In the opening days of Advent 2015 my dad suffered a traumatic brain injury. It was the result of a drug complication. Dad had been having some issues with blood clots and was due to have a surgery to patch the hole in his heart that doctors said was responsible for the clots. On a Saturday early in December he went to work as a line judge at a youth archery competition sponsored by Game and Parks despite the fact that he was having difficulty breathing. The problem didn’t go away and finally on Monday, the day after my parents’ 31st anniversary, mom took him to the hospital.
Upon arrival doctors found that he had multiple blood clots in both lungs. As a result, he had gone into right-sided heart failure. If nothing was done, he would go into shock and die. So they administered an aggressive clot busting drug to clear the clots in his lungs. In 1-3% of all cases, this drug can cause a bleed on the brain.
Dad was, we later learned, at a higher risk for this because he was already on blood thinners that had been prescribed to manage the clots until he could have the surgery done. I saw him that Monday evening in the hospital after the drug had been administered and he looked good. When I had gone to the hospital when mom first brought him in he was pale and looked obviously unwell. That night he looked basically like himself.
That night the bleed happened.
I woke up around 7:30 and saw a missed call from my mom on my phone. I listened to her message and immediately got dressed and drove to meet her at another hospital where dad was being taken for emergency surgery. The surgery was a success, but it had been a massive bleed and we didn’t know what the damage would be. Later on when doctors showed my mom dad’s scans we learned that there had been so much blood pooling in and on the surface of the brain that his brain moved eight centimeters inside his skull.
When we came up to see him, he was in the ICU in a coma. He had tubes and IVs hooked up all over his body, including three tubes sticking out of his head—one a probe to measure pressure on the brain and alert doctors if the pressure built back up and two connected to small bulbs that continued to drain the blood.
But the strangest thing of all was touching his arm. Doctors had cooled his body to 91 degrees so as to give him the best chance at recovering and when you touched his arm he felt frigid. Doctors cooled him for 72 hours before warming him back up to a normal temperature. Through all that, he never stirred. I remember going to visit him one night after mom had gone home. I sat next to him and read first from John 3—his conversion came one night in his early 20s after hearing a young boy recite John 3:16 at a concert he was attending with my mom—and then from Watson’s Divine Cordial. I held his hand with one hand and the book with the other and if I close my eyes I can still feel the cold touch of his hand.
He stayed in the coma for over two weeks. Then, on December 23, he opened an eye. Only a couple days before doctors had told mom to begin planning his funeral. Now he was waking up—and two days before Christmas at that.
I’m not sure I can imagine a better object lesson for Advent than passing it in the waiting room of an ICU, alternating between the duty one feels as the only child of the sick to greet guests and do whatever you can to help them in their grief while also trying to process all of it oneself. Mom and I spent two weeks in the ICU and she was there for longer amounts of time than I was since I was needed at home to help with our three year old daughter and eight month old son.
There’s a scene in A Severe Mercy whereSheldon Vanauken writes of an experience that he and his wife, Davy, had while lying on their boat on the ocean late at night. Something caused him to wake in the night and he went out on deck to lie down and look up at the stars. Davy joined him not long after. There was an odd light in the sky and they lay there, watching it, lost to time. Till the day he died Sheldon had no idea how much time passed as they lay on the deck, lost in each other and the beauty of the world. Spending two weeks in the ICU is perhaps the inverse of that experience; you too are lost to time as each day passes, each one indistinguishable from the one before. But whereas the Vanauken’s experience on the deck led them deeper into the beauty of creation, the timeless world of the ICU leads one deeper into the dark places of the world.
On December 29, the day after my 28th birthday, we moved dad to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital where he would begin physical, occupational, and speech therapy with the goal of regaining as much physical independence as possible. When he arrived he was breathing with the aid of a ventilator, could not move any of his limbs, and could not swallow independently, which meant he could not eat.
He began regaining little things shortly after arriving. He started speaking within a few weeks. Madonna had him on a liquid diet served with a thickening agent that helped him swallow. I remember one day giving him some water to drink while mom was out of the room and he nearly choked on it because we did not have his bed tilted high enough to allow him to swallow easily. He spluttered, spat up a little water, and then recovered. After a moment he looked at me and, with the mischievous smile I knew quite well, said, “we won’t tell mom about that one.” Around that same time he started being able to move his right arm. The first time he did it was to itch his nose. He did it nonchalantly and mom saw, excitedly saying, “Rob, you just scratched your nose.” Dad, unimpressed, responded, “well, it itched.”
Over the next several months he would regain more—he started to be able to push his right leg forward and back and shift his hips enough that he could sit comfortably in his wheel chair for longer periods of time. Once my mom asked him to show some friends from church what he could do and he pretended that he wasn’t able to push with his leg. “Push, Rob,” my mom said, as she held his right leg up and put pressure on it with her palm. “I am,” dad said, as nothing happened. Discouraged, mom hung her head. Then she heard what sounded like stifled laughter. She looked up and dad was laughing. He then pushed a couple times without any trouble. After four months at Madonna, he took his first steps:
Early on during our time there, one of the nurses asked us what goals we thought dad would want to set for himself—this was before he was breathing on his own or speaking and so mom and I were his voice. We both said he would like to be able to go back to something involving archery and the outdoors. He had been an avid bowhunter before the injury and loved teaching archery and riflery to kids. That said, in the midst of all his rehabilitative therapy I, at least, forgot for awhile about that goal.
After six months of therapy, he was ready to go home. The fact he was able to do this at all was a miracle in itself. I remember in early January of 2016 going down to the Medicaid offices in downtown Lincoln to talk with them about what our options would be if—and probably when—it came time for him to leave Madonna and move to a nursing home. The thought that he would be able to move back home seemed a remote possibility at best and yet by that May there he was, back in the living room of the home my parents had bought over 30 years before.
After another seven months of outpatient rehab, he was done—one year to the day after arriving at the hospital. When he finished, the local news did a story on him.
Around the same time, Madonna did a video about his recovery:
Then, a few months after that, we found out that he was the recipient of a Goal Award, a special award Madonna gives to four patients a year out of the many thousands that come through the hospital. Here’s the video about that:
That said, the weeks after finishing therapy introduced a new difficulty: While you’re doing therapy there is always this hope that exists, right on the edge of your reach, for more recovery. If you’re able to move your right leg today, maybe you’ll walk tomorrow. But once therapy is done, there’s this question hanging around you that you’re almost too scared to acknowledge: what is “normal” now? Of course, my parents and my mom especially bore the brunt of that question. By the time he was home my mom was doing basically all of the caregiving as my wife and I were busy at home with our own little ones.
If dad was going to do anything, that would demand mom be the one to act in some way to make that happen. So the burden did not just exist for dad, but also for mom. I’m laying some emphasis on this point for the simple reason that this is the sort of thing I am thinking about when I argue about the goodness of marriage, local community, and the bonds of affectionate membership.
When you embrace the detached individualism that defines both right and left in American politics you are, implicitly, abandoning the sorts of relationships and communities that by and large explain my dad’s recovery. He wouldn’t have gotten very far without mom and neither of them could have made it without church friends and family.
There was one Saturday not too long ago when my family was out of town and dad needed to get to an archery tournament early Saturday morning. It snowed overnight, which makes it hard for my parents to get out. A man from their church showed up at 6:30 in the morning, scooped their walk, cleared the wheelchair ramp for them, and helped dad get out to the car. That is merely one example out of a million others of these small and irreplaceable courtesies offered by friends and family over the past two years.
Government could play a role—and, indeed, if Nebraska had a more humane governor it would play a larger role by providing my mom with more affordable insurance via the Medicaid expansion which our billionaire governor refuses to sign off on. Fortunately, the GOP is incompetent enough that the positive gains for people like my mom secured by the Democrats under President Obama have survived thus far. Be that as it may, the bulk of the work has been done—and must be done—not by communities called into existence via coercion, but those whose existence flows out of caritas.
We often act as if it is a small thing to be married and to have children. We wouldn’t put it quite that way, of course, because even if we think such things we somehow know that one shouldn’t actually say them. Yet we think very little of jobs that take us away from our families for long lengths of time—either on the road or simply in an office—nor are we much concerned by social and economic norms that delay marriage and discourage childbearing. And yet when I look back at the last two and a half years, it is largely these neglected beauties that explain much of dad’s recovery.
After several months at home, dad began to slowly become involved, again, in Nebraska Game and Parks. His first time volunteering was at the 2017 state archery tournament where he worked at the admissions table, welcoming the shooters and their families. A few months after that, he began working again with a boy he knew from church who he had coached in the past. That boy shot for his high school’s team and so dad soon began attending the team’s practices and helping the kids improve their shooting. The team made steady progress and they even won a competition or two, which was a new thing for them.
That brings me to this past weekend. I said already that this story began in the opening days of Advent, a time of longing and hope. For myself, at least, I’m not sure that time had ever really sunk too far into my heart. Sure, I heard the haunting strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” but I’m not sure I felt the longing that the melody is meant to evoke. I did during those dark days in the ICU.
And now we are in springtime. This is Holy Week, of course, and on Sunday we begin the joyous season of Ascension as we celebrate Christ’s bursting forth from the grave and conquest of death and sin and sadness.
So it is fitting, perhaps that the latest tale in dad’s recovery would come during another pregnant season in the Christian Year:
East High did not place in archery last year.
This year they won the whole thing.
I was there when they announced the winner. Headed into the award ceremony, many of the kids thought they got third, maybe second. When the third place team was announced, they all felt confident they finished in second. And then the announce said the name of the second place finisher: Mater Dei Academy. That’s when they knew they’d done it; they’d won state.
My daughter Davy Joy (named after Davy Vanauken) was there with me. We got to see a bunch of high-school kids thank my dad and give him hugs. We saw him push himself in his wheelchair to the front to pose for pictures with the team.
Or to put it another way, this is what we saw: We saw a celebration. We saw gratitude and delight. We saw one person saying to another, “well done.”
We saw, in miniature, a foreshadowing of the world to come.
I heard an artist say once that, because creation itself is revelatory, it is not wrong to think that God made a world that has a thing in it called “a door” so that when we see the door we would understand him better. Doors exist so that you can know about God, he said.
Surprising resurrections exist in much the same way. It is not a true resurrection, I suppose, in the sense that dad did not die and return to life. And yet something was lost, seemingly beyond hope, and then it came back unexpectedly during springtime. There is an echo in that restoration of the restoration that is to come, a reminder that we ultimately live for and long for a city with foundations whose builder and architect is God. We live to know the desire of nations, the hope of every longing heart. Sometimes we see glimmers of that hope. And sometimes those glimmers look like a man in a wheelchair being hugged by surprised high schoolers who cannot believe what just happened.