I thought the morning after my ninth-grade graduation would usher in long delicious summer months. I had planned early-morning bike rides to the river, sleep-over parties with my girlfriends, and lazy afternoons reading in the apple tree. That morning began the start of a nightmare instead.
I had felt feverish the night before but brushed it off as nervousness before giving the graduation speech. But the next morning I still felt feverish. When I looked in the mirror, I noticed small clear blisters forming on my neck.
I immediately knew what it meant. Chicken pox had been going around my school for months, finding any unlucky student that had escaped the disease in childhood. I thought I’d been one of the lucky ones who hadn’t caught it. My mother quickly confined me to my bedroom hoping I wouldn’t spread the disease to my younger brothers and sisters.
The first day wasn’t too bad. My mother brought in my meals. My younger brothers and sisters would write me love notes and slip them under my bedroom door. I wasn’t feeling too bad—yet.
From my bed, I could see the plum tree outside my window. It was early June and hundreds of small green plums were slowly growing a little each day. Looking at them, I could almost taste their red tartness bursting in my mouth at harvest. They would be worth waiting for.
The next day wasn’t as easy as the first. Huge pox blisters started to form all over my face and scalp. As the days wore on, the blisters slowly moved down my body until even the tips of my fingers and toes were covered.
My mother lovingly fixed me baking soda baths, applied calomine lotion, and spooned medication into my mouth. A trip to the doctor offered little help.
“She has the worst case I’ve ever seen,” the doctor said after seeing me in a dark back room closet so I wouldn’t infect his other patients. “Sometimes it seems to hit the older ones harder.”
The blisters down my throat made eating and even swallowing difficult. The pain, itching, and worry of facial scars all reached a peak one day. I felt that I had reached a point where I couldn’t stand it any longer. I cried out to my mother.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said.
That night there was a huge wind storm. I heard the wind howling and twisting and wailing all night long while I lay in bed unable to sleep. When the morning came, I didn’t feel any relief as I had prayed for. I felt worse. The pain had reached a point on every inch of my body, inside and out, to where I knew I couldn’t bear it any longer.
That morning, in desperation, I slowly walked to the bedroom window. The blisters on the bottom of my feet made it difficult and painful. I opened the curtains and looked out at the plum tree in tears. I felt alone. I felt my prayers had not been answered.
Through the tears, I noticed that on the ground beneath the plum tree were piles of tiny green plums blown off the tree the night before in the wind storm. Every one of them represented one less ripe plum I’d have to eat later that summer. But as I looked closely at the tree, there were still a few lone plums clinging tightly to the tree branches. They would be able to draw strength from the tree throughout the growing season. They would continue to grow and ripen and live to see the harvest.
I suddenly realized that sometimes, all we can do for the present is hold on. It was that ability that had made the difference between the fallen fruit and the fruit that remained alive and growing. They had survived the storm.
I began to search for new words to pray. Previously I had prayed hourly to my Father in Heaven to make me well, to take away the pain. Suddenly the plums gave me a new perspective. I now prayed for strength to hold on. I realized that I could draw on strength beyond myself, beyond my parents, beyond the doctors, beyond this world. I didn’t have to suffer alone. The pain was not removed. My ability to bear the pain was increased.
That day was possibly one of the longest, most painful days of my life, and the days that followed brought little relief. But gradually the blisters began to scab over and fall off. I was, in time, able to return to the company of my family and friends with only a few large craterlike scars on my face.
Weeks later, when the healing was nearing completion, I walked outside the house to the plum tree. The gentle evening breeze made the green leaves tremble in the sun’s last light. I noticed that the tiny plums that the wind storm had blown off the tree a few weeks ago were yellow, hard, and wrinkled, almost disappearing in the grass. The plums still clinging to the tree had grown. Their firm, shiny green skins were starting to glow from the inside with the same soft light of the setting sun.
Now, when other storms make the dark nights in my life hard to bear, I remember the pain and the tree, the fruit and harvest. Then I remember the words of that prayer that I uttered alone in my bedroom long ago, “Dear Father, help me to hold on.”