About a year ago, in late November 2016, Steve went to visit one of our clients in North Carolina. It’s a long drive — too much for one day.
Before he left, we were talking about Mark, and grief, and processing, and how we differ. I had been concerned that Steve, still operating under his usual habit of putting BIG EMOTIONAL THINGS in tightly-lidded boxes and stowing them on a shelf in his mental closet, was going to discover – far down the road – that grief only gets bigger and scarier, the longer you put it off and refuse to face it. I kept telling him: “Talk to God. Talk to Mark.”
So, as he drove, Steve mulled all that over. He hardly knew where to begin – what to think, what to say. He finally decided, as he came back north on Interstate 81, to ask God questions – like what to do with this new, terrible reality, and how to proceed with his business, with his life.
There was silence. God was not calling on his cell, nor suddenly speaking up from the back seat.
I-81 goes through a lot of rural areas and hilly terrain. As he drove, Steve was in and out of good radio reception (his car is too old for more recent, 21st century innovations like Sirius XM); he was flipping through stations as they ebbed and flowed, looking for music or something that would help him stay engaged and awake.
He landed on an NPR station with a good signal, airing a story from Radiolab, called “Finding Emilie.” The story – a true one – is about a young woman named Emilie Gossiaux who was hit by an 18-wheeler as she rode her bike in Brooklyn…on October 8th, 2010. She barely survived, with terrible damage – traumatic brain injury, multiple fractures to her pelvis, skull and leg. Doctors felt she was gone; they spoke to her mother about organ donation, dismissed the hand she raised when her mother was whispering in her ear about love…about how it’s the eternal bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Further testing established that Emilie was blind in addition to hearing-impaired (a condition that existed before her accident). After several weeks in the ICU, her future was in the balance: in order to proceed to rehab, you have to be able to respond; she could not, so was instead to be sent to a nursing home for the rest of her life. Her boyfriend, remembering Helen Keller, decided to try writing on Emilie’s palm…and got a verbal response. He proved that she was still there. After a very long recovery, she’s now a successful artist.
The station faded to static as that story ended; Steve worked the scan button and picked up a new one that was broadcasting a story shared at The Moth in NYC: this one was called “Walking with RJ” – told by Stephanie Peirolo, whose son, RJ, was in a terrible car accident his junior year in HS. He survived, but with traumatic brain injury and a broken pelvis. RJ was still comatose and required tube feeding when he was discharged home – Stephanie’s health insurance impossibly snarled. She eventually put him in a nursing home that specialized in the care he needed and he slowly improved; however, at some point they misplaced his gastric feeding tube and he got sepsis. The attending surgeon said she could probably save his life, but he would become comatose once more and would never revive…or his mom could let him go. So Stephanie spoke to RJ, who was then 19, alert and terrified. She told him he was sick, and could not be fixed. She said, “RJ, you’re going to go to God…my Dad is there and he will come find you, and I will be there soon.” She noted it took him 3 days to be born and it took him 3 days to die.
She now, years later, wonders if his “existence isn’t part of a larger narrative…than I can understand…if maybe this slice in time was how RJ had to work out his destiny, and maybe my job was to walk with him.” She still feels RJ…she “feels that he is. And in those moments, I know that it’s his turn for his love to carry me, because I’m his mom.”
Steve came home, unsure of how to process these experiences, to translate any message hidden within, but awed just the same.