Even at night, the sun is There
A few years ago I was living in an English village outside Cambridge while researching my doctorate and working with the Islamic Texts Society, an academic organization which publishes important works from the Islamic heritage after having had them translated into English.
One evening as I reached to switch off the bedside lamp, I noticed my arm would not stretch out to do so. In fact, I found I was not able to pull the blankets up about me except by using my teeth; neither arm seemed to function. When I tried to take a deep breath it seemed as though my lungs were incapable of expansion. At the approach of a cough or sneeze, I held my arms closely around my chest for fear the sudden and painful enlargement of my breast would rip me apart. When I arose the next morning, the only way to get out of bed was to hang my knees over the edge and slide off since my upper torso had become powerless. I couldn’t even raise my arms to brush my hair. Turning the bathroom faucet was an excruciating affair. By holding the bottom of the steering wheel in my fingertips, I was able to drive to the village clinic. The doctor concluded I had some type of virus for which there was no treatment but time.
A day or so later, my husband and I were to fly to Boston for annual congress of the Middle East Studies Association. I viewed my affliction as an inconvenience, which would ultimately pass and decided to ignore my condition. I noticed, however, that on the day we were to leave England I began to have trouble walking and getting upstairs was extremely difficult. By the time we reached the hotel room in Boston, more and more of my system seemed to be shutting down. I could no longer write or hold a teacup, bite anything as formidable as an apple, dress myself, or even get out of a chair unless assisted. Everything ached. I could not move my head in the direction of the people I was speaking to—I looked straight ahead, perhaps seeing them from the comer of my eye.
Friends gave all kinds of advice that I simply shrugged off. The worst part was lying in bed at night. It was impossible to roll onto either side, and my whole body felt on fire with pain. It was terrible to have to lie flat, unable to make any shift whatsoever all night long. I thought to myself, “If only I could scratch my cheek when it itched, if only my eyes were not dry but cool, if only I could swallow without it feeling like a ping-pong sized ball of pain, if only I could reach for a glass of water when thirsty during the long night.”
As we traveled on for work in New York, I continued to make light of my infirmity and to ignore suggestions that I seek help. On the plane, however, when it was necessary to ask the stewardess to tear open a paper sugar packet, I suddenly realized—“I can’t even tear a piece of paper!” I requested that a wheelchair await me in New York and that I be transferred to a flight home to my parents in Louisville, Kentucky. Since my husband was obliged to stay in New York, a kind soldier returning to Fort Knox helped me during that leg of the trip. I felt like a wounded fox that wanted nothing more than to return to, and curl up alone in, the nest of its childhood. My father met me, and the next day took me for every test imaginable. Nothing was conclusively established—was this rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus? I was brought to my parents’ house and at last put in my childhood bed with a supply of painkillers, which I was not inclined to take. Since I found I could tolerate great pain. I wanted to observe the situation and know where I stood. I started seeing my body as an object separate from me and my mind which witnessed its ever-declining condition.’ When my legs finally “went” with knees swollen like grapefruits and feet incapable of bearing me up, I mused with a kind of detached interest. “Oh, there go the legs!” The body seemed to be mine, but it was not me. (1) Later that night it happened. As I lay gazing out my bedroom door and noticed the carpet in the quiet hall, I thought, “Thank God I’m not in a hospital and the hall is not linoleum and that I am not subjected to the clatter of ice machines and the chatter of nurses. I know I’m in trouble and I do need help, but that would be too great a cost for my soul.”
A few moments later I became aware that I seemed to be solidifying, my body had stiffened and seemed to separate from my body and lift a distance above it. I glanced back and saw my head on the pillow and thought, “This king of thing ... I am thinking and my brain is down there in my head! I do. At the moment of death in Islam the dying person repeats the shahada “There is no divinity except God.”
As I thought the phrase, “La ilaha ilallah,” I noticed that I seemed to be pulled back towards my heart—as if by a thread of light. But then there I was—quite all right, but utterly rigid and still. The light of the moon comforted me as it passed through the leafless November branches making patterns on the blankets. I thought, “Even at night, the Sun is there. Even in darkness and death, the Light is present.” The season seemed to parallel my state.
I then began to imagine my future. I have friends who are paralyzed who have always been place along the sidelines for various events. Had I now joined them? Was I now out of the normal life of others? I began to see myself like a hunchback or a dwarf. I had always been known for my inexhaustible energy and activeness. I could always, somehow, get to my feet and do one more thing. This was now over. I would no longer be able to do anything. I thought of people in this world who have impressed me most-The Mother Teresa’s of our world. I realized that what was exemplary in these people was not what they did, but what they were; the state of being which determined their movement was what actually inspired others. And so I set upon a plan of inward action: The best thing I could do for others would be to sanctify my soul, to let my state of being become radiant. Having concluded this, I felt things were in order.
In the morning I was found, fixed in place; I was given eggnog—chewing was over. My husband came from New York and I recall marveling when I observed him. He could, without considering the matter in depth, shift his position in a chair, scratch his forehead, or lean over to pick up a dropped pencil-all painlessly! Imagine-reflex action! Occasionally if I really wanted to move, for example, my fingers, I would think to myself, “All right, now I-am-going-to try-to move-my-fingers,” and I would concentrate my entire attention on the task. With incredible pain and focus, I could at most shift a few millimeters. It struck me profoundly that when someone is able to move in this world without pain—that is, in health-that he resides in paradise on earth without ever being aware of it. Everything after that is extra.
Ultimately, it was decided that I should be given a week’s course of cortisone so I could return to my children and the British specialist who might be able to figure out what I had. The cortisone was miraculous and frightening-I could actually walk and pick up things-yet I knew that I couldn’t.
On the return to Cambridge, it was decided that I should be removed overnight from cortisone. I then discovered what withdrawal symptoms are- a level of pain that seems to consume one alive with fire. But the pain was nothing compared to the frightening mental confusion I experienced: I could not grasp proper thinking, or even normal reality. What I needed was not only a doctor, but also a kind of scholar/saint who could describe to me the hierarchy of meaning so that I would not be so painfully lost. I suppose true doctors are a combination of all three. The Islamic physician/philosopher was called a hakim (a word which refers to wisdom). I grasped some rosaries and clung to the light of dawn on the invocation of God’s Name, my sanity intact.
The English specialist could not make a conclusive diagnosis. Our Vietnamese acupuncturist suggested toxins had built up in the entire muscle system and prescribed massage during steam baths to release them. It sounded definitely worth doing. At the same time, I had come to that point that the very ill come to, where, though they take advice with gratitude, inside of them something has dimmed and they no longer wish to make any effort. Pleasantly, I had reached a great calm within. Each day I was brought downstairs where I directed the preparation of meals and worried the children who saw I could no longer sew on a button or sign a check. I was resigned to never moving again. I had never experienced such peace. It was touching that people prayed for me and it was lovely that so many asked after my condition. I felt like an upright pole stuck in the middle of a moving stream.
A few days later I was asked to give a talk in Jeddah. I declined, explaining that I was unable to research and prepare a topic properly. Friends said they would be delighted to do this, if I could come up with a subject. 1 answered, “All right, why does this happen to someone, in the view of Islam?” The passages they wrote down and translated hadith, the saying and recorded deed of the Prophet Muhammad-all seemed to say the same thing. In Islam, illness is understood to be a great blessing because it is an opportunity, if borne with patience free of complaint, to purify oneself of past sins-to burn away wrong thoughts and deeds. As I delivered my talk, it began to dawn upon me why Muslims always reply with Alhamdulillah (the same as Alleluia) whenever anyone inquires as to their health. I had always wondered why one could ask someone who suffered from an obviously terrible physical or emotional pain or loss, “How are you,” and all one could get out of him was, “All praise belongs to God.” I kept wanting them to talk about their pain with me, to share their suffering, and I wondered why they would not. Suddenly I realized that they were praising God for their state of being. The suffering they endured, no matter how great or small, was an opportunity to be purified, which is the very aim of human existence. In an instant, my own illness was seen in a new light. I no longer patiently tolerated it- I loved it, I flowed with it. I saw how blessed I was to have been given, not something small, but something as total as paralysis.
As I loved my illness, my fingers suddenly began to regain movement. Bit by bit the movement in my hands returned, until at last in late spring. I was restored. What had been the most painful and difficult time in my life turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I had gained a deepened perspective, a sense of proportion and freedom. God had blessed me with near total dependence on others, a symbol reminding me of my utter dependency on Him. And even when I had not been able to move one inch, I was able to be in touch with His Divine Presence.
O God, to Thee belong praise for the good health of my body which lets
me move about, and to Thee belongs
praise, for the ailments which Thou
causes to arise in my flesh!
For I know not, my God, which of the two states deserves more my thanking
Thee and which of the two times is
more worthy for my praise of Thee;
the time of health.
within which Thou makest me delight in the agreeable things of Thy provision, through which Thou givest me the joy to seek the means to Thy Good pleasure and bounty, and by which Thou strengthens me for the acts of obedience which Thou hast given me to accomplish;
or the time of illness
through which Thou puttest me to
the test and bestowest upon me favors:
lightening of the offenses that weigh down my back,
purification of the evil deeds into which I have plunged,
incitement to reach for repentance,
reminder of the erasure of misdeeds through ancient favor; and,
through all that, what the two writers (2) write for me.
-Imam Zayn al Abidin Ali ibn al Husayn, Al Sahifat Al Kamilat Al Sajjadiyya. (William Chittick, translator.)
(The illness described above was later diagnosed as Guillain-Barre’ Syndrome.)
1) Islamic physicians saw the body of man as but an extension of his soul and closely related to the spirit and the soul.
2) Islamic belief is that there is an angel on either shoulder who records one’s good and bad deeds.
Originally published in the print edition of TAM Spring 1994