“What happened to this orange!”
“What do you mean?” Lib replied as she backed the car out of the garage.
I had dipped my hand into the box of small mandarin oranges sitting outside the kitchen door as we made our way out to the car. A seasonal treasure sent by our California sisters, we waited all year for the harvest, anticipating the juicy sweetness of those bite sized segments dripping with California sunshine. I pulled the thin layer of skin from the fruit, picking tiny threads off as we talked. Popped a one inch segment into my mouth and cringed.
“It tastes like salt!”
“Huh?” Lib was focused on backing out; raised her arm and pushed the garage remote to close the door; shifted the car into drive and headed up the hill from their condo.
“It tastes like salt. Taste it! “
I handed her a segment.
“Tastes fine to me.”
I tried another piece and, again, it tasted like that salt lick I tried that one summer out in Uncle Archie’s corral. I wrapped a paper towel around the rest of it and set it on the seat, trying to figure it out, imagining that maybe the orange had accidentally been set on a pile of rock salt and the stuff infused into a portion of it.
The next morning I sliced a grapefruit at home. Slipped a serrated knife carefully around the rim and dipped my spoon into a section, the juice seeping up and over the lip and into my bowl. When the spoon touched my lips, once again the taste of salt attacked my taste buds. I threw the grapefruit away and headed off to school. That week I spent each day substitute teaching at Viewmont High; History and Guitar classes. We spent the evenings that week watching Annie perform in the high school musical version of Les Miserables, volunteering as concession sellers and ushers. Thursday my hands started to tingle. I thought the strap of the guitar hanging around my neck for hours had perhaps pinched a nerve. Friday my feet kept falling asleep. I remember standing in the back of the auditorium, watching the show, and kicking the toes of my sandaled feet on the floor, trying to wake them up. By Saturday both legs were electrically numb, that hyper alive zingy kind of numb you feel when you bonk your crazy bone, like my body was in a vice and little electric worms were wiggling through thick rubber flesh under my skin. My arms were the same. And portions of my face. I remember shuffling on my stinging, burning, electric feet to the study at 3 am, tears streaming down my numb cheeks, Googling my symptoms. The next day, frightened, I sat on the table at my doctor’s office as he spoke.
“I can’t tell, without diagnostic tests, what is causing this, but it is neurological and it is fast moving. Let’s get some steroids in you and send you to the U for testing.”
Thus began the long, painful, wearisome journey with Guillain Barre Syndrome. Without going into a long detailed explanation of the variety of tests they performed on me the following week, I will say, in the end, that a diagnosis of Guillain Barre Syndrome was the best of the options I found on the internet that night I entered my symptoms in a Google search. In the end, while the recovery was long and painful, I was comforted by the stack of papers with test results that indicated hundreds of maladies I did NOT have. Looking at the possibilities they tested for, I marveled that any of us are functioning, healthy individuals when there are so many things that could go wrong with our bodies!
I saw seven different Neurological Specialists that week. Lib pushed me in a wheel chair from room to room, clinic to clinic. I asked each doctor, at some point, about that salty citrus, wondering if this malady was at all related. Six of them said no.
Our daughter Sarah was at the time a student at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Ironically, they were studying neurology at the time. Even more amazingly, they specifically studied Guillain Barre Syndrome, taught by Dr. Renner. After class Sarah made her way down to the professor.
“My mom has Guillain Barre Syndrome,” she said.
“Really? Was she diagnosed by an M.D?”
“Yes. Right here at the U of U.”
That afternoon his office called and asked if I would come in. GBS is a rare syndrome, only diagnosed after many tests including EMG and spinal tap, and he was intrigued to hear of one of his students here knowing someone with that definite diagnosis. Dr. Renner had done a medical fellowship in Guillain Barre Syndrome. Sarah went with me to his office, where he taught her as he examined me. I got all weepy watching him tutor my daughter as he ministered to me, meticulously administering test after test, evaluating my condition, asking me to close my eyes and stand on one leg (impossible); pounding and poking and scraping and gently bending, all the while softly instructing my daughter as she sat in the corner of the exam room, a notebook in her lap, pen in her hand.
He verified the diagnosis, suggesting plasmapheresis. Just before he left the room I stopped him:
“Can you tell me, maybe I’m crazy…but can you tell me if any of this would make an orange taste salty?”
“Indeed, it could. The ninth nerve goes down the side of your face, in the vicinity of the jaw, and interprets sweet, sour, bitter and salty. If that nerve was stripped in the GBS process then it could absolutely misinterpret, making sour citrus seem salty.”
Things got worse before they got better, though they never did get completely better for me. But considering where I was, and what other options I may have had to deal with, I am feeling profoundly blessed. I can play my guitar, can chop celery in tiny little pieces, can caress the soft hair of my grandchildren when I hold them. I can walk. Not without pain, but I can absolutely walk and that is a miracle. And oranges and grapefruit taste like oranges and grapefruit once again.
I wonder, in moments of reflection, how often we misinterpret things without knowing it. Had I never eaten a fresh ripe mandarin orange from the orchard in Roseville would it have surprised me that this particular one tasted salty that day? Or would I have simply believed mandarin oranges were supposed to be salty?
Belief, it is said, is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true. I guess you could say it is not necessary for something to actually be true in order for someone to believe it. Thank goodness much of the mundane in our lives has consistent evidence; humans have heads; lungs need air; sound travels without being seen; the sun provides light by day and the moon and stars reflect that light by night…stuff like that. Easy to believe. We all know it because the evidence consistently proves it.
The older we get, the more we struggle with belief. Newborn babies have no need for belief, I suppose. Their minds don’t search for testaments. They only know what their bellies and their pain mechanisms tell them and it wouldn’t matter if they believe someone will feed them or not, they’re just hungry. You couldn’t even say they trust someone to feed them. They’re just hungry. And if they die hungry, they just die. No anger, no questions. This is before they form attachment. Things change when we become more intelligent and attached. It takes the gently dissipating innocence rising from them as they age, their loss of naïveté, to form the questions which open the window to belief. We do not baptize our babies because they simply have no need for baptism at such an innocent age. We wait until they are old enough, tried enough, challenged barely enough…to believe, or at least to want to believe.
When the great maker of all good things molded us and breathed mortality into us, I imagine him setting us, figuratively speaking, on the chess board of life. He places us in our little first squares, and sits back in his chair. I don’t know how we move, whether we shift ourselves, or whether he lifts his hand and moves us himself, or whether he lets the board rise and fall, sliding us to and fro haphazardly. However we move; we move. Even if we don’t feel like playing; we play. I choose that candid chess scene as a picture in my head, not as fact, though I do believe in a great majestic hand overseeing me. It simply represents how little I know about why things happen.
What I believe and what I know are categories separated by one simple thing. Some call it the Holy Ghost. The Holy Spirit. Inspiration. Spiritual Instinct. That thing which causes the hairs on my arms to stand on end, springing out of little goose bumps when someone says something particularly stirring. That trigger in the back of my head which switches the tear ducts during certain tender moments. That soundless bell of validation I feel ringing in my chest when someone speaks something I consider to be true. It’s as real to me as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Because someone else does not perceive it the same does not diminish the evidence I have accumulated through the years: that this mechanism serves as a form of revelation to me, just like the test tubes and glass slides and microscopes served in my high school Biology class. Without it I would be wingless – unable to rise from the starkness of earth life. I’m not talking fairy wings, I mean figurative functional flight wings with power and purpose. Without it I think I might be able to feel happiness, but I would be devoid of hope; and without hope I cannot imagine being who I am.
Without that one little measure of Heaven our maker sent down with us, to emulsify our earthly mixture of ingredients, I would be resigned to basing what I “know” on pure hard evidence. And had I only eaten one mandarin orange in my life, and it tasted salty, I might never know that oranges are sweetly sour and delicious to the taste. I would presume them to be only what I personally knew them to be. But something in us is gifted to us, to tell us the true nature of an orange…of a child…of human hearts.
Belief does not need truth.
There would be no war, no classes on comparative religions, if we were unable to believe in something un-true. That’s a risk we were willing to take when we took on our human condition from our pre-mortal state.
But I think somehow truth needs belief.
In a metaphysical sort of way. Divine truth, the less obvious truth that requires something not seen through the lens of science, compels us to resign and surrender, having received enough visible evidence, coupled with that powerful ingredient of the Holy Spirit. That surrender is the umbilical cord to hope. We are nourished and grow, strange as it may seem, because we know something we cannot completely nor immediately prove; and because we cannot prove it we must hope it is true. Just hoping something is true does not mean it is true. But it also does not mean it is not true. When “I believe” grows to maturity, having been nourished by hope; it receives a new name. We stand at the pulpit, our hearts pumping, our minds focused, our arms covered in goose bumps, and we speak these words:
I like to think when I say those words; in my heart, with my voice, in song or in action; that it is the beautiful union of truth and my God given right… exercised in wisdom…to believe.