Learning about God: A Personal Story
Part 2 of 6
Editor’s Note — This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of my wife, Eleanor, who died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in South Africa. For all of those 20 years I have tried to support people walking the grief journey as I was supported in that crisis time. It is only in the last few months that I have been able to write something I can share with others about the many crises of that experience and what I learned about God in the midst of grief. This article is part of that series. I pray it will be helpful to others walking the grief journey.
By Bob Terry
Editor, The Alabama Baptist
She is a 6,” my daughter Jean announced as she burst into my hospital room. The announcement brought the first smile to my face since the early Saturday morning accident. Now it was Thursday afternoon.
Jean and Brent, my son, arrived in Durban, South Africa, late Wednesday evening after flying in from Atlanta. Neither had realized the severity of the situation until one of the tending physicians began talking about the death of his mother a few weeks earlier.
The original reports received back at home were that Eleanor and I were seriously injured but should recover. Reports started downhill Tuesday and got worse even while Jean and Brent were on the airplane headed for Durban.
Part of the problem is that medicine is not an exact science. That is what the doctors at St. Augustine’s Hospital kept telling us. Diagnosis is a process of trial and error, they said. The initial report was that Eleanor suffered a heart attack but after doing tests that was ruled out. Then the diagnosis was a stroke but that was later ruled out. Then doctors said it was a pulmonary aneurism but that too proved false.
We were confused. All the doctors could say with certainty was that Eleanor was a 5 on the Glasgow Coma Scale. I had never heard of this scale and did not know what a 5 meant.
When the children visited Eleanor in the intensive care unit earlier that morning there had been a slight rise in her respiration. This time Jean sat beside her bed, held her hand and sang to her. And Eleanor responded. “She knows you are here,” the nurse said. “Keep singing.” All the vital signs being monitored by the hospital went up.
Jean’s announcement that Eleanor had improved to a 6 provided a ray of hope. It was like “a cloud about the size of a man’s hand” for us. Remember the story? First Kings 18 tells the story of Israel suffering from a severe drought and Elijah’s combat with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. After the battle was over Elijah sent his servant to look toward the sea for signs of rain.
Seven times Elijah sent the servant back before the servant reported seeing “a cloud about the size of a man’s hand” (v. 44). That was all Elijah needed to see God’s answer to prayer.
The improvement from 5 to 6 was all our family needed. The doctors had given us no medical reason Eleanor could not get better. We had prayed believing she would get better. Thursday night as we went to sleep we were confident Eleanor would recover.
Friday morning was like a slap in the face. Brent was the first to visit her that morning. He came back a half hour later with sorrow in his face and tears in his eyes. Eleanor’s pupils had dilated. She was dying. We were told hearing is one of the last faculties to go in the dying process and that Eleanor’s hearing was going.
That afternoon a medical team from Birmingham arrived — a service provided by Medjet — to treat us and bring us home. After the neurologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine examined Eleanor he looked disappointed. He explained he had hoped to give us good news but that her situation was not likely to improve.
He did not try to diagnose what had happened, only evaluate where she was. Eleanor still had brain waves but was in a deep unconscious state with no meaningful responses and no voluntary activity.
The best the team could do was try and get us home before Eleanor died. Otherwise her body would have to be left in South Africa and other arrangements made to ship it home. That could take a long time.
Our decision was to leave at 6 the next morning which gave the pilots only the minimal required rest. Eleanor and I would leave on Medjet. Brent and Jean would return on a commercial flight and bring our luggage.
Friday night was a long night. We still did not know what was wrong with Eleanor. We had prayed. By this time thousands of people in scores of countries were praying for her. We had believed as we prayed, confident that God had given us a sign of healing — but it was not to be.
What had we missed? Why wasn’t God healing her?
Answers to those questions I still don’t have. But now I don’t need to have them either. We had not asked for a sign of her healing. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus condemns those who want a sign before they obey. We had tried to read the momentary improvement as a sign but it was not. We were just grasping at straws like desperate people are prone to do.
Later we learned that the only thing that produces the kind of reactions Eleanor had is a blood clot in the basilar artery. A large blood clot can produce instantaneous death. A smaller one, evidently like Eleanor had, can take longer as it shuts down the bodily functions one by one. Neither large nor small can be treated. It was a miracle that Eleanor made it back to Birmingham, doctors said.
He calls us to live by faith
Learning that Eleanor died of a blood clot in the brain didn’t make the pain any easier or the loneliness any more bearable. God does not ask us to live by knowledge or understanding. He calls us to live by faith, even when our hearts are breaking.
Jeremiah 29:13 assures that when we seek the Lord, He will be found. In Matthew 5:8, Jesus promised that if we seek God with a pure heart, then we will see Him. Looking back I see God in His providential care through a confusing and chaotic time. That wasn’t always clear at the time.
Seeing signs “like a cloud about the size of a man’s hand” is not what the Christian walk is about, not even in the midst of our pain. The Christian walk is about seeking God who already is seeking us.
No matter the circumstances, no matter our pain, may we always seek God.