Marvin Repinski: Pain, even during the holidays

Published 3:45 pm Friday, December 3, 2021

There are two passages in the novel “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, that to me, speaks to the topic of suffering, of pain.

“… one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.”

“… there being in her a thread of life which for toughness, endurance, a power to overcome obstacles, and carry her triumphantly, through he had never known the like of.”

My mother, Mildred, had obstacles and as I add years to my years I continue to think of taking her shopping. She had to hang on to me as she lacked strength and limped. She once told me that she was born with one leg shorter than the other. She swayed when walking, slightly bent over and in a circular motion, putting her weight on the short leg with a learned use of her tip-toes.

Mother’s humor was immense and I believe that it expanded her universe. Her deep religious orientation seemed to prompt assessments of herself like, “I’m just an old cripple!” You may say, “people don’t speak like that.” Yes, rarely. I still don’t understand it! Could you have laughter on your tongue while limping along Main Street, headed for the JC Penney store?

I am marked by my mother’s faith, persistence, and the manner in which she was always trying to be helpful to others. To our neighbor, Georgenia, she said, “I cut some fresh rhubarb. Want some?” I’ll never measure up to her thoughtfulness, but it’s a goal.

I continue, as the Woolf novel suggests, to seek out those who complete us. We are all in transition. During these major holidays of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas we can surround our minds with those people that complete us.

The “overcoming obstacles,” line in “Mrs. Dalloway,” renew my memory of a letter I received from a former student. It’s an old but important paper. Do I ever throw anything away? Just ask Becky.

I answered this person and this is what her correspondence was.

“Mr. Repinski brought up in class one day, that he did not understand why good people suffer. I could see through his reaction, that this was something that bothered him immensely. I am also struggling with the same emotions. Why would a good and loving God allow the innocent to suffer? This has especially bothered me with my daughter. She has been my strength when I have been weak. The days that I feel I cannot go on any longer, I look at her and her strength. She makes most adults look like quitters. She has struggled with asthma since she was three. Every year she is hospitalized at least twice because she cannot breathe on her own and needs oxygen. I cannot give her enough medicine to keep her breathing. She takes Singulair, Prednisone, Flovent, and Albuterol at home and when that is not enough, I take her to the emergency room to get another shot. She takes all the shots without complaining. I pray every night as I lay with her in the hospital bed that God would take the suffering away from her. She looks so pitiful with the oxygen mask on. Her skin colorless from all the medications she is on and she is so skinny because she has no appetite. Why does she have to suffer and how can she not be mad about it? After surgery on her throat in Rochester, she never once complained. How can she take all the pain without feeling angry or resentful? This year, she has come across yet another illness. This one is taking away her hair. She loses more every day and there seems to be nothing we can do about it, but she is not mad. The other day, she asked me to take a picture of her head so she could see what it looked like. When she saw the picture, she was silent for a few moments. She had not realized it looked that bad. Then she calmly responded. “That’s really big, Mom, but God will let it grow back.” She was so matter-of-fact about the whole situation. How? How can a seven-year old girl be so strong when her mother is a basket case? I know there are others in this world who suffer much more than she, and with the same graciousness, but she is my child and as her mother, I am sometimes furious with God for allowing her to go through her challenges.”

In answering this mother, filled with both personal questions and agony, I recall communicating my sense of care and hopes for some form of recovery. I was not technical, philosophical or used quotes from the experts. My heart was with her heart. We offer what support we can with those in pain, with those who abide a world of suffering all around us.

The largest issue of life is the reality of suffering. Are there answers? We, in our own way, do use Woolf’s term “endurance.” But we need each other and all that science, religion, compassion, perspective, the medical profession, hope, resilience, prayer, and the grace of One we address as God.