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Self-Identity and Image

Searching for Signs in Harlem

Susan Ashby Mergler December 19, 2015
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A very young and pregnant virgin. A tiny, helpless baby born to save the world. Camels, sheep and a stinky stable. An unbelievably miraculous story that grows harder to comprehend when I try to justify the details with my limited worldly perspective.

Since childhood, I have read about the story of Christ’s birth more times than I can count, but as I grew older and supposedly wiser, I also became a little colder and more skeptical of all the mechanics of that story’s plot. Never a non-believer, but a bit of a Thomas the doubter, how could a simple person like me believe in such incredible things without concrete and contemporary proof?

And so, throughout the years, I have been known to test God on more than one occasion. Circling crowded parking lots became an amusing opportunity to engage Him with an “okay, God, how about a parking spot right in front of the store?” I have quite the success rate for prime places to leave my car while shopping.

Abuse of a spiritual connection? Probably. And for all of you skeptics out there certain that these things are simply coincidental, maybe they are. But as time went by, I continued to play this ridiculous game with the Higher Power, pressing harder for more signs as I tried to figure out what was and wasn’t Biblical truth.

Eight years into marriage, four houses later and supposedly more sense than not, in what seemed like an overnight development, I had a husband hell bent on moving our two small children and me to New York after previously agreeing and promising that we would stay right where we had last landed, three years earlier. We were exactly where I imagined we would live out the rest of our years, raising our kids close to family and friends. At the time, I thought Andy had imagined this same thing, too.

Met with conflicting emotions and my father’s distant echoes of advice to always allow my husband to lead our family where he thought best, I stood at the living room window asking God once again to send a sign as to whether or not I should support my husband’s dream of climbing another step on the corporate ladder, all the while clearly having no intentions of actually uprooting our children a third time.

Staring out past the yard through eyes blurred with frustration and tears, an orange moving van slowly made its way past our house. Surely, that was not the sign for which I searched! As the truck continued up the street and out of view, I turned back around towards my husband, half amazed that he had dropped the majority of the decision making in my lap once again and equally incredulous that God had evidently believed that tempered with prayer, no matter how short the plea, it should be me to provide the right answer for our family. And so we moved. A few years later, however, this would prove to be more than just another corporate relocation.

The years continued to unfold yet my testing and demanding of signs didn’t let up. Looking back, I’m not so sure that it was just me doing the testing, as I’m pretty certain that the Higher Power was also doing some testing of His own. As I continued with my holy bargaining, the line started looking a little less blurred between coincidence and what was quickly becoming an obvious pattern of Godly answers.

For instance, lying on his dying bed, my father seemed to linger on in a morphine misery. As the weeks dragged by, my pastor often asked for what I wanted him to pray on my dad’s behalf. Over and over, my inadequate reply was to have the Lord take him. To please let my Dad die. And so around 7 pm on a Wednesday night, four days before Easter Sunday and three weeks after checking Dad into the hospital, I stood once again looking out a window as I closed the blinds on another stressful day. As I usually did, I searched the sky until I found the first and brightest star of the evening and made my prayerful wish. “Star bright, star light, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. Dear God, please take Dad out of his misery and earthly hell. Amen.”

Five minutes later the phone rang and the doctor on the other end of the line began to tell me that my daddy hadn’t suffered much in the end and now was gone. Dad had finally been called home, far beyond that star I had just wished upon.

Four years after losing my father, on one of Maui’s most beautiful beaches, I paced back and forth on the last morning of a family vacation while Andy snorkeled offshore. Our time in paradise was coming to a close, but not before both of us searched for a missing pair of $300 Maui Jim sunglasses that I had been reprimanded 18 hours earlier for wearing on the top of my head while playing with the kids in the surf. Scolded and rightly so since a year earlier, while boating, I had planted an identical pair at the bottom of the murky Chesapeake Bay. I was on pair number 2, this time lost somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Strangely enough, until that one wave had come from out of the blue and knocked me upside down and under the sea, the ocean had been as calm as a reflecting pool, returning to its placid state immediately afterwards.

Once again I had become my husband’s persona no gratis in the expensive shades department, so I decided to see if God would lend a helping hand to get me out of the doghouse. An hour of pacing the beach had yielded nothing and Andy appeared uninterested in giving up the snorkeling search anytime soon. Tired of watching him swim back and forth in front of the resort and dreading him actually coming ashore to scold me again, I looked heavenward and uttered, “Okay, God, I know this is terribly trivial and I surely deserve to have lost my sunglasses, AGAIN, but if you’re up there and give a rip about how awful I feel, please, PLEASE show me where my sunglasses are!”

No sooner had I finished my ridiculous plea, than a pair of glasses flew from out of the surf and smacked me squarely in the shin. Not really believing that a pair of sunglasses actually had been heaved at me, I began to desperately grasp for them as they disappeared just as quickly back into the waves. Gone? NO! There would be no proof to this ridiculous story that God had actually heard and answered, or rather thrown my sunglasses at me.

As fast as the sunglasses had retreated back into the ocean, the surf spit them at me again. This time, as I scrambled to grab them before they disappeared into the stirred up sand, I didn’t come up empty-handed. Staring at the mangled mess that had once been my pair of Maui Jim’s now firmly in my grasp, I began running down the beach, yelling loudly enough to interrupt Andy’s steady search amongst the coral.

You are probably thinking, “yeah, right! Your God found your sunglasses, but for what?” The beauty behind the Maui Jim brand is that for the lifetime of the glasses, they are replaceable as long as you have most of them to prove that they need to be replaced. And so, almost as quickly as it took me to fly back across the Pacific to the East Coast, direct to my home’s mailbox, I had not only redeemed myself in the sunglass department but was the owner of a brand new pair. And only because I had asked God to show me where they were beneath the Pacific surf, 18 hours after they were concluded to be lost forevermore.

Still a doubter and confirmed believer in coincidence? Okay, I get that. But you should know that while life continued on, the messages from God continued to unfold as well. Messages in unlikely places like WaWa gas stations involving strangers and spoons wrapped in plastic. Messages sent through texts that would make me second-guess what had just happened had it not been for a friend witnessing the unfolding scenario alongside me. While those are stories for another day, the most profound turning point in my quest to push Him to prove His existence came at a time in my life when I finally realized that there really are no coincidences and that God does communicate and answer us if we are truly open to listening. This occurred as it often does when I was at the depths of despair during a most difficult time.

It began in October of 1998—October 28th of 1998 to be exact. On this date in history, Ted Hughes, an English poet had just died. Sean Connery, the original 007, had been declared the sexiest actor alive while Calista Flockhart, the Ally McBeal actress, was denying claims of anorexia. Somewhere an Air China jetliner had been hijacked and Nicole Kidman in an issue of Ladies Home Journal defended her then-husband, Tom Cruise, a future Oprah couch jumper, from being gay. But most notably for me, at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 28, 1998, my life changed forever.

“I wish I had better news, but……” the surgeon’s voice trailed off as I searched for something to steady myself.

My heart began pounding wildly and I thought that at any moment it would rip right out of my chest. Struggling to catch my breath as I desperately tried to focus, suddenly I was enveloped in a numbness rivaled only by a developing panic. Sent reeling into a world where everything moved in slow motion, even my husband’s voice had become distorted as if everything I was hearing originated deep within the darkest caverns of the earth.

“The pathologists are unsure if the cancer has spread or how aggressive it is,” the surgeon continued.

As this devastating news was being delivered, I interrupted periodically with the only questions that could be coaxed from my throat. “What is my prognosis? Will I survive?”

“We just don’t know that right now,” was his deficient reply, adding, “but let’s not worry about things we don’t have all the answers to yet.”

With my husband now close by my side, together we listened over the speakerphone, as the surgeon began to advise me with the next steps I would need to take. His voice faded in and out as I fought to maintain conscious thoughts as the stream of incomprehensible words continued to bombard me over the phone’s speaker.

“I might not survive this unimaginable nightmare! I can’t leave my children….I’m way too young, “ continued to reverberate in my head. No, this definitely was not happening! I tried to rationalize that since there was no cancer history in my family, all of this unsettling news surely was one big medical mistake.

Before my cancer diagnosis had led me through the doors of the world-renowned Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, the previous year had been a whirlwind of moving vans and major adjustments as our family attempted to settle in and make our new house feel like a home, hundreds of miles away from family and friends. No doubt, it had been a challenge with such young children and a lack of support. Life hadn’t been easy either with a husband gone all of the time on a long commute into Manhattan, but we were beginning to feel better about our new surroundings with each passing day.

On this particular evening late in October, I had been reminiscing over the enjoyable Saturday afternoon, four days earlier, that we had spent together as a family appreciating the unparalleled beauty of the mountains and their autumn splendor less than an hour from the city. Earlier in the day, the kids and I had concocted applesauce from the incredible apples found only in upstate. It was a rare peaceful evening after such a busy day and now with the kids upstairs soundly asleep, it was just my husband quietly working on paperwork at the kitchen table and me. The aroma of a freshly baked apple pie, just pulled from the oven, wafted throughout the house. Life was good.

Then it happened—the earth shattering telephone call bringing with it the world crashing down around me. After 10 months of misdiagnoses and a costly inaccurate biopsy report, the horrible truth was finally being revealed. My life forever changed as the ugly truth now screamed that I had cancer.

Just as in the movies, my existence had been turned upside down in a split second and the next several months would become the most challenging and difficult of my 34 years. Appointments and tests overwhelmed me. Mispronunciations of my surgeon’s name made Dr. Athanasian become Dr. Euthanasia, which was anything but lost on me even if the person on the other end of the insurance line had no clue what they had just said. My youngest child, barely a toddler, stared at my often puffy and red face with confusion. My first-born, just a kindergartner, offered me never ending hugs and drew me pictures of her “love” to help cheer me up as I frantically searched for answers and childcare that I hadn’t known I would ever need in this place I now found myself, many states removed from family and friends. It was a sheer challenge to put one foot in front of the other and continue to survive without having the added pressures of mothering two small children and not knowing what challenges lay ahead.

I soon arrived at the realization that there was no possible way to handle all of this on my own. Through desperate prayers, I came to the conclusion that I needed to “let go and let God.” As cliché as that sounded, I forced myself each day to follow that advice, rolling out of bed every morning onto my knees, immediately thanking God that my eyes had opened with the blessing of another day. Relentlessly, I begged for the strength to get through each of those days, albeit fraught with fear and uncertainty. Throughout this bleak period, I learned to relinquish control over worldly worries on a daily basis, often only minute-by-minute, but continually praying throughout my day, listening for God’s unmistakable voice. Little did I know just how big that voice would soon become.

One of the biggest concerns preceding my surgery had been the issue of who would take care of our children during my hospital stay. An answer to that particular prayer soon would become apparent. Because, as I have discovered many times since, God provides. If you let Him.

My parents who lived 500 miles away had agreed to fly up for my surgery, but this also entailed a major hitch. Last minute airfare around the holidays was over $1000. Surgery was scheduled a week before Thanksgiving in New York City and it seemed that everyone was interested in flying there as demand sent normal airfare skyrocketing.

Not sure what expenses we would incur for out-of-network surgery and subsequent treatment after insurance considerations, we were hesitant to pay such an outrageous amount to fly them north. My parents, retired and on a fixed income, weren’t exactly in a position to spend that much on emergency airfare either.

At the surgeon’s urging, my husband contacted the airline to see if a medical hardship could lower the fare. The airline representative, who answered his phone call somewhere in Ohio, explained that our situation didn’t qualify; however, she immediately offered her companion tickets and those of her husband’s to fly my parents to New York at no cost. We didn’t even know this person, but she had an amazing amount of empathy for our situation having also suffered a life threatening illness while living miles away from her immediate family. What had seemed like an insurmountable problem now was settled and within a matter of minutes my parents were booked to fly north to take care of our young children, all because God knew that someone named Julie far away in Ohio needed to answer our call.

On November 18th, after a six-hour surgery, the cancerous tumor was finally removed. Everything seemed to go well both during and immediately after surgery but I was blindsided by the level of difficulty that accompanied the sixteen days while waiting for the third and final biopsy result. This news would finally reveal how aggressive the rare cancer had been and if in fact it had spread beyond the seven-inch scar that now covered the majority of my right forearm, now void of muscle, tendons and function.

During what felt more like months than days, the waiting and wondering encompassed some of my darkest hours since first discovering the lump in my arm. Traveling alone on a metro train into New York City from northern Westchester, while my husband waited at Grand Central, I now faced the ambiguity of those anxiously awaited results. It was Friday, December 4th, 16 days post-surgery. Trying to calm my mind, I fervently prayed for strength to face those results and peace to accept whatever lay ahead of me. Plugged into earphones, the repetitive and soothing sound of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah played over and over as my journey clicked along the tracks towards the city and the next stage of my medical fate.

As the train slowed to pick up more passengers at 125th Street in Harlem, my gaze turned out the window and towards an old brownstone building, desolate and dilapidated. Near the very top of an outside wall, painted a story tall, read a bright yellow sign with bold, black letters, proclaiming, “Never Lose Faith.” I couldn’t help but smile at the very timing of seeing that sign, a reminder that God was indeed right there beside me. With renewed confidence, at that very moment, I knew that I could face whatever awaited me at the surgeon’s office.

A few hours later, while traveling again, I searched for the earlier message to show my husband, now accompanying me on the train ride home. I puzzled at the realization that the sign wasn’t on the building anymore—it had simply vanished! Many more times since that day, I would pass by the same old, deserted building and search for any remnant of the yellow paint, never to see the message again.

Frequently, it seems that in some of our darkest times we are left to wonder where God is and if He has left us to ponder life’s meaning all alone. Probably not unlike that scared and pregnant virgin many Christmases ago as she tried to understand and look for God’s messages in her life. I often recall how anxious and isolated I felt after my initial diagnosis and I am comforted by knowing that through trust and patience, I was finally able to learn that God was ever present and always by my side.

While I don’t always hear or see God’s messages in such a bold manner, I have come to the conclusion that it is often times in our hindsight when He reveals revelations to us in more subtle ways. Looking back, I see how I was able to survive surgery and seven demanding weeks of daily radiation therapy with the support and help of many new friends who simply fell into place when I needed them.

It has been 17 years since that life-altering day. Since then, my heart has kept me alive and well with over 714 million beats. My eyes have blinked approximately 107 million times as I continue to be blessed with the beauty of the world surrounding me. And while they say that life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but rather by the moments that take our breath away, since that October diagnosis, my well-watched and currently healthy lungs have taken over 96 million breaths.

Shortly after the conclusion of my treatments, another prayer was answered when we were relocated one last time, closer to our families in Maryland. And while I still continue to be carefully monitored for any recurrence of the disease, there is hardly a day that passes by that I don’t contemplate how what started out as an ominous time in my life turned out to be the most enlightening and defining experience in my spiritual growth. The meaning of that yellow and black sign, written high on a Harlem wall, remains etched in my memory and deep within my soul as my faith journey continues, reminding me that no matter what tribulations will continue to come my way, I will never lose faith. And thanks to a God who obviously has a lot of patience and quite the sense of humor, this woman who sometimes still struggles with wavering belief, didn’t lose her Maui Jim’s either.

For more stories please visit www.middlelifemadness.com


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  1. James Warren December 19, 2015

    714 million beats, 107 million blinks and 96 million breaths. Simply amazing. Well done and thank you for sharing your inspirational journey!


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