Friday, April 23, 2010
Dinner with Natasha
So...you might be asking yourself, "Who is Natasha?" Anybody who has known me for any length of time has heard me tell "Natasha's Story". It was the first true miracle I was ever a part of - and a tale worth telling again and again....
So now you get to hear it, too!!
According to the certificate that hangs on my office wall, I was Ordained to the Sacred Priesthood on “the 30th day of May, being the Feast of St. Joan of Arc, Virgin, and the Vigil of Pentecost, in the Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety eight”.
I always figured that, between the “flames of Martyrdom of St. Joan of Arc”, and the “tongues of fire” of the First Pentecost, I was destined to “burn out for Jesus”.
Twelve years later, that fire still burns just as brightly in my heart.
The day after my Ordination, of course, was Whitsunday (Pentecost). I was blessed by the opportunity to be the Deacon of the Mass for our Bishop’s visitation and celebration of Solemn High Mass. My own First Mass as a Priest would not come until the following Tuesday in Whitsun Week. But that first Mass after my Ordination was very special indeed. The Christian fellowship afterwards was warm and wonderful, and both the nave and undercroft at St. Mary of the Angels were packed with worshippers who came from all over the Diocese to offer congratulations and to greet our Bishop.
After Mass, I drove home to my home in Santa Clarita. Needless to say, I was pretty whipped after all of the excitement of the last two days. I was still glowing, but I was exhausted.
I walked in the door and called my future wife, Amy Suzzanne, who had just returned to her home in Pasadena from a local horse show she had been to. I could tell from her voice that there was something wrong.
I asked her what was going on.
She informed me that there had been "a horrific accident at the horse show". That a young thirteen-year-old girl had her horse rear-up in the parking lot of the show-grounds – and she had hit her head, knocked unconscious, and needed to be taken by ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.
“It was just awful,” she told me, adding: “It does not look good.”
I then heard that “still small voice” that I have since learned not to ignore.
“Well, My New Priest – it’s time to go to work.”
I asked Amy what the girl’s name was. She said that she didn’t know the girl all that well, but she knew who her trainer was and what horse “barn” she rode out of.
Amy called me back with Natasha's trainer David's cell-phone number – and I called him immediately. I got him on the first try, and introduced myself. I knew that he was a Jewish fellow, but he seemed genuinely glad that I had called to offer my prayers and support. It was obvious to me that he was still quite in shock himself, as he told me the girl’s name, he was near tears. His voice quivered:
“Her name is Natasha. She’s been taken to Children’s Hospital.”
And, echoing my fiancé Amy’s comment: “It doesn’t look good”.
I said my Evening Prayer Office….and I especially remembered “Natasha” and all who care for her in my bedtime prayers, and got in between the sheets for some much-needed sleep.
The next morning, on Monday, I found my handwritten scribbles on a scrap piece of paper from the night before. “Natasha – Children’s Hospital - Intensive Care".
I poured a big morning cup of coffee and called the hospital. Of all of the hospitals I had visited as a parish Deacon, “Children’s” (although it’s just a stones-throw from St. Mary of the Angels in Hollywood) was not one of them. The switchboard sent me up to the intensive care ward and they told me that Natasha was still there, and I asked them for the address.
I said some silent prayers as I put on my cassock and collar. It felt very much like putting on football pads and a helmet for the Big Game. Little did I know how much of a Big Game I was going into!! I got in the car, and prayed all the way from Santa Clarita to Children’s Hospital.
I arrived, parked my car in a "Clergy Only" spot (something I had done many times as a parish Deacon) and went up the elevator to the floor where they had Natasha. In the lobby of the intensive care facility, I saw a group of people, standing in a tight circle. Were they praying? Should I interrupt? There was an older couple standing there, another, younger couple, a few teenaged girls that I recognized from the horse shows. Some had definite signs of recent tears marking their young faces.
A man walked out of the circle to greet me.
I introduced myself. It sounded strange to my newly-Ordained ears:
“Hi. I’m Father Kingsbury, Amy Brubaker is my fiancé …I heard about Natasha…and I’ve come to pray and to anoint her with Holy Unction.”
“Thank you for coming, Father. I’m Vance. I’m Natasha’s dad.”
We shook hands. At that moment, I had no idea how much this man and his daughter would come to be such a big part of my life.
I met the rest of the people in “the circle”. The older couple turned out to be Natasha’s grandparents. I met Wendy, Natasha’s mom…and the few of her barn-friends as well.
Vance took me in to see Natasha for the first time.
As I write this, I find it difficult to fight back my own tears as the memory comes flooding back.
There she was. Poor Natasha. She’s lying there, slightly propped-up in a typical intensive care hospital bed. My God, she’s so tiny! The standard IV-drip bottles stood at her bedside…and various medical monitors did their “beeping and booping”. Natasha’s poor little head was all wrapped up, mummy-style, tightly sheathed in gauze and other white wrappings. There were all kinds of wires coming out from the inside of the bandages, too. I could trace the individual wires and could see that they also were hooked-up to another kind of monitor…I guessed that it was some sort of an EEG machine. I could not bring myself to look at the green, glowing lines that appeared on the screen…not that I could interpret anything that I saw…I just had to trust that God was in control of the situation.
We stood there for a minute. Vance told me that when Natasha’s horse (who's name was "Tucker") reared-up and his metal-shoes slipped on the asphalt and came over on top of her, she had hit her head on one of those telephone poles that are laid lengthwise on the ground used in parking lots as tire-stops. The tie had caught her right below and behind her ear….knocking her unconscious. There was much swelling of the brain and the prognosis was “still too early to tell”. Vance was strong in his faith.
He and his wife Wendy (and Natasha, too...) were members of a large, local Presbyterian Church. As a father, he was being as strong as he could, but – I could tell that it had been a long night of waiting and praying.
He asked if I wanted to be left alone with Natasha. To this day I do not remember answering Vance's question. But all-of-a-sudden I found myself alone in the complete stillness of the hospital room with this young, severely injured child, whom I did not know from any other horse-kid I knew – doing the that God commands us to do:
In his Epistle, Saint James says, "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven" (Jas. 5:14–15).
But… how? In seminary-training and as a Deacon, I had been trained to do this... and had been present at the anointing of literally dozens of people. And then it hit me: “How on earth do you anoint the forehead of someone whose head is wrapped up like a mummy?” One more thing to add to the list of questions to ask! I was a little scared, to be honest. I didn’t want to touch her poor head. The words Vance had told me were echoing in my head: “She’s got severe swelling of the brain”. What am I supposed to do? I’m brand new at this!! Do I need the doctor’s approval?
I did what I knew I should do: I said the proper Psalms from the Prayer Book Office of Unction of the Sick. Then I took the top off of my shiny new oil-stock with the Oil of the Sick inside of it – freshly poured over a fresh cotton-ball, just the way I was taught. I held my breath for a split second….
“Natasha, (I smeared a little of the Holy Oil on my right thumb, and ever-so-lightly traced the sign of the Cross on her gauze-covered forehead)…I anoint you with this Holy Oil, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; beseeching the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that all thy sickness and suffering of body and spirit being put to flight, the joy of thy health shall be restored unto thee, through the same Christ, our Lord.”
I grabbed her tiny little hands in mine…and gave them a squeeze. The same hands that my Bishop had anointed “for the work of a Priest in God’s Holy Catholic Church” just two days earlier. Feeling completely helpless, but at the same time knowing that God was now fully and Sacramentally working in the situation, I said a few more silent prayers and walked out of the room.
I chatted with the family about medical stuff and prognosis. Wendy was the strong one. Vance was the quiet, introspective type. Tohether they make quite a team. There were hugs all around. I left the hospital, shaken from the whole experience, and made the short drive over to St. Mary’s.
For the next week and a half, I went to Children’s Hospital virtually every day to sit in Natasha’s room and pray for her. I talked to her, too. I knew that somehow, on some level, she could hear me. I told her that “she had many people praying for her. That Amy Brubaker said to say “hi”. That everybody missed her at the horse shows”. Whatever I could think of, I said. I always took her hand, too… and held it and squeezed. I still reflect on the vision of her in that bed – she was such a small, dear little angel. Covered all in white. Her head was still wrapped-up tightly in bandages….the machines flickered and beeped along, keeping their noisy vigil even after I had walked out of the hospital and gone for the day. Several times I thought the unthinkable: “Would Natasha ever walk out these doors?” The thought of her not making it was too horrible of contemplate!
Most days I saw Vance and Wendy at the hospital, too. And Natasha’s grandparents were usually there as well. Most of the time, it was just Natasha’s dad and me. I got to know Vance quite well, sitting in the upstairs waiting area and talking about God, horses, his business, Wendy’s business, Natasha, of course (their only child), and his favorite pastime – a game sort of like Bocce called “Petanque”. Vance was a man of great faith…but – beneath it all, I knew that he was scared. We all were. A few weeks went by, and dear, sweet Natasha was still in what was being described to me as "a deep coma".
One Sunday, our Rector preached a sermon. I sat on the sedilla as the Deacon of the Mass, listening to every word. In the homily, Father said that “the Holy Eucharist (the Mass) is what the Church does. It is what she does when she celebrates, it’s what she does when she is in mourning; when she is joyous, or when she is in profound sadness…we are called to “DO THIS”…”
The still-small-voice returned again:
“Well, "Father" - "Mister Priest" – what are YOU gonna DO?”
Of course, I knew exactly what was meant by the question.
Unfortunately, I had not thought of this until that very moment! "What in the world was wrong with you?? How come you have not done a Healing Mass for Natasha??"
"Some Priest YOU turned out to be!!" (That was the enemy talking!)
The next day, I got to work. I made up some special flyers on purple paper: “Healing Mass for Natasha – Wednesday at 12:00 Noon – St. Mary of the Angels Anglican Church”. I put on the flyer the church address and my cell-phone number.
I printed up a few dozen of them and went out about town, putting the flyers up at all of the local horse-barns and spreading the word as best I could on such short-notice. I had hoped to take up a collection and give the money to the the family to help with Natasha’s medical costs.
“How many people would come? Hundreds? Thousands? Would the church be packed? Would we collect multiple thousands of dollars to help pay the bills?”
Wednesday Noon came. As usual, I arrived at St. Mary’s early…I had only been a Priest for a little less than a month or so…so I needed the extra time to properly mark the Altar Missal for the “Mass for Healing”, and to make sure there were plenty of people’s Hosts, wine and water in the cruets, and all of the other things I would need to make sure all went well.
In the Sacristy, I vested for the Mass in my amice, alb and cincture, and laid out for myself the old purple Low Mass vestments – the one with the big white Cross on the back of the chasuble. My mind wandered back to recall all of the holy men of God who had worn that same chasuble, stole and maniple…and all of the uncountable Mass intentions that had been remembered at the Altar of God here in this holy sanctuary.
Just before beginning the Mass, I silently read the calligraphy sign that had been given to me by my Bishop on the day of my Ordination (which we had framed and placed just outside of the Sanctuary hallway door):
“Priest of God,
Say this Mass
As if it was your First Mass…
as if it was your Last Mass…
as if it was your Only Mass.”
I rounded the doorway, rang the bell, glanced into the Nave…and I was clearly disappointed.
The “thousands of people” that I had envisioned in my mind’s-eye had not yet arrived. Sitting in the pews were Wendy, Vance….also both of Natasha’s grandparents, my fiancé Amy … and a few of Natasha’s horse-friends.
But, as I was taught in Sacramental Theology 101, Our Lord is Truly Present at the Eucharist whether there are two people… or two-thousand people!
I began praying the Mass. The Epistle Lesson was from St. James – the passage about Holy Unction and the anointing of the sick. The Gospel Lesson was from St. Matthew – the story of Jesus and the Roman Centurion….including the Centurion’s words: “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.”
The time came for the Offertory Prayers. I made one last glance at the nave, and made a quick count for the number of Hosts I would need for the Holy Communion. It didn’t take me very long….
“One, two, three…” There were seven, maybe eight, people in attendance. I forget.
I placed the Hosts on my still-shiny silver paten (which matches my Chalice given to me as an Ordination present – the one I still use at every Mass!) and made the first Offering prayer:
“Receive, Holy Father, Almighty and everlasting God, this spotless Host…which I, thine unworthy servant do offer unto Thee….”
Then….it happened. I still don’t know how to describe it…but I’ll tell you what I saw. It was a vision. As clear as a digital photograph. A virtual picture in my mind’s-eye. A “spiritual snap-shot”, if you will.
Now, you have to remember, that I had never seen Natasha anywhere but lying, completely still, in her hospital bed. The only times I had seen her – she was laying flat on her back, in a hospital-gown under the covers. Because of the thick head-bandages she had been wearing since I first saw her on that first Monday, I had no idea what color hair she even had!!
The vision I had was this: There was a slender girl….a very pretty one, too, with a huge smile. She’s wearing a long, formal dress…sort of like what a girl would wear to the prom or to a wedding. She was standing, with long, brown, slightly curly hair cascading down over her shoulders. And she’s standing there…actually, right here…in the Narthex of St. Mary of the Angels Church.
When I turned around to offer my Mass intentions to the congregation, I half-expected to see this girl standing there in the back of the church. It dawned on me….that the girl in my vision was Natasha!!
I told everybody that “the Mass is what we are called to do at times like this”. I echoed our Rector’s sermon, verbatim… “This is what the Church does…” I told them that I believed in the efficacy of this Holy Sacrament…and that “I know, in my heart, that Natasha will be O.K.” I cherished the special vision throughout the rest of the Mass…I prayed hard…really hard, for her complete healing. I knew that she was still laying in a coma, less that a mile away…but still I knew that God was in control!
When we finished the Mass, I prayerfully took off my vestments in the sacristy… and walked out to visit with the people who stayed around.
There was Vance, Wendy, my Amy, Natasha's grandma and grandpa…
We all hugged, as we always did…they all thanked me. We collected a whole twenty-three dollars in the plate that I had put out on the Communion rail. As Natasha’s stay at Children’s Hospital was probably running (no doubt) in the multiple-thousands of dollars per day, I doubted if this meager amount would even buy a single plastic IV tube!
Wendy had to get back to work and left after one more hug (she’s an excellent “hugger”!) Vance then asked me “if I was going over to the hospital?” I told him that I was sorry, but Amy and I were going to take the rare opportunity to go out and have lunch together. I’d be sure to come by “tomorrow afternoon”, as usual – and that I’d see him there.
Amy and I drove to a local eatery and had our lunch. Despite my obvious disappointment, she gave me encouragement about even the small number of people who ended up coming to the Healing Mass. Leave it to my future-wife and better-half, (who will admit to being no profound theologian by any stretch of the imagination!) to remind me that “the Mass was the thing.” Amen!
When I arrived at home later that afternoon, there was a message waiting for me on my answering-machine at home. (These were the days before I carried a Blackberry everywhere I went!)
I dialed the code…and listened (I can still hear these words as if it just happened!):
“You have one message…First new message:
“Father Scott!! …it’s Vance!! NATASHA IS AWAKE!! I walked into the intensive care area and the nurses were all smiling at me. I walked into her room and her eyes opened…and she whispered “HI, DADDY!”
Vance’s voice was understandably cracking. I can barely keep the lump from forming in my throat as I remember the moment …. and even still as I write this memoir today, twelve years later!! I called him right back!
“Oh, Vance!! Praise God!” I said… “When did she wake up?”
I should have known the answer, silly me!
“Right about Noon.”
Yeah. “Right about Noon”, indeed.
The next day, I straight-away drove down to Children’s Hospital to see the miracle for myself. Natasha was awake…although understandably a little groggy when I came in….she squinted her eyes and asked me who I was. I told her I was “Father Scott – Amy Brubaker’s fiancé”. The first several weeks after her miracle – Natasha’s brain-functions were not quite normal. She made the cutest, funniest little face as the little wheels in her head were turning. I think it registered – that I was a Priest…and who “Amy” was.
I visited her quite often in the coming weeks…we had great visits. We talked quite a bit. She even asked me once about married Priests and about my sex-life. I laughed out loud at her question and told her that “it was none of her business!” Then I saw that smile. That famous Natasha smile I’ve come to expect when I see her! She was on her way back!! Her head was still bandaged….but she was most certainly healed!!
After many more months of cognitive therapy, Natasha’s miracle was complete. She finished high school, and graduated from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California. She has a great job in public relations and is just a joy to behold! I thank God often for her healing and for allowing me some small part in the process of her miracle.
The story does not end there. The “Post Script”? I cannot forget that. This part is very important.
On October 17th 1998, almost five months from the date of my Ordination and Natasha’s accident, Amy Francis Brubaker (her Confirmation name, from “St. Francis” – and for Amy’s love of all furry creatures, both great and small!) and I were joined in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. I took off my cassock and put on a tuxedo for the occasion…and stood in the same Sanctuary where I had been made a Deacon, proposed to Amy, Ordained a Priest, and celebrated the “Mass for the Sick” for Natasha. A very special place, indeed. There my best friend became my wife.
Before the Nuptial Mass began….I was nervously greeting some of our guests in the Church. I glanced toward the Narthex.
There, standing in the very same place I had seen in my vision, surrounded by the afternoon sunlight coming though the Narthex door….and wearing a long, formal dress…and with all this long, curly brown hair pouring over her shoulders….was Natasha!!
The vision I had experienced from the Altar was now complete. I told Natasha not to move. I grabbed the photographer and had him take our picture.
You would not believe how much both of us were smiling!