By Father Aaron Brodeski
At the age of 17, my sister Ann was handed a heavier cross than any of us would wish upon our worst enemy. Ann was just months away from high school graduation. She was one of the stars of her basketball team which went down state. She was very active and in excellent health. What she would soon experience would be anyone’s worst nightmare.
In March of 1990 she became ill with mononucleosis, and ended up in the hospital after her spleen ruptured. Shortly after surgery she had a respiratory arrest which now appears to have been caused by encephalitis, and she entered into a coma which lasted for weeks. As time went on and she regained consciousness, it was discovered that her brain stem was damaged; this resulted in what doctors called “Locked-in Syndrome.” Ann was fully aware of her surroundings, could hear, see, feel and understand everything but could not speak or move voluntarily.
As the weeks turned into months, she was moved to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and given the best medical attention available. Everything was done to help her heal and to relieve her suffering, but in the end, little medical hope for recovery was given. Eventually she entered into Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center, where despite working with her for several months, she never regained her ability to talk or move. After a year into her illness, she moved back home with 24-hour nursing care.
During her first two years in this state she would cry, and even scream, for several hours each day. Despite everyone’s regular attempts to keep her comfortable her body was in constant pain as a result of muscle cramps and discomfort. Unfortunately, she continued to remain “locked-in” and was unable to communicate to us the causes of her pain. After six years of full-time nursing care at home, state aid for her home care ended, and she was moved to a nearby nursing home. For her ten years in the nursing home she was visited daily by my parents and had regular visits from other family members and friends. Every week my parents faithfully took her to Sunday Mass and then would bring her home for the day. She was also able to regularly join us at home for family gatherings and holidays.
On January 19, 2006, after a serious case of pneumonia, Ann aspirated during the night, had a respiratory arrest and was without oxygen for almost twenty minutes. She was resuscitated by paramedics, but the lack of oxygen sent her into a coma from which she would not recover. At noon, her heavy cross was lifted as she passed from this earth and went to her eternal reward.
To the normal secular mind Ann’s situation seems truly tragic and indeed, in many ways, it is. She daily carried a cross that is heavier than most of us could endure. How does one live day after day in discomfort and pain, without the ability to do anything about it and still retain any ray of hope? How can anyone endure this heavy cross and not give in to ultimate despair and depression? Humanly speaking, no one wants to be given a heavy cross to carry. Whenever we face a cross in our life we tend to immediately look for a way out. It is certainly only by grace that the Cross can be embraced willingly and with hope. Jesus himself had this experience in His human nature. Jesus’ human will, when facing his Cross, needed to enter into obedience to his divine will and that of His Father’s. This is seen so clearly in the garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me…” Of course he immediately united Himself with the Father’s will when he continued praying, “…yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).
Ann’s Cross Extends to Others
For those who knew and loved Ann, it is clear that her cross also reached beyond her own suffering and into the lives of those she daily encountered. To face Ann is to face the Cross itself. It was, and still is, impossible to be with Ann, to understand her situation and then remain indifferent to the Cross. Facing the Cross demands a response from us all. The Cross is not easy to face. For family, friends, nurses and doctors, it was always difficult to see her daily suffering without constant temptation to despair, doubt and confusion. To the secular mind it is easy to conclude that her quality of life was so poor that death itself is the greatest blessing. A false sense of compassion could have even lead many to ask God to end her life now and alleviate her suffering.
This has always been true of the Cross. Recall Peter’s words to Jesus when Jesus began to reveal to him and the other apostles that he would soon be handed over to the Scribes and chief priests, suffer greatly, and be put to death. Peter took Jesus aside and said, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Peter, perhaps out of fear and perhaps out of a false sense of compassion, did not want the Cross to come to Jesus, nor did he himself want to be faced with Christ’s Cross. What was Jesus’ response to Peters fear and his attempt to take Jesus from his Cross? “Get behind me, satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16: 23).
Life’s crosses are always hard to willingly face and embrace with hope. But just because they are difficult to embrace does not mean that we should try to avoid them at all costs. If we do that, we may actually find ourselves running from the will of God.
Confronting the Cross with Grace
Each of us is given a cross to bear in life. Some, like my sister, have very heavy crosses. Others, on the surface, have relatively easy crosses to bear but bear heavy struggles interiorly. What should be our response to the Cross when we face it? How should we endure our particular cross?
In the First Letter of Peter we read, “Yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God” (4:16). In the Gospels, we are given an incredible revelation about suffering in the life of Christ himself. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II writes, “In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed” (Salvifici Doloris #19). How can a Christian think that suffering deals a person a “poor quality” of life when it is suffering that was at the heart of Christ’s very mission of redemption? Not only was the center of Christ’s mission engulfed in suffering, but his suffering was embraced in a totally voluntary way.
As a result of Christ’s voluntary embrace of suffering, not only did he set for us a perfect example, but he transformed suffering itself, making it the very means of our eternal salvation. Suffering itself has been elevated to the level of grace and has been given an incredible power. Suffering has become redemptive in Christ. Now, not only does suffering take on new meaning, but it can also help man to see his incredible value in Christ.
St. Paul says of his own suffering, “I make up in my own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” St. Paul realized that, because Christ transformed his Cross by his resurrection, all human suffering is now able to share in this salvific meaning and our particular suffering, when united to Christ’s, will actually become an instrument of grace for ourselves and for those around us Suffering for a Purpose.
The fact that we suffer is inevitable in this life. What we do with our suffering and how it either clarifies or clouds our understanding of our own dignity as persons is up to us. Pope John Paul II concludes his Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, by revealing to us that grace and nature meet in human suffering and reveal our deepest meaning as man: Suffering “is supernatural because it is rooted in the divine mystery of the Redemption of the world, and it is likewise deeply human, because in it the person discovers himself, his own humanity, his own dignity, his own mission” (#31).
In light of this truth, suffering, when freely embraced and united with Christ’s suffering, actually becomes a true blessing in that we are able to both participate in Christ’s saving action and are able to discover our true dignity and value as persons.
When I look at Ann’s life, I have come to conclude that her life has incredible value and meaning and that her embrace of her cross has, and continues, to do much good in our world.
Ann Embraces Her Cross
How do we know that Ann embraced her cross and united her sufferings with the sufferings of Christ? Since she could not talk or communicate very well, it was certainly hard to know exactly what was going on inside her mind and heart. But I do think that there are other ways of concluding that her life was, and is now completely, united with Christ’s.
For the first few weeks of Ann’s illness she was in a comatose state. After a couple of weeks she opened her eyes. Within a few months, she was very much aware of everything going on around her and could communicate by moving her head slightly in one direction or another, or by looking at flash cards that read “yes” or “no.” Her E.E.G also indicated full brain activity, except for her brainstem (which has the function of connecting the brain to the body).
During the first couple of months, Ann never smiled. It was very evident that she was greatly traumatized and did not seem ready to accept her illness; of course, who could blame her? The first time Ann smiled was after about three months into her illness when she was at Mayo Clinic. My eleven-year-old brother was so concerned about her that he went to the chapel at the hospital and prayed thirteen rosaries in a row. After those prayers, he told my dad that he only wanted her to smile. Sure enough, just after those rosaries, she gave a faint smile in my brother’s presence. Time moved on and Ann was moved to Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center, about an hour from our home. About four months into her illness, she smiled for a second time and then began to smile from time to time. Her smiles were very evident and were more and more frequent. Though there were plenty of bad days, she would, occasionally, have what seemed to be a hopeful day that began to point the way to an apparent peace and acceptance of her situation.
The months turned into years and at about the two year mark there seemed to be another change. My family had been given a beautiful picture of Jesus crowned with thorns. For a period of about three weeks, Ann continually stared at that picture. If you walked into the room, she would turn her head and acknowledge your presence but would quickly turn and stare at this picture of Jesus once again. It’s hard to say just what was going on interiorly for her, but for some reason Ann’s apparent peace grew deeper and deeper. Since peace comes only from accepting God’s will, it seems that Ann may have interiorly began to accept this heavy cross on a deeper level by the grace of God and her own prayer. So time and prayer seemed to have an effect for the good and even though her cross was far from over, she seemed to begin to radiate a peace and acceptance that, I believe, can only be explained by God’s grace.
I believe that another clear sign that Ann was moving, in a deeper and deeper way, toward acceptance of her cross was the fact that so many prayers were said for her. Throughout her illness, there were countless people who prayed for her daily. If we believe in the power of prayer then it is hard to believe that the many prayers on her behalf had gone unanswered. God did not answer our prayers with a physical miracle, but He did, I believe, answer them by entering into her life so deeply. Up until her death, she also attended Mass each week and received the Sacrament of Anointing monthly. Every time I would tell her I am going to administer the Sacrament of Anointing to her she appeared to react with interest and anticipation of the many graces she was about to receive.
The spiritual effect that her life has had on so many people is perhaps the most evident sign of her interior acceptance of this cross. There are many stories of nurses who would enter our house and comment that “it is a very peaceful place to be.” The Cross of Christ, though challenging, is indeed a very peaceful place to be and many came to experience this peace in Ann’s presence. Many others have stated that Ann had changed their lives. It was, and still is, hard to face the grace of God alive in her life and not be changed. Again, it is hard to remain indifferent to the Cross when Christ is so clearly present.
Furthermore, Jesus said that we would know His works by their good fruits. The good fruit that has come from Ann’s illness is hard to deny and is perhaps the greatest testimony to the fact that she was deeply united to Christ.
The Meaning of Ann’s Life
As pointed out above, I believe Ann’s suffering has become an instrument of grace in our world. As my family and I look back at these seventeen years of suffering, it is clear that God has used her to touch many lives. Only in Heaven will we truly be able to see the many ways in which her suffering, united to Christ’s, has touched and, at times, even transformed the lives of others. I believe that her heavy cross was truly the continuation of the Cross of Christ alive in our world. In her, we who knew her were able to gaze upon Calvary itself. What a gift from God her life has been to the Church!
We all are called to incarnate Christ by continually inviting Him to live in us for the entire world to see. But very few are chosen to continually incarnate Christ as he hung dying on the Cross. As I have looked at Ann I knew that I was seeing more than just my sister; I was seeing our Lord in His last agony. His agony and suffering is now permanently imbedded upon my mind and heart. Because of Ann Good Friday takes on a much deeper significance in my life. I do believe that I can begin to understand, in a very real way, how deep Christ’s love was and is for us all. What Christ went through for us out of love I can see in the life of my sister Ann. This is indeed a very unique calling she received and a truly sacred and holy vocation that she lived. I will be forever grateful to God for her life and for how much He has taught me about Himself through her.
By being an icon of the Cross, those who knew Ann were given the opportunity to deepen their faith by facing and entering into the very Mystery of our Salvation. St. Paul explained to us that Christ’s Cross would be “a stumbling block” for those who lack faith (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). By facing the Cross of Christ in Ann’s life we were all called to step out of our indifference and either enter more deeply into the Mystery of our Redemption or trip and fall upon the apparent tragedy of her life. For those who chose to face her with faith, the blessing of her life is quite clear.
When her life is looked upon with faith, we are also given another blessing from God. In her, we are able to see that life itself is sacred and has an inestimable value. Sadly, our society has become very utilitarian. The underlying conviction of modern society is that your value is based upon what you do and achieve in life. This modern philosophy is turned on its head when it is looked at in the light of Ann’s life.
Ann, in her illness, accomplished nothing that the world considers great. In fact, her life was the very antithesis of greatness by the world’s definition. But once again, when her life is seen in the light of faith, it’s clear that the true value of life is not found in what worldly success you accomplish, but it is found deeply embedded in her dignity as a person and in the fact that the grace of God was so alive in her life.
So what do we conclude from all of this? We conclude that all life is sacred. We conclude that life’s meaning and value is discovered in a profound way when our suffering in life is embraced freely and united to the Cross of Christ. Jesus not only set for us an example, he also gives us the grace we need to follow in his footsteps.
The greatest act in all of human history was tied to a heavy Cross. Christ freely embraced that Cross and calls us to do the same.
Ann, may you rest in peace. Well done, good and faithful servant, go now and receive your eternal reward.
by Father Aaron Brodeski