Friday, March 29, 2013

At the Foot of the Cross

Matthew 16:24
Then Jesus said to his disciple, "If you want to follow me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me."

It is Holy Week for those of us who are Christian. Yesterday was Holy Thursday, encompassing the Last Supper Jesus would share with his friends (and during which He consecrated the first Eucharist) and His agony in the garden of Gethsemane. But as I write this, it is still Good Friday – the day of THE Sorrowful Mother. She was present during a sham trial, saw her son’s beaten body after a scourging and had to have winced at the crown of thorns, which was pushed into his head for the purpose of mocking him. She followed him to Golgotha and stayed with him, watching her innocent baby’s profound suffering. She stayed with him as he died, and she stayed with him on the journey to the tomb. She would not, she could not, leave him.

Our family’s not-so-Good Friday took place during a 24-hour period early last June. It was obvious during May that the cancer was advancing throughout Brandon's body, but none of us knew how little time he and those who love him had left to spend together. However, the last week of May his condition worsened rapidly. Fluid accumulated in his lower extremities, although his upper body looked emaciated. Then he began to experience difficulty breathing. Within a few days, breathing was such an effort he could barely talk. He was admitted to the hospital on Thursday for nutritional support, or so we thought, and an assessment of the breathing difficulty. Early Friday afternoon, June 1, he had a bronchoscopy for reasons that made no sense then and still make no sense. The post-procedure discomforts seemed an unnecessary added torture, as most of the oncologists had to know.

Our Calvary began late that same Friday, June 1, with Brandon saying, “Done,” after a physician explained the meaning of his dangerously low blood pH and offered medication to relieve his labored breathing. I asked, “Brandon, do you understand what she is saying?” and I offered a simpler Cliff’s Notes version of the doctor’s message. He raised his head a bit, looked in my eyes and repeated, “Done.” With that second “done,” Brandon took the burden of decision making off the shoulders of his family. (However, it is not a burden that I can let go. My head knows there was nothing more that could be done, but my heart simply can’t believe or accept this. I may always feel that surely I should have or could have done something else, something more to keep my precious baby here with us.)

For the next 24 hours, I was struck by analogies to Jesus’s passion and death. As his wife Christina and I sat by his side during the night, occasionally yawning or closing our eyes, I kept hearing, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?" (Matthew 26:40)

Christina caring for Brandon - Friday, June 1. This is the last time he sat on his own.

His brother Joe rubbing his head

His father Joe and older sister Elizabeth

His "baby" sister Carolyn with her head on his pillow by his head
(Brandon's brother Tony couldn't fly home until several hours after any photos were taken)
Night became day, and more of his extended family and friends gathered around him, touched him, hugged him, and told him how much he is loved. A priest came and anointed him with so much holy oil it gave us an excuse to massage his hands and feet. It became more difficult to know whether Brandon was conscious and aware, although he’d surprise us with a nonverbal response to someone or to something that was said every once in a while.

Finally, only close family remained in the room, watching Brandon and waiting with him. (A fair number of extended family members and good friends waited in two visitor areas not far from his room.) Those of us in the room surrounded the sides and foot of his bed. I was struck many times that day with an image of us as standing at the foot of Brandon’s cross. How he had and still suffered. How we all suffered because we couldn’t take some of that burden from him.

Our not-so-good Friday to late Saturday was both the shortest and longest 24 hours of my life. In the moments after Brandon’s death, I think I fell across his body and sounds I’d never known I was capable of making escaped my mouth over and over again. I told him I would be there for him no matter what, so I waited with him, touched him, hugged him and told him I loved him until someone from the funeral home came for his "fearfully and wonderfully made" body.

Luke 2:35
And a sword shall pierce your very soul.”

Oh, yes, it did, and this sword creates a wound that can never heal.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Happy Birthday, my Baby of Light

It has been 41 weeks since Brandon’s death. Brandon was one week overdue at birth – 41 weeks. He’s now been gone for the same length of time he once nested and grew within me. I’m odd like that. Maybe because I work in mother-baby nursing or maybe I went into mother-baby nursing because I think like that. Who knows? I only know that carrying him during the last 41 weeks have been very different from carrying him at the beginning of his time on this earth.

I had an extremely uneventful pregnancy with Brandon – no morning, much less all-day, sickness as I’d had with my first and would have again with my third (twin) pregnancies and few discomforts, even during the last few weeks. Never mind how uneventful the pregnancy, I was anxious to meet my second baby once his due date came and went. I felt almost certain this baby was a boy, although he was born several years before ultrasound was available. I somehow knew a girl’s name would not be needed. This baby would be Brandon. (How he got his name is another story.)

Labor started early March 15, several days after his due date, and it progressed as usual for me – long and slow. (Since it was our second baby and Joe, then a third-year medical student, was on call at a hospital the night of the 15th going into the 16th, I figured I was a shoe-in for a quick labor – hah!) So it putzed along through Friday the Ides of March into Saturday, March 16th.  But as with all pregnancies and labors, it did finally end. Our first beautiful boy, Brandon Conrad, was born into his father’s hands at 12:38 p.m.

And then the strangest and most wondrous thing happened for me. I’m not really sure how to describe it, and there is no way to explain it. However, I want to be clear that I was quite healthy, awake and aware. At no time was I in jeopardy during the labor, birth or thereafter. Horrible hunger pangs during every contraction were the worst issue I had to deal with during labor, and the reason I requested a cheeseburger the moment I left the delivery room. 

The experience I’m going to attempt to describe happened within a few minutes of Brandon’s birth. Looking back it seems both part of and yet completely separate and unrelated to Brandon’s birth. I’m almost positive that he was lying on my chest at the time, but I’m not completely sure.

All I know is that in one moment I had just given birth and was feeling the excitement of meeting my new baby. I was hearing the voices of my husband, the obstetrician, and a good friend, who was a labor and delivery nurse colleague and acted as doula for me/us that day. I was noticing but not truly focusing on any sights or sounds except for my baby.

The next moment I was living in light. Literally. In that time, which may have lasted less than a second or may have continued for several minutes, time was meaningless. Everything is connected, everything is part of everything else, and everything is soft yellow-white light. (I tried to write the past tense “was” for the previous sentence, but I can’t because it is incorrect. Only the present “is” works.) Within the experience of light, solids still appeared to have varying densities, so they appeared as different solids but at the same time they appeared transparent. The air in the room was still air yet it was light and one with the solids.  

In the midst of it all, I was also light and I was immersed in intense feelings of perfect peace, perfect comfort, perfect love. I saw no apparition – only the objects in the room, although all objects were light – and I heard no voice, yet no apparition or voice was needed. That I was profoundly and perfectly loved and accepted was clearly communicated, and I remember a “knowing” that this is God.

The light ended and the room, plus everyone in it, abruptly shifted to “normal” the moment the realization hit that I was experiencing something beyond extraordinary. It was as if time had been standing still and now began to move again. Life moved on as it tends to do. I kissed and cuddled my baby, I hugged and kissed my husband, and I got my requested cheeseburger.
Brandon and I seeing eye-to-eye right after his birth.
Afterward, I wasn’t preoccupied with thoughts about my experience in the light. I didn’t have time; I was a busy mother who only got busier as twin boys and then a second daughter joined their two older siblings. But then and from time-to-time since Brandon’s birth, I’d thought about this experience and about its possible meaning. It was reassuring to recall the feelings of peace and love, but the recollection was in no way like the experience.

Then my baby, my Brandon was diagnosed with cancer and the roller-coaster ride of hope and despair left the station and continues today. I began again to ponder the meaning of my experience in the light. It was only after the cancer took Brandon’s mortal life (and killed itself in doing so – stupid disease) that I think I may have a clue.

I think an all-knowing, all-loving Creator was letting me know, even as Brandon entered this life, that Brandon would have to leave this life earlier than expected. Call it a foreshadowing, perhaps. I believe I was shown the depth of love and empathy the Creator has for me (and for each of us), and how that Creator is here for me in this pain of Brandon’s death. I believe I was being shown that there truly is no time for the Creator and that all are one in time and in light. I think.

Today marks 39 years since my experience in the light. Dear Creator, I could use a reminder experience. Today, Brandon’s birthday, would be nice.

Miss you so much, Brandon. Live on in the light that I seek again but struggle to find.

Matthew 17: 1-2
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.