Ventilators, Constellations and Other Things I Can’t Explain

Jan 24, 2015

Looking up in winter

“I know this time of year is hard for you…” the email began. It was from a friend whom I had met through the unfortunate commonality of losing a child. And my heart smiled. She was comforting me, unconsciously learning the “gift “ of 2nd Corinthians 1:4, from a God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

It will be 13 years ago that Spencer died on January 26th. The fact that this time of year, which includes also his birthday in February, is tough still, causes me to feel a little embarrassed. Shouldn’t I be past all this? Hasn’t God proved His love, His provision, even His incredible redemptive power through this loss? Yes, yes and yes. Still, the deep sorrow is there, stirring in the cold January nights like a hungry bear. The world moves along. And so have I, but I have been given something to carry.

Pukah-choosh………pukah-choosh………pukah-choosh; that’s the sound of a ventilator as it breathes for a person, ”life-support” as it is aptly termed. I have recently taken a job as an ICU nurse and the vent becomes a familiar machine. It was something I hadn’t thought about prior to accepting the position; that most of my patients would be unconscious, allowing a machine to do their breathing, medications to squeeze their hearts into pumping, or sometimes another machine doing the heart-pumping as well. In the meantime, the patient is anywhere from brain-dead to just sedated so that they don’t yank the tube out their mouth, which is the first thing a person wants to do when they wake up.

I’ve thought about the spiritual parallel to life-support – how at times we are so laid flat by life, by the giant sucker-punch that hits you in the gut when you are in the stream of life, like work or shopping or praising God, then Wham! And you are out. Pukah-choosh……pukah-choosh. After Spence died I wondered how I could breath. It was like I was dropped out of the sky onto the frozen ground, shattered into a thousand little pieces but somehow still alive. Only no sedation, just the merciful enigma called “shock”, which allows you more time than you ever thought it would take just to say, “My child is gone,” and get it.

It took me four and a half years before I could wake up in the morning and open my eyes without saying, “Help me Jesus. Help me get up and want to live.” It took six and a half years for constant nightmares to stop, my sleep dark with violence and torment, waking me with a choking cry. Jesus help me. The best prayer in the world.

Eventually I came off life-support. It was God’s way of saying, “You’re okay now. You can carry this and there might be days when it still seems too heavy but I will help you.” And that’s when the burden became the gift.

 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2nd Corinthians 9:12

I noticed during my training that the ICU nurses all talk to their patients on life support, even when there’s no response. During my shift, which is nights now, I can keep up a pretty good one-way conversation as I wash their bodies, turn and reposition them, watching the lights flicker and the numbers change on several pumps gathered around the bed. It’s a captive audience, so I can tell them Jesus loves them and He is near. It always makes me laugh when we get accused of forcing our religion down people’s throats because even a comatose person has a will and a choice. But it might be a timely suggestion.

I’m forever grateful to those who came along side of me when I was on “life-support”, unafraid of my pain, stepping carefully through the ruins. Some spoke life to me, most just listened to the ramblings of a shattered heart. God helped me breathe and stopped the bleeding. Comforter, keeper. In time, I could even see again.

Life will never look the same; in fact I don’t even remember how things looked before almost 13 years ago. I do remember around seven years ago, walking down the second story hall of our old Dutch colonial in Pawtucket, and looking up through a tall window at the end of the hall, up over the derelict multifamily homes next door to the setting sun. I had seen it set from this window before, but now the colors were vibrant and the clouds majestic. I stood at the window a long time, watching the sky. The city suddenly became almost celestial; pointing dirty, tired Pawtucket towards heaven, adorning each dark rooftop with brush-strokes of glory. I stopped, and felt my soul open and something like a Hallelujah release. I had awakened. I could see again, only with God-eyes and it made me gasp like a newborn.

Yes, it’s a hard time of year, because God will not erase the past, my love for my son or the things my eyes saw that were branded into my heart. When I look to the winter’s night sky and see the three stars of Orion’s belt my heart sighs. Super-bowl makes me sad and not because someone deflated the footballs. But here is the main thing: His grace is more than sufficient. And when it’s too hard to carry it all, He comes alongside and takes the heavy end. So I don’t run anymore. I turn to the One who knows pain so well and lift my empty hands. A gift?

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2nd Corinthians 12:9) And in the deep winter darkness I see with God-eyes His magnificent glory. He is my portion.