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  • Writer's pictureJaz Gray

Cake, Soil, and Soul

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

It's my birthday ya'll! This post was inspired by a song called "Joy and Pain" by the legendary band Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. The last line was also inspired by poet Tonya Ingram who said, "Despite the condition of the soil, I will choose to bloom."I took my time on this piece. I pray what I have to share connects with those who need it. ~ Jaz

There was a thin, yellow plastic feeding tube in my way.

Purple flowers with big wide petals. And delicate green leaves. On top of a thick layer of bleach white icing. The inside of the cake was chocolate, of course. Fluffy and dense. The rich dark brown had that perfect sheen of moisture. The frosting looked so sweet, when I dipped my head close, I could almost breathe in the sugar. I closed my eyes, and I could almost taste the sponge of the bread, the smoothness of the whipped cream. Almost. There was a thin, yellow plastic feeding tube in my way. Up my right nostril, down the back side of my throat, landing somewhere in my stomach. The saliva that pooled on the back of my tongue was a welcomed sensation. For the next few months, the only other sense would be the feeling of cold when my tube was flushed with water before and after formula feedings. What I desired most in that moment was just to cut a corner slice of the confection that was too big to finish. Full and satisfied, I wanted to lick my fork and smack my lips and play with the extra icing on the side of my plate. Instead, I turned to the family and friends gathered around my hospital bed and encouraged them to dig in. “Please cut around the Happy Birthday Jasmine!,” I proclaimed. Yes, save the best part for last.

Seventeen years later, as spring showers welcomed another Southern summer, tears splashed my cheeks. I cried every time I thought about spending yet another birthday in recovery from surgery. I was reminded of this scene in the comedy-drama Soul Food, about a Black American family brought closer together as they grapple with the failing health of the family matriarch. On her death bed, Big Mama tries, through fits of coughing, to explain to her grandson that she has simply done all she can with her time on earth. “I’m tired, baby,” she says with a strained whisper, “My soul is tired.” Well, there was a depth of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion I felt going into my forty-sixth procedure that eluded words other than to say that my soul - my mind, my emotions, my will – it was all just tired. As I started to unpack years and years of medical trauma – surgery after surgery, setback after setback – with my therapist in the following weeks, I realized I was in the vacillating position of healing from past experiences while anticipating impending ones. And I cried hard, ‘til my chest hurt. I knew I had done the very best I could over these now thirty-two years - to find divine purpose in my pain, to succeed in the middle of the most devastating life storms, to figure out how to not only love God and love others but love myself well. And my soul was (and still is) tired.

I realized that good news can come in small packages.

In June, I met with my specialist for him to lay out the initial plan to fix my latest complication, a bone exposed in my chin following the jaw replacement surgery I had around my birthday last year. He explained there needed to be three stages. First, I would have a surgery to insert a tissue expander under the skin in my lower left jaw. For a few weeks following this operation, I would visit a local doctor in Memphis once earlier in the week and travel to him in Little Rock once later in the week to have saline inserted into the expander. After my skin was stretched thoroughly enough, I would have another surgery to cover the 2x3 inch hole.

There were four realities I had to accept. First, due to the pandemic, I would need to go through this operation without my family present before or after the surgery. Second, because I have a limited range of motion in my jaw and difficult airway access, the anesthesia team would have to push a thick fiberoptic tube down my nose and throat right before I was administered anesthesia, while I was still awake. Third, the three-stage plan was actually the most efficient option. A simple skin graph would not have provided enough support for the open area, and a tissue flap would have meant the transfer of not only skin and fat but blood vessels that would need to be reconnect and monitored closely. Fourth, the road ahead would be fraught with opportunities for things to go wrong.

There were three unexpected changes. First, as I sat on the unyielding twin cot waiting for the flurry of nurses and doctors to begin their pre-operation checklists (signatures, labs, IV, more signatures, patient hand off), I realize that while I was alone in this beige box with the powder blue curtain, I did not feel lonely. My sister had texted me her love that Juneteenth morning of surgery 46. My mother was sitting in the parking lot awaiting updates from the nursing staff. My father was home preparing from surgery of his own yet there in spirit. He would have usually prayed over me. Instead, I read his prayer for me and our family off my phone.

Second, when the anesthesiologist, a bouncy, stout man, walked into the room with a smile playing on the corner of his lips, I realized that good news can come in small packages. I also remembered that good doctors work to respond to the concerns of their patients. In an attempt to advocate for myself, days before surgery 46, I texted my specialist to tell him I was feeling some anxiety regarding anesthesia and asked him to connect with the physician in advance. And well, this Leslie Jordon-esque man sashayed in and put all my anxiety at ease. He and my specialist had brainstormed not one but two alternative options. No awake intubation needed for this lil darlin’.

Third, after my outpatient procedure, once I had settled into the passenger’s seat for the ride home, Momma casually commented, “So glad you didn’t have to get that expander J.” My face was swollen and tight with brown tape and gauze pads, but I could still furor my eyebrows. “What did you say Momma?” She had to repeat the words three more times before my brain could connect them in a way that started to make sense. She explained that, once in the operating room, the tissue expanders available were not small enough to fit my left face. So, after shaving down the exposed bone in my chin, my specialist decided to just see how far he could stretch my existing skin. He was able to cover the entire area. I no longer needed the tissue expander, the weeks of saline sessions, or the follow up surgery.

I will respect my vulnerability as a form of love that nourishes the soil surrounding the seeds planted in others.

I got a divine gift leading up to this day, my thirty-second birthday. The disappointment so ingrained in me over the years – by an unyielding, damaging, draining health condition, by botched surgeries, by flawed medical practitioners, by internalized, unrequited pain – it needed what my therapist calls a “corrective emotional experience.” I needed to be reminded why I should hold onto the possibility that things may work out in my favor and sometimes better than I expect. Scripture says that “God is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.” I can quote that verse and many other similar passages by heart. But learning theory has a little something to say as well, that we ascertain knowledge as our experiences reinforce our beliefs about how the world works. My experiences had told me repeatedly that my health rarely works out the way I desire. That God may answer requests that appear simple to grant with an unexplained “No.”

However, even when life disappoints, when situations are uncertain, when circumstances get worse instead of getting better, when I am ambushed by unchangeable things I feel forced to accept, there are three dispositions that must continue to anchor me. Faith and hope and love. They are roots that run deep into the depths of who God has shaped me to be. Bright purple petals, delicate green leaves. I am indeed in full bloom. And with God’s grace and mercy, I will continue to use the storms and the sunshine of my story to grow. I will respect my vulnerability as a form of love that nourishes the soil surrounding the seeds planted in others. Nutrients from remaining connected to a love that never fails. Only the Most High can love us perfectly, releasing us from every fear including the fear of disappointment, supplying all the stamina we need to handle anything life throws our way. So, I will cherish this perfect love like the intake of deep breaths all living beings need to function at our highest capacity. No matter the state of the atmosphere around you, take in this food for the soul. There is nothing you and God cannot get through together. He will provide everything you need. All you have to do is root yourself fully in Him. Whether by sun or by rain, in whatever soil you are planted, from bud to blossom, resolve this day to grow forward.

“Over and over you can be sure There will be sorrow, but you will endure Where there’s a flower, there's the sun and the rain Oh, and it's wonderful, they're both one in the same”

From "Joy and Pain" by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly

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