I really love Christmas songs and holiday movies. This didn’t happen at Christmas, but it was a bona fide miracle all the same. And at this time of year, miracles are always on my mind.
I was just about to teach a class on environmental education in Sacramento when a heart-stopping text blinked onto my cell phone screen and knocked the wind out of me.
“Jeff is being life-flighted to St. Joe’s. I don’t know anything more. I’m terrified.”
A colleague took over the class while I simultaneously flipped open my laptop, tried to control my pounding pulse and booked the first Southwest flight I could get to Phoenix. Next, I called my sister-in-law back.
Time froze while the call went through to Marie, and a thousand fears raced through my mind.
We had discovered 18 years earlier, when a freak accident led to an otherwise never-imagined MRI of my little brother’s brain, that there was a large tangle of blood vessels pushing its weight around inside Jeff’s beautiful head, and he had a 50-50 chance every day of suffering a massive aneurism that could take him from us.
With the depth of that knowledge, my amazing brother has lived each day like it was his last, writing songs, playing music, cutting CDs and being a best friend to all mankind. In his spare time, he remodeled properties. He is hugely popular at Burning Man, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you he is my hero.
He was 52 that day in 2015, and I couldn’t bear the soul-crushing thought of losing him then or any other day. None of us could, not my sisters or I, nor our small families; not his beautiful wife and her family or their hundreds of friends who love Jeff. They call him the mayor because people are drawn to him. That’s an Aquarius for you.
We didn’t know what was going on in those early hours, and it was horrifying. But Jeff had always insisted that we shed no tears when this time came because we all knew he would be only an arm’s reach away when he went “over the fence,” as he liked to say. And he’d see us there when our turns came.
Not one person wanted him to suffer in any way, nor stick around and be a vegetable just because we didn’t want to let him go. But he’s our Jeff. We weren’t going to give him up without a prayer-filled fight.
When I touched down at Sky Harbor International, the dark night was lit up with a billion stars, some of whom I knew on a first-name basis: God, mom and all the ancestors were watching over us. I knew they’d heard my tears and prayers during the flight.
A warm, caring man from Marie’s architecture company, a fellow partner in the firm, was there to drive me straight to St. Joseph’s Hospital downtown. On the way, he relayed as much as he knew.
Jeff was home working on an Airstream trailer remodel for a friend and sent a text to a neighbor, John, who lived across the street. For some divine reason, John was home, decided to not text back, and walked over to talk to Jeff in person.
Everyone in this mid-century modern neighborhood goes in and out of each other’s houses — nobody even knocks. So John went up to the front door, opened it and found Jeff unconscious on the polished concrete floor of the living room. His head had landed on the soft cushion of his Labrador’s bed. John tried to revive Jeff and raced two doors down to Doc’s house. It was 2 p.m. on a weekday and Doc, who is actually an emergency room doctor, had the day off, too. They ran back and called in a life flight. Doc was fairly certain Jeff had suffered a severe stroke. The whole thing took seven minutes and Jeff was airlifted to the hospital. Those friends saved his life.
For the next two weeks, we kept vigil, sleeping in the ICU room with my brother, waking each time the medical team came in to assess him. Family flew in from everywhere. Friends visited hourly to hold Jeff’s hand and play guitar at his side.
Surgeons went into his skull and came back out with little reassurance to offer. Very little.
Jeff was in a deep coma, on life support. No one could say what would happen or what his chances were. The dreaded nightmare of a major hemorrhagic stroke had finally happened. Two drains coming out of his head were the best hope for anything even remotely like a recovery.
In between hourly calls to family, I began writing updates throughout the days and nights because the list of people praying and hanging onto every shred of hope was long indeed. People wrote back that they were reading the emails to their families, friends, churches and coworkers.
We had a common goal and even people who didn’t know how to pray, prayed their hearts out.
On the 13th day, I was sitting by the makeshift windowsill altar we had set up with photos, statues, beads, candles and every other spirit token at hand. I was talking to mom in my heart.
“Momma, tomorrow is your birthday. Please, if you can, talk to God and Jesus. I know they hear us, but I’m expecting big things from you for your youngest child, your son. Please bring us a miracle, if that’s what Spirit wills. Thank you, Mom and thank you, God. Amen,” I said and felt my tears falling. Marie came back into the ICU and we sat together.
“I feel like I’m in the middle of my worst nightmare, and I can’t wake up,” she said brokenly. I kissed her head, a very Jeff thing to do.
The next day, he woke up. Happy Birthday, Mom! Happy everything for us.
Jeff couldn’t talk at first, but the whole world was in his eyes. Nurses and doctors came to welcome him back and do some more tests and evaluations. The ICU was standing-room-only as friends blew through the two-people-at-a-time rule and filled the space.
I took a photo of the brilliant smiles and profound gratitude shining in those faces around Jeff’s bedside as he opened his eyes a little wider. I texted the news out to the list and Kelley, our sister, said, “Roni, that’s the best photo you have taken in your whole life.”
Marie left Jeff’s side only a moment to tell me, “Now I feel like all my dreams have come true, and I hope I never wake up!”
It was a long road to healing and adjustment after those harrowing weeks, and today Jeff has made a miraculous recovery. I know this because he’s my brother, but the Spirit has also sent me other confirmations.
Like the day we took him for a checkup with his famous brain surgeon, and Dr. Nakaji hugged Jeff with a hearty, “Hey there, Lazarus. Welcome back!”
And then there’s the time I was in the ICU with our dad three years later for his own emergency, and there was a little down time so for some reason, I told the night nurse about Jeff’s journey. She stopped and took my hands in hers, saying, “Thank you so much for telling me about your brother. In all my 32 years of nursing, I have never known even one patient who survived what your brother has survived. He is a miracle.”
Yes, indeed, he is. And really, so are we. Every human being is a miracle of some kind, and this is a beautiful season to remember that. Blessings to you all.