Thursday, June 27, 2013

If I Got to Pick

The life I live here in missions is a life that places me, for the most part, totally dependent on the Lord, His provision, His timing and His holy will for our lives. It is good. It is the way I really, truly desire to live.

However, it is totally contrary to my personality. I am a girl who likes to have a plan. I wake up in the morning and within the first two sips of coffee could easily tell you how I would prefer the day to play itself out in 15 minute increments. I can plan a vacation in my head complete with packing list at the mere mention of it over a dinner. I am the kind of girl who makes lists for fun, who would willingly pack for someone else simply because I enjoy the opportunity to organize. I once spent the night at a friend's house after a recent move. Our husbands were both out of town for work. There were boxes everywhere and she was totally overwhelmed. By the time she woke up in the morning, I had moved all the boxes to the correct room, labeled her closets and unpacked her kitchen and bathrooms. She had to call me for months afterwards to ask me where things were. It was some of the best fun I have ever had.

So you see, this life I lead can be hard for me at times. The trust it takes to leave timing and planning in God's hands is a huge leap of faith from my natural temperament. So is having five sons, but that's a story for another day. At the time that we left to take up our mission here in Costa Rica as the St. Bryce Foundation, one of the greatest challenges for me personally meant that it left leaving my oldest brother and his wife and his children and the rest of my family as we united with him in his fight against ALS. It was a sticking point for me with God.

My big brothers and I on our first night back in the States
February 2013

But my brother had always one of the most faithful servants of God I have ever met, and I knew he, more than anyone else, would want me to do what God was calling me to do. He assured me of this himself. Shortly after we arrived in the field, he entered into a medical emergency that threatened to end his life. I was horrified that it would happen that way, that God would take Him home just as I had left. That all my family would be there at his side and I would not. He did not go home then. He fought back, chose life and kept battling.

So many days it hurt that I did not get to pick the timing of things. That I didn't get to be there when I would've chosen. But I did get there. Last July, we spent quiet evenings together enjoying my sister-in-law's kick ass cooking and holding hands and watching So You Think You Can Dance. We had Skype sessions where I laughed at him sipping Red Stripe through a straw and he laughed at me sitting on a tree stump to get good internet reception. In February, we launched our candidacy for the papacy (There is no logical way for me to explain this to anyone who did not know my brother. I can only be sorry for you that you missed out. It was big fun.)

And in March, I headed home to see him again, this time with my whole gang at my side. Our first full night home we went out to dinner. Both my brothers and their families and us. It was glorious and heart wrenching at the same time. I was so happy to meet my sweet niece for the first time, to hold those big brother hands again, to hear my sister-in-law's laugh, to watch my boys giggle maniacally with their cousins, to share quiet conversation with the man who is my first nephew and open my eyes to what a stellar human being he is.

Cousins at dinner
But it ripped me up inside to watch my brother fight for every breath, to see the look of panic in his eyes, and to realize how tired he was. I went back to our guest house that night knowing deep in my soul he was ready to go home soon. And with a panic in my heart. I was there. Then. But I would leave again soon. What if the timing God chose happened to be the one that left me far away in that moment? What if I would have to leave knowing I would never see him again here on earth? And I was angry about the lack of control my life demanded of me.

Cousin Dinner

In the days that followed, my brother entered the hospital and we began to realize that his battle with ALS was drawing to a close. Difficult conversations had to be had. Hard decisions made. A birthday had to be celebrated. And seafood had to be eaten. And a family had to come together to figure out how to live, laugh, love and say goodbye. And do you know what? If God had said to me, "Colleen, I am going to take your brother home and you have no choice in that matter, but all the other details, I will let you plan", even in my eager to plan brain, I could not have come up with a more perfect scenario as we experienced in the days surrounding my brother's going home.

So many of the details are too intimate. Words are great tools to express certain things, and for others, they are cheap. So much of what happened would be cheapened by them in this case. But here is what I would like to share. I do not have a family that has followed a cookie cutter path. We touch every point on the spectrum when it comes to personalities and temperaments, life choices, and religious, spiritual and moral orientations. But I am blessed beyond belief with a family who knows without a doubt how to love fiercely and stand in unity despite those differences. And I believe a large part of our ability to do that was won as we watched my brother live and fight his battle with ALS with that as his only priority -- to love well, to point people to the love of Christ, and to live with unbounded joy.

These apples don't fall far from the trees, y'all
Cousin Shenanigans
So in the moments surrounding his going home, that is what we did. We laughed loud and loved strong and teased relentlessly. We drank too much and ate too much and talked too much (so much so that we were "shushed" by the ICU nurses while we were still outside in the waiting area). We cried and we embraced and we figured out where our strength lay. So that in the moment that Kevin ran into Jesus' arms, we could leave all of our differences behind and stand hand in hand singing. And cheering him on his way. I have no absolutely no words to describe what that moment felt like. It is forever suspended in time for me. The woman my sister-in-law was in that moment has forever changed me. Being the daughter who first lost a child of a mother who now sent her little boy home is the most breakingly beautiful title of womanhood I now carry. Standing in the embrace of my remaining siblings is a moment I will take with me forever. The faces of nephews and nieces and their expressions of love for their father and their uncle and the love shared by our children, the great big band of cousins that make up this family is for me a joy beyond all belief, a hope for a future that shines with radiance. These young people that we raised? They are good, y'all. So, so good. You will thank us one day for our procreative gifts. I promise you.

Celebrating Kevin's birthday in the ICU waiting room the day before we cheered him home to heaven
Me with some of my favorite people on earth, my sister, my niece, and my cousin

I look back on that time and feel overwhelming gratitude to my God. I didn't want my brother to have ALS. I don't want him to be gone. But these are things God does not consult me on. However, I did want to hold his hand and be next to him when that moment arrived. And I was. I did want to feel a tight part of my family circle and share that experience with my mom and my siblings. And I did. I did want to see him one more time outside of the hospital when he was still "well" and I did. I did want to be able to tell him all the reasons I loved him and was so proud of him and I did. I did want to celebrate with joy when at last he had beat the beast and won the crown. And I did. I did want to sing to him the songs that had beat in my heart for him while I was far away and I did. I wanted my sister-in-law to know how deeply beautiful she was and how much I appreciated her. I wanted to say out loud to her that we supported every choice she had made in this difficult journey and we supported her as she began a new phase of life. And we supported her relief that the battle was over. I got to say those words. And I did want to laugh and have a good beer and eat fried stuff from the Gulf and talk in my New Orleans accent. And I did. I wanted a piece of my brother to take with me forever. He left me that. That man, he knew how to live well, and you know what, because of that, he knew how to die well. I know that sounds weird, but anyone who witnessed it would unequivocally agree with me, I know.
Crawfish and beer. It's how we live. It's how we love. It's how we roll.
I didn't really know how to write a to-do list for my brother's death. I didn't want to. But when the moment came, I knew, he knew, we all knew, how to live it. And if I got to pick, this is how it would have been. If I get to write the script for my own going, I want it to be just like his.

And just to keep reminding me that this was just a sweet tender mercy and not to let myself get used to it, God went back to his usual ways and put me back in my place of humble submission, when, on the morning of the funeral, I found myself late and lost and in the midst of an utter panic attack, screaming at my older sister on the phone for help. And then the brunt of the pastor's joke as I walked into the church having scorned my poor family into beaten little pulps in my grief and pain and the anxiety of things being out of my control again. Crying and laughing at myself, and seeing that once again, He had worked it all for good even when He didn't give me a say. And me, back to my sheepish little apologies and promises of greater trust in the future.

And do you know what? I'm pretty sure I could hear that man, my big brother, giggling at me from heaven. And I think he might have been tying my baby's hands to his shoes too. But that, too, is a story for another day.

Family bonfire in my brother Stephen's yard


  1. Wow, laughter through tears is my favorite emotion. I asked for it, I got it and I love it. Sharing it too!!! Love you so much.

  2. oh you should have warned to have kleenex on hand. love, love, love you all!

  3. A few years ago I also had the beautiful gift of being present at my best friends death. We, 5 ladies, had a girls slumber party in her hospital room the day she told us she wanted to go home. No more mess, no more needles. We brought her home three days later. To be surrounded by her husband, children, parents, and us. It was awesome! She too knew how to live and die. The words you shared about your family, your brother, oh man... I so related.
    God bless you Collen. Really, God bless you!