But there was something thrilling about throwing a slider toward home plate against a big hitter or stealing a pass from a smooth point guard. More times than not, the guy on the other side of the ball got the best of me. Nevertheless, competitive sports taught me how to handle situations that didn’t go so well.

After a bad day on the free throw line or in the batter’s box, the coach would rally me and my teammates by encouraging each player to “stay with it and keep true to yourself.” That was the formula to overcoming obstacles and rising from the ashes of defeat. That coaching point came in handy when I was fighting to overcome a college setback, political defeats, and career disappointments.

Now I’m in yet another competitive contest. St. Paul and the Buddha have been my coaches throughout this fight. In his fifth letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” If I could recreate his text into an algebraic equation, here’s what it would look like: Hope=S+E+C.

Wait! What? Rejoice in our sufferings? Was St. Paul kidding when he wrote that? Who in their right mind wants to rejoice in suffering? Like a good mathematical equation, the first variable doesn’t make sense when standing alone. We all experience suffering. That’s just the way it is. My spiritual journey has taught me that faith – accepting what is – is the first step to understanding the formula that leads to hope.

Hope is a tricky word. We use hope as a synonym for want or wish. In fact, Webster’s dictionary defines hope as, “a desire of some good.” I’ve always used it in that way. I hope my daughters are healthy, happy, and successful. I hope the Giants win the World Series this year. I hope that I get a new heart soon. What I’m really saying is, “I want, I desire, I wish.” If those things don’t happen, disappointment is soon to follow.

St. Paul has an entirely different definition. He gives a comforting perspective on hope. He tells us that having hope is being certain that whatever barrier life presents is going to work out according to God’s plan for us, rather than what we want for ourselves. In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that there’s a “sure hope of a glorious future” for those who have faith. Does that mean everything will always go our way? No, it doesn’t. It means that everything will go God’s way. That’s where hope comes in.

Throughout my journey, I’ve struggled to wrap my mind around the concept that hope is a certainty, not a desire. Exactly one week after that amazing weekend in San Francisco, the true meaning of hope hit me with a clarity that only God can deliver. That day, another health uncertainty loomed over what started as a wonderful day.

Sandra and I had just finished watching a movie and walked through the mall to get something to eat for dinner. For a couple of days, I felt tenderness around the skin near the opening in my abdomen where an electrical wire that powers the heart pump enters my body. The wire is called a driveline. The area needs to be cleaned and dressed every other day to ensure that an infection doesn’t grow there.

If not addressed immediately, an infected open wound could quickly develop into sepsis, a potentially fatal poisoning of the bloodstream. Keeping that area clean and sterile is a serious matter. A driveline infection is one of the leading causes of re-hospitalization for LVAD patients. Sandra and I had effectively managed the open wound, which helped me avoid spending even a single day in the hospital.

As we walked out of the theater after the film, I mentioned to Sandra that the driveline was sore to the touch. Together, we inspected the dressing and noticed an unusual amount of discharge on the bandage. This was definitely not a good sign. I called the LVAD clinic hotline, described the situation, and sent photos of the affected area.

After a few minutes on the phone, the advice from the LVAD team was to enjoy dinner, clean the driveline and change the dressing when we got home, and visit the doctor’s office in the morning. All went according to plan. In the clinic the next morning, the LVAD physician assistant took more pictures, dressed the wound, and sent me to the lab to draw blood.

While I waited for my turn to get poked by a needle, the cell phone in my pocket started to buzz. It was the physician assistant. He informed me that the cardiologist reviewed the images. He advised that I stand by after doing the blood work. The doctor decided to admit me into the hospital. Driveline infections could be dangerous, he continued, so the team didn’t want to take any chances.

There it was. Bam! Another blow to the gut! Just like that, I had no control of what would happen next. My response on the phone was, “Are you serious?” The answer on the other line was brief. “Yes, we’re waiting for a room to become available.” I called Sandra to share the news and waited some more. A few minutes later, as I watched blood flow from my veins into a bunch of test tubes, I thought about how the change of events put me into another phase of uncertainty.

For the first time in 9 months, I had to shed regular clothes to don the thin light blue cotton hospital gown that symbolizes the anxiety that comes with confinement. I’d been here before. One hundred six days in the summer of 2010. Four separate visits in 2018 as my heart showed signs of wear and tear. Twenty-six days in November of that same year. Each time the prospect of never leaving hung over me like a black cloud.

This time, I was armed with the wisdom of St. Paul the Apostle and the Buddha. Faith and hope were intertwined in a spiritual dance that would mold my outlook on the latest crisis. When the nurses came into the room to prepare for the stay, they put me at ease immediately. They recalled rooting for my recovery during those harrowing days last fall. Though not happy about the circumstances, they greeted me with cheerful smiles. “Hi Mr. García, it’s good to see you doing so well.”

Doing so well? That was reassuring and uplifted my spirits. Other than the tenderness near the driveline wound, I was thriving. After LVAD surgery, I’ve spent quality time with Sandra and the girls. I walk every day. I continue to pursue my passion for working with and mentoring emerging Latina and Latino leaders. I’ve gone to the ballpark, the movies, and danced at family gatherings.

Standing in the hospital room, I accepted that something was not right. It was out of my hands. I left it to God to make sure that the doctors were taking the prudent course of action. While the cardiology team analyzed results of the blood cultures to confirm or rule out an infection, they pumped antibiotics into my bloodstream to fight whatever contamination that might have been brewing.

The nurses completed their work prepping for what was ahead. I had two IV needles fused into my wrist. The familiar and depressing sights, sounds, and smells of a hospital room closed in on me like a sterile vice. This time was different though. Instead of descending into the darkness of despair and uncertainty, I rejoiced in my suffering. I knew that this would make me stronger and give me the spirit to soldier on. I was hopeful.

 

 

 

 

 

God’s Grace is Sufficient (Part 2)

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“A revitalizing breeze swept through me and the bright sun covered my back like a warm blanket. At that moment, I felt the presence of God.”

Click here for God’s Grace is Sufficient (Part 1)

https://esereport.com/2019/07/29/gods-grace-is-sufficient-part-1/

***

I put on a black t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and black Nike quarter socks. I transferred the LVAD equipment from the satchel to a backpack especially made to carry the VAD’s controller and batteries. With the backpack in place, I laced up a pair of black Nike cross-training shoes, grabbed my sunglasses, smart phone, earplugs, a baseball cap, and water bottle.

I set the hat on my head, situated my shades, and opened the front door. I love listening to music when walking, so I connected to the Spotify app on my cell. On the heels of the good news from my cardiologist, I was upbeat and in the mood for James Brown. The earplugs were in place and JB’s funky classic “Get on the Good Foot” blasted in my ears as I briskly strolled down the driveway ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgGwI12zMJg).

I followed my usual route to Evergreen Park, a little more than 2 miles away. From the house, I went to the end of my neighborhood, crossed a small bridge, hiked on the Montgomery Hill trail through Evergreen Valley College, and navigated a busy intersection before getting to the park. Along the way, my midsection began to tense up a little. James Brown’s iconic screams were fading in my ears as my gait slowed.

I tried to figure out why I was feeling that way. My mind had been in turmoil for some time until the phone call from the heart clinic. Impulsively, it was on a high because the news was good. Faith isn’t supposed work that way. True faith is about standing strong while in the farthest corners of uncertainty. Yet here I was, celebrating a desired result shortly after weeks of doubt. Maybe I hadn’t learned anything about faith at all.

When I arrived at the park, I found a concrete table and bench shaded by a small grove of trees. I sat down to gather my thoughts and reflected on the story about how St. Paul the Apostle prayed three times pleading with God to take out a thorn stuck in his body. After the third request, God responded by saying, “My grace is sufficient, my power is made perfect in weakness.” This profound sentence has been the foundation of my spiritual education.

Here’s the thing about faith. It’s not a singular encounter or destination. It’s a long and winding road littered with debris like chronic disease, failed love affairs, job loss, a sick child, or death. The list is endless. Every time we think we’ve discovered the mystery of faith, the world throws something in our paths and we’re back in the spin cycle of worry and fear.

Catholic teaching has been part of my life since childhood. With that said, my journey has taught me that faith isn’t just a religious experience. Religion needs faith more than faith needs religion. People with different worldviews might not believe in God in the religious sense. But, there are things we just can’t comprehend or control. Faith provides answers to these unanswerable questions. Call it what you want – fate, the universe, the Creator. I call this mysterious force God.

Sitting on the concrete table with my feet on the park bench, memories of my darkest moments came to mind. Nine years ago doctors told me that I was having a heart attack in the emergency room. A week later, my heart suddenly stopped beating. Shortly thereafter, I felt a breathing tube snake down my throat before going into an induced coma. During each of those events, I was physically weak and in control of nothing.

Faith hadn’t even entered my vocabulary at that time. There had been no spiritual journey yet. I had no say in the situation. God promised St. Paul that “my power is made perfect in weakness.” In the absolute weakest and most hopeless days and nights of my life, the forces of faith washed over me. Without my participation, God handed over control to healthcare providers so they could collaborate with Him to save my life.

As these flashbacks ran through my mind, a revitalizing breeze swept through me and the bright sun covered my back like a warm blanket. At that moment, I felt the presence of God and reflected on what He has taught me about following the trail of faith. One thing is for sure. Nothing is permanent. Unexpected obstacles come and go and instances of triumph are only temporary. We need faith always.

Unfortunately, most of us practice situational faith. When in dire straits, we call on God for intervention and proclaim our faith. When success and accomplishment win the day, we thank God and proclaim our faith. That’s what happened to me after hearing good news about the transplant. For nearly a month and a half as I anxiously completed test after test and awaited the results, my faith was in short supply .

Minutes before I stopped to sit on the concrete table in Evergreen Park, my stomach churned and my mind wandered. With the sun’s warming rays showering over me and a light wind brushing my face, God reminded me what faith is all about. There are things that we just can’t control. We have the power to do the best we can with the tools God gave us to handle in any situation. We have to surrender the rest to God, fate, the cosmos, the Creator – whatever we want to call it – and accept the results.

I did everything in my control to give myself a chance to enhance the probability of getting reactivated on the transplant list. The doctors did too. Instead of leaving the rest to God, I spent days and weeks worrying about what might be. I allowed the forces of doubt, anxiety, worry, and fear to hijack my psyche. Despite my amazing journey, I reverted to worldly instincts and didn’t allow faith to combat those forces.

When my cardiologist called with good news, I immediately thanked God. But, my gratitude was for the wrong reason. I thanked Him for the results I wanted. I had forgotten that surrendering to Him and accepting the results is the true meaning of faith. My uneasiness during the walk reminded me of that. I got caught up into the vortex of desire – I want – instead of trusting what is.

We all succumb to the ways of the world. When good things happen we’re happy. Other days are awful and we become sad or angry. We look for many ways to turn bad days into good days. We have parties. We buy that dream something or other. We get a new hair style. We thank God for getting what we want. The list goes on and on and on. We feel better until the cycle starts again.

Having faith means getting off of that merry-go-round. Having faith is hard work, though. We have to practice it every day. I learned another big lesson sitting in the park. The phrase, “it is what it is’” isn’t just something we say when throwing up our hands in defeat. It should be used when we leave our destiny in God’s hands once we’ve done everything in our command.

Before I stood up to continue my walk, I again made the sign of the cross and thanked God. This time, I expressed my appreciation for reminding me to trust and accept His will. I thanked Him for giving me another moment of life and giving me the strength to face any new challenge He puts in my path.

In terms of my health, I still have a long way to go. I’ll keep doing all I can to help doctors guide me on the right track for a successful transplant. The rest I’ll leave to God. With faith on my side, I can fight the doubt and worry demons and keep them from getting in the way of basking in the glory of love, family, and friendship. It won’t be easy. That I know.

I started back across the park, through the busy intersection, and onto the trail through the college campus. Changing the music from the Godfather of Soul to the Great Bear of Baroque, George Frideric Handel, I approached the bridge that leads back into my neighborhood. I had a little skip in my as step I marched triumphantly over the creek with Handel’s “Messiah” blaring in my ears (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usfiAsWR4qU) .

My exhilaration wasn’t due to the cardiologist’s good news. I celebrated because God reminded me of the most important lesson learned on my road to spiritual discovery. His grace is sufficient. It doesn’t matter what the future holds for me. The final outcome isn’t in my hands anyway. I just need to go with it and fully appreciate and enjoy the life He has given.