I cried at a Disney movie.
And not because they offed the parents once again (I’m looking at you, Lion King and Frozen and every princess with a widower dad), not because the artificial Disney saccharine contrasted sharply with the brokenness of the world as usual, but because this one hit way too close to home.
Our daughters loved “Moana,” and Hamilton-obsessed Smith delighted in the catchy and surprisingly nuanced music, while his father of two girls/married to a doctor/Methodist pastor/feminist self couldn’t get enough of the girl power story line. We rarely see movies in the theater, and we have never in a decade of marriage seen the same movie twice on the silver screen. But on one restless January evening, following a family dinner that led to some hard conversations after I could hardly finish a sentence due to my highly active pager, we decided to return to see our favorite Polynesian chief-in-training, thinking that even if I had to spend the movie in the lobby on the phone that at least our girls would have a nice evening.
To understand why this happy movie made me weep, you should know some things about me. I don’t remember anything before wanting to become physician. My cousin, who is three weeks younger than me and as close as a brother, was diagnosed with leukemia when we were three. I will never forget trying to press my small face to the phone to talk to him in the hospital for the first time, sitting on the lap of the Santa Claus at St. Jude, hearing my strong daddy cry as he prayed for him, the steroid mood swings, horrid children at school teasing him and calling him “Baldy” in kindergarten. Also burned into my memory was the reverent tone used when speaking of his hero doctors, who with God’s help healed him. I wanted to do that someday. It wasn’t really a conscious decision—it was a calling that my entire family supported and encouraged. This propelled me through organic chemistry, gross anatomy, peanut butter cracker dinners (or no dinners), and hundred-hour workweeks.
My paternal grandmother in particular was a tremendous cheerleader. She told anyone who listened that her granddaughter was going to become a doctor, big news from a lady who grew up poor and had to stop her education in the eighth grade despite being very headstrong and intelligent. She mourned when I moved far away from home for residency; she was unimpressed that I was training in the number one children’s hospital in the country and prayed daily that I would return home to Mississippi. She passed away during my intern year, and losing her wrecked me even more than I thought it could. For the first time in my conscious life, I considered leaving medicine, but I owed too much money for my medical education to pay it back otherwise. I wryly remarked to Smith that God knew I’d need to have a powerful reason to keep working as a doctor, which is why He didn’t provide me with a scholarship and why He called my husband from his career as an Air Force officer to the ministry, starting with three years of very low pay as he returned to divinity school.
Mamaw’s prayers were answered many years later. When I interviewed for my first job, I had very little desire to go back to our rural area fresh out of training, though I was restless in a resource-rich area, not feeling that I brought anything uniquely helpful. I often considered the logistics of short-term medical missions to respond to the abundant riches I had received and assuage my guilt for staying in a comfortable place. Besides, we were Methodist ministry family bound for itinerancy; private practice was out of the question. I interviewed at my hometown hospital to please a long-time clinical mentor and to placate my parents. During my hospital tour, the Chief Medical Officer told me that children with diabetes were dying at alarming rates, with four deaths due to diabetic ketoacidosis in his very short time there. I couldn’t sleep after that. Who better to respond to that need than a pediatric diabetes doctor who happened to be a hometown girl with a bleeding heart? We would make it work. We found ourselves moving back to the birthplace of Elvis Presley, to the poorest state in the country, to start something brand new. I felt like Peter, stepping out of the boat toward Jesus.
But Peter found rocky sea underneath him and very quickly took his eyes off his very Savior. I almost immediately found myself drowning with a complicated pregnancy, over seven hundred days of call in a row, spent by the constant inexhaustible need and suffering all around me in this poverty-stricken state while my children grew up seemingly overnight. Many times I would become frustrated, angry, bitter, destroyed, asking God why He called me to this hard place, to this hard career. Why couldn’t He have called me to anything else? I uncharitably couldn’t imagine that any other field could be so challenging. My husband was pastoring four small churches nearly an hour away, so I found myself alone with two babies twenty months apart, unable to leave the local area because of hospital policies, with an incessant pager. Nothing about this looked like “My Best Life Now.” This looked like Sinai desert. This felt like choking on briny saltwater and seaweed while Jesus stood feet away but being unable to grasp His hand.
Young Moana is “chosen” by the ocean as a toddler as the water entrusts her with a special gift. This desire propels her on a quest to heal her land, and she is often empowered by the knowledge that she was elected for this very task. But even plucky princesses have a breaking point; she eventually sobs before her sending ocean, throwing its gift into its depths. “Choose someone else!” she implores. And as my little girls crunched on movie popcorn, I cried until my shoulders shook.
Seeing the teenage Moana bemoan her special task felt so familiar—then her belated grandmother appears and wraps Moana in her arms. She sings to her:
“I know a girl from an island
She stands apart from the crowd
She loves the sea and her people
She makes her whole family proud
Sometimes the world seems against you
The journey may leave a scar
But scars can heal and reveal just
Where you are
The people you love will change you
The things you have learned will guide you
And nothing on earth can silence
The quiet voice still inside you
And when that voice starts to whisper
Moana, you’ve come so far
Do you know who you are?”
I imagined my precious Mamaw, so closely that I could smell her Kools cigarettes and Windsong perfume and feel her soft skin. I could hear my parents, reminding me to remember not only who I am, but Whose I am.
I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m a mother. I’m a doctor. I’m a pastor’s wife. I’m a Mississippian. And like Moana, I’ll pick my task back up and charge forward toward victory. And like Peter, I’ve learned that the only way navigating the rocky sea is to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus and trust His entrusting me with this life. Jesus reached down to rescue us both from drowning—in my case, by opening up a new job opportunity with better support shortly thereafter.
My theologian husband has challenged a lot of my deep-rooted and incorrect notions that “God has one specific plan” for my life. The junior high church retreat teachings that persisted through college that if a young Christian ever took a wrong steps, God’s Perfect Plan would be forever be destroyed, and we’d be left with some second-rate Plan B. I know now that this is untrue. But I’ve recognized my need for Christ acutely daily on this voyage and have gotten to help people along the way. And though I have much work to do, I know that one step at a time, keeping my eye on the Author and Finisher of my faith, that I can journey forward, knowing who and Whose I am.