Four years old and battling for breath.
“We are on the doorstep of heaven in PICU,” my sister wrote.
It was December 11. Her son had been on a ventilator in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit of Minneapolis Children’s Hospital since a life-saving surgery five days earlier. His limbs were frozen while his body waged silent war against a chest infection and asthmatic attack – one lung collapsed and the other full of fluid. Four years old and battling for breath.
Distant aunts and uncles, close friends and strangers all lifted his struggling frame up in prayer. His parents did not leave his side. Siblings at home were two and a half hours away. And many family members further. Even a thousand miles away my mind could not focus on anything else.
The details of my nephew’s illness, the 10 days he fought for his life and then turned a corner toward recovery are not my story to tell. All I can describe is “the story from here,” as CBC radio would say. December was hard, and events seemed to grow grimmer as the darkest day of 2015 drew near. Thankfully, an Advent sermon gave me the frame on which to hang these weeks. “Somehow God always provides, in ordinary and extraordinary ways,” just what we need to carry on.
At midnight on December 14 I bought a plane ticket to Minneapolis. The flight one day later went well, except for the fact that my carry-on was overweight (having ignored my own packing list note: Not too many books). Two people took a Super Shuttle from the airport into downtown Minneapolis with me. The driver was a recent emigrant from Kenya, he said – name of Elijah, like the wandering prophet. The first passenger was chatty: in 10 minutes we heard about his kids, grandkids, struggles with MS and unabashed faith in God. After asking the reason for my trip, he immediately prayed for a child he had never met.
This prompted the other passenger to introduce herself. She was a pediatric nurse from California, visiting her daughter for Christmas. She had a few questions about my nephew’s condition, her face creased with concern.
“How can you work with such sick kids?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking this stranger. The heartbreaking details of one kid in critical condition were enough to do me in, never mind a career of caring for them.
Surprisingly, her face cleared. “There’s a lot of sadness,” she said, “but also a lot of joy.” Thus bolstered, I studied my map. The hospital was due west.
Hospital visitors shouldn’t be needy themselves, yet no one can ignore the regular requirements of food and sleep. Volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House took care of the first need beautifully, providing delicious and free meals to any family members of sick children. This tremendous charity also provides housing for immediate family; in fact last night, so their website says, 470 Canadian families slept in a Ronald McDonald House. Amazing.
My husband Allan first thought of checking the directory of an organization called Mennonite Your Way (MYW) for a place I could stay in Minneapolis. MYW is a hospitality network that connects Mennonite, Brethren and other Christian hosts who, in Anabaptist tradition, offer accommodation on a for-donation basis to travelers.
A family named Nickels seemed close to the right hospital. I had emailed them on Tuesday, with apologies for the short notice, and was relieved to hear that they had room. And not only room, but an apartment. It was empty for two of the three nights I needed; the rest could be figured out later, I thought.
The Nickels turned out to be salt-of-the-earth people. They shone with compassion, and I’m sure it was not toward me in particular. “Get in the habit of inviting guests home for dinner” the apostle Paul says (Rom. 12:13, Living Bible), and clearly they have. What a difference their kindness made. They gave me their living room sofa that third night and then a 4:30 a.m. ride to the airport, which providentially coincided with their holiday travel plans.
“We should bring people to the airport more often!” they joked. “It got us out the door on time!”
My sister’s first prayer request for her son, sent from an ambulance, was for God to “breathe life into his lungs so he can shout your name!” (Ps. 80:18, The Message). In the weeks that followed, spiritual support came from all over in the form of prayers, emails and notes on Facebook.
“Who has God placed in our lives to support us?” Pastor Peter asked on that fourth Sunday of Advent. Even on the sidelines of this crisis, I had just experienced the very types he listed – emotional, physical and spiritual support.
“How much ‘fuller,’” he said, “would we feel if we could see them?”
I am grateful for my nephew’s current health and for the privilege of being there when he opened his eyes for the first time; when a small smile tugged his mouth upwards; when he shook his head very slightly but decisively to my question, “Can I sing to you?” No.
“Read Curious George?” Yes.
Somehow God always provides, in ordinary and extraordinary ways, just what we need to carry on.