Here I am with Ele's namesake at her uncle's wedding, last year.
I’ve been musing for a while now about how to explain my faith. My niece, Megan, said, “I can’t wait to hear that!” So, the pressure was on. This may take a few postings but it is certainly important enough to me to try to get it right.
Jay and I went to see “Risen” this afternoon and although I usually cringe at the cheesiness of most Christian movies, this one wasn’t that way. First of all, the time period was just from the day Jesus was crucified to the day he rose to heaven – three days I think. More of a manageable chunk of time to really get into it. It is told from the perspective of a Roman centurion which made it especially interesting. At one point, the centurion is questioning a disciple and when asked why he followed “the Nazarene,” he didn’t really answer. A bit later in the movie, the Roman witnesses Jesus healing a man of some sort of horrible skin disease. The same disciple as before turns to the centurion and says, “That’s why.” That scene made me realize that witnessing Jesus’ miracles in my own life is why I am a believing Christian.
It is unfortunate that the times I feel God’s presence the very most are often heart breaking times. I guess I don’t recognize a need for Him when things are going well. This happened almost 27 years ago. I have a dear, precious friend, Betsy. We met when our kids were little – we each had three and they were all close in age from about 2 to 6 years old. We both spent summers at a lake in northern Michigan and our kids loved being together as much as we did. We would spend all day in the water, skiing and tubing, and then head to the bowling alley for pizza and more fun. Betsy and I were sad to leave each other at the end of each summer, their family to East Lansing, ours back to Sarasota, but knew we would be joined at the hip once again after another school year. In March of 1988, we were overjoyed to welcome another little one to their family and they helped us usher in boy #4, William, to the Crouse crew a few months later. Their little Ele (named for her grandmother, Helen, pronounced Ellie) was a beautiful, blond, curly-headed girl and Betsy and I loved having our babies so close together. Our families were now a raucous, fun-loving band of 12!
Ele was a few months old when doctors began to worry she was not gaining weight as she should. It was the summertime and little Ele would come along when us grown-ups would go out to dinner so Betsy could nurse her. Unfortunately, Ele needed a lot of soothing but we were all good at that so we would just pass her around. Every one of us fell in love with the tiniest member of our tribe and worried about her. One hot summer day, Betsy took Ele downstate to the hospital for some tests. Betsy called me from the parking lot crying. The medical staff had sent her out to the hot parking lot to have baby Ele sweat. That’s right – they needed to gather Ele’s perspiration for some type of test. Apparently, it was a very bad sign that our Ele’s delicate little body didn’t react to the heat.
Many painful months followed, as Ele became sicker and sicker. She had several things wrong with her, none of them life-threatening by themselves, but having them in conjunction with each other painted a very worrisome picture. I tried to call Betsy every day during those trying, sad, scary months. Ele was not getting any better and was spending week after week in the hospital. Betsy did not grow up in a Christian home but has always been open to me praying, saying blessings, looking to God for answers. I prayed constantly for the whole family, Ele, her doctors and nurses.
A couple of weeks before Ele’s first birthday, my phone rang. I picked it up and heard a tiny, whimpering voice say, “We’re going to lose her.” The doctors had told Betsy and her husband that Ele was not going to get better, that she would not make it. That actually she only had a matter of days to live. Everyone was crushed, actually too devastated to even know what to say. Betsy and I just cried together on the phone. I asked if she wanted me to come right then or wait and come for the funeral. She said, “Please, come now.” I was on the plane the next morning – I got the last available seat. I am typically not that good at settling into lengthy praying but as I sat in a middle seat on the last row of the plane, I prayed the entire way from Florida to Michigan. I asked God to just work through me, speak for me, act for me – because I knew I couldn’t do this without Him. Betsy picked me up and we went directly to the hospital. Poor, precious Ele lay there, looking like a sleeping cherub except she was connected to all sorts of tubes and monitors. They had to give her some sort of sedative to keep her from pulling things out. James Taylor’s, “Shower the People with Love” came softly from the cassette player on Ele’s crib bed. I felt such love for this tiny one.
We stayed as long as we could and took a bunch of pictures. I think that was a way for Betsy to process what was happening. She wanted to be sure to remember, in detail, her daughter’s too-short life always. It also gave us something to do while we deeply mourned. We dropped off the film at the drugstore, to be processed in an hour, and headed home where some of the extended family were gathering for dinner. We all tried to act “normal” and be happy to see each other but normalcy was not a possibility. Betsy was in a daze – before dinner, she suddenly said, “Let’s run pick up the pictures.” As everyone sat down to eat, we hopped in the car and went for the photos. God continued to give me the words to love and support my friend.
After our stop at the drugstore, instead of heading back home, we headed back to the hospital. Betsy couldn’t stand to be away from what might be Ele’s last moments. As we arrived, Betsy greeted the nurses she had come to know so well over the last months. I continued to ask God to guide me every second. I asked the nurse if Betsy could hold Ele and as Betsy knew the nurse would, she explained that unfortunately all of the tubes and monitors made that impossible. Betsy hadn’t been able to hold her baby in her arms for weeks. So, we stood by our little girl’s bedside and smoothed her hair and kissed and loved on her as best we could. Ele’s Dad came soon after we arrived and the three of us cried together. They had both been so strong in the face of this unspeakable tragedy. The doctor arrived and said there was really no point in prolonging the agony that everyone, including baby Ele, was enduring. Betsy and her husband must make the unthinkable decision of if and when to remove the life-sustaining machines to let their precious daughter go. What a dark moment of incomprehensible sorrow.
Ele’s Dad was ready to end this misery and let his little girl be at peace. Everyone was well aware that this misery would end only for a new type of grief to begin. Yet Betsy just couldn’t do it – her own life had been all about Ele and this hospital for so long – she just wasn’t ready. An amazing, loving nanny had gotten the other children through this time so Betsy could focus entirely on her sick baby. It was late and time to go get some sleep but Betsy and I stayed to what would become our goodbyes to our little angel baby. As we sat and cried and Betsy struggled to let go, a new nurse Betsy had never seen before entered the room. Not one to take no for an answer, I asked again, “Would it be possible for Betsy to hold her baby?” To our surprise, she said, “Absolutely.” And then the nurse proceeded to move the monitors and IVs all around and placed the precious, tiny bundle in Betsy’s arms. We cried…and cried…and cried. Then I grabbed the camera and started to take pictures of mother and daughter. Betsy was able to say goodbye to the youngest of her three daughters.
We headed home for Betsy to tell Ele’s Dad that she was ready to let her go and that when they returned in the morning, she would tell the doctor. We said goodnight and headed to bed. I had an early flight home the next morning. Jay was extremely supportive but was taking care of four little boys including a four-month-old, who had suddenly been weaned when I got on a plane several days before. My family was eager for my return. I got in bed and prayed, “God, I am here to do whatever you need me to do but remember I have to leave in a few short hours.” Like God ever needs to be reminded of anything. That very second, the phone rang. I heard Ele’s dad, also my dear friend, say, “We will be right there.” Ele had taken a turn for the worse. We threw on clothes and knowing the way, I got behind the wheel while the two grieving parents cried in each other’s arms in the back seat. We arrived at the hospital to find that Ele had just peacefully passed away. At least God had spared them the agony of watching their baby take her last breath. My two beloved friends spent some time saying goodbye to their treasured baby daughter while I stayed in the visitor’s room and greeted family members.
After some time, we headed back to the house. Betsy and I sat on the kitchen counter and drank coffee, talking and crying, for the rest of the night. Their family was surrounded by loving family and friends and a close friend would soon be arriving from Maryland, so with such a heavy heart, I headed home. I was torn about where to be but my own family needed me now. Because I couldn’t actually be with my friend in person during the next days, I decided to go and sit at my church in Sarasota during Ele’s funeral. I got in the car, started it up and the radio was already on….playing, “Shower the People with Love.”
Here is what I know. God was there in that hospital room. I actually felt that God was in me, not just guiding my steps, my actions, even the words I spoke but actually doing it for me. I know it sounds strange but I feel that through me, God gave Betsy some hope that she would see her baby girl again. When I asked that nurse if Betsy could hold Ele, I felt those words had not originated with me – they just came out of my mouth. And, I searched for that nurse to thank her for allowing Betsy those cherished moments with her baby, she was nowhere to be found. She had simply disappeared. There was another nurse assigned to Ele’s care that night and she did not know who this mysterious nurse could possibly have been. God used me – I know He did. Although you could ask, then, why didn’t God heal Ele and allow her to live? I don’t know the answer to that. I think God is oftentimes sad with us.
What God did do after this heart-break came a short time later. Betsy was empowered to go out and raise funds and community support to start an incredible organization to help grieving families. Please check out Ele’s Place (www.elesplace.org ) which has helped thousands of children and teens cope with the loss of a parent, sibling or other loved one. The ripples of soothing one person’s grief can’t be counted – all because of one little girl’s 11-month life.
I had never felt God so near to me as I did during those days. Now, I feel it more often. I recognize His voice and feel his strength and comfort. Sure, hearing a song on the radio or having a nurse act like an angel could be a coincidence but I cracked the door open for God to come in when I was 18 years old and He has been with me ever since. Of course, there are times when I think, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t make any sense. How could there really be a “force” controlling all of this? That is not how rational people think, is it? It is just too hard to believe.” But as soon as I suspend that feeling of “I have to touch it and see it to believe it” – I know He is there because I see that whatever it may be, I could not have done it by myself. God will prove His existence but you are the one who has to open the door - just a crack - and suspend your black and white feelings long enough to let Him accomplish something amazing in you and for you. If you are willing to give Him a chance, your life could be remarkably changed. What is there to lose – really? If IT is true, there is so much to gain. And if it’s not true, you’ve lived a life full of hope, trust and love.
So, when asked why I am a Christian, why I believe in an amazing God, I can say, “that’s why.”
A sweet ending to a sad story is that Betsy’s oldest daughter, Hallie, had a baby girl, the first grandchild, a couple of years ago …..and they named her Ele.
p.s. As I have read and reread this account, I realize it seems that my time up north was about 18 hours long. I was actually there for a few days but strangely I can’t remember a thing about those couple of days prior to the events above. Yet, the story of the time period I shared is etched like clear crystal in my memory.