"How can this be?" are the words we hear a young Mary speak in this Sunday's gospel text. "How can this be?" were the words etched into my brain from the other day when another young girl experienced unexpected events, but in a much more tragic context. She was twenty years old, and in her second year of college, the oldest of eight children in a close-knit and devout family. She aspired to being a high school teacher, and was proud that she had also scrimped and saved from her job at the supermarket to buy a dependable used car. She was home for break from school, and had just had a fight with her boyfriend. Maybe they had been fighting more now that she is away at school. He had left and she was probably feeling more than a little sad and stressed about it all when she began to feel an odd strangeness she had never experienced before. In fact, she felt so different than she ever had before that she called her Mom who was out shopping. The daughter was home watching the little ones. She begged her Mom to come home-NOW!
It had already been a bad day, not just the fight with her boyfriend, but her brother who was a year younger was at the police station with their Dad because he had been mugged, and was slogging through the obligatory investigative police work. In the time it took to get to the house it had all begun to unravel. Mom walks in the door to find her beautiful 20 year old violently vomiting, struggling with slurred speech, but she was able to comprehend that she could not feel parts of her body. And she was terrified and crying. The ambulance was called and the neighbor came over to stay with the others, and in a whir they sped away with the EMT's struggling to keep her breathing.
As I met the Mom in the waiting room I scrambled to comfort, and offer to get whatever news I could. I did not have to struggle to envision all of the feelings and instincts, but instead needed to chase away thoughts of my own. Very quickly, it was even more dismal than before, with the doctor saying there had been a massive stroke, and she was bleeding in her brain, and I ached as the rapid fire questions about health history, meds, and life situation were coming almost too quickly to be absorbed. And the truth is that there was nothing that could explain this. There would be more tests and treatment and maybe surgery but " I am very concerned- your daughter could die."
Desperate phone calls were made. I offered prayer that still seems like it was not enough, but then again how could it be? And she sank to her knees and began praying the rosary, pulling me with her. I know most but not all, but with my arm around her, prayed what I could aloud and joined in silence with her in the rest. She shared that she was focusing on the cross of Christ. And as the repetition moved further along, as she almost feverishly fingered the beads, the peace which surpasses understanding was enough to carry her in the tragic yet sacred space. And then we waited.
The father and brother arrived and after more updating and consoling, I gave them some space while I tried to find out more. I inquired if they wished their parish be contacted, and they asked for the closest on-call priest to come and anoint their daughter. And then we waited. And then a doctor came and shared what more they knew- and it was even worse- that there was no discernible brain activity, the machines were doing all of the heavy lifting. The Mom lurched in the wake of this tidal wave of sorrow, and I caught her before she could fall, her husband and I easing her into a chair as she expelled a visceral wail- how could this be? I ached to my very core for them.
The son was standing off to the side- his parents were embracing each other and praying. He asked if he could go somewhere to smoke a cigarette, not that he was a big smoker, but you know, times like this.. In this day and age, one cannot smoke in the building or on any of the property owned by the hospital.
I took him outside- and pointed about a half a block away to where he could go. There was a light, but chilling rain. We chatted briefly- he was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the day and these new inexplicable things. And in fairly non- chaplain-like language, I offered to this 19 year old that I was so sorry because, frankly this sucked.
"Yeah" is about the only word I can print here from his response, but my putting this into the base vernacular allowed him to let loose of some of the emotions. I asked him if he could use a hug, and as I did I recalled that in all of this, the parents had been hugging each other, but not him. " Thanks, you know I really could." And he latched on for all it could be, and in my mind, I thought that 19 is really not that old. When this kind of thing happens, suddenly it is hard to be an adult. In fact, "I don't want to be a grown-up" would be even more accurate.
I could not go with him for him to catch a smoke, but only stand there as he lurched off into the misty night, having shared with him what he would need to do to come back into the trauma unit.
He returned as the priest was arriving. As I left them to share in this time with the priest, I prayed that the three of them, Mom, Dad and Son would embrace together. I prayed for this young girl, and for all of the staff, many of whom, as nurses, were in their 20's as well. This was within striking distance of their ages, a cold slap in the face even for those who choose this profession. Now discussing the timing of the brain death determinations.
After the priest left, there was the flurry around transferring the girl to a trauma-neuro room during the interim, and it was time for me to hand off to another chaplain. Part of me wanted to stay, wanted to make sure that this family would get everything they needed, this maternal part of me struggled to say goodbye. But the introductions needed to be made, and the status reviewed. Long, deep hugs, and expressions of sorrow and prayer. It would be another chaplain who would discuss the organ donations, and the finality of things, in the dark of night, this cold and unforgivingly blustery night.
Before I ended my time, I circled round the ER, to listen to the nurses, and the clerks, and the security folks, and in that sharing, to be ministered to as I ministered. There had already been two other deaths on my shift, plus the regular pattern of heart attack and traumas, and in general we were all feeling more than a little beat up.
Out of this tragedy, five people received donor organs they so desperately needed- this is the reality of organ donation- it takes a tragedy to bring someone else long-awaited good news.
I drove home, distractedly, mulling in my mind all that had transpired. And it felt like a leaden blanket. And I have prayed repeatedly for this family, and this beautiful girl whose obituary photo allowed me to see her not as the dying girl, whose face was slack, whose eyes were vacant, wired up to so many machines, but a vibrant and beautiful girl with a hopeful smile- I mourn not seeing that girl. I cannot fathom the wrenching grief of the family, or the bottomless pit that something that cannot be quantified leaves for the medical folks.
Henri Nouwen shares that "There is a strong inclination to say, 'Don't cry, your loved one is in the hands of God'.. but are we really ready to experience our powerlessness in the face of death and say 'I do not understand. I do not know what to do, but I am here with you.' Are we willing to not run away from the pain, to not get busy when there is nothing to do, and instead to stand in the face of death with together with those who grieve?" I hope that this was the care I imparted through the power of the Spirit.
And I hugged my own teens a little more tightly reminded yet again of the wonderful blessings and the fleeting nature of it all. Reminded of the words of a sermon by a pastor who buried his own son after his car careened into the harbor- People ask where was God? God was the first to shed tears as his car sank into the water. And the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
There is so much we don't know here- Lord give us the strength to hold on to what we do know- death does not have the last word- none of your words are impossible. And Lord, have patience with us when it is hard for us to embrace these words.