Last week I introduced a new series here entitled “Love Showed Up: The best of People on the Worst of Days.” The idea here is that the best thing we can do to defuse grief clichés is to share stories of times in our lives when everything fell apart and we were loved well and held closely.
Today my dear amazing friend Jillian Burden is kicking off the series for us by sharing a story from her life that will leave you breathless but hopeful. Simply put Jill is one of my favorite people on the planet, she’s classy and thoughtful with a faith that challenges and encourages me in the best of ways. Let’s read this story and store it up in our hearts as an example of holding together our loved one in seasons of falling apart.
Six years ago this fall my mom was on her deathbed. She had emergency surgery on her abdomen in late August and then aspirated waking up from anesthesia. Aspirating damaged her lungs and she had to be put on supplemental oxygen as she recovered in the ICU. Her condition worsened. Soon she had to wear a big black mask that forced air into her lungs. Then she was put on a ventilator; first with a breathing tube down her throat and then directly into her trachea. Her blood saturation levels dipped dangerously low. She was transferred to a larger hospital. She went into an induced coma. She got sepsis. She lost almost all her muscle mass. My dad called me at college twice to come home and say goodbye to her; her doctors didn’t think she was going to make it.
This went on for months. Hellish is the best way to describe it. I continued with my education, driving back to Ontario from my college in Michigan with my fiance at every available opportunity. I lived as normally as I possibly could, but every minute of every day had a terrifying footnote under it: *Your mom might be dead.
When I called my dad from my dorm each night, adrenaline rushed through my body. What would he say? Was she any better? Was she worse? Was she still alive?
And how was he? My brother? My teenage sister? Were they eating? Working? Going to school? How do you continue living when your wife or mom is dying?
I felt like I was falling apart.
Here’s what kept me together: community.
From the moment they learned that my mom was sick, my community was there. My friends, my family’s friends, my home church in Ontario, my Bible college peers and professors in Michigan, and my relatives all over the world reached out to put their hands on me and hold me together.
At first, they prayed. Then they started bringing meals to my dad and sister still living at home in Ontario. They offered to drive me six hours from my dorm to my mom’s ICU room. They paid for the gas. They cleaned my parents’ house every week for weeks on end. They raked leaves. Pulled weeds. Shoveled snow. At school my professors changed due dates and gave me extensions. They asked how I was doing. Friends and family gathered time and again in the ICU waiting room to sit with my dad. With my siblings. With me. They brought pizza. They prayed. They made small talk. They were quiet.
As my mom crept closer and closer to death, my 300 person bible college together with my parents’ church and friends and family from around the world fasted and prayed for two days. My inbox was flooded with words of support. Someone we knew in Jerusalem placed a prayer for my mom on the Western Wall. At the end of the fast, I stood in a circle among dozens of my peers and took communion. When we had all chewed our bread and swallowed our wine, each student came one by one to embrace me. I left wet marks on their necks and shoulders from my tears. I was so scared, so sad, so sick at the thought of loosing my mom. But I was never one thing: alone.
My story has happy ending. After those days of prayer and fasting, my mom slowly began to improve. Her damaged, infected lungs, began to heal. Her blood saturation levels improved. Her sepsis subsided. She was weaned out of her coma. It was late October- two months after her original surgery- when my dad was finally able to tell her what happened… and how much time had past since her last memory. Unable to speak because of the ventilator she simply mouthed the word, “Wow.”
On November 1- her 48th birthday- she was able to sit up for the first time since August, with the help of a giant sling. Her doctor- who had only weeks earlier described her as “the sickest person in Canada-” called her a medical miracle.
She was eventually transferred back to a smaller hospital near my parents’ home where she was weaned off the ventilator and started physical therapy. At this point, my fiancé John and I were planning to get married in the hospital (so my mom could be present); I remember watching her barely able to turn the page of a wedding planning magazine. She was so weak.
As she healed and we approached the wedding, our community gave their love and support as generously as they had in her weakest hours. My hair stylist aunt came to the ICU with her scissors and combs in hand to give my mom’s short-hair gone shaggy a trim. A coworker of my dad baked up a cupcake “tree” to serve as our wedding cake and my mom’s best friend cooked up a spread of appetizers for us to enjoy with our dozen or so guests after a short ceremony. My childhood pastor agreed to officiate and the church secretary designed and printed a stack of special programs just for the event. My greenhouse-owning cousin made us boutonnieres and corsages while her parents uncle drove a van filled with poinsettias all the way to the hospital so we could decorate.
In Dember my mom had been moved out of ICU to a long-term recovery floor and we used the floor’s community room for our wedding. The night before the wedding, we set up chairs with an aisle down the middle and went home to rest. While we slept, the nurses on my mom’s floor covered every chair with a white bed sheet and hung Christmas ornaments on the back. It was beautiful.
On January 2, 2008 I stood outside that hospital community room with my mom and dad, waiting to walk down the aisle after them and get married. My mom smiled at me from her wheelchair as the CD wedding music began to play. She stood, shakily, and held on to me for support as my dad wheeled her empty chair down the makeshift aisle. Then, to the surprised and tear-filled eyes of our friends and loved ones, she took hold of my dad’s arm and, slowly but surely, put one foot ahead of the other…. and walked.
Six months after my mom took those first feeble steps, John and I had a big party to celebrate our marriage with all our friends and family, outside those hospital walls. We laughed and cried a lot that day; for us, for my mom, for our family, for our friends… for our whole community who collectively held us up and held us together through
that last year. We were finally able to fall apart, but this time it was only in the very best of ways. After dinner as the music played my brother took my mom out to the center floor and- surrounded by the loving hearts and glowing faces of our unfailing community- she danced.
Jillian Burden loves nothing better than hearing and telling great stories. She chronicles her own story of adoption, infertility, faith, family life and her journey to joy over at her blog addingaburden.com.
If you’re interested in guest posting for the “Love Showed Up” series, I’d love to hear more. Get in touch with my via email, I’m leannerae (at) gmail (dot) com.
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