The Miracle

The Miracle | Part I

brianThe boy was grounded. Mouthing off to his mother, first offense. You stick near the house, ordered Kathy Ahearn before she left for work. Brian pretty much obeyed. At least he could say the skateboarding race at the top of the street would end near his house. The sandy-haired kid leaned forward ready to fly. Brian whizzed downhill standing too far to the front of the skateboard and he tumbled. His wrist cracked. By day’s end, his throwing arm was wrapped in a cast. “What a pain”, he grumbled.

Even when Brian skated, the moody side of almost 13 or, worse yet, was forced to sit still, his parents agreed he was a good kid. He was simply all boy at full throttle. Now Little League was out just five games into the ’97 season. The grumpy shortstop threatened to bop his teen-age sister over the head with the cast. He hung out with Gerard Friedler, his partner in action, but they couldn’t do much and the boys’ friendship wasn’t based on yak. By the time Brian was back in swing, his 13th birthday had passed, and summer was half gone. The family set off for a week at the Jersey shore. Brian couldn’t wait.

On the drive from Warwick to Wildwood Crest, the Ahearns sang. All of them. Brian’s father, Jeff, gentle and intense, a hard-working manager at Imperial-Schrade, an Ellenville knife-maker. Kathy, connected by free spirit to her son, was a dental hygienist right in Warwick. Oldest sister Shannon, fun-loving and strong-willed, striding into her senior year. Megan, like her younger brother, a graceful reed of a long-distance runner. The family sang TV commercials in a Chevy Lumina as they journeyed to the ocean.

Brian and his father brought along their baseball gloves. They connected in the easy closeness of long catches on the beach. As the waves pitched back and forth, the father saw his boy becoming a man. Brian took Shannon on the roller coaster and they shrieked for joy. They hopped on a head-rattling ride called The Human Slingshot. He and Megan teased without sting. Brian joined his mother in the ocean where they romped for hours. He always brought out the tomboy in her. The summer before, they had gone on a canoe trip, the two of them. Now, like childhood chums, mother and son splashed and swam. When they finally emerged from the water, Brian mentioned he had a headache. Too much ocean, they decided, and it was forgotten.

The sun set on summer. First week of school, Brian woke up saying his head ached. You’ve been used to sleeping in all summer, Bri. Got to hit the hay earlier. The morning headaches continued, so Kathy took him to the doctor. Another stuffed-up kid in Sinus Valley. The doctor gave him Claritan. More headaches. “You know”, thought mom, “years of trampoline bed-jumping with Gerard had broken the boxspring”. Brian had slept in that bed since he was a little kid. No wonder he was having headaches. They brought him a new bed. When Brian got rolling each morning, the headaches mostly disappeared. Once, in science class, he asked Gerard if he had any Tylenol. Once, he came home from track and said he felt a little dizzy. He never begged off school or practice. On Columbus Day weekend, Brian went down with the Warwick team to run in a big race at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Jeff and Kathy watched their son steam toward the finish line. Top fifth of the field no less. But, as he chugged closer, they saw something was wrong. Brian crossed the finish line with one eye closed. He seemed to be moving sideways. His head was tilted. Kathy worried out loud to another mother who said maybe you should get him tested for Lyme disease. Oh my God, Lyme. She could barely handle the thought.

Next day was Columbus Day. At 1 o’clock, Kathy took Brian to her doctor. I think he needs a Lyme test, she told Dr. Nicholas Pennings as he began to examine Brian. “Can you feel this?”, asked the doctor, brushing the left side of Brian’s face? “Yep.” “And can you feel this?”, he asked, touching his right cheek? “No”. The doctor also noticed Brian’s right eye was blinking less than his left. Could be nerve damage from the Lyme, thought Kathy. “He needs a blood test”, Dr. Pennings said, “let’s get an MRI first”. Kathy figured they would schedule it in about a week. The doctor made a phone call and, casually as he could, told them to go to Monroe immediately. Kathy called Jeff while Brian ate a slice of pizza. The MRI was done. They sent Kathy back with a copy to take to their doctor. She left Brian in the car. “Hang on, Bri, I’m just going to drop this off”. She handed the copy to the receptionist who said Dr. Pennings wanted to see her. Kathy heard the receptionist tell someone on the phone that the doctor couldn’t talk now. He had an emergency. “Great”, thought Kathy, “now I have to wait here, with Brian in the car”.

But in the next breath, the receptionist said go right in. “Sit down”, said Dr. Pennings, and she did not see him swallow hard. Something showed up, he said. The radiologist had called. “Kathy,” he said gently. “I’m very sorry. It’s a brain tumor.” Words flashed by. Stem. Base of brain. She could not hear, and she was still as stone. The doctor paused. He waited for her. And then she hung her head in her empty lap and sobbed. “Kathy, he said, do you want to call someone to take you home? Jeff?” “No”, she thought, she couldn’t tell this to Jeff over the telephone. She walked to the car. She saw her son and tried to drain her face of expression. He joked, “So what did the doctor say, I have a brain tumor?” She jumped. “Of course not,” she raised her voice, annoyed. “Don’t even joke about something like that.”

Brian couldn’t wait to show off his practical joke. He had set every radio preset button in the Lumina to 92.7, the rock station. Go ahead, mom, push any button, yuk, yuk. She thanked God for the distraction that got her home. She reached Jeff at work in Ellenville. “Something showed up,” she said. He said he’d stop at church first to pray. “No, Jeff, come right home”, he heard her say. His stomach made a fist. With the alarm of adrenaline, he made the hour trip in 45 minutes as if the faster he got home, the quicker he could make it better. They drove first to the doctor’s office. Dr. Pennings had known the family a long time. His oldest son was Brian’s age, nearly to the day. He told Ahearns that he would help them find Brian the best treatment. He was calm and reassuring. It wasn’t until the Ahearns left that Dr. Pennings cried.

The Ahearns went to St. Stephen’s and prayed in the empty church. Kathy faced the statue of the Blessed Mother. She’s a mother, thought Kathy. She will understand a love like this and deliver a miracle. On the way home, they stopped by Kim Frawley, a neighbor and friend who had been a nurse in cancer care. She told them about Fred Epstein, a famous pediatric neurosurgeon in Manhattan. He was aggressive in his treatment and some believed he had worked miracles. Before bed, Kathy and Jeff told Brian and the girls that “something” showed up on the MRI – they were going to New York to look at it a little further. Brian seemed relieved there was reason for his headaches. Now they knew what it was, they could fix it. Jeff went to the Internet, combing through webs of information trying to find encouraging news. He asked Kathy if she wanted to look. She said no. They did not talk much. They were too scared.

The next morning Brian went to school as if every day would be like the days before yesterday. Wednesday morning, they drove near Gracie Mansion to Beth Israel Hospital North. The sign on the door of the world famous neurosurgeon simply said, “Fred.” Fred Epstein, whose kid-friendly ways and minor miracles would land him on the cover of Reader’s Digest, was grandpa-kind and rumpled. His surgeon’s mask was haphazardly pulled over his tousled white hair when the Ahearns walked in. “Well, Brian,” he said right away, “looking at your MRI, it looks like you have a brain tumor and I think it has to come out.” Months before, the boy had bucked at a cast on his wrist. Now he did not pout or cry or flinch. He nodded agreeably. Kathy and Jeff felt oddly comfortable, too, with the doctor’s matter-of-fact tone. The tumor simply has to come out. Could be benign. The thought flashed through both of them, “What were we so worried about?” They set surgery for the following Thursday. And, yes, the doctor said Brian could go to school, no gym, of course. Kathy and Jeff set off for a round of tests with hope and a son who looked as serene as a saint. I have a brain tumor, he told a few friends at school, and I need an operation next week. He said it as if he were going for dental braces. He told his track coaches, Tim St. Lawrence and Dave Paffenroth. For 27 years, St. Lawrence ran a program that had gained statewide fame. He had seen a generation come and go and raise their own children. He knew kids. He liked Brian Ahearn. The boy was a good runner but he never made a big deal of it, always looking out for the other guys on the team. A down-to-earth child with a nice sense of humor. After Brian told him he couldn’t play because of the tumor, St Lawrence said to him, “be my assistant.” A few days before the operation, the cross-country team was playing flag football. St. Lawrence, a world class motivator, walked up to Brian by the goalposts to cheer him up. The coach fumbled for words. He was afraid he’d choke up, frightening Brian. Finally, the child put his arm around the man and said, “Don’t worry, Coach Saint. Everything will be fine.”

That Friday night, Brian went to a school dance. Hung out with Gerard, of course, and the rest of his buds. His parents went to pick him up and Brian cringed to see the both of them there. “You guys are so overprotective,” he protested. He went to a party Saturday night. Allison Cleary was there. They had gone together for a few months but they had broken up earlier that summer. She still liked him. “Coming to my party the day after Halloween?”, she asked. “Sorry”, he said, “I’m having an operation for a brain tumor”. Allison was furious at being mocked. How weak can one guy’s excuse be? Brain tumor, right. He explained everything to her. “How can you be so calm?”, she asked. Brian said, “I don’t want anyone to worry.”

On Sunday, Brian, Gerard and the gang went to the movies in Chester and saw, “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Just another weekend. Jeff came home from work early Monday. He and Brian went out to shoot some baskets. God, he looked so healthy. They played Around The World, a backyard hoop game the athletic Brian usually won. Now Brian’s shots bounced wildly off the backboard. Jeff didn’t have the heart to make a single shot. Father and son talked outside in the brilliant autumn afternoon. Brian opened up. His coordination had been off for a while, he admitted, he had no depth perception. He was OK with grounders or tossing a ball on a line but if he had to look up, he couldn’t see the ball. Tuesday night, they were scheduled to go to St. Stephen’s to receive the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. At dinner, Brian was cranky. Everyone had been coming up to him wishing him well. He didn’t like all the attention. So we won’t go, said his mother. No, said Brian, let’s do it. Brian’s family and close friends gathered round. Father Desmond O’Connor sprinkled holy water and oil over the boy’s head. They prayed. The church emptied. They went home. Kathy and Jeff heard their son on the phone talking with a girl, laughing easily, a happy boy becoming a man. The next day is always in the present tense. It is Wednesday, the day before the scheduled operation. Jeff gets up to go to work early as he’ll be taking off the days after the surgery. At 6:30, he finds Brian on the couch. “How ya’ doing?” “Fine”, says Brian. He had slept through the night. The father kisses his son goodbye and says he’ll see him a little later. They’ll go into the city tonight and have a nice meal. Everything will be fine, the father tells himself, as he heads through the winding roads of the Hudson Valley and the dawn’s early light.

At 7 a.m., Brian gets up to go the bathroom. He walks back through the kitchen into the family room. He puts his hand on his head and says, “Mom, my head is killing me.” Kathy tries to give him Tylenol, but Brian begins to vomit. Meg holds him up. Kathy races to the phone to call the doctor in New York. “I can’t feel my body,” he says to Meg. And then he collapses. A doctor at Beth Israel asks Kathy if there’s a neurosurgeon on duty at St. Anthony’s in Warwick. She checks. No. Then come right down to New York. She calls next door. Dave Lawrence is there. Help. He rushes over, helps dress Brian in sweats. Kathy asks him to drive them to New York in the Ahearn’s Lumina. She calls out to Shannon and Meg to call dad at work and tell him to come down to Beth Israel North. Kathy is in the back holding Brian in her lap. He’s unconscious. Dave rips down Route 17A to Old Route 17 through Tuxedo. As he enters Sloatsburg, he goes even faster. Sloatsburg is a well-known speed trap. He hopes the cops will stop him, get Brian to the hospital. He passed a parked cop car, going 65 in a 30. Nothing. Kathy is cradling Brian. As they hit the Thruway, Brian begins to gurgle, his lungs filling with fluid. “Dave, Dave, he’s not going to make it”. She doesn’t know where these next words are coming from because if she’s heard of the place, she has no idea where it is. But she cries out, “Good Samaritan.” Dave hears her. Yes, yes, Good Samaritan. In five minutes, they are at the Suffern hospital. Shannon reaches her father at work. He speeds for Manhattan.

At Good Sam, doctors and nurses descend on Brian, inserting tubes, trying to stop him from dying. They do a quick CAT scan. His brain is hemorrhaging. Dave Lawrence calls his wife, Roe, who gets hold of Jeff in his car. Go to Good Samaritan in Suffern. Jeff gets to the hospital to see the son he just talked to two hours before now unconscious. They hear the rumble of a helicopter. Jeff will go with Brian to Beth Israel North in Manhattan. Kathy is waiting outside the room where they are trying to keep her son from dying. A woman comes up to Jeff and Kathy. The woman has on a white hospital staff coat. A look of revelation lights an ebony face. Kathy looks into her eyes. The woman seems awestruck by what she is about to say. Kathy hears the woman’s words clear as a bell: “I have been impelled by the Holy Spirit to tell you everything is going to be alright.” At once, Kathy is calm. Yes, everything will be alright with Brian. She knows it deep in her soul. There will be a miracle, she says, as a soaring helicopter whisks her boy away.

The Miracle | Part 2 - Waiting for the Miracle to Happen

The parents prayed in the waiting room while the doctors opened their son’s skull. An operating room nurse who said she’d sneak out with news did not come out. The day fell to hospital twilight. Jeff and Kathy were too frightened to say much. Brian’s older sisters Shannon and Megan joined the silent huddle. Seven hours after the operation began, a haggard surgeon came out and said he’d done all he could. Fred Epstein said he’d gotten the bleeding to stop, removed most of the tumor. They’d done a biopsy. We’ll see, he said, trying to sound hopeful.

The next 48 hours are critical. Anything can happen. Don’t be surprised if Brian sleeps for the next day or two. Jeff and Kathy saw their child falling through darkness. They set up vigil beside Brian’s bed in intensive care. After midnight, one or the other would catch fits of sleep in the waiting room.

Day Two passed to Day Three. Day Four. Darkness and light passed for a fifth day. They whispered to him and, through the tangle of needles and tubes, they kissed his lips. Brian would not wake. They prayed for the certain miracle to come soon. Day Six, his temperature soared and plunged wildly. The boy held life by a thread. He was taken for another operation to insert a monitor measuring brain pressure.

Back in Warwick, neighbor Roe Lawrence asked Father Desmond O’Connor to lead a small prayer service for Brian. They’d hold it in a conference room. By the time word got around Warwick, the main sanctuary had to be opened. Shannon and Megan went. Megan had run a cross-country race that day, haggard and unprepared, but something happened. She ran her best time ever, finishing first for Warwick. Brian’s friends were there. Mike Lawrence, Lauren Buturla, Allison Cleary and Gerard Friedler. Coaches, neighbors, teachers. As Jeff and Kathy sat vigil with their son, a packed church in Warwick huddled in prayer.

The next day, Oct. 29, Kathy and Jeff walked into an office full of doctors and nurses and social workers. The professionals bent their heads, eyes to the ground, as Dr. Epstein met the eyes of the parents. The biopsy results were in. Brian’s tumor is malignant and very aggressive. In this kind of cancer, we’re sorry, there are no known survivors. The parents stopped the doctors. They didn’t want to hear about timetables for death. A monster had invaded their boy and the monster must be driven out. The doctors said they’d do everything they could. Everything. But they couldn’t do anything if Brian stayed in a coma.

The next day, surgeons put a tube in Brian’s throat and set up feeding tubes for his stomach. He showed no signs of waking. Two neurologists checked Brian and then came to see Jeff and Kathy. They spoke to the parents about “quality of life.” Questions might arise about life support. They just wanted the parents to begin thinking …

No, his parents said. You don’t know Brian. You don’t know miracles.

Ten days had passed. They stayed in the room waiting for their boy to wake. Kathy had hardly eaten and the doctors urged her to take some food. Jeff and Kathy walked arm in arm out into the bustle of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This was nearly their first time outside in weeks and their legs were unsteady. They stumbled into a small dark Italian restaurant.

The two of them had met back in 1978 in a New Haven music club. She loved his passion for baseball, his deep goodness, his plans. Jeff worked for Union Carbide and he had it all figured out where and when life would happen. He loved her dreaminess, a free spirit with both feet on the ground. Then they had a family and he gladly gave up the Fortune 500 rat race for a good stable job in Ellenville and time for the kids. Little League coach, the whole deal. She gave her love to all her children; she gave her free spirit to Brian.

Hunched over in the Italian restaurant, the mother of a dying boy put her face in her hands. She picked up her head and her eyes searched upward. “Jeff, look.” Hung from a wall directly above them was a statue of an angel. Yes, at last, a sign of the coming miracle. Kathy and Jeff broke bread.

A week later, their boy awoke.

Brian was able to follow commands by looking up and down with his eyes. He could not move anything else. He could not speak.
Ten days later, his two close school buddies came to visit. Gerard and Mike DeGroat were both 13 years old. Walking to the room, they were scared stiff. Brian couldn’t talk, his mother said to them, couldn’t move. What would he look like, what would they say? They walked in. They saw their ball-playing buddy motionless, a drooping face surrounded by tubes. OK, OK. Gerard began talking a blue streak to Brian. How school was going, who was going out with who, should I sign you up for the diving team, Bri? Brian looked at them and his eyes sparkled. As Gerard and Mike gabbed cheerfully, Kathy saw tears run down their cheeks. Once they wept, they no longer seemed afraid. Brian communicated with them through eye movement. Up for yes, down for no. Yes, sign me up for the diving team. He’ll be fine, they all decided. His parents were certain. The boys were certain and they could hardly wait to visit him again.

The next day, Brian moved his right fingers and toes ever so slightly. A few days later, his mother set up communication by reciting the alphabet. Brian would squeeze her hand at the correct letter. First thing he spelled was pizza. He hadn’t had anything to eat in a month. Sorry, said his mother, can’t eat yet. His right side continued to improve. He was transferred downtown to Beth Israel Medical Center for radiation treatments. Thanksgiving arrived. Jeff and Kathy and the girls gathered at Brian’s bedside for celebration. He could not walk or talk or eat or speak. That morning, he was able for the first time to raise his hand in a small wave.
Brian and the family had never given so much thanks.

A couple of days later, Warwick track coaches St. Lawrence and Paffenroth came to visit. Brian burned with joy. He opened his mouth and out came the sound of “hi.” On Dec. 18, he was able to eat his first solid food. McDonald’s french fries.

Christmas Eve, the Warwick Volunteer Ambulance went to Manhattan and brought Brian home. Friends and neighbors greeted him. Aunts, uncles, cousins celebrated Christmas with him. Gerard came over and Allison bought over socks and a can of silly string. Warwick volunteers brought him back and forth to Manhattan for radiation. New Year’s Eve, in the hospital, Brian and Jeff stayed up until midnight waiting for a better year. On Jan. 9, Brian had his last radiation treatment. The nurses had a big surprise going away party for him. The doctors who had seen Brian after surgery stopped by to see him.They were shocked at his progress. Incredible, they said. And if he didn’t walk yet, thought Kathy, so be it. Whatever they had to go through, they would. Make it all the more impressive when “20/20″ would one day arrive to cover the miracle recovery.

Their story would show how sick he was, how the doctors said he would certainly die. Then the cameras would pan to a fully recovered Brian romping through an open meadow, running and jumping with a boy’s glee. And we will all bear witness to the miracle.

The Miracle | Part 3 - The Nature of Miracles

“When I want you, in my arms,
When I want you, with all your charms,
Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream.”

Brian Ahearn sang in the living room of his Warwick home. His speech therapist at Helen Hayes Rehab in Rockland County gave him the song for a vocal exercise and even if Brian’s diction was slurry, the melody came from a boy who was nearly dead only a few months before. He had no feeling on the right side of his face and the left side of his body. His head tilted to one side. His right eyeball peered upward and his left ear was nearly deaf. Brian was happy. He went to Helen Hayes every day, singing, moving, pushing himself. He could work hard at something again. In this February of ’98, the Ahearn home hummed. Kathy said to Jeff, “everyone is really appreciating each other now.” Brian’s sisters grew close to him, not out of pity, but from a wellspring of affection and admiration. Every night, they each wrote in a shared journal what they were thankful for. Unstuck from the moorings of normalcy, their gratitude flowed. Even Brian scribbled “feeling better” in jagged penstrokes. The family sang together for the first time since their summer drive to the Jersey shore. They made a giddy chorus with Brian’s other vocal exercise, the nonsense chant at the start of the Blue Swede version of “Hooked On a Feeling.” Ooga-chaga, ooga ooga, ooga-chaga. They wheeled Brian to movies and malls, restaurants and church. His cousin took him to a UConn basketball game. Friends visited. Nothing can keep us down, said Jeff and Kathy. A miracle is upon us.

Warwick schools sent Brian a home tutor. He stayed on top of his work even though he was exhausted. His class sent get-well videos. Visiting every single day was his ballplaying buddy Gerard Friedler. The boy had been so frightened the first time he saw Brian in the hospital but now he simply saw a friend who was sick. You don’t bail out on a pal. On the eve of Feb. 26, the family wrote their gratitudes. The next day, Brian went for an MRI in Manhattan. Here would be first proof that the radiation was working. Jeff and Kathy waited for the good news.

The doctors said they were sorry, but the tumor was growing. Radiation had failed. It might be time to start experimental chemotherapy. Crestfallen, Jeff and Kathy faced their son. “Bri, it’s not exactly having the effect we hoped. The doctors are going to try something else.” Brian didn’t blink. Sure, he said, let’s do it. He made his face show no worry. Sorry, the boy said to his parents, sorry to put you through all this. What was our son becoming, Jeff and Kathy wondered? He had been an uncomplicated action-packed kid. In crushing physical illness, he had blossomed into a loving expansive young man. His parents prayed and prayed for the tumor to disappear. They knew miracles do not always reveal themselves so readily. Patience. The next day, Saturday, as Kathy was cleaning house, a terrible thought struck her brain. “What if there is no God? No miracles?” She was frightened. The phone rang. It was her friend Donna, another mother from Warwick with a very sick child. She called to say there was a healing service going on in a convent in Monroe.

Kathy and Jeff, Brian and Gerard drove to the service. And they all believed again. Donna had called at the moment of doubt. A sign, said Kathy, that everything was possible. You only had to pray hard enough for a miracle.

In late March, the family drove upstate, near where Shannon was thinking of going to college. They stopped at a Subway sandwich shop. Shannon and Megan told Brian, forget the wheelchair. You’re walking in. He nodded. With his sisters holding him up, Brian slowly shuffled in without the wheelchair. He collapsed in a booth, proud and exhausted. His parents had never asked the doctors if Brian would walk again. They knew he would. For goodness sake, he had shot up nearly three inches since his diagnosis, a phenomenal growth spurt. Walk, why Brian would gallop across fields with the stubborn strength of a long-distance runner. When they got to Niagara Falls, they wheeled him to the gated edge of the falls. The boy heard the great roar of water and beheld the mighty flow. He was happy.

He still had plenty of friends. Classmates would drop over. Allison Cleary wrote every day. Gerard visited every day. He told Brian what had gone on in school that day. He read to Brian a book of true stories about baseball players who hurdled hard times. One day in spring, Brian visited his school. He wanted so badly to get into life again. He wore a Hawaiian shirt to look cheerful. “Hi, Brian,” they said. And then his classmates fell silent. The boy they knew as the athlete and the heartthrob, sat before them slumped, one eye pointed upwards. They searched for words and came up empty. As Gerard wheeled him out, Brian said, “Wow, you could hear a pin drop.” Gerard told him how well it went. How happy everyone was to see him doing so great.

Three weeks later, an MRI showed the chemo was not working. The tumor had grown and a cyst had appeared on the tumor. He would need another operation. ‘ Sure, said Brian, just as long as it doesn’t set back the rehab. On April 20, they opened his brain again for a six-hour surgery. For the next three days, he faded in and out of consciousness. The doctors couldn’t explain it. Jeff and Kathy asked, what can we do? The doctors told them to pray. When Brian awoke, a get-well card was waiting for him, signed by the members of the New York Yankees.

Brian left the hospital weakened. He practically had to start rehab all over again. He grit his teeth and he began. Three weeks later, he threw up again and again. Back to the doctor. Pressure building in the brain. Need to put in a permanent shunt. Another surgery. The tests, the tedium, the wait, the one step forward and two steps back could break a family. Kathy had quit her job as dental hygienist, but Jeff still had to work. They were incredibly understanding at Shrade, but Jeff felt he needed to be there. Warwick neighbors, friends, family, coaches, strangers had all been wonderful. They drove back them back and forth, brought food over to the house, prayed with them, kept their spirits up. But how much could the Ahearns expect? And how much more could Brian go through without breaking? I’m fine, he said. Later, he told a nurse he didn’t want to worry his family. He understood how hard it must be for them. He told a social worker he was worried if his parents and sisters would be all right if he died. Right before they wheeled him in for another operation, a weary Brian lay on his bed dozing.

The phone rang. Kathy picked it up and said, “Bri, it’s for you, some guy named Paul O’Neill”. “Hello,” said Brian. His eyes grew wide. Half a minute later, he smiled and said, “Thank you.” And then “Good-bye.” Paul O’Neill, the sour-faced right fielder of the New York Yankees, had called to brighten a boy he did not know. He was one of Brian’s favorite players. He made Brian smile just before a doctor put a scalpel to his brain. But time was running out for the wonder cure.

Jeff and Kathy made the doctors promise they could take Brian to Massachusetts. They were bringing him to see Audrey Santo, a vessel for miracles. Audrey Santo was a 15-year-old girl who had been in a coma for 11 years. Some said Virgin Mary statues around her wept, communion wafers oozed blood, empty chalices filled up with sweet-scented oil. And sick people who pilgrimaged to her presence claimed to be made well again. While the archdiocese did not officially acknowledge her miracles, some priests flocked in support, celebrating mass to larger and larger crowds. The Ahearns had heard about Audrey Santo at the healing service in Monroe. What harm could be done, figured Jeff and Kathy. Brian was their child, their blood, their love. Their faith in God’s miracle remained unshaken. The day before they were to go, Brian choked on Jell-O. He was back in intensive care for a week. Unable to eat solid food, he was finally sent home in an ambulance. Two days later, a tired Brian began experimental chemo in Manhattan. He went back to Helen Hayes for rehab, but only for two hours a day. The harder it became to make progress, the harder he worked. Allison came by most every day. Lauren would call or come by. And every day, Gerard visited.

On June 9, Brian went to Helen Hayes for a special program. His mother and father were there. So were Shannon and Megan. The Commissioner’s Cup, honoring courage and hard work, was to be given out. A physical therapist went to the microphone and began speaking about a special young man. The therapist choked up. She had read the medical reports and she knew what was coming. Brian’s family stood behind him smiling. They believed in miracles and they knew Brian would be fine some day soon. When the Rockland County commissioner presented him with the cup, Brian slurred, “Thank you.” Jeff made a small speech about how thankful they all were to Helen Hayes. For one day, Brian will be playing ball again.

That Friday evening, the Ahearn household hummed with expectancy. Brian was getting ready to go to his 8th grade formal dance. He looked great, all combed and fresh in his shirt and tie. His dashing good looks re-appeared. He wanted Megan to escort him in the wheelchair. Boy, thought his parents. They used to tease each other, the boy calling his older sister spacey. Now he leaned upon her as the Rock of Gibraltar. And she drew strength from him. Megan wheeled him in. The girls wanted pictures taken with Brian. His pals propped him up so he could stand for the camera. Gerard worked as his interpreter. The hearing on Brian’s good ear was starting to go. The music bounced wildly around him. He saw swirls of friends dancing, full of life. Brian soaked it all in. And then he said to Megan, “It’s time to go.” They drove him home and he pushed himself to stay up for Shannon’s surprise 18th birthday party.

The next day, Brian was so sluggish, he didn’t even do his exercises. He developed a slight fever and Dr. Nicholas Pennings came over to check him. The Ahearns drove Brian to Kathy’s sister’s house in Connecticut so they wouldn’t have to drive all day Monday to see the miracle girl, Audrey Santo. The comatose child lay in a room of a modest ranch house in Worcester, Mass. The lame and the halt gathered in a garage turned chapel. A few at a time, they were allowed inside to see her through a window. Brian was in the last group. They allowed him to go in her bedroom. The boy in the wheelchair sat before the comatose girl and they shared a great silence. The Ahearns began the long drive back. A half hour later, Jeff stopped at the Sturbridge exit for gas. That’s when Brian said, “Mom, I feel something in my hand.” Kathy’s heart leaped. His hand had been numb since the first operation in October. Thank the Lord, the miracle was here. And then she looked again. Brian was talking about his good hand. An hour later, he lost consciousness.

He ended up at UMass Medical Center hooked to a respirator. Jeff looked at Brian. He saw his son was so tired. Everything Jeff remembered reading the first night on the Internet was coming true. This was how the disease progressed. He couldn’t deny it any longer. The father prayed for his son to know peace. He stopped believing in the miracle.

Jeff didn’t say a word to Kathy as she still waited for the certain miracle.

On June 26, Brian was airlifted back to Beth Israel North, unconscious. Meg and Shannon spent time alone with Brian. Gerard and Allison came, too. Jeff and Kathy told each of them that Brian wasn’t doing well. The doctors said there is nothing else we can do. It didn’t seem Brian could breathe on his own. Kathy was certain he could. They gathered round as the respirator came off. Brian kept breathing. Kathy took it as a sign from God the miracle was coming. Brian simply needed to come home to Warwick.

Four days later, doctors and nurses, social workers and a chaplain came together in Brian’s hospital room for a prayer service. Jeff and Kathy once looked upon doctors and clergy as demigods working magic. Now they saw these men and women were as mortal and small and brave as the rest of us. Valiantly using their skills against the monster that had taken hold of their boy. The doctors said good-bye. Jeff and Kathy arrived home with Brian. They set him up in a hospital bed in the den where he could get plenty of sun. Day after day, he lay there in a coma. Allison would come over, reading her letters aloud. Gerard showed up every day, full of gab. He’d tell Brian about the Yankees spectacular summer and Paul O’Neil’s progress. Brian, you’ll be hitting home runs, soon.

On July 27, Brian Ahearn turned 14. The rest of the family went to church where a mass was said for Brian. When they came back, they saw the hospice nurse had decorated Brian’s bedside with balloons and streamers. Jeff and Kathy, Shannon and Megan, the Lawrences and Gerard, too, gathered around and sang “Happy Birthday” to the boy in a coma. The next day when Gerard came over, a special gift he had ordered arrived. It was a blanket with a prayer inscribed on its length. He put it on his friend. Gerard beamed. From time to time, Brian’s breathing became labored. His heart raced. His temperature skyrocketed to 108 and dived to 92. Kathy saw this as a sign. God was coming in and attacking the tumor. Smashing it with His mighty power. At first, these fits came every week or so. Father Desmond O’Connor who witnessed the gasping and prayed for his coming reunification with God. Then the gasps arrived every day — Brian reaching for breath, his nostrils flaring, body burning, hands fisted, arms turning in like a seizure. Kathy wilted. Dr. Pennings, the local doctor who had first diagnosed Brian’s tumor, stopped over. You don’t ever have to give up hope, he told Kathy.

On Aug. 23, Gerard arrived as usual and spoke to his friend in a coma. Talked about the Yanks, how Brian would soon be running again. See ya’ tomorrow, Brian. Kathy looked at Brian and she knew something was wrong. Nothing that a doctor or a test could pick up. Her son was so still. He seemed trapped in his body. She felt so sad for him. It came upon her and she knew. His spirit needed to fly. He needed to know he didn’t have to wait for their miracle.

Just then, Jeff walked in after driving upstate to take Shannon to her first day at college. It was twilight. They gathered around their son as they had at his birth. “Brian, they whispered, whenever you’re ready. It’s OK, honey. You’re tired. Mommy and Daddy will be all right. Shannon and Megan will be all right. We’re all right, Brian. Don’t worry.” Two tears ran down the boy’s cheek. He took one last breath and then he was gone.

Brian was buried on a day shimmering with waving branches in late summer light. The golden light and blue sky felt like the August day one year earlier when his mother splashed with him in the ocean, when Brian and his father camped under the lazy arc of baseballs in a long seaside catch. Hundreds gathered at the St. Stephen’s church. Warwick friends and coaches, bewildered startled children with their parents. The father eulogized his son in grief and wonder. Gerard walked on shaky legs to deliver the Commissioner’s Cup to the altar. Climbing the stairs, he tripped. He smiled. Brian would love that.

For the Ahearns, these months have been a time of grief and deadness and awakening. Spring is here and they see it now.

The miracle.
First one.
Then another and another. Like stars hidden by day that have become visible, Jeff and Kathy Ahearn now see the countless miracles that were happening all along.

The miracle of family.
A bond of blood and bones, of mannerisms and memories, a twining of hearts that never abandons its lost or lame.

The miracle of friendship.
Look at Gerard Friedler. A boy seemingly unprepared for anything more than a ballgame. He dug in for the long haul and came up with a brotherhood so deep and devoted, it was surely touched by the divine. How else can it be explained?

The miracle of community.
Our campfire circle of warmth in the long cold night. The Lawrences and Kim Frawley, who put their family life aside to help. Volunteers gave up their holiday to take a boy back and forth to a hospital. They had nothing to gain. What is it about us?

The miracle of the stranger, the unknown messengers, the good-hearted passerby. The woman in Good Samaritan who promised a miracle may have received a moment of revelation or simply offered an act of kindness. It was a gift to parents grasping for hope.

The miracle of faith which gave the Ahearns hope, without which they couldn’t have lasted one day into Brian’s illness. A faith that now emerges in a God who is not a magician defying natural laws, but One who infuses each of us with courage and compassion.

The miracle of memory.
They give thanks for a place where death holds no sway. Where Brian is still running, still splashing in the ocean, the ball about to land in his outstretched hand. The Ahearns take the memory and rise from “we really should do this” to really doing it. Helping friends, the grieved, the lonesome.

Along with Warwick friends, they’ve launched a foundation in Brian’s name to help Hudson Valley families with sick children.

That’s because they see the miracle of connection. That we are part of one another – laughing, loving, losing each other in the endless universe of fire and ice and darkness and finding each other again, a union of souls and stardust. The wonder is not that we die, but that we ever were. Still, sometimes they miss him so bad, they feel empty inside. But then they behold the great miracle of their child, Brian Ahearn. A boy created from love and mystery, whose illness unmasked a holiness some of us bury inside a long lifetime. A boy who held on until his loved ones could finally let him go. And now they see.

Miracles are not to be asked for. They are to be witnessed, discovered and praised for they are happening all the time. The Ahearns do not tell us their story to tug us with their grief. They tell us to rise in joy, to open our eyes and embrace the miracle.


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Mike Levine, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 54, was the Executive Editor of the Middletown (NY) Times-Herald Record. This 3-part series was originally published in The Record in April 1999, several months after Brian died.