The following story is my leading article in our church's monthly newsletter for September. It has generated lots of interest, so I thought it worth reprinting also at this blog. The entire newsletter is always accessible online (to do so, click here).
No one expected her to live this long, let alone improve. But Carole Sanders continues to defy the predictions and prognostications of everyone, whether family or medical personnel.
Several years ago she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a rare lung disease that gradually (so we are told) renders the lungs nonfunctional, bit by bit, as scars continue to replace healthy tissue. We watched her go downhill, just as they said she would. They gave her two years to live at the most.
And so we began to pray for her, as Christians do, both privately and at Mass, for we knew that her dear Lord would deal with her as He saw fit, according to His own unsearchable wisdom and infinite power. With God all things are possible.
Soon she became confined to her home, and unable, except on a rare occasion, to go out. She loved her church, but was now a shut-in. Once in a great while we’d see her in church, if only on a Saturday night when less people are present. Yet her determination to keep up the fight was always evident, as we saw her, oxygen tank and all, approach the altar for the Blessed Sacrament. I could have brought it to her in the first pew, as I customarily do for some who have difficulty walking, but she preferred if at all possible to approach, climb the three steps, and make it to the altar.
Usually she had to receive her communion at home, where her husband Duane waited on her daily, an unflinching if weary angel always at her side. Duane was better for her than any nurse could have been, around the clock, constantly there for her, to be her stay. Months passed. Soon she entered Hospice care. She was losing her breath, she was going downhill. She was dying.
And so our prayers for her continued, even as we continued to expect the inevitable.
But she did not die. Six months passed, and so did the Hospice nurse. They don’t keep people on longer than six months; they’re expected to be dead by that time. And Duane and Carole decided it was easier and cheaper to manage things without Hospice, staying in close touch with medical personnel. I remember opining that none of us has any business predicting when she will die. Only God knows, in spite of what any professionals might think.
So she kept on at home, yet still going downhill. She routinely fell, even though she had a walker, and even though she never had far to walk. She just didn’t have the strength, because she didn’t have the breath. Her lungs were giving out. She fell, and bruised, and once or twice even cracked a bone. Her pain was mitigated some by pain medications, which made her groggy. I remember thinking that I had never seen someone dying so slowly.
Then one day last winter I got a call late in the evening from Duane. He couldn’t wake her. It seemed as though the end was finally at hand. I raced over to the house. Poor Duane was beside himself. We prayed. I brought to bear some of the most comforting passages of Scripture, of psalms, and of hymns. The nurse arrived, as did a family friend or two. After two or three hours, she did not stir, and her breathing was shallow. I had been at deathbeds before. Some days prior, she had already received her last communion, her viaticum, and now we were bidding her farewell. We were bracing ourselves for her last breath. Finally, when several people were keeping vigil, I decided I could leave for awhile, fully expecting to be called back shortly when death was more clearly at hand.
The call never came.
Next morning I puzzled over this, and went back to the house. There she was, to my great surprise, sitting up and smiling at me. Her hour had not yet come. Somehow, miraculously, she had revived during the night. Now doubly I know that nobody knows the hour of death. She had defied all predictions distant and recent. It was already well over the two years they had given her; I think it was almost twice that long. And still she drew her breath, and continued doggedly on.
Winter turned to spring, and spring to summer. My visits settled roughly into a weekly pattern. But my prayers, and the church’s prayers, continued at a daily pace, as ever.
Then came July. Another frantic call brought me out quickly to the house. This time she was losing her mind, quite literally. She was delirious, and completely unlike the Carole I knew. Suddenly she trusted no one but me, yet even I could not reason well with her. It was evident to me that her brain needed more oxygen, as I explained to her distraught husband. She was not herself.
Duane came to realize that she had to be moved, as she would not even let him care for her. This was the last thing this dedicated husband wanted to do; he had promised himself he would not let her live out her days in a nursing home somewhere, yet now he had no choice. It was a heartbreaking and agonizing decision. The years of care, and his labor of love, had taken their toll on him already. He had lost altogether too much weight, and was reduced to a mere shadow of himself. Now, in spite of his valiant determination month after month to continue the marathon, he was faced with defeat. Poor Duane! Poor Carole!
Yet we continued to pray, daily.
Then, in the past several weeks, something astounding began to happen. We had thought the move to Toulon Health Care would be the last straw. Perhaps it was for this reason, because every earthly prop had given way, that all at once things changed. She began the transformation from someone who was dying to someone who was living. Every time I saw her, which at first was daily, she was better than the time before. Not only was she no longer dying, she began improving, to the amazement of everyone. This was not supposed to happen. So extraordinary is her progress that even Duane, who visits her daily, is again gaining weight and strength.
Today Carole Sanders is again in her right mind, having not only accepted her lot in life, but rejoicing continually in the mercy of her Savior. Jesus has been with her, not only to comfort, but to strengthen both in body and soul. In therapy she walks farther than they tell her to walk. She is no longer waiting to die. She is living and breathing, and improving daily. She even hopes to return home some day, and to start coming to church again. Her remarkable convalescence to date really gives her no reason to expect otherwise. I can scarcely believe my eyes.
To be sure, it doesn’t generally happen like this. Faithful Christians die daily; they fall asleep in Jesus, and we mourn their loss, with the assurance that, as St. Paul has said, if in this life only we have hope in Christ we are of all men most miserable. So we don’t despair when earthly things are passed; we know of a life of the world to come; we know Jesus the Crucified, who was raised from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity. And we know we shall reign with Him. So we learn not to sorrow as others who have no hope, no matter whether we live or die. And we learn that this life is a vale of tears. Disease strikes and mortality makes itself known to us all.
Yet once in a while our Lord deigns to remind us, in sometimes remarkable ways, that He is in command of all things, and that He does indeed hear our prayers. In Him we live and move and have our being. And so it is that He has determined in His wisdom and mercy that it is not time for Carole Sanders to die. Not yet. In fact, she’s even showing signs of beginning to thrive.
If you wish to pay her a call, feel free. She’ll gladly visit with you and well you all these things herself. She is a living miracle, and reminder to us all that our God is always able to do abundantly more than we either ask or think.