Never did we think we'd receive the phone call we received at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 1998, our youngest son's 21st birthday, from a Boston-area hospital.
Our oldest son, Jeff, was a second-year law student at Boston University and had decided to take a relaxing bike ride after a full day of classes before hitting the books again that night.
The neurosurgeon on the phone told us Jeff had somehow flipped over the handlebars of the bicycle and had suffered severe blunt head trauma. He was unconscious and needed immediate surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain and to stop the bleeding.
We gave our consent. I asked the doctor his prognosis. He said, "We'll do the surgery and he should be fine." My wife and I quickly packed. Together with our 15-year-old daughter, the youngest of our four children, we headed for Boston, a five-hour drive from our home in northeastern Pennsylvania. We contacted our other two sons and made arrangements for them to come to the hospital.
Curiously, our youngest son, Jared, asked his mother to hang up the extension phone and then said to me, "Dad, is Jeff going to die?" We hadn't said or been told anything remotely close to that, but had told them of the neurosurgeon's optimism. (We learned later that Jared said to those who brought him to the hospital, "If anything happens to my brother, it will kill my mother.")
When we arrived at the hospital, at about 3:30 the next morning, we began to get the distinct impression that things were not "fine." Initially, we could not get any information about where Jeff was or how he was. When we finally got to his floor, it was the respiratory ICU, and my wife, a nurse, immediately said, "We're in trouble, he's probably not breathing on his own."
She was right. He was hooked up to more tubes and machines than I have ever seen. The surgery had not been successful and a second surgery was imminent. Optimism was gone.
At 8 a.m. the surgeons came out and informed us that they had done all they could do and did not expect Jeff to live through the day. How could this be? Less than 12 hours ago they told us he should be "fine." This cannot be happening. This has got to be a mistake.
We contacted everyone we could think of and asked them to contact everyone they could think of, and to pray.
Jared approached me and said, "Some birthday present, huh Dad? . . . Why is this happening?" How to answer such a question? God gave me an answer: I said, "Son, things like this happen in this life. We are not necessarily exempt from them because we are Christians; they are part of the nature of this life. But I guarantee you, they will not be part of the life to come. Jesus came to reveal that life to us and to give that life to us where there will be no more sorrow, suffering, tragedy, pain, or death."
At 10 p.m. I fell asleep on a cot in the lobby area of the ninth floor. Three hours later I awoke with a start. I hurried back into Jeff's room and relieved a dear friend of ours keeping prayerful vigil at his bedside.
Suddenly, it hit me as I looked at all the machines and our son's valiant battle to live (he had been a superior athlete in high school) and how he was suffering (his heart rate sustained over 200) that he was very likely doing all of this for us. I walked over to his bed and said to him, "Son, you don't have to keep doing this for us. If you have seen His face, then you do what the Father tells you." And that was it for me. I had released him to the Lord. He was no longer mine.
My wife returned to the room and I learned that she had said the very same words to him while I was sleeping. We continued to sit at his bedside. Suddenly my wife grabbed my arm and said to me, "Did you see that?" She is a very stable person, not given to hysterics or fanaticism. "See what?" I said. "I just saw Jesus and Jeffrey. They both had white robes on and Jeffrey was perfect. He had all his hair back (most of which was cut off during the surgeries). Jesus had His arms open to him and was saying to him, 'Welcome. Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of thy Lord.'"
My wife continued, "I cannot describe to you the peace I had at that moment. It is like none I have ever experienced on earth and I know it will be the peace of heaven for all eternity." Right after that the neurosurgeon came in, checked Jeff's pupils, and informed us that he was brain-dead. My wife said, "Oh yes, I know, he's gone."
For Jeff, the 33-hour battle was over. He was home. For us the battle had just begun.
Several hours later we were approached about donating Jeff's vital organs, tissues, eyes, etc. We were taken aback. Who thinks of such things at a time like this? However, as we did think about it, my wife and I asked ourselves what Jeff would do. It didn't take long to decide. He went to law school believing that God wanted him to defend the cause of the widow and the orphan.
Later we received letters from several of the organ recipients, all grateful for a second chance at life. Of course, we were glad for them, but it only served to heighten our awareness of the magnitude of the cost. It took a life to give life. As Christians, we are quite familiar with that theme. But now it was much more than a theme: We were living it. Jesus had to give His life for us so that He could give it to us. There's no other way to get it-no way around it, as Jesus conceded in the Garden of Gethsemane.
On Sunday, May 21, 2000, the very day Jeff would have graduated from law school, our family was attending an organ donor banquet. While we understood the desire of such groups to pay tribute to families who donate organs of their loved ones, for us it was just too painful. If only there was some other way and this had never happened. If only we were at his law school graduation. If only he had left the house five minutes earlier or later. If only he had never gone for a bike ride that day. If only he had never gotten that stupid bike.
Our second-born, Joshua, was staggered by his brother's death. Jeff was not only his "big brother," he was his best friend. We were involved in a violent auto accident when Josh was only 6 days old on our way to the first pediatric visit after his birth. Josh acquired hydrocephalus as a result and for the next 19 years of his life endured upwards of 20 major surgeries. So much of this, along with physical challenges, seemed to take him out of the social mainstream. Socializing was awkward for Josh, and friends didn't come easy.
Josh talked very little about Jeff for two years after his death. Our other two children pretty much followed the same pattern. It was just too hard for them. All of them seemed to go on with life carrying a huge weight that no one talked about.
But after two years Josh exploded. He had graduated from a Bible college and gone on to obtain a B.A. in religion and philosophy. All that didn't matter now. His position was, "If this is what I get for trying to follow the Lord, I'm done." Josh's anger manifested itself in a variety of ways over the next couple of years. He just could not be reasoned with. Why had God not protected his brother?
Sometimes we are desperate to maintain some tangible contact with Jeff. For some time after his death, my wife kept his pillow with pillowcase intact. Every now and then she would bury her face in that pillow and try to pick up his scent. We had lots of photos of him but no video, and wished we had. One day I went to his old high school where he played football and asked the athletic director if he would let me borrow some old video of Jeff playing football. He graciously retrieved seven tapes for me which I devoured, painfully, in one sitting.
Jared's birthday has always been difficult for all of us since Jeff's accident. We have done our best to celebrate, but everyone in the room knows something else happened on that day. This past year, on his 30th birthday, Jared suddenly got up from the table and disappeared into another room where he silently wept.
One of the memories I don't think I'll ever forget: The day after Jeff died Jared drove down to school to check his mailbox. When he returned home, it was obvious he had been crying as he handed a card to us. It was a birthday card from Jeff, a humorous card in keeping with the fun they loved to have with one another. Jeff had handwritten a note at the bottom of the card: "I hope the memories of our childhood bring back such fond memories for you as they do for me. Love, Jeff."
Even today, 10 years later, the times our children talk about Jeff are few and far between. It's still so painful. We miss him so much. Our daughter told us, "I think about Jeff every day."
It took us five years to empty out Jeff's old bedroom closet in our home-the bedroom that was his for 19 of his 25 years. We couldn't do it. With all of his clothes and personal belongings still there, it was almost like a memorial shrine. But we knew we had to do it. It was part of letting go and letting God heal our broken hearts. That was one of the most painful experiences we've ever had-item by item until we got to the bottom of the closet where we had put "the bag" containing the T-shirt, shorts, socks, sneakers, underwear, and shaved hair given to us by the hospital.
Grief must be tempered with hope. If it is not, it will eat you alive. You will stop living. I recall a day when grief overtook me as I was alone in the family room thinking about Jeff. I couldn't stop crying-but right in the midst of it all I heard an indescribable gentle whisper say, "he's with Me." That whisper from that Voice-God Almighty-was just what I needed to remind me afresh that "he's with Me," and so shall we ever be with the Lord-1 Thessalonians 4:18-"comfort one another with these words."
The battle of grief is like the contractions a woman experiences during the birth process. The contractions start far apart and gradually come closer together until the baby is born. Grief pains or contractions start out close together, one after another, and gradually occur farther apart. But no matter how far apart they are, when one comes it is just as painful as the first one.
The 10th anniversary of Jeff's death is approaching. The contractions still come every now and then. Will they ever stop coming? I don't know. Very well-meaning people have said to us that time heals all wounds. I respectfully disagree. I do know, however, that the same One with Whom Jeff now enjoys eternal bliss is the same One Who comforts us with that blessed hope, "He's with Me."
-Jack Rehill is a pastor in Pennsylvania