In the early hours of Saturday, April 2, 2022, I was awakened by a phone call. A chill surged through me when I saw the name “Brittany” (my daughter-in-law) on the glaring screen.
I took a breath and answered. The strained voice on the other end said, “Will fell and is headed for brain surgery.”
Ten hours away, the world became a sudden blur. My son? Headed for brain surgery? My wife and I threw our things in the car and roared up a lonely North Carolina two-lane. Two hours later my phone lit up again. The contact name was Brittany’s friend. I chilled.
“Mr. Baker. I’m so sorry. The surgeon just reported to us and the news isn’t good. He says that if Will survives, his future is a trach and feeding tube.”
I jerked the car to the gravel shoulder, jumped out and ran to the back bumper where I folded in half, broken under a canopy of stars. Wailing, I cursed at God.
Indescribable hours later, I raced into the ICU to see my son in an induced coma, stuffed with tubes, draped with wires and surrounded by a cluster of angels we call nurses. Electronics filled his room with a palpable energetic insistence. Alarms of things going wrong brought a rush of footsteps. The rhythm of Will’s ventilator might have been centering were it not for its claustrophobic intrusion. Brittany comforted me with one word: “Trust.”
On Thursday, the doctors advised we should begin considering what kind of life Will would want. They would do a final test on Friday. I lost it again, utterly defeated. Boxed out of control, I was cornered by grief and now more wary of God than ever. I marveled at the irony. I had just released my new novel about a journey through fear. Remembering Stardust turned out to be a preparatory preamble.
Morning broke and before heading to the hospital for the climax, I trudged alongside the creek that borders my little farm. I wrote in my journal: “Broken. Took my walk. Asking God for a miracle. Buttercups are blooming at my feet. Let’s see what today brings.”
Arriving at the hospital, my pastor–Mark Wenger of Franconia Mennonite Church–asked if he could pray for Will with an anointing of oil…a biblical act of releasing the sufferer to God. Why not?
Before the final test, Pastor Mark gathered seven of us to hold hands in a semi-circle around Will’s ICU bed. Just outside the door, the hospital chaplain bowed his head. The nurses turned down the alarms and pulled the curtain. There we were, nine helpless human beings in a sterile room, eight of us breathless and one on a ventilator.
As I say in the video attached to this post, sometimes there are just no words for things. As Mark prayed it was as if some ethereal veil parted and an invisible but tangible Presence filled the space. I could literally FEEL God’s Spirit fill the room with such other-worldly comfort that fear simply melted away. Others later attested to the same.
The Comforter then delivered another grace: She enabled me to do that which I could never do on my own: willingly surrender my son to whatever God wanted for him. Even now these words feel alien to every parental instinct.
It did not escape my notice that I had entered sheer chaos on that terrible first day, and then delivered into an indescribable rest on the seventh. The distance between these two poles was/is so hard to absorb, and I’m still processing. I can tell you that I’ve never felt such soul-crushing anguish, such feelings of betrayal by God, such rage, terror, abandonment…nor such love, trust, peace, or embrace, and all within seven days.
There are terrible, wonderful mysteries in the belly of suffering.
Mark’s desperate prayer on the seventh day was the exact moment that God allowed me to EXPERIENCE his love. And in that ‘lifting of the veil’ I suddenly grasped the truth that He had been there all along.
There’s so much more, of course. Friday’s test stunned the doctors. We all said the same word: ‘Miracle.” The hospital staff murmured, “One in a thousand.”
More beauty filled the days that followed. You’d be surprised what it can mean to see your son open one eye and look back at you. And then to see a half-smile, and a thumbs up.
Watching a caring team help him to his feet had me turning my head in tears of joy.
And on May 13, 2022 my Will came home. Praise be to God.
I’m painfully aware that not everyone enjoys a good outcome, and I have no answer for that. None. I’ve had some ‘survivor’s guilt’, only to be assured by those who have lost a child that they wish us all only joy. God bless them.
I also have some trouble dealing with the memories. Despite the miracle, I have to say that the darkness was/is traumatizing. And even the light was/is almost too much to bear. Yet the totality of this experience has offered me the opportunity to see more of the More.
Below are some notes I’ve lifted from my journal. Like a beggar sharing bread, I offer them to you in the hope they might serve your journey.
- Anguish is love suffering; it has no vocabulary.
- Divine peace is love present; it has no vocabulary.
- The waiting is a necessary agony. It is unbearable. In the despair, I recognize the hard truth of my helplessness. The pain of waiting delivers me beyond my means. Perhaps I should be grateful. It’s the only way I am glimpsing the freedom in letting go.
- Having lived a life watching the suffering of others, I now carry the truth that I am as vulnerable to the worst as everyone else. It is unsettling. But experiencing God in this way also reminds me that he loves me just like he loves everyone else.
- Something MORE is going on around us all; I can feel it as a sort of unknowing knowing.
- Is God good and beautiful? Is his love limitless? My eyes fell on my ever-flowing creek today and realized the living water was the answer to that question. It flows day and night, whether I’m watching or not.
- I have been taken one terrible step beyond my capacity, and I’ve fallen into a net of grace. The drop was terrifying; the landing, gentle.
- Today I found some words from Richard Rohr: “God uses the very thing that would normally destroy us to transform us. Are we prepared to trust that?” Am I?
- The antidote to fear really is comfort.
- I chafe at my human design to be dependent. But experiencing the power of interdependent faithfulness has taken my breath away. The hundreds caring on social media has meant so much more than I expected.
- God permits me to rage at him; his love proves to be an anvil that patiently breaks all my hammers.
- God’s Presence is an ‘already truth.’ He doesn’t show up; he is already here.
- When sitting in the ICU too exhausted to pray, I asked the Holy Spirit to search my heart and pray through me. It was a beautiful moment; a different sort of letting go.
- I have spent a lifetime asking the wrong questions; I have failed to ask ‘who’ God is. Glimpsing the loving ‘who’ of God changes everything.
- Even after the amazing moment of Presence, I am trying to ‘hold’ Will again. Even in the middle of a miracle, faith is only ever a gift, a process. I cannot trust, alone.
- What I felt as a father points me to the more terrible anguish of God as Father watching his suffering Son, Jesus, absorb the evil of the world for us. I have never felt compassion for the Father before.
- We are vulnerable to terrible things, but they are not greater than the goodness of God.
- Nothing on this earth is the end of the story.
- The ultimate redemption of anguish is the comforting experience of Divine love.
This story is sacred to me. Terrors aside, God has allowed me to bear witness to his goodness, first-hand and up close. For me, this is holy ground. I pray that the Good News of his love will find you, too, though perhaps in a more gentle way.
I’d like to close with some words from Valerie Kaur that are cited in K.J. Ramsey’s wonderful book, The Lord is my Courage.
Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love.
Anger protects that which is loved. And when
we think we have reached our limit, wonder is
the act that returns us to love.