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Shortly after midnight, I’m wakened by severe spasms in my belly and gnawing pain in my lower back. Almost at once I recognize the symptoms: kidney stones.

I’ve experienced such an attack before. Passing big stones is an agony worse than childbirth, with nothing wondrous to show for it, when it’s over.

I’m stubborn. I figure I can gut it out. Outlast it. Overcome it. Gotta be tough. That’s how I was raised, back on the farm—for better and worse.

The pain is unrelenting. For two hours, my condition worsens. Finally I tell Jihong, “Okay, let’s go to the ER.”

I crawl into the backseat of the car and curl up on my side, a writhing ball. The moans and whimpers escaping my mouth seem to belong to someone else.

* * *

Like I said, I’ve been through this before. But this time is different.

Our small-city hospital is good for its size: well-equipped, with a caring staff that has persevered through the pandemic in a community that has largely scoffed at it. ER personnel soon provide me with three painkillers, anti-nausea medication, and saline; cold packs; warm blankets; a CT scan; analyses of samples in an onsite lab … everything I require, despite the late hour and the skeleton crew.

“At least,” I say to Jihong, once medications are starting to flow through the IV, “I’m not in a war zone.”

That’s when I break. That’s when this tough old girl begins to cry.

I weep, imagining being a patient in a city where bombs are raining down. Where hospital staff must be not only caring but heroic. Where medicine and supplies are limited, or nowhere to be found. Where medical equipment is lacking, damaged, or destroyed. Where everything is so profoundly uncertain that even the least serious medical condition may become, in an instant, a matter of life and death. Where kidney stones aren’t near the top of any triage list …

Sometimes all you can do is cry.

* * *

Then, sometimes, in the midst of your tears, you can do more.

As I lie in the ER, what helps me do more is tonglen meditation. I learned it years ago from Tibetan Buddhists. Given the circumstances, I simplify the practice. I visualize all the people around the world, but especially in Ukraine, who in this moment are feeling just as I am: in indescribable pain, and desperate for relief. I breathe in their suffering.

Then, to those same people, I breathe out peace and protection: the end of their pain and desperation, the end of their terror, the end of the crisis that has engulfed them. In short, I breathe out the end of their suffering.

Does my meditating actually change anything in their lives? I can’t say. But the practice comforts me. It lifts me out of my personal torment into boundless kinship and infinite compassion.

To be honest, I have trouble sustaining it for long. My body hurts too damn much. But I keep trying, my breath transforming the world’s suffering into healing and peace.

Meditating softens the clench of my body. It opens me to the depths of my anguish and helps me understand how inseparable my suffering is from the suffering of others. Gratitude wells up: for the selfless courage of the truly tough; for the kind and knowledgeable ministrations of medical workers, relief workers, crisis workers of every sort; for the concern and constancy of both loved ones and strangers … for the gift of having a life to live, even when it feels fragile and unendurable.

For me, this long night will almost assuredly end well. The meds will kick in, the pain will ease, the stones will pass (or be otherwise remedied), and I’ll soon go home, leaving one safe place for an even safer one.

Because I’m not in a war zone.

I mustn’t shrink from naming this. There’s power in acknowledging the truth. And the truth is this: the value being placed on my life, here and now, isn’t being placed on every life. At this moment, as my life is gently tended, other lives are treated like junk-food wrappers blown across highways and fields. They don’t matter enough to save from the wind.

Compassion says: nobody’s life is litter. Compassion says: this world is more than a wasteland.

Compassion says: when the night is dark, like this one, and all we can do for one another is cry, then that’s what we do. (Lo and behold, we’re still tough in our tears.)

And maybe, when the night is dark, like this one, we pray, however we can. We breathe in, we breathe out. We bear witness to the terrible realities of innocent suffering. We fasten our eyes together on the eastern sky, hoping for sunrise and another chance to live in the light.

In the darkest, bleakest hours of our being, if this is all we can do for one another, it’s more than nothing. Much, much more.

Me and my kidney stones are sure of it.


Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash


Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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