On the sudden illness of our son-in-law Craig
A Tuesday night in August 2012
It was 10:20 at night when the phone rang. Jeanie and I had arrived at a condo in the North Carolina mountains five hours before. She was asleep; I was absorbed in reading.
I was surprised to hear the concerned voice of our grandson, Graham.
“Gagi,” he said, using his special name for me, “Dad has had a stroke. He’s at Carolinas Medical Center.”
Craig? Our son-in-law doctor? My heart lurched. How could he have a stroke at 55? We had been concerned about the stress of his schedule, especially the night calls as an ob/gyn physician, but he was in good health.
What to do? I didn’t want to awaken Jeanie, but I also didn’t want Graham to be in the hospital, dealing with this alone. His mother and sister were in California on a brief vacation, he had said, and now frantically trying to get an overnight flight to Charlotte.
I went to the condo next door where our son, Kevin, was staying. He was fast asleep and jerked awake when I touched him. We decided I would pack up and head to Charlotte. He would tell his mother first thing in the morning and drive her back to Charlotte.
So many times by day I have driven the lovely, curving mountain road. At midnight it was darkness around and near darkness within. My eyes were on the road while my heart was lifted in prayer, not knowing what I would find when I got to that emergency room.
If “déjà vu” means to see something again, then perhaps “déjà ecoute” means to hear something again. For me it was the sound of another late night ringing. And another long ride.
A Wednesday night in November 1981
Jeanie and I were lying in bed reading. The phone rang. It was an unfamiliar voice.
“This is Dr. Brazeal calling from Carolinas Medical Center in Chapel Hill. You have a son, Sandy?”
“Yes, what’s happening?”
She quickly told me that our 21-year old son was in the emergency room with a rapid heartbeat. It was under control but they needed to keep him there for observation.
Jeanie and I had looked at each in disbelief. Seven years before, Sandy experienced a heart arrhythmia due to an abnormal electrical circuit in his heart. A relatively new surgery at Duke Medical Center had seemed to solve the problem. But now once again when he was out running (he had been an excellent long distance runner) his heart took off at a life-threatening rate.
The next day we made the long drive to Chapel Hill where Sandy was a third-year student at the University of North Carolina. Over the next week it became clear that he needed a repeat surgery to block an electrical pathway in his heart. The doctors said their techniques had improved and they were very hopeful that his condition would be remedied.
So, early on the day after Thanksgiving we went to his room at Duke Medical Center, I walked with him to the door of the operating room, gave him a hug, and said, “See you later, pal.”
We knew it would be an extensive surgery, but as we waited, the time moved more and
more slowly. After twelve interminably long hours the doctors came to the room where Jeanie, Debbie, our daughter, and I were waiting. They walked in wearily with somber faces.
“We fixed an abnormal pathway in his heart,” said the surgeon, “but we couldn’t get him off the table.” His heart wouldn’t start.
Numbness – Disbelief – Awareness
Suddenly our world had changed. We had known the surgery might not locate the faulty circuit, but we had not imagined he wouldn’t survive.
He was gone. Full of life, of love, of vision, our son was gone. A leader in the cause of Christ at the university. An honor student. In love. And, at twenty-one…gone.
We made the three hour drive back to Charlotte, the numbness having taken over. I looked at Jeanie. Her face was white and drawn. Finally she said, “Well, either there is a God. And he is good. Or there is no God. It’s as stark a choice as that.”
Crying Through To the Gain
At Sandy’s memorial service, Craig, who had married our Debbie only six months before, somehow found the strength to sing: “Christ for me is to live, to die is to gain,” Then he dissolved into tears.
The loss was especially deep as we looked for a place to bury him. What parent expects to do this for a child? To love deeply is to grieve deeply and we did just that in the months that followed.
Very slowly the “gain” to us began to emerge. Letters by the hundreds from friends Sandy had touched, now touched us, far more than we had known.
When someone said, “His life was too short,” I began to ask myself, How long is long enough? If not twenty-one, then forty-one? Sixty-one? There’s no answer to that. The real question is not how long, but how full a life is. And Sandy’s life was full to overflowing.
So – What’s Next?
Months later, after leaving home, reluctantly, to fly to Australia for a speaking tour, I seemed to sense a voice saying: Perhaps the next step in your ministry is to help the emerging generation of leaders to run their race for Christ.
So we began to move in that direction. We founded the Sandy Ford Fund through which hundreds and hundreds of young leaders have received scholarships to prepare for ministry. I wrote the book Sandy: A Heart for God, telling his story. It has been a best-selling book that continues to help both young people and their parents.
I had been with the Billy Graham organization for years. Eventually, with a new vision, I left Billy’s organization to found Leighton Ford Ministries. Through it, we seek to help young leaders around the world to lead like Jesus, for Jesus and to Jesus. The Arrow Leadership Program which we began (later led by one of the men I mentored) has had an international impact on emerging leaders. And to this day I continue to mentor men and women involved in ministry leadership as a friend on their journeys.
I often think of the words of our Lord: “…unless a seed of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it stays alone. But if it dies, it multiplies.”
The loss we feel for Sandy is still great. We would love to have him back again. But we have also discovered that it is often through painful love and loss that God’s work grows.
That first late night call, thirty one years ago, was very much in my mind as I drove by myself to Charlotte.
It was nearly one a.m. when I walked into Craig’s room in intensive care. It was full of people. Graham was there, of course, as well as several friends, a nurse, a doctor. Craig was sipping water and listening to the doctor explaining that he was not having a classical stroke, but the symptoms were similar. That included several seizures. An MRI was scheduled the next hour to pinpoint the problem.
After the others left, I sat next to Craig. Holding his hand, I reminded him of the time when he had come to my bedside ten years before. I’d had a heart attack, and he had stayed with me then.
He told me what had happened that landed him in the hospital. Playing tennis with Graham om a hot afternoon he realized that he couldn’t pick up the balls. His left arm began to twitch out of control. Alarmed, they called 911 and medics rushed him to emergency.
Despite what the doctor had said, Craig was still very anxious. His greatest worry was that he might have to have brain surgery, and that there might be a tumor. We talked about Sandy, and all the trauma our family had faced, including Debbie’s two episodes of breast cancer.
When they took him for his MRI, I left with a hug and a prayer, and wearily went home. I knew that Debbie and Christine, her daughter, had the last two seats on a red-eye flight from Seattle; and our grandson, Ben, was coming the next morning from his summer job in Minnesota.
In all our minds, though, was the question: How serious was this event? If not life-threatening, how will it affect Craig’s life…his practice?
The News: Good and Not So Good
The next day we were told that there was no tumor, and no life-threatening problem. The seizures came from an abnormal blood vessel in his brain that may have been there for years and which began to bleed under some kind of stress. Surgery to remove the small vessel was possible, but not desirable. The bleeding could be controlled by meds, and over time the seizures should go away.
All that was positive. But then Craig began to realize the restrictions that lie ahead. He is in a waiting time, with no driving or surgery for a while, as he recovers.
Craig is a wonderful husband, father, son-in-law and physician. He is known as the doctor who prays with the parents when a baby is born. In fact, earlier that afternoon of his attack, one of his patients, a young mother with brain cancer, had asked him to come be with her. Although it was his day off, he went. He talked to her about the Lord, and led her to Christ in prayer. He truly is as he often says, “a minister in disguise.”
So now he has been waiting, taking slow walks, enjoying time with Debbie, and wondering what is ahead. Is there a different plan for him?
Jeanie and I were asking those same questions. I called a close and long time friend in Canada whose son also is a doctor. I told him what had happened. He listened sympathetically, stunned by the news, and said he would keep Craig and us in his prayers. Then he reminded me of something very important.
“Do you remember what you wrote to me years ago from Australia?”
No, I didn’t remember. “What was that?” I asked.
“It was soon after Sandy died,” he said. “I was supposed to go with you to the meetings in Australia but I couldn’t make it. I still have the card you sent. You wrote,
‘I sense that God is using me in a very special way, and
that he is using Sandy’s death to touch people’s hearts.’
“You see,” he continued, “it’s one thing to speak to people’s heads. It’s more important to speak to their hearts. And even more basic to speak to them out of our lives.” Then he reminded me of how God used Sandy’s death, and how he will use Craig in ways we cannot yet see.
Craig will soon be back to driving, and is seeing patients again. But what is very clear he will still be able to llive what he sang at Sandy’s memorial service: “For me to live is Christ …” and out of his life, God will speak in ways we have yet to see. For Jesus’ words are true:
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains
just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
A View from the Sky
Two years ago, right at sunset, Jeanie and I were flying from Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida, to Charlotte. From the left side of the plane, over the gulf we could see the sun, a great blazing ball suspended just above the water. It paused briefly in its radiance, and then in a few seconds, sank below the horizon.
At that moment the light spread widely across the sky, in a glorious mix of the most radiant colors, seeming to light up the coast and fill the evening sky.
“Look,” I said to Jeanie. “That makes me think of Sandy. He was like a bright shining sun focused right where he was, glowing in the moment, reflecting the glory of his Lord. Then, and now, his life still shines more widely, more deeply than ever, in the lives he touched.”
So we recall Sandy, and we wait with Craig, to see how the light of Christ will shine in ways we have yet to see.