In the summer of 2008, my first-born son Mikey was dying. He had turned four years old in the midst of chemotherapy and radiation for his brain tumor, but we knew he would never see age five. I can’t begin to describe the roller coaster of emotions I was riding as July turned to August that summer, and my baby was slipping away. I can tell you that it was terrifying and lonely. I spent my time with him hoping and praying for an epic miracle because I just couldn’t face the writing on the wall. I knew that once I embraced that cross that I would have to see it through to Calvary. And no mother ever wants to accept that cross…
Without even thinking about it, I sought advice from our Blessed Mother. I didn’t really know her well, but I knew we shared this cross and at the very least I wouldn’t be alone in it. At the very most, I begged her to show me how to accept and abide as she herself had done. In the moments between the terrifying reality and unthinkable future, I sought her counsel and companionship. I had nowhere else to turn. My God and my Savior had yet to take His rightful place in my life and in my heart, because He had yet to reveal me to myself.
But Mary was my comfort. Though she couldn’t heal or fix or save my little one, any more than she could her own son, she was with me through it all. She walked beside me and gave me what she gave her son, the quiet, steady confidence of her trust in the Father. I learned by her example that I wouldn’t perish with each next step. Slowly I walked, one foot in front of the other, one painful step at a time, with my wise and gentle Mother at my side. She didn’t look away or run from the excruciating reality, and that gave me courage to face the impossible. Just as she stayed with Jesus until she held his dead body, I knew she wouldn’t leave me, ever.
August 19, 2008 arrived and my disbelief turned to acceptance, that with each passing moment and Mikey’s slowing breath, there would be no 11th hour miraculous healing that would save us from our ultimate cross. Mary understood that process very well.
Our family was gathered around Mikey’s hospital bed in our home that morning. In truth, I had kept vigil with him through the night, not wanting to miss a single precious moment of his last hours. He had spent his last weeks in this favorite room of our house, the sunroom, full of light and windows with peaceful and serene views of trees and landscape. It’s a space that became intimate when filled with a hospital bed, our whole family, and a million prayers sent to Heaven with hope. Even now, 12 years later, I feel the presence of those prayers like a cozy blanket, sent on behalf of my little Mikey then, and now somehow returned to me.
At about 10 o’clock that Tuesday morning, his breathing changed and slowed. The space between each breath grew longer and I think we collectively held our own breath waiting for the
next one. Until there just wasn’t a next one. Helplessly, we breathed his last with him and barely realized that it was happening. One moment he was here with us and the next moment he wasn’t. The reality slammed with full force and no matter how prepared you think you are for the moment to come, the finality of death has a way of ripping into your soul.
The room had gone silent, the only sounds being the gentle wracking sobs of our 8-year-old and the distant, yet gut-wrenching, wailing of our 7-year-old from another room. In my heart, there was peaceful silence. Mikey’s machines were turned off and there was no more pain, medications, treatments, therapies, or agonizing helplessness and worries. He was free. I sat in the rocker, where I had held him for the better part of his four years, and held him for the last time. He was off the cross and in my arms and Mary held us both.
Those moments were pivotal for me. Infused with the peace that passes all understanding, I was set free, too. I suddenly understood with a divine clarity that although my little Michael couldn’t come back to me, I could CHOOSE to go to him. His lifeless body brought the greatest conviction, to seek LIFE, that I have ever known. In that extraordinary moment, there was no anger or fear or even sadness, but only a gentle and peaceful assurance that my life had found its purpose and I would be in the greatest of company. How did I suddenly understand this without having a clue of where to begin? I was serenely confident that Mary would be showing me the way.
The family gradually dispersed; Bill to call the undertaker and begin arrangements, my mom to handle logistics of visitors and food and love already piling in. Bill’s mom took the younger girls from the room with the excuse of checking the mail. I guess she had also noticed the mail truck pulling up just as Mikey was taking his final breaths. Strange how life ticks on even in the moments that stand still. Notice the mothers in this scene. They might largely go unnoticed except they carried on life and meaning in the most essential ways. In those moments, and in my memories now, I know I couldn’t have survived that day without them, without the comfort of their steady presence.
Suddenly, the girls started running from the mailbox back toward the house waving a letter. I could see them from the chair in the sunroom where I sat still holding Mikey. They barreled into the room breathless with excitement and said, ‘Mom! Look what just came in the mail!’ and excitedly presented me with the full windowed envelope that clearly contained a beautiful yet sorrowful picture card of our Lady and the words “With Sympathy.” I tucked that awe-inspiring, and yet somehow expected, tender loving message into my heart where I carry it to this day. Mothers often love in miraculous ways!
How did I walk through those following days of preparation for his burial with Joy in my soul and Trust that all would be well? They were agonizing days full of a billion tears after all.
On top of the mercy and grace that was showered upon me from heaven, our Blessed Mother walked beside me, and Mother knows best.