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.
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.