These are the words I heard as I prayed after posting on Facebook this morning.
“Do you miss him?”
I knew God was talking to me about Justin. “Yes, Lord, I do. Of course I miss him. His smile, his laughter… Just the way he came into a room all elbows and energy. Of course I miss him. I love him.”
“I know you do.”
No tears, no anguish filled moments in that prayer. Peace covered me like a soft blanket in winter. The moment lingered as I drove the slower back streets of North Richland Hills in no particular rush. I continued the drive, meandering my way through to Southlake and thinking about the exchange. As I did, responses began to pop up on my Facebook. Words of condolences, words of prayer, words to comfort and words that encourage – people who remembered and people who never knew.
On vacation last week I spent time with some of those who were closest to me that same week six years ago. This year, in an unusual turn of events, the dates of 2005 fell exactly the same in 2011. Even more striking to my recollection, not only did the day of Justin’s birth and death fall on exactly the same days of the week as they did six years ago, but his birthday in 2005 and 2011 matched exactly the day of the week he was born some 23 years ago.
The timing became amazingly significant. On the drive to and through Colorado we heard a number of worship and popular contemporary Christian songs. Several times we heard Natalie Grant’s melodic voice grace the airwaves as the song I had played at Justin’s funeral filled our ears.
“This is what it means to be held, how it feels when the sacred is torn from your life and you survive. This is what it means to be loved and to know that the promise was when everything fails we’ll be held.” (From “Held,” written by Krista Wells, as performed by Natalie Grant)
I had first heard that song while taking Scott to the airport to catch a flight to his maternal grandmother’s funeral the early days of 2005. Life swung in a strange back and forth rhythm between something like normal and insanity with Justin back then. The words of the song captured both my attention and my heart that morning.
I picked up the CD of the song later in the spring when life continued to teeter irreversibly out of control where Justin was concerned. I popped the orange colored disc in my car’s audio system and turned the volume all the way up. I drove the country roads of Wise County, Texas belting out the words to that song with all my heart as tears fell free time and time again.
I cried out to God in every way during those months as He both answered my prayers and reassured my heart that life would someday find a normal place again.
By midsummer I was nursing a new revelation. A knowing in my heart that left others around me unsettled and rebuking the devil. I heard the Lord say I needed to be prepared to lose my son. But instead of fear, a peace settled deep within me that never quite let go. “This is what it means to be held…”
As we travelled to Vail Valley this year on Sunday, August 14th, Mark Schultz came on the radio singing,
” I AM almighty God, Your father
The risen Son of Man
The Healer of the broken
And when you cry
I AM Your Savior and Redeemer
Who bore the sins of man
The Author and Perfecter
Beginning and the End –
My heart felt a fluttering of remembrance. My mind went back six years to the week. I played that CD over and over again in my car as I made the nearly hour long drive from home to the hospital the week Justin lay in a coma fighting for his life. I wept and prayed those words, I believed for miracles and prayed for mercy. I felt His presence and His answers even in the very worst moments. “I AM…The Healer of the broken… who bore the sins of man.”
On Monday, August 22nd, the seventh day after the car accident and my seventh wedding anniversary, Scott and I had stayed the night at home with my girls. I had delivered them to school before seeing my primary care doctor in our home town. Just before I arrived at the doctor’s office my phone rang.
“Michelle, where are you?”Daddy’s voice held a note of concern.
“I’m pulling into Dr. Hoover’s office, Daddy. What is it?”
“Just get here as soon as you can. One of Justin’s pupils won’t respond to light and we are waiting for the neurosurgeon to come. They think his brain swelling may be pressing on his optic nerve. We don’t know what it means for sure, but you need to get here as soon as possible.”
“Okay, I’ll come as soon as I’m done at the doctor.”
That day played out like a roller coaster ride from hell. I arrived at the hospital a little more than an hour later. Tears flowed freely as Mark Shultz provided the soundtrack for my life on the drive to the hospital. All I could do was pray the same prayer I had prayed the first day as Pastor Ron drove me into the hospital… “Lord, please let him be alive when I get there…” Mark Schultz sang, “He’s my son…”
Circumstances grew more grave by the minute after I arrived. The neurosurgeon had left the hospital without coming in to give us news of Justin’s declining condition. I grew more frantic and hours passed while we still had no new information about what happened to my son overnight. Not only had his pupil begun to blow, but the one good kidney he had was showing signs of failure. They stopped the medicine that helped control the swelling in the brain hoping to curtail the negative effects on his kidney. We truly found ourselves in a waiting game situation.
By late afternoon I sat on the small roll-away cot the nurse had brought into his private room a few days before. His regular day nurse came in and did the usual vitals check and then she opened one eye and shined the small penlight she held in it. “No change.”
She moved to the other eye which had been responsive throughout the day. “We’re starting to lose this one now, too.”
She looked at me with sorrow and pain on her face. I felt the sudden gasp of hope failing catch in my throat. My eyes grew moist for the thousandth time and I whispered, “That is not good is it?”
She shook her head, walked around to where I sat, and held me as I cried. “I’m so sorry. This is not what we hoped for…”
You know I cannot remember her name, but I remember her heart and how each of those health care professionals contended with us for my son’s life. I will never forget. “This is what it means to be held…”
The Saturday night before — the day we spent driving around Pike’s National Forest this year— had been a turning point in Justin’s situation. He had been taken down to the CT room as they normally did every few hours to verify the condition had not grown worse or indeed that it had improved. Mostly, it just stayed the same.
I was dozing in and out of sleep when a team of nurses and doctors rushed through the doors of his room. They scurried about calling out medical terms working as one to fix whatever had gone wrong.
Panic gripped my heart as I asked, “What is wrong?”
His nurse turned and whispered, “While coming back up from CT his central line catheter came out. We tried to reinsert it but punctured his lung.”
I stood and went out to the waiting room to sleep with Scott on a bench. I found it difficult to rest thinking my hurt boy lay in that bed with no medication to numb the pain. I prayed for mercy at that moment. “Father, if Justin is going to come back to us anything less than whole please have mercy on my son and give me peace to accept it…”
By Tuesday, August 23, 2005, we would know an answer after another round of scans. The nurse came in and injected radioactive dye into Justin’s arm. I leaned over the bedrail and kissed his cheek. I laughed as I declared, “See you later, Justin, you’ll be glowin’ in the dark when they bring you back.”
They kept him out of his room through midday. I blazed a trail from the waiting area to his room and back every ten or so minutes to see if he had been returned.
Shortly after lunch, the Chief of Surgery gathered our family in a tiny room to tell us the results. Justin no longer had blood flow to his brain. “We believe Justin is no longer with us.”
The night before our entire church turned out to tell my son goodbye. Nurses granted my father special permission to bring back as many visitors as we could three at a time while two or three family members remained in the room at a time. We called it “the tour.”
Dad would come out and say, “I can take three more.”
Three people would step forward and he would walk them back. He would explain the monitors and vital signs before escorting them out and bringing back three more.
What I didn’t realize at the time… My daddy didn’t believe our boy was dying. He never gave up.
As we gathered around his bed that Tuesday afternoon waiting for the doctor to come in and turn off the machines, my daddy prayed through tears, “Lord, we ask you to use your mighty power to bring Justin back to us…”
The doctor came into the room to say the radiologist had ordered one more test. They wheeled him out again and I began my paces.
By 4:30 pm a few friends had come by so I waited with them in the lobby. Soon we would have a final word.
I went back a few minutes after 4:30 and saw my boy lying there in the bed. I stepped in and found his cranial pressure had slipped from triple digits down into the normal range. I had a moment when I felt hope rise up and I sat down on the stool beside his bed. I prayed, “Lord, either He is healed or he is home, make it sure either way.”
The nurse entered with a staff chaplain and I knew what she had come to say. “We think his brain hemorrhaged as we brought him back up.”
My boy’s spirit was gone, his soul at rest, while his temple lived by the will of doctor’s orders and machines.
We gathered the family one final time. The words of Malin in Steel Magnolias rings true of my experience, “They turned off the machines…There was no gasp or tremble just peace. It was the most precious moment of my life. I was there when that creature drifted into my life and I was there when she drifted out.”
I pressed my arm up under his broad shoulders and lay my head upon his chest where I wept from a place deep inside. The deepest sorrow I have ever known. Bereaved.
Three years later on the anniversary of his death I found the joy in life again and the constant ache of grief ebbed away. “…And the days of your mourning shall come to an end.” Isaiah 60:20
Behold, He does make all thing new. I live to tell the story of the great things He’s done. He has indeed filled our mouths with laughter and our hearts with joy.