War Buddies

The PICU at Mayo Clinic is in the shape of a horseshoe with the PICU rooms occupying the outside of the curve.  There is a walkway connecting all of the rooms that curves from one end of the horseshoe to the other, and in the middle of the empty space of the horseshoe are desks, computers, and medical equipment.  The nurses told me they put the sickest kids in the corner rooms because the corner rooms are the largest. The sickest kids have the most equipment and need more space.  TJ was in a corner room in the left corner of the horseshoe.

A couple of weeks after arriving at Mayo Clinic, a young man was admitted into the other corner room next to TJ’s.  He was very sick. Although I had seen his family coming and going, I never spoke to them. One morning I entered the PICU and noticed the young man’s room was full of medical staff.  Because I had the same experience a couple of weeks prior, I knew what that meant. He wasn’t doing well. I watched the young man’s mom entering and leaving his room, and I so wanted to talk to her.  But not wanting to intrude on her privacy, I kept to myself.

A few days later, I finally introduced myself.  I learned the young man’s name was Tom and his mom’s name was Janet.  They were from Wisconsin and were quite familiar with Mayo Clinic as they had been there many times before.  During this hospitalization, Tom was fighting Leukemia, but he’d had a variety of health issues for many years prior.  During our initial meeting, I learned that we weren’t going to be neighbors for long because Tom was being moved upstairs.  Before he left, I told him I hoped one day when he and TJ were better, they could meet.

After our meeting, Janet quickly became my closest friend at the hospital.  We ate lunch at the Canadian Honker, took coffee breaks at the Caribou across the street, and once in awhile went for ice cream.  We laughed and cried together and encouraged one another with God’s Word. We even looked somewhat alike, and the nurses from time to time got us confused.

Because she had dealt with serious illness before, Janet was great at giving advice.  I learned many things from her about hospital life and what life would be like when we got out.  Tom also had Down’s syndrome, and Janet taught me many things about special needs and helped me with the transition of TJ being a typical child to TJ becoming a child with special needs.  She built TJ up and told me he was still a cool kid even if he couldn’t talk. I never forgot that.

TJ and Tom went to rehab at the same time, and then the boys were finally well enough to meet.  Tom and Janet were now just down the hall from us, and we visited them frequently.

Sometimes during therapy, TJ and Tom were in the gym at the same time.  From across the room, Tom would yell, “TJ, work hard! Listen to your mother!  May the force be with you!” TJ would then throw his head back, make a loud humming noise, and shake his head back and forth.  That was how he laughed.

Many times during physical therapy, they both walked back and forth in the gym with their therapists, and as they passed by one another, they held their hands up high to give one another a high five.  But because TJ had eye deficits and had trouble judging distance, they oftentimes missed each other’s hands. They were quite entertaining to watch.

A picture of Tom and TJ taken a few days before discharging from Rehab wearing their matching “Repaired in Rochester” shirts
August, 2013

These two special boys had both fought many battles to recover their health, and now they were both doing well.  They both were discharged from rehab within a couple days of each other, and we hoped one day we would see each other again.

Early in the year of 2014, while TJ was at the brain injury rehab facility in Iowa, he had his yearly appointment at Mayo for a heart checkup.  While in between appointments, we sat down to wait in a waiting room in the Gondola Building. I sat in a seat under the windows, and TJ sat directly across from me.  From where he sat, if he looked to the right, he could see down the hallway, but I could not. As we waited, I saw him looking intently down the hall, and then his eyes lit up. I assumed that someone he knew from the medical staff was walking toward him, but I could not see who it was. Suddenly, Janet and Tom came into my view. What a pleasant surprise!  Neither of us knew the other had appointments that day in Rochester. We just “happened” to be there on the same day, at the same time, and in the same building. Because I don’t believe in coincidences, I believe it was the love of God allowing two old war buddies to see each other one more time.  We visited for a while and were sad when it was time to tell our friends goodbye and go to our next appointment. It was the last time TJ ever saw Tom again.

Tom and TJ during our unexpected visit at Mayo Clinic February, 2014

About a year later, Tom’s Leukemia came back, and after a long, three-year, hard-fought battle, he passed away in late summer of 2015 at the age of 21.  After hearing the news, TJ laid on the floor of our family room and sobbed. It was a sad time. Two and a half years later, TJ would also pass away at the age of 21.

After taking some time to recover from losing our sons,  last year Janet and I started a new tradition of meeting once a year in the fall for a weekend, somewhere halfway between our homes, to spend time together and catch up.  Just like old times, we spent the weekend last year laughing and crying and talking about our sons and the memories they left, and now that TJ and Tom are together in heaven, we wondered if they sit and laugh and talk about us too.  Imagining them both healthy, joyful, together, and not in pain anymore is a comforting thought.

I’ve heard it said that the death of a child is one of the hardest things a person can ever go through.  I am very grateful for the friends the Lord has given me to help lessen the pain. I am among all truly blessed.

“From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another.
John 1:16

Airplane Melinda

1 Samuel 18:1
“…..the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

My cousin Brandon

It was a warm, Florida afternoon in November of 2005 when I received a phone call from Iowa and learned that my cousin Brandon had been killed in a car accident at the age of 27.  Upon hearing the news, I crouched down on the floor of my Aunt Marcy’s living room and wept. He was the first one to die in our large family of cousins on my mother’s side, and he died way too young.  Fond memories of the ornery but loving young boy running around my grandparents’ farm shooting us with toy guns and the handsome young man he grew up to be singing karaoke to the song Love Shack at our summer picnics by the pond flooded my mind.  Nothing was ever going to be the same again.

At the time of Brandon’s death, we had been living in Florida for a few years, and I was terribly homesick.  I hadn’t been back home since we moved, and I missed everything about Iowa. I missed my family and friends. I missed spring and the excitement of watching the flowers push up through the ground while the robins hopped around the yard and gathered material to build their nests and lay their eggs.  I missed the Iowa State Fair in late summer with its farm animals, talent shows, and, of course, deep fat fried foods served on a stick. I missed watching the corn grow in the cornfields all summer long and then marveling at the beautiful colors when it turned bright gold in the fall. I missed walking through the woods without worrying about getting bit by a rattlesnake.  I missed breathing in the cold air during the winter nights and the smell of smoke coming from the chimneys. Even though it was a tragedy that initiated my return, I was thrilled to be going home. Living by the beach in beautiful Naples was lovely and was a time in my life I would always treasure, but what living there had taught me was that I was a northern girl and my heart belonged to the Midwest with its rolling hills and friendly people.

Upon learning of Brandon’s death, my husband quickly bought an airplane ticket for me, and I boarded a plane headed for Des Moines the very next day.  As I shimmied down the tight aisles with my carry-on suitcase in hand, I found my seat and realized that I was unfortunately in the middle. “Oh, well, you can’t have it all,” I thought.  “At least I am going home.” I quickly stowed my luggage away in the overhead bin and sat down.

I noticed in the window seat next to me, was an attractive woman about my age with dark hair and brown eyes.  I looked at her for a few seconds with the intention of saying hi, but she seemed to be engrossed in a book. Her eyes never left the page, so I decided to leave her alone.  I quickly pulled out my book God’s Story by Anne Graham Lotz and began reading as well.

Almost immediately, I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to strike up a conversation with her and tell her about Christ…….and I didn’t want to.  I wasn’t very good at witnessing to others. It was uncomfortable, and I felt like I never made any sense and stumbled over my words. I ignored the nudging and continued reading my book……….but the nudging persisted. Still trying to find excuses to ignore the Holy Spirit, I noticed the book she was reading was a Christian book, so again I talked myself out of it and told myself, “She’s probably already a Christian anyway, so there’s no need to talk to her.”  But the nudging continued on and on.

When we were getting close to Atlanta, tired of trying to fight off the Holy Spirit’s coaxing, I finally summed up the courage to say something. Upon hearing the captain’s voice that it was clear skies in Atlanta, I glanced out the window expecting to see beautiful blue skies but instead saw big puffy white clouds. I said to her, “Well, that’s sure a lot of clouds for clear skies.” She perked up right away and agreed, and we began visiting.

I learned her name was Melinda, and she lived not too far north of where I lived in Naples.  She was a teacher at a Christian school and was headed home to Iowa as well for a funeral. I learned that she had grown up in Iowa like me and moved to Florida later in life.  I was surprised to learn that we had attended the same church and knew some of the same people. She also shared that for a time she lived in Washington, Iowa while growing up. My husband had family there and she knew them as well.  I was astonished at all of our commonalities. I looked around the plane, and thought, “Out of all the people on this plane that I could have been sitting by, and I just happened to be sitting by her, someone I have so much in common with.”  There was an immediate bond between us. I then said to her, “God put us together.” And she agreed.

We visited the rest of the plane ride to Iowa, and by the time we got off the plane in
Des Moines, it was like we were old friends.  As we rode the escalator down to baggage claim, Melinda’s sister was standing at the bottom waiting to greet her. As she watched Melinda and I make our way toward her, visiting and laughing all the way, a confused look spread across her face, a look that said, “Who is this woman, and how on earth could you have possibly known anyone on that plane?”  Melinda then introduced me and we exchanged hellos. Before going our separate ways, we compared plane trips home. We both were disappointed to learn we were returning to Florida on the same day but at different times and on different planes, so we exchanged phone numbers, hugged, said goodbye, and promised each other we would stay in touch. I then set out to find my mother who was picking me up.

Uncle Ed (Brandon’s father) riding the cow made by
Great Grandpa Dougherty

During my visit, I stayed in the country at my Aunt Frankie’s house.  She and her husband Barney live a very simple lifestyle, and nothing had changed much since I had been gone.  The hand-painted cows made from gas tanks and antique cream cans my Great Grandpa Dougherty fashioned together still stood in the front yard, the wall of mirrors that greeted you when you first walked through the door into the living room hadn’t changed, and the fish tank by the front door still remained.  It was comforting to be back in my old country environment.

The funeral was at a small country church on a gravel road and was officiated by a pastor who had been associated with our family for many years.  The church was so full that the sanctuary couldn’t hold everyone, and some people had to stay in the basement during the service. I watched in sadness as Brandon’s mom struggled to walk down the aisle and take her seat at the front of the church.  She understandably was unable to contain her grief and wept loudly. Burying a young person is not the natural order of life and leaves a person with many unanswered questions.

After the funeral service, we pulled into the country cemetery for the graveside service and parked right behind a big pickup truck.  It was snowing heavily, and the snowflakes were unusually big and beautiful. I hadn’t seen snow in a few years and was excited that during this return trip home, God blessed me with snow.  As we were undoing our seat belts, I watched as a cute, small-framed woman jumped down out of the truck in front of us bundled up in a Carhartt coat. A smile broke out across my face. Yes, I was definitely back in Iowa.  You would never see a wealthy Naples woman in a Carhartt coat.

The visit went too fast, and early the next day, my mom dropped me off at the airport for my return flight home.  As I was checking in, I learned that the plane I was booked on had mechanical difficulty and I was being moved to another plane which left later that morning.  I then had quite a bit of time to kill, so I purchased a coffee, yogurt, and magazine and proceeded to my gate to wait. As I was reading my magazine, I happened to look up and saw Melinda walking toward me with a big smile on her face.  I had been moved to her plane. We rode all the way back to Florida together. When we arrived at Ft Myers airport, both of our families were waiting for us, and everyone met each other. And we have been friends ever since.

Meeting for dinner in Ft Myers, FL spring break 2019
(left to right) Aiden, Travis, Kelly, Micah, Melinda, Mike

During that airplane flight to Iowa, I thought God was nudging me to share about Christ with the woman seated next to me.  Sometimes my simple mind thinks that God just wants me working, working, working for Him. But that wasn’t God’s intention at all.  God was nudging me because He just simply wanted me to have a friend, and if I hadn’t obeyed that day, I would have missed out on an incredible, lifelong friendship with a woman who has brought so much blessing, encouragement, and wisdom into my life. The nudge from God that day reaffirmed to me that it is always wisest to obey the Lord, especially when it is something you really don’t want to do because you never know what the Lord has planned.

Melinda and I have now been friends for 14 years. Our friendship has weathered moves that separated us by hundreds of miles, parenting challenges, chronically ill children, busy lives, and both of us losing our contacts in our phones at the same time which rendered us unable to contact each other for months. The friendship we share may seem kind of strange to people and some may wonder how two strangers who meet on a plane can have an immediate bond like this. But the answer is simple. It’s Jesus. Because of our common bond in Jesus and our mutual love for Him, He is the thread that knits our souls together. 

A Constant Friend

“A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”
Proverbs 17:17

Ambiguous Loss.  That is a term you’ve probably never heard before.  What does it mean? In the 1970s Dr. Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus from the University of Minnesota and an educator and researcher, introduced the term “ambiguous loss.”  She describes it in her book Loss, Trauma and Resilience as “an unclear loss that defies closure.” She goes on to say that “ambiguous loss is the most stressful kind of loss. It defies resolution and creates long-term confusion about who is in or out of a particular couple or family.  With death, there is official certification of loss, and mourning rituals allow one to say goodbye. With ambiguous loss, none of these markers exists.”

She did not say that ambiguous loss is the most painful of all losses, because let’s face it, loss is loss and it all hurts.  Ambiguous loss, however, is unique in that it is an “extraordinary stressor — a producer of uncanny anxiety and unending stress that blocks coping and understanding.  It freezes the grief process and defies resolution. It understandably encourages denial of loss. It can lead to immobilization and more crises.” (Boss) Ambiguous loss is loss that is seen in families traumatized by war, terrorism, natural disasters, and chronic illnesses and disabilities.  The brain injured, the stroke victim, the Alzheimer’s patient as well as the kidnapped or imprisoned also fall into this type of category. In my own words, it is hell on earth.

Having a child with a brain injury can be a lonely road.  There are few who understand. Twice I sought help from two different Christian counselors to talk about my grief from watching my son suffer from what I called “living in between life and death.”  He wasn’t dead, although it felt like in some ways he died the day of his surgery, but he wasn’t alive either…..not really alive, just existing. The person who he had once been was gone. It is an excruciatingly painful place to be.  I went to therapy because I wanted to talk to someone who understood, but after two sessions with two different counselors, I left even more frustrated than when I went in. It became very clear to me that unless a counselor has specific training in brain injury grief and loss, they do not understand the uniqueness and complexities of it.  

In an article written in Brain Injury Journey magazine, Janelle Breese Biagioni, RPC, states, “Then we have what I identify as extraordinary grief resulting from a disease such as Alzheimer’s or a catastrophic injury such as a brain injury.  This kind of grief is profound. People must grieve who they were, and the family also grieves the person who is no longer there, albeit physically present.  Sadly, I think society as a whole is only beginning to understand how profound this type of grief is.”

So even if most counselors don’t fully understand it, then how can a friend of a mother of a brain injury victim understand it?

Well, the answer is….they can’t.  During the years my son lived with his brain injury, I heard over and over again how hard it is to be the friend of a person who has experienced this kind of tragedy.  I have seen people struggling not knowing whether they should bring it up or not bring it up. If they do bring it up, they don’t really know what they should say because they fear they may say the wrong thing and cause more hurt.  I believe that is why some do nothing and say nothing and avoid the injured altogether. While it is very understandable why some would react this way, it probably is not the best way to handle it. Handling it this way actually causes the injured more loneliness and pain.  Exiting their life translates to “I don’t care about you” even though that may not be true.

So how do you relate to the mother of a child who now has a brain injury?  I think the first and most important thing to do is to stay in their life even though it’s hard.  It’s not necessary to be there daily or even weekly, but it helps them if you just check in from time to time, like once a month, so they know you care, and it can be something as simple as just sending a text.  I had no shortage of friends in my life while my son was alive, and I am grateful for every one of them. Many checked in on me often, took me to coffee or lunch, or just simply sat on the couch and cried with me.  They were one of God’s many blessings during that time. I knew I was loved and cared about.

The second most important thing when you do have contact with them is don’t judge them or what they talk about.  There were many times when I probably sounded irrational to some. There were times I was stuck in certain areas of the grieving process like anger or the never-ending pursuit of trying to find answers, or the most painful of all, the loss and change in TJ’s social standing.  Although I may have sounded unreasonable, it really was a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Many times when we don’t understand or haven’t experienced a situation before, we make judgments of others that they’re irrational, frustrating, feeling sorry for themselves, complaining, etc., but in reality these reactions are normal and have to be processed so the one experiencing the trauma can learn to cope with ambiguous loss.

The best thing the friend can do is just listen and say things like, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.  “I can’t imagine how hard this would be.” “I can understand why you would feel that way.” “I just want to be here for you and be a listening ear.”  Part of the healing process for the one suffering is being able to talk about it without being judged for the way they feel. If they’re angry, let them be angry.  If they’re frustrated, let them be frustrated. If they’re sad, let them be sad. Allow the one suffering to feel the way they feel without correcting them. Over time, as they process through their feelings, they will figure out what they need to do differently themselves.  Understand this process can’t be sped up, and there is absolutely nothing you can say that will heal the hurt and make it all better. You are not there to solve the problem; you are just there to be a listener.

My friend Amber did an amazing job at being my friend during the course of TJ’s brain injury.  Once a month for three years she showed up with two Starbucks coffees in hand, one for me and one for her.  During each visit, she sat and talked with me for a couple of hours. She let me talk about my grief, sadness, and my frustrations.  She also shared what was going on in her life which helped me feel connected to the outside world. It couldn’t have been easy for her.  My problems were heavy, chronic, confusing, and long term, but she stayed by me and loved me and truly modeled what being the hands and feet of Jesus looks like.  She was a gift from God and very wise at knowing how to be the friend of a mother of a brain injured son.