It had been three of the longest months in my life. It was the last Friday in September that two cataclysmic events occurred in my life. One was planned for some time, the other caught me completely off guard.
The planned event was the move-in of my wife’s sister and her two kids. She had a son who was 13 and a daughter who was 6. The mom and son had lived with Colleen and I for the first five years of his life before my sister-in-law met a guy and married him. Now, eight years later, she was leaving him.
This wasn’t the first time she left him, but it would turn out to be the last. We were pretty certain this would be the last time, and we knew that once he learned she was gone, he would know she and the kids were at our house.
We were fairly prepared for the barrage of phone calls, but didn’t know how far he might go in presenting physical danger to sister-in-law or her kids. The abuse had never gone physical as far as we knew, but the emotional trauma and abuse was the worst I had ever seen, even as a Pastor.
We knew the kids would be fragile, and had hoped that the first five years of my nephew’s life having been lived in our home would somehow mean something redemptive in the situation. Maybe those first few years would come back to him in a healing manner.
It quickly became apparent that those first few years were long gone to my nephew. We and his mom were the enemy who had conspired to take his life away from him along with the only father he had ever known, abusive or not.
On the same Friday that she and the kids moved in, I received a phone call from a long-time friend and past member of our church. Back in those years, Colleen and I had befriended she and her husband and kids. We were close enough back then that we agreed to be godparents to their two boys. Their youngest, Chris, and I shared birthdays, both being born on September 19.
Over the years, our relationship distanced as they experienced marital problems, eventually moved away and divorced. We continued in some contact through the years.
In early 2000, Pat and Chris came back to church. Chris was 16 and rededicated his life to Christ. He even got baptized again in February of that year. Our friendship picked up a little, though we weren’t as close as we had been before.
It was Pat who called me frantically that September Friday afternoon. She was standing in the hospital parking lot and was somewhat incoherent. I was able to make out that she was with Chris at the hospital emergency room, where she had just been told that he had leukemia.
When I arrived at the hospital, the story began to unfold. Chris had had all four wisdom teeth removed about 10 days earlier, but the bleeding wouldn’t subside. A follow-up with the oral surgeon days before this one led to the conclusion that the bleeding was normal and that Chris would be OK with some rest and tender care.
Knowing she wouldn’t get what Chris needed from the oral surgeon, she took him to the emergency room. Blood tests quickly revealed that something was indeed wrong.
A few days later, Chris was transferred to UCLA Medical Center, where he would spend the last three months of his life. It was a vicious battle physically and spiritually. On two occasions, the doctor called the family in to say he wouldn’t amke it through the night.
The second occasion was Thanksgiving Day, on which we surrounded his bed as doctors turned off the life-sustaining ventilator. It was an excruciating decision, but one that was felt best by everyone involved. We waited for Chris to take his last breath. And we waited, and waited, and …
Chris didn’t die! As a matter of fact, since he was breathing on his own, he was taken off the ventilator and brought out of the chemically-induced coma. He was awake and talking, though extremely weak. A few days later, he improved enough to be moved out of the Pediatric ICU and into a regular room while aggressive chemotherapy continued.
Throughout the month of December, Pat and Chris had the opportunity to catch him up on his last two months, which were now lost to him. He was weak and muscularly degenerated, but he was alive and communicative. Anything from there would be up in all our eyes.
UCLA is about 45 minutes from our home without traffic. In traffic, it would take anywhere from and hour to two or more. That meant that any trip to the hospital was at least a half-day excursion. Colleen and I later estimated that I probably averaged about 3-4 days every week at UCLA, either visiting or helping calm stormy hearts.
During those weeks, my sister-in-law’s circumstance would be different every day. Going home from work would be like going to work. It was at times tempting to just stay away from home if work had been particularly tough that day.
On top of all that, the church had opened a local coffeehouse at the end of August. We were working hard to get that ministry off the ground and running well.
Earlier that year, I had fulfilled a dream of becoming a Police Chaplain with our city Police Department. There were ride-alongs and emergency all-hour call outs to attend to.
In August, I had started my Master’s Program at a local Seminary. There were books to read, papers to write, exams to study for.
The church was growing slowly but steadily. Three services every Sunday seemed a breeze, but were slowly taking their toll on my physical health as I didn’t account for the strain much in my daily life.
Somewhere in there, I had an incredible wife and two precious boys at home. I thought I was doing alright in maintaining those relationships, but would later lean that my pace of life wasn’t achieving what I had hoped it would.
Right after New Year’s 2001, we were informed that Chris’ leukemia had returned aggressively. A radical experimental chemotherapy treatment was proposed. The worst side effect was obviously death, which had occurred within 24 hours after the medication was first introduced in trials for pediatric patients in .02% of the cases.
Conferring with Pat and Chris resulted in the decision to try the medication. It was pushed through the IV beginning early Thursday morning, January 4. It was around midnight on Friday, January 5 that I received the call to head to UCLA as Chris was dying.
The emotions of that night were quite odd. This was the third time we had been called to his bedside to say goodbye. Was this really happening? God seemed to have come through the first two times, miraculously saving Chris’ life. Surely He would come through this time too.
It wasn’t to be. Chris took his last breath about 45 minutes after I arrived. The battle was over and the memorial week would begin.
It had been the longest three months of my life.
© 2008 Paul D. Kuzma