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.
“And a sword shall pierce your very soul.”
Oh, yes, it did, and this sword creates a wound that can never heal.