November 19th, 2015, I was scheduled to perform my first-ever television interview. I would be discussing my upcoming book A Single Bead, a Catholic young adult fiction novel about the power of prayer. Little did I know, instead of talking about the power of prayer on a television program, I was about to get schooled on the subject in real life.
Our parish community swooped in to help out. Before a meal schedule was even created, two people showed up at my sister’s door with dinners. Rides and accommodations for the children were divied up. A friend established a GoFund Me – much needed as the sale of our old house fell through days after the heart attack, leaving an extra mortgage I’d have otherwise struggled to pay. Prayers flooded in (and up) from across the globe.
Ray’s tiny ICU room, meanwhile, was a literal hive of activity. For days, there was never a moment when at least one nurse, nurse’s assistant, or other personnel wasn’t in the room. At times, there were as many as four staff people in the room at once. It was edifying to see the fervor with which they worked to restore the “young” husband and father to health.
Ray’s parents had arrived after driving straight through from their home in southern Alabama. For several days, his mother refused to leave the hospital, sleeping in the waiting room rather than the summer home they owned a half-hour away. I’ll admit to feeling no small measure of guilt every time I left to go home and sleep in my own bed – regardless of the fact that I hardly slept at all! I had children who needed me, though, and camping out at the hospital did not seem like a good way to reassure them that everything was going to be all right, nor did running myself completely into the ground seem like a good way to ensure that I would be around for the long-haul. Plus, I needed them. Their warmth and cuddles gave me peace and comfort, even as the supernatural peace gifted by the Holy Spirit began to fade.
A friend took the kids on Sunday morning so I could take a nap, go sit with Ray, or go to Mass without five kids in tow. I never missed Mass, but that Sunday … boy, it was tempting. I was absolutely exhausted, and that nap beckoned. The sense of responsibility to be at Ray’s bedside beckoned, as well, but Mass, ultimately, won out. As much out of a sense of duty as anything else, I dragged myself to the church, sure that I would be too distracted to focus or fully participate.
God rewarded my efforts many times over, blessing me with one of the most grace-filled Masses I’ve ever experienced. What words can’t describe, I know many of you have experienced: That inward sense of a true knowledge of the Eucharistic Presence; that total and complete sinking into the Consecration; that unspeakable sense of being lifted up after receiving Holy Communion.
Having grown quieter and less persistent in the last few days, the precious words, God will provide. God will be glorified, trumpeted through my being once more.
Due to the level of constant commotion in Ray’s room, I had yet to successfully pray a Rosary at his bed side. Immediately after Mass, however, I headed to the hospital, rosary beads in hand, hoping to find at least a few minutes during which I might focus and pray. Those minutes finally came when, for the first time in those four long days, he and I were the only two in the room.
I took up my beads and began to pray beside my husband, who had remained motionless since I found him on the family room floor days before.
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee …
I don’t remember when it happened …
… blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus …
whether it was the first Glorious mystery or the fifth,
… Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners …
but somewhere in the midst of that Rosary,
… now and at the hour of our death.
Ray moved the pinky of his left hand, the hand nearest me.
I shouted, and Ray’s nurse hurried in, only to provide unencouraging words. “It was probably myoclonus,” the nurse told me, “unintentional movement not really controlled by the brain.”
In other words, it was nothing. To me, though, it was something, and it had happened during that Rosary prayer.
The following day, I waited with my parents-in-law for a visit from the neurologist, who was going to give us the results of Ray’s MRI. I knew the news would not be good, and I also knew that doctors can do very little – nothing, really – to treat a brain injury. There’s no surgery, no medication. Later on, there’s therapy. At that early stage of recovery, however, the only real treatment comes from the Divine Physician.
Still, we waited. And waited. And waited. By afternoon, I began to worry that this doctor would not show up before I had to leave to go to the church, where our three older children were being pulled from their classes to pray the Rosary with our community. I was supposed to be there to join the prayer as well, and I didn’t want to leave my kids praying with a bunch of grownups they hardly knew.
Finally, the doctor arrived, a young twenty-something resident whom we had not met before.
“Mrs. Engelman,” she said, holding out her hand to introduce herself, “I have the results of your husband’s MRI.” Her lack of eye-contact confirmed what I already knew. The results were not good.
I glanced at the clock. If I wanted to get to the parish to pray with my children, I had to leave right now.
I looked back at the young doctor. I spoke forcefully but without malice. “Ultimately, you can’t change anything,” I told her. “I’m going to go talk to Someone who can. I’m going to go pray the Rosary!”
The words had just left my mouth when Ray’s right arm shot straight into the air. His second movement in five days. This time, it would seem, at the mere mention of praying the Rosary. Go! he seemed to be saying. That prayer is exactly what I need!
Ray’s parents rushed to his side, and I did too, briefly. After a moment, though, I rushed from the room, out to my car, and to our church to pray the Rosary — and talk to the One who could change things.
I returned to the hospital an hour or so later to find Ray’s father in the parking garage smoking a cigarette. Visibly shaken, eyes swollen, he made it clear he did not want to talk. I do not remember seeing his mom. To this day, however, I suspect that my leaving them (and, in their perception, their son, as well) during that hour of need created a rift in our relationship. I regret that, but I will never regret the decision to put my trust in God rather than doctors (cf. Psalm 118:8).
The next day, a doctor came in to speak to me. The nasal feeding tube and oral ventilator tube were only temporary, she said. The intubation, in particular, grew more risky by the day. She told me I needed to consider having a tracheostomy performed later in the week, at which time they would also place a gastrointestinal feeding tube. I agreed to do so, without fully realizing the gravity of the decision before me.
A short time after the doctor left the room, Ray’s nurse entered. “You have a big decision to make,” she said gently.
I looked at her blankly. “I do?”
“Yes,” she clarified. “Deciding whether to have those procedures performed.”
“But what happens if they don’t do them?”
“Your husband can only remain intubated for so long,” she explained. “Eventually, we’ll need to remove the tube.”
“And what happens if you do that without the tracheostomy?” I queried.
“In his current state, Ray most likely can’t breathe on his own. Even if he can, he won’t be able to clear his airway.” I stared at the woman as the words sunk in, and she continued. “You’ll be allowing your husband to pass.”
When she left, I mulled over the situation. Ray would not want me to keep him alive as a vegetable, I knew. Heck, he probably wouldn’t want to be kept alive as anything but his full, former self.
For the first time since it had all begun, I began to feel anxious. This was simply too great a decision for me to make alone. I sent a text to a priest friend, asking for counsel, and we set an appointment for the following day.
Soon, my dear friend Jennifer arrived. I told her of my dilemma, and she suggested we get away from the hospital to get a bite to eat. We left, and I continued to fret throughout most of our car ride. As we neared the restaurant, though, realization struck.
“God has been so incredibly present to me through this whole thing,” I told Jennifer. “He’s not going to leave me now. He will make His will abundantly clear.”
That simple statement of trust brought peace flooding back. Remarkably, Jennifer and I enjoyed our dinner, most of it spent rehashing good memories of times spent together with Ray. Afterward, we returned to the hospital.
Walking into the room, Jennifer went to Ray’s bedside and slipped her hand into his while I spoke. “Ray,” I called out softly. “I’m here with–”
Jennifer gasped. “He squeezed my hand!”
I hurried to stand beside her, calling Ray’s name, encouraging him to squeeze again. He did not, but Jennifer – an ICU nurse herself! – insisted. “Stephanie, that was intentional,” she said. “He squeezed my hand in response to your voice.”
That squeeze, I believe, was God’s response to the statement of trust I’d made on our way to dinner. When we trust in the Lord, He will, indeed, make our paths straight. (cf. Prov. 3:5-6)
The next day, God answered in a still more definitive way. It happened in further evidence of the power of prayer, and it happened during the 3:00 Hour of Mercy, when Jesus promised St. Faustina, “In this hour, I will refuse nothing to the soul that makes a request of me in virtue of my passion” (Diary, 1320). While my sister Suzanne and I prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet at Ray’s bedside, he opened his eyes for the first time. He looked at both me and Suzanne before closing them again.
“He’s in there, Stephanie,” Suzanne said. “He recognized you! He looked at you like you were an angel!”
Well, Ray and I both know I’m no angel. But if prayer was what he needed, prayer is what I had to offer. Regardless, Suzanne was right. Ray was in there, and I was left in absolutely no doubt as to what I should do. Two days later, Ray received the tracheostomy and gastrointestinal tube.
The road to recovery had begun, and, while it was marked by both hills and valleys, the power of prayer continued to sustain me and, I believe, those around us.
But wait, there’s more … stay tuned for the next post in the series. I’ll share some of those hills and valleys, and the remarkable ways in which God smoothed them out before me.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Erin Shelbourne Miller, whose generous support, care, and love sustained us through those most challenging days and beyond. Eternal rest grant her, O Lord …