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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

Brother Love

Who can know the mind of God? Why do some prayers seem to be answered and others not? How does God choose who gets the happy endings??? "He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted." Job 5:9

My brother Tom and I

One of several miracles that I experienced during the years of my divorce was about Job. Prior to 2010, Job and I were not well-acquainted. The limits of my knowledge were that he had a book in the Old Testament and things had not gone well for him – a massive understatement I later came to find out. One day in the fall of 2010, many months in to the anguish of the ending of my first marriage, I woke to read my favorite devotional and found it all about Job. Later that day, the first reading from mass was from the book of Job. After school, my 5-year-old son came to me and asked me to read him a bible story. Agreeing, I reached over to the bookshelf for one of our many illustrated children’s bibles. “No, Mommy,” he said. “Use your real bible.” Then he walked to my bag, pulled out my bible, and opened it on my lap – to the first page of the book of Job. “Read me this story,” he insisted.

I got the message. As I began in the coming weeks to immerse myself in the story of Job, I realized it is ultimately one of faith. The problem is that it is faith amidst agonizing suffering. Job professes total faith and trust in God. God allows Job to undergo terrible trials as a test of faith – the loss of all his property and all his children, followed by intense physical illness and pain. He has every reason to despair and curse the Lord, but he remains faithful and convinced that the God of all creation has purposes for this suffering that are beyond Job’s ability to comprehend. One verse that I have clung to through my own trials comes from Job 1:21: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

I think we all must grapple at one time or another with this problem of suffering. Why do innocent people suffer? Why is there so much pain and injustice in the world? Does God have some kind of cosmic roulette wheel that decides the fate of each of our prayers? Maybe we think the Old Testament had it right and we should in fact be blessed and cursed according to our merits or failings. At least then the apparent randomness of who gets the blessings and who gets the curses would make more sense. Jesus has been clear, however, that isn’t His way. He asks us to trust that He has plans and purposes that surpass our ability to comprehend. I am so grateful that I don’t have to feel like the loss and sorrow in my life is my fault, divine punishment for my sins and failings, but it can be so hard to be left in this beautiful world, this valley of tears, and try to make sense of it all. Who lives. Who dies. Whose prayers “seem” to be answered and whose don’t and why.

It is on my heart to share a beautiful story from our family where the miracle DID come in the way that we hoped and our every prayer WAS answered in the way we asked. Cleaning out my closet this week, I found these words from March 2009. I wrote them sitting vigil with my sister-in-law, my mother, and my father in a hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan as we waited to see if my brother would live or die.

“This is not my story. My brother is the star. Jen is the leading lady. My mother and father are the principal actors. Their friend Cindy is the stage manager. Key roles are too numerous to mention.

My only brother who is 39 and a husband and father of 3 has had a massive heart attack. My mother and I got the call from my sister-in-law Jen at my home in Virginia. We were immediately plunged into a different reality. When you watch medical dramas on TV, the producers cut from the panicked phone call to a shot on the plane to a montage of moments at the patient’s bedside. In real life, it is trying to make the soonest possible plane reservation while your hands are shaking. It is hours of sitting in an airport, a plane, a hospital chair. It is worrying that you are going to be too late. There is more time than you imagined just to think about him – the boy he was, the man he is, the husband and father you admire. You force yourself to work through the “what-ifs” and then lock them far away. You spend hours and then days in the intensity of time with people that share a common bond with Tom – his family, her family, his friends, her friends, their friends—from Pennsylvania, Alaska, Michigan, Virginia, the Fire Department, the Poker guys, their church at Mars Hill, her mom’s groups, his men’s groups… Friends of theirs that didn’t know each other before create bonds in this frozen time as we wait together to see what will become of my brother.

For those of us that have journeyed with Tom and Jen these last many months and shared their stress and anxiety and fear over what will happen with their money and his business and their house, we may have thought they were too far away and if they just sold it all and moved closer, we could help them more. We may have wondered why they bought that beautiful house on the corner in the first place. Why move from sunny California to Grand Rapids where none of your family lives??? In the midst of this crisis, it is clear they are right where they need to be.

They had unknowingly created the perfect community to handle this. The whole thing feels a bit like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. If Tom didn’t already know what or WHO his treasure was, then he will now, if God allows him to recover from this horrible event. His hospital room is papered with cards from Sydney and Shawn’s classes. My favorite is from a little boy named Owen and shows a fire-fighter/flame thrower attacking three or four adorable “GRMS” in hopes that Mr. Torresson will get better. There are weeks of meals already planned for delivery. Food and gifts and flowers from friends and neighbors who saw the ambulance outside their house and just had to do something. In the middle of this drama, Tom still deep in a frozen coma, we needed to get Tom and Jen’s house ready for a realtor to show clients. Four women were at the house within 20 minutes of the call going out, bags of Clorox wipes and paper towels in hand, and spent hours cleaning and scrubbing the whole house. Two additional women from their church, who had never even met Tom and Jen, came and cleaned up the garage and picked up the dog poop in the yard. Shawn’s kindergarten teacher even skipped a planned vacation day to be there for Shawn the day after Tom’s heart attack. There are multiple babysitters at home and at the hospital who wouldn’t take money. Food just keeps showing up at the hospital. And everywhere, the love and the prayers.

I tried during the long hours traveling out here with my mom to really think about what makes Tom so compelling – more than his sense of humor or his crazy stunts and irreverent jokes. I think it is because he is real. He is authentic. He has a refreshingly over-confident sense of HIMSELF. He is an honest soul who is who he is, take it or leave it. He will be fine either way. I watched my brother struggling with the loss of his business these last few months and trying to trust “The Plan”, holding tight to a re-kindled faith that somehow it would all be okay. I have no doubt that many great blessings will come from this trial and surely are already happening. (Please God, PLEASE let one of them be that he lives.)

So, we wait, here by his bedside, cautiously confident that he will emerge from this trial ready to take on life again. Ready to dish his crap. Ready to save the world in his own cheeky way. He lies frozen in front of me as I write – the deep cold of the artificial coma slowing down all his body systems and hopefully allowing his heart and his brain enough time and space to heal. As I drove from Tom and Jen’s house this morning to the hospital in their car, I noticed the book on the console – one I must assume Tom or Jen were reading or hoping to: John Eldridge’s Waking the Dead: The Glory of a Heart Fully Alive. I catch my breath. This is the book that has found its way into their hands in the days or weeks or hours before his massive heart attack? Before he had arm pain and called 911. Before the ambulance had to pull over to do chest compressions. Before he arrived at the hospital not breathing and the doctors at the heart center had to shock his heart more than 52 times. Before they found his right coronary artery was completely blocked. Before he was at risk for massive brain damage and was put into a medically-induced hypothermic coma. Before the doctors and the chaplain told Jen and then the rest of us to “prepare for the worst”.

Here is my brother, hovering between life and death with a heart that may or may not decide to be “fully alive”. Somewhat literally, in the next short time, the doctors are going to be “waking the dead” and praying that he emerges from the coma as himself. Alive. Praying that he gets the privilege of reading or finishing that book, in the GLORY of what God has done to make his heart be fully alive again, or maybe for the first time."

video segment from the hospital about Tom and his miraculous recovery

It takes my breath away still to read and watch his ordeal. There is no earthly reason Tom should be here. My brother survived this massive heart attack, survived dying on the table again and again, and returned to life as his same snarky, hard-working, hilarious, irreverent, ingenious self. A miracle. A gift. A happy ending. We are so, SO grateful.

I prayed endlessly for my miracle and my own happy ending when my first husband left. I was so SURE of what the Lord would do for me. But there was no miracle. Or was there???? Is the miracle really that God – who can see and know what I can’t -- never left my side and led me to something even better? I can see that now. Absolutely. Yes. But how could I ever imagine then that divorce would be the pathway to a deeper, richer, and more joyful life? To Ralph? To our crazy family? To John Paul Raphael? The miracle you get isn’t always the miracle you pray for.

How does this work with my baby??? My sweet monkey who I love with all my heart? Will abundant blessings come from our suffering, our loss, his life, and his death?

It is all still too close, too blurry to see the fruit of this pain. I have to have faith that it will come. I have to trust the fruit and the blessings will come. There may even be miracles that come from John Paul Raphael's intercession from Heaven. It won't ever take away the pain of missing my baby, but it may (some day) help me to try and make sense of it all. The Lord gives and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

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