2016-06-30
This reflection was first presented as part of a Good Friday service.

The phone call arrived around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 22, 1998. The caller was the trauma-room doctor from Cook County Hospital in Chicago, informing us that our 21-year-old daughter, Michelle, a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago, had been hit by a car while waiting outside her dorm for the campus van to take her to dinner. The doctor told us that Michelle had suffered severe brain trauma and was on a ventilator. The team was preparing her for brain surgery, but they were not sure of the outcome because she had arrived at the hospital a "three" on the Glasgow Coma Scale, which is the lowest you can be without being declared brain dead.

My husband, our sons, and I were on a 9:00 p.m. flight out of LaGuardia Airport on our way to Chicago, not sure if we would find Michelle alive when we arrived at the hospital. Michelle had survived the surgery, and we were told that the next 72 hours would be crucial. Before the 72 hours passed, however, Michelle was rushed in for more surgery, to remove a hematoma on the other side of her brain. As a result, a new 72-hour wait began. Two days later, Michelle's intracranial pressure began to rise to a dangerous level, and the doctors put her into a barbiturate coma to help reduce the pressure.

Parents would rather undergo suffering ourselves than watch our child suffer. Yet this is where love sometimes takes us.

For seven and a half weeks, I lived in the waiting room across the hall from the neuro ICU with other family members and friends of patients. Finally, Michelle was sufficiently stable that she could be moved to a rehab center. She was still unconscious, but she was no longer in danger of dying. After much negotiating, we were able to have her enter the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Now I saw firsthand what possible disabilities lay ahead for my daughter. Twice during our stay at the Rehab Institute, Michelle was rushed to a hospital with infections. I became convinced that she would die from one of these infections, because she was building up an immunity to antibiotics.

Because Michelle was not progressing at the Rehab Institute, she had to be discharged. She was no longer a candidate for their program. The time had come to bring her back to the East Coast, but finding a program that would accept her was difficult.

The rehabilitation process is structured mainly for those individuals who make rapid progress. If someone does not make such progress, the alternative is usually a skilled nursing facility. But a rehab center in Edison, N.J., was willing to accept Michelle, and so after almost four months in Chicago, Michelle and I came to Newark Airport by air ambulance. Although the doctors had been telling us that the longer Michelle remained unconscious the worse the prognosis, I had hoped that because she had to overcome so many medical problems (at least 10 surgeries), this process had been necessarily delayed and would not affect her prognosis. But now she was medically stable, she was out of crisis, and all we could do was wait for her to wake up.

But she did not.

Eventually, we were able to have Michelle moved to the extended-care unit of the center, where her new doctor was willing to give Michelle a little more time to regain consciousness. But we were warned that there was only a 15% chance that she would awaken.

When my daughter was a dean's-list student, everyone wanted her. Now that she is severely brain injured, no one wants her.

Finally, around the beginning of October 1998, Michelle began to emerge from the vegetative state, and therapy began in earnest. But after several months, it was determined that she had "plateaued" and that it was unlikely that any more progress would be made. In June 1999, we moved Michelle to a brain-injury unit on Long Island, but again Michelle was discharged because she was not making sufficient progress. Last November, we brought Michelle home to live with us, where she receives 24-hour nursing care and daily therapy.

As we reflect on Jesus' suffering and death, many of us, especially those of us who are parents, know that in addition to the one dying on the cross, it can be just as difficult for those standing at the foot of the cross. We would rather undergo the suffering ourselves than stand by and watch a loved one, especially our child, suffer. Yet this is where love sometimes takes us.

On the plane ride to Chicago, I planned Michelle's funeral, and I came to realize that the only way I could have been spared the suffering that I was going through was never to have had Michelle in my life. But that would have been an even profounder tragedy. The fuller our lives are, the more apt we are to experience loss.

The cross of Christ symbolizes this paradox in our lives: by opening ourselves to love, we open ourselves to suffering. If Mary had said no to the angel Gabriel, she would not have been at the foot of the cross, and if Jesus had said no, he would not have been on the cross. When we love, we become susceptible to wounding and disappointment, pain and vulnerability. Yet we know that it is this same love that also leads to new life, a life of joy and meaning, of relationships and caring. Christ on the cross showed us that the more you love, the greater your capacity becomes for both joy and sorrow. In short, the greater your capacity for life.

The cross does not teach us how to escape suffering, but how to be faithful in the midst of suffering. Faithfulness is a virtue that is difficult to practice in our society, which is governed by the values of expediency and efficiency. Ours is a society that rewards winners and has little use for losers. It likes quick fixes and rapid results. These beliefs are also reflected in our health-care system, where the acute-care model, with its modern technology, is given precedence over chronic and long-term care, areas where few resources are available.

Our society teaches us to cut our losses and move on. If you cannot fix it, get rid of it. When my daughter was a dean's-list student at the University of Chicago, everyone wanted her. Now that she is severely brain injured, no one wants her. When I was in Chicago with my daughter, I often reflected on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and how he begged his disciples to pray and watch with him. He knew what was waiting for him, and he wanted companionship and support. My greatest fear was not that Michelle would die, but that in our need we would be abandoned.

As people of faith, we know that the resurrection is coming and that we have cause for hope. Nevertheless, Easter does not solve the riddle of the cross. The suffering that we undergo in this world is real. It is profound. It can be devastating. We know that there are things in our lives that we cannot fix, that we cannot overcome. The cross is a reminder of these things.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wrote in his book "The Gift of Peace" that Jesus did not promise to take away our burdens, only to help us carry them. We too are called to be a faithful people and to help each other carry our burdens. There was only one promise that my family made to Michelle, and it is the same promise that our God makes to us today: "No matter what, you will never go through this alone, we will always be with you." That is our gift to our daughter, and that is God's gift to us today. Just as Mary stood by her son on the cross, we too are called to stand by each other.



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