“Miss Kristen, it’s Mr. Roger, he’s had an accident.”
I had been on the pool deck, sipping a pina colada, reading a book in the sunshine. The ship, Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, was about to depart Cozumel for a three-day journey back to New York. I was looking forward to reading a lot and spending a few more days with my family when a page from the PA system pierced my calm. The request was for me and my mother to report to Guest Relations immediately.
Confused, I gathered my things and started making my way to the stairs. I was sure this was about my husband and my brother – they paged my mother and I after all. The boys had been driving off-road vehicles in the Mexican jungle and I didn’t put it past either of them to have driven into a tree or something. I was already annoyed at them that this might mean I miss my upcoming massage in the spa.
It was about Deck 8 that I realized the ship used my maiden name and I broke into a run.
I was rushed from Guest Relations to the Med Bay, where I was informed that my father had been in the gym and collapsed on the treadmill. Over the next several hours, time sped up and stopped simultaneously as we were all escorted off the ship. My mother and father went to a private hospital via ambulance and the rest of us packed frantically and tried to breathe as our lives were turned upside down.
It turns out that Dad didn’t just collapse on that treadmill; he died. After 15 minutes, they managed to resuscitate him, but he was dead for those precious moments. He would spend the next several days in a medically induced coma to allow his brain to recover from the shock, as well as to allow the doctors to implant a defibrillator near his heart. All told, he, my mother, and myself spent an extra 9 days in Cozumel, arriving safely into our hometown in the early morning hours of Good Friday. And no, the significance was not lost on me.
Today is one year since that page, since those moments of terror, since his death and resurrection, since we understood miracles in a new way.
I have a thousand crystal clear memories of those days. I remember standing on the dock in Cozumel, watching the ship drift away as I was on the phone with our family doctor, telling him that we knew so little except that something was wrong. I remember exactly what that hospital smelled like, exactly how to get you from the hospital back to our hotel in a taxi, exactly the contours of the smiles of the nurses who helped provide lifelines amidst confusion. I remember sending text messages begging for prayer because I had run out of words to express my fear and getting back so much love my phone nearly drowned in it. I remember the day my mother and I took the ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen to run some errands and found a Krispy Kreme donut shop, both immediately gravitating towards it without speaking. “Well, if Dad died, I guess we can get a donut,” she said simply as we entered.
I remember when I first got to see him, when he was still in the coma, standing over the bed of this man who had been my rock for my entire life. The idea of making decisions without his wisdom, or moving forward in my life without his brain as a sounding board was unfathomable. He was alive, but at this point there was a question of how much brain capacity he would have once he woke. I had no words to speak to this sleeping hero of mine, so I sang. I stood, accompanied by beeping of the machines helping him heal, and I let the words of my childhood ring out.
…come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise… Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, how great Thou art… On a hill far away…
The line I kept returning to was from “Come Thou Fount” and it was from the second verse. “Here I raise my Ebenezer, here by Thou great help I’ve come. And I hope by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.” The doctors kept telling us it was a miracle he was alive at all – the speed with which the Royal Caribbean staff acted saved his life. If he had had his attack in a hallway, or his room, he would have died, it was that definitive. Because he was in the gym and there was a defib machine close with trained staff, he was alive. That black and white, that simple. So, here by Thou great help we’d come indeed.
Later in the week, my mother and I went to a jewelry store so I could buy a charm for my Pandora bracelet, because I needed my own Ebenezer. An Ebenezer, by the way, is a stone memorial built by Samuel to remember a victory over the Philistines. The Hebrew translation of the word means “stone of help” and it’s a tangible reminder of help beyond ourselves that saved us. I see mine every day, and on days where my faith feels fleeting, I find myself turning the bead in my fingers.
And I remember the exact look on his face on the Saturday morning he was fully back to us, when my mother and I walked into the room and his smile was as big as the sun. I had only cried twice that week, but that destroyed me. The hope that been my engine throughout the week had paid off and I wept of both gratitude and exhaustion. Then, of course, he asked me why I was crying. “Because you’re alive, Dad.” “Of course I am, kiddo. What else would I be?”
Turns out, however, that the tectonic shift I felt at Guest Relations was permanent. I cannot go back to life the way it was before that moment, and nor can he. He now has a small bump on his chest where the defib lives – a tiny device that acts as a mechanical insurance policy should his electrical system go out of whack again – and even with the best efforts of modern medicine, his brain is different. Words sometimes come slower now and his memory is fuzzier than it was. Minor and major adjustments have had to be made in the company he runs and is passing to my brother and I. However, I remember the doctor warning me that he may not recognize me or that he would loose giant chunks of my life. “He may not ever remember your wedding day again,” one warned me. Now, every time we can discuss that day in detail, my heart clenches with gratitude.
And so it is with miracles.
I’ve spent the past year reflecting deeply on my relationship with my father. He has always been my biggest supporter, the one who believes in me when no one else does, the one whose dreams for me are bigger than my own. He has taught me, shaped me, lectured me, frustrated me, and loved me. He has shown me what tenacity looks like, what sacrifice feels like, and the power of hope. If all had gone pear shaped on that day in Mexico, those things would have stood. I know I would still be grieving him and my life would be less because he wouldn’t be in it, so I am unspeakably grateful that grief gets delayed a few more seasons.
So our miracle is more time. More vacations, more seasons of the Phillies disappointing us all, more conversations about leadership, more memories, more time. He gets to know the woman my brother is building his life with, since she’s joined our lives since the accident. My husband and I got his help with buying our first house, for we were in sore need of advice. Our company gets his vision for longer, and we get the benefit of his exacting focus for our future.
I have no idea why we were the recipients of this miracle, and I know my father feels that deeply. He carries a survivor’s guilt at times – why us, why me, why then? – and I wonder it, too. Why us and what do we do with it? I can’t answer the first, but I’m puzzling the latter. I think we live the miracle. We love and live and breathe with intention, understanding that death did not win then nor will it ever. We are building things to outlive us, laboring for purposes greater than ourselves. For the truth of Christ’s resurrection is that time is immaterial and love wins. What a gift to know that now, on this side of the veil, and one I refuse to take lightly.
So happy resurrection day to my fierce, faithful father, and thanks to our Father, for this glimpse of heaven and the gift of time.