The girl’s head was wrapped from brain surgery. She was unconscious and intubated, and had a Barbie wedged into the crook of her motionless, IV-filled arm. My colleague asked that I bring the aunt to my office to facilitate a phone call with the pastor of the mother’s church. The family wanted him to be at the hospital when she woke up from surgery to tell her what had happened.
On my drive home, I wondered what this pastor, this representative of God, would say to the mother: something about God having a plan or a reason for everything or that He doesn’t give anyone more than she can handle. I crawled into bed at 7 p.m., my head and heart aching with how inadequate and unfair my God was.
The next night, I found myself at an after party for the MTV Movie Awards. If the suffering I had witnessed on Friday had me considering atheism, the soulless, diamond-encrusted frivolity that surrounded me on Saturday was pushing me to the verge of nihilism. Free from the burden of a God who rewards innocence and punishes corruption, I had a fantastic night of recklessly indulgent behavior.
But come Sunday morning, my spiritual discomfort returned and I spent the day smoldering with guilt and a deep spiritual unrest.
On Monday, I ran into my colleague who was handling the car accident. The only surviving daughter had died Saturday night (probably, I thought, while I was passed out on my bathroom floor in a puddle of sour apple martinis).
The girl’s mother would likely recover from her injuries. “But for what?” my friend wondered allowed. “It is a tragedy.”
I went to check on the heart transplant family and I ran into the boy’s mother outside the ICU. She told me that a donor match had been found Saturday night while she slept in the chair next to her son’s bed. He received his new heart early Sunday morning. She’d been told only that it came from a teenage girl who had died in some sort of accident. The boy’s mother was unspeakably sad for the other child’s family, yet overjoyed for hers. “It’s a miracle,” she said.
Now when I look at the photo of those two hearts—taken at the moment when one human’s tragedy became another’s miracle—I no longer look for God. I believe that physics and biology and human nature and random chance are responsible for that moment, not God.
As tempting as it is to imagine a benevolent deity who’s invested in my personal safety, I simply can’t any longer. This is not to say that I am an atheist. I remain in awe of the intricacies of the universe and I absolutely acknowledge divinity in it. But I have let go of the grandfatherly God of my childhood.
This realization is a relief. But it is also terrifying because it means those I love are just as vulnerable to tragedy as my patients. With a husband, a son and another child on the way—whose perfect or imperfect heart is forming as I write these words—this is infinitely more daunting than when I was without these ties.
Finally seeing that photo for what it is—and isn’t—has granted me a clarity, an authenticity regarding sorrow over loss and gratitude for good fortune that I would not give up. It has also enabled me to continue the work I’ve grown to love, on good days helping to alleviate some suffering and, on really good days, allowing me to witness the occasional miracle.