I never felt much patience for parents who worry a lot about their children. To me, such parents seemed paranoid, always waiting for the phone to ring with some terrible news. Although my six children had their scrapes and tumbles, they always landed on their feet. I trusted their good sense, and Providence. Accidents, illnesses, misfortunes – such things happened to other families, never to mine. So when one day the phone did ring, I was unprepared.
It was one of those beautiful November days when nature turns on its summer charm one last time. My husband, Felix, and I had driven six hours upstate to attend our youngest son’s cross-country meet. After a successful race, we continued on to Potsdam, New York, to visit our two daughters studying at the Crane School of Music, and to spend the night at the house where they stayed with friends. After enjoying the dinner our girls had prepared, we relaxed in the sitting room. Outside, a clear blue sky turned rosy and darkened – the end of a perfect day.
And then my husband’s phone rang.
Just a few weeks earlier,on a similarly beautiful evening, he and I had been enjoying bourbon on the deck when I turned to him and said, “This is so perfect it seems almost like something’s missing.”
“That’s a strange thing to say,” he’d replied, “but I think I know what you mean.”
Over the previous months, a restless feeling had been growing in me. It was now thirty years since we’d gotten married at the Bruderhof, the community we belong to where Felix serves as a pastor, and it seemed we had everything we’d ever wanted. Our children were healthy, popular, bursting with talents. They were mostly grown or in college; our oldest son had married and we already had our first grandson. It seemed to me we had lived an enchanted life. Was it luck? A blessing? Or had trouble just passed us over? In the vaguest of ways, I felt incomplete. In the course of Felix’s ministry, we had counseled many people both within the community and outside it, notably during the two years we’d served in London’s impoverished East End. Countless times we had met people bereaved and broken under the wheel of life. Always we had tried our best to console, but to me our words had often seemed like hollow platitudes. My well-intentioned succor grated even on my own ears.
“Felix,” I had mused, “our marriage has been so blessed. We have never had to deal with real hardship. Do you think God might ask more of us?”
Now, as we enjoyed another perfect evening, Felix pulled out his phone. The caller was unidentified. “Joe’s bed and breakfast,” he joked. We all laughed. Then his face suddenly tensed. “Can you repeat that?” he said.
Felix beckoned me over and we strained to catch the caller’s words. It was something about Rudi, our second-to-youngest son, our nineteen-year-old, who had so enthusiastically left us six months before to teach English to indigenous children in Paraguay. We heard only snatches. Rudi had had an accident – fallen from a cliff – hospitalized – in a coma – critical condition.
Suddenly the glowing autumn sky turned cold as ice. My skin crawled and my head began to spin. Every thought but the worry for our son vanished from our minds. We sped home, and booked the first flight we could get to Asunción, Paraguay.
All along the way, a brutal kaleidoscope of images assailed me. But through them all, I kept seeing Rudi’s face with his slightly crooked grin. He had always been the least demanding of our children: sunny and contented, with a mind full of projects he had schemed up. I saw him standing in the middle of the living room, trailing muddy footprints, proudly smiling over two bunches of radishes freshly harvested from his “organic garden” under the fire escape. I saw him sitting on his bed, wrestling with the rubber strapping of his latest catapult. I saw him surrounded by the little odds and ends he treasured as a child: the chess pieces under the bed; the stray stamps on his desk, leaked from his album; the scraps of metal he’d picked up, awaiting rehabilitation in his homemade forge; his notebooks on the dresser, on the nightstand, under the nightstand – notebooks containing bits of poetry, half-finished short stories, jokes, diary entries.
I saw him as a teenager – gangling, overgrown, with that irrepressible grin. Unlike my other children, he had never developed a drive for competition. I had wanted him to play high school sports, and encouraged him to try out for soccer. Happily, he had set off for the tryouts and returned just as happy to announce he had failed to make the team. “Coach made us run laps around the field,” he explained, “but one of the guys couldn’t keep up, so I dropped back to run with him. I guess coach wasn’t impressed.”
I pictured the many little gifts he had made for me over the years: the plant hangers and noteholders he had fashioned from scrap iron, a beautiful filigree bracelet cunningly woven from welding wire.
I pictured the last time I saw him. He had been living with friends, working a job some distance from home. Unexpectedly, he burst into our living room one evening announcing, “I’m off! I’m leaving for Paraguay tomorrow!” He was ecstatic. We knew Rudi had volunteered to teach in a school for indigenous children in the Chaco, so we felt excited for him.
Now, as I sat on the airplane with my head full of Rudi’s face but unable to picture the Rudi I was about to see, I opened a notebook of his that I had stuffed in my handbag. In his unmistakable, scratchy handwriting, the poem on the page was titled “Graduation,” written just before he completed high school and left home.
You fortunate flower on windowsill
Protected from the storm and wind
Exempt from hardship, grief and thrill,
Never tempted, never sinned.
You gaze with scorn from lofty chair
At kinsmen romping far below,
An emperor, a millionaire:
Immune to predator and foe.
One day you’ll grow out of your plastics
And find yourself in natural dirt,
Unshielded by the house of matchsticks,
Find things that heal as well as hurt.
And between the mundane,
You’ll find joy requires pain.
Arriving in Asunción was like walking into a sauna. Not only the heat but the foreign culture and unknown language disoriented us. A friend of Rudi’s took us to the hospital and told us what had happened. Rudi had fallen fifteen meters (about fifty feet) while free climbing a sheer cliff. He had been driven in the back of a pickup truck for two hours in extreme agony until he reached the hospital where doctors placed him in a medically induced coma.
When we got to the hospital, I braced myself, but no amount of bracing could have prepared me for the sight of Rudi’s broken body shrouded with braces and casts and a tangle of wires and tubes. His chest heaved up and down mechanically, prompted by the ventilator. I felt numb. Shattered. How could this be happening?
But my optimistic reasoning kicked in. Rudi was the toughest of the family, I told myself, the one who never complained. Tall, strong, handsome – he had always exuded enthusiasm for life. If anyone in our family could survive this, it would be Rudi. He would fight like a tiger. But so far from our familiar world, we felt utterly helpless.
In our distress, our community back home supported us. They contacted our insurance company and arranged for Rudi to be medically evacuated to the United States. After several setbacks, a transfer date was set. Through a translator, Felix and I had understood from the Paraguayan doctors that Rudi’s chances of survival were good. Our hope and confidence soared. Surely, once we had Rudi back in the United States, all would be well.
I kissed Rudi’s forehead – the only place not covered by medical paraphernalia – before we were ushered away, and the medics began preparing Rudi for his dangerous journey.
After each leg of the flight, text messages from the attending nurse on the jet informed us that all was well. The flight landed safely in Albany, New York, and the surgeons made immediate plans to recall him from the coma before beginning a series of reconstructive operations.
Felix and I had planned to follow by commercial airline, but a violent thunderstorm caused our flight to be canceled. After excruciating delays, we caught another flight and landed at JFK three days later, in a snowstorm. We exited our plane and lined up for the customs inspection. While we stood, squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, customs officials barking orders, Felix’s cellphone buzzed. A text from our family doctor read, “Call immediately.”
My heart fluttered. Instantly, I felt that gut-twisting premonition – here was terrible news. But again I braced myself. Maybe there was just a question regarding the surgery … The airport crowd chattered around us, the din punctuated by booming announcements from the intercom. Should we call here, or wait until we have space to talk with more privacy? Felix hesitated, then dialed.
Our doctor’s voice, usually calm and genial, was tense and clipped. “Come as quickly as possible,” he said. “Rudi’s condition is extremely critical.” We were stunned. It had to be a mistake. The doctors in Paraguay had said he had been doing well. We fired off questions. We learned that a sudden fluid shift had just ended all brain activity. The doctors in Albany did not expect him to survive more than a few hours.
We stood in the middle of the turmoil in a daze. We passed through customs and stumbled toward baggage claim. The belt had jammed; frustrated travelers stood around impatiently. What was the point of baggage, anyway? Our son was dying. We considered abandoning it. Just then the belt revved back up, and spat out all four of our cases in quick succession. We loaded them on a trolley and flagged down the limousine. With the driver’s garrulous chatter, the four-hour drive felt like an eternity.
Finally, walking into the ICU in Albany, we saw our son. In that first moment, I felt that Rudi’s soul was no longer with us; he was already in another world. His soul, still bursting with life and energy, had cast off this crippled, broken body and moved on. He was flying free. I sensed him nudging me, smiling, as if to say, “Don’t be sad, my work here is finished.”
That evening our whole family gathered around his bed. Rudi’s older brother Allan led our singing with his guitar, filling in when sobs drowned the melody. The box of tissues was empty. All that night, Rudi’s three brothers stayed with him – their last chance to hang out together. They reminisced, sang Rudi’s favorite songs, washed his hair, and shaved his chin.
The next morning we gathered again to remove him from the ventilator. It was 10:24 a.m., December 4.
After the funeral, the days crawled past in a haze. I felt weak and empty. All the certainties of my old life evaporated. If a fluke accident could rob me of my son, then life was built on a butterfly’s wing.
Into this lonely void poured hundreds of emails, cards, and text messages from Rudi’s friends and classmates all over the world. They told me about a side of Rudi I had scarcely realized. One classmate wrote, “He was probably the only guy I knew in high school who completely disregarded what it meant to be a ‘cool guy’ and focused on reaching out to those who were sidelined and lonely.” A young woman wrote, “Rudi reached out to everyone, but I felt like he especially reached out to me. I hated high school. It was tough accepting who I was and finding my place, and I think Rudi knew that. One time he met me in the hall and said I should join gospel choir because he thought I should do a particular solo. He told me that he liked my voice and thought that I was perfect for the part. Wow! That carried me through a couple of weeks.”
The memories that poured in all shared a common theme: Rudi our son, so impulsive and often confounding, had been seeking an authentic life free from hypocrisy and false values – a life lived not for himself, but for others. As we grew to know this side of our son, the magnitude of our loss also grew. But with it came a sense that in some way, short as it was, Rudi had lived a complete life, that he had fulfilled his purpose. Perhaps Rudi himself expressed our feeling best in the final stanza of the last poem he ever sent me:
Whenever one man’s life transcends
This evil world and stands apart
No matter how he meets his end,
It cuts a gash in Satan’s heart.
But even with this assurance born of faith, grief overwhelmed us. We watched our friends carry on with busy life, absorbed in the minutiae of daily tasks; but for us, nothing of our former lives seemed to have significance anymore. Every day seemed like an empty chasm we had to cross. Christmas was only days away. The celebrations, the cheery good humor and jollity that are the hallmarks of the holiday season, jarred our wounded souls. How would we survive it?
In that moment came a call from a father of teenaged children who had recently lost his wife to cancer. He invited us to join his family for Christmas dinner. Although we hardly knew them, we accepted, and instantly meshed. We spent six hours together, sharing pictures and relating memories, crying and laughing. Our shared grief brought us together, connecting us in a way we had never connected with others before. As the evening ended, the conversation lapsed into a comfortable silence. For several minutes, we gazed out the large picture window at the setting sun that sent a cascade of golden light across the Hudson Valley. Unspoken was the knowledge that our loved ones were alive in eternity, awaiting a future reunion.
Some days later, an older couple whose twenty-two-year-old son had died of cancer came to grieve with us. Shortly after that, a middle-aged woman who had found her sister after she committed suicide came to tell her story, then a young couple whose infant son had died hours after birth. In each encounter, we wept and laughed together, our shared grief bridging all barriers.
Jesus said, “blessed are those who mourn” (Matt 5:4). I have often puzzled over this Beatitude: how can mourning be a blessing? Now, through Rudi’s death, hard as it is to admit, I can say that the mourning we do every day is a blessing. It has bonded us with so many others. Already in the hospital in Asunción, strangers with whom we could not even speak sat and wept with us. They saw our weakness and our woundedness, and responded from their own wounded hearts. We never learned what pain they carried; we only knew they did and understood ours.
The vague feeling of incompleteness I felt before Rudi died has left me. It is hard to explain how a loss can make one complete, but Rudi left me a clue with the last words of his poem, “joy requires pain.”
Perhaps he had understood at eighteen something I am learning only now. Since his death, it has dawned on me that Jesus is here, at the bottom of society, among all those who hurt. I have learned that our pain softens the shell that insulates us from the suffering of others. Our grief allows us to absorb their grief, making us a part of the collective suffering of the world, a suffering known and borne by God himself. In this deepest and most profound connection with others, I have found joy.