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Finish Line

I’m standing at the finish line, my arm lined with medals. All the 5K and 10K medals have been awarded. It’s only half-marathoners crossing the line now.


After the runners cross they go through with their various ways of recuperating- stretching on the grass, re-hydrating, getting a massage. Many of them come back around and wait at the finish line, or line the sides of the last 30 feet of the the run. Cheering erupts as people see their friends and family, and the crowd goes wild when two runners practically carry an older man across the finish line. One man swoons across the line, weaving back and forth and finally catching himself on the rail well past where most people stopped. I see a woman crawling, literally crawling, through the crowd after she received her medal and bottle of water. There’s a lady stung by a bee on the lip as she ran, a limping woman whose husband informs the crowd she has a fractured leg, and the young runner boasting he’s only eleven-years-old. I could hardly contain my own emotions when a woman pants across the line and promptly bursts into tears.

There is so much excitement and relief and sweat. It’s exhilarating.

runnerAs the top honors are handed out, best performers for each age group, gender, and distance, people continue to steadily trickle past the finish line. The cheers for the winners drown out the cheers for the people finishing the run. 

And then people start to leave. Within half-an-hour probably seventy-five percent of the small island we’re on has emptied. I’m told about eighty people are still expected to finish. My fellow staff are all called to clean-up projects and I’m left alone, staring down an empty lane, waiting. 

Tables are being set down, canopies folded away. Event staff scan the grass for abandoned water bottles and garbage. 

I wait. Every ten to fifteen minutes someone crosses and by now I’m the only one cheering. I clap and yell “YEAH!” and call out “Good job!” and “Congratulations” as I hand them their medal and water bottle. One chipper couple assures me the only running they did was that last ten second sprint across the finish line. A few people are limping from the minute I set my eyes on them, all the way to the medical tent. 

Then I’m waiting twenty minutes, and thirty. A young man with Down Syndrome finishes fourth from last and his mom proudly informs me it’s the first race he hasn’t finished last, but all I can think is what a dedicated and determined fellow he is to have completed any run, much less multiple runs. He’s run more in his young life than I have in mine. 

Then I start thinking (because I’m a bereaved mom and my experiences make it impossible for me to see this as just a run) about how Aiden started his life at a sprint- how most of us do- but a tumor in his brain tripped him up. I watched his run slow to a limping walk and, over the course of eleven months, turn to a slow scooting on his bottom, and then I carried him until he had to stop. I carried him to my room and he stopped right there, in the middle of my bed. 

I saw these last runners and no one was cheering them despite them never giving up. They didn’t have strength and speed; they didn’t get accolades though they overcame more obstacles than the rest. I wondered if my lone clapping and cheering sounded flat on their ears, if the music echoing in the near-empty space around them was louder than the sense of accomplishment they had. 

I started thinking, as I sat and waited on a pack of unopened water bottles, how we belong to a gloriously backwards kingdom where the last is first. In God’s order of things, those stragglers at the end march right onto the elevated boxes and everyone cheers them. The one lagging behind despite pushing forward steadily doesn’t run alone before crossing the finish line with a single lady clapping hollowly; he runs the entire race with a great cloud of witnesses at every turn and when he finishes he doesn’t get a cheap medal, he gets a crown and the arms of his Father God wrapped around him. “Well done. You were faithful. You plugged away and completed the race. Welcome home.”

I hope there are media rooms in Heaven. I want to see that moment when Aiden stopped on my side, and burst through the veil at full speed on the other. Ain’t no grave gonna hold him down.


Five Years On: Continued Grace

My friend sat across from me as we wrapped up a couple minutes we’d spent catching up. “How can I pray for you?”

I sighed. “It’s June. This month is five years since Aiden left. It’s always a hard month.” I don’t tell everyone that, just the few I trust with glimpses of my pain. As a rule, as a coping mechanism, I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve.

Those short sentences were the momentary pulling back of the curtain, the light in the quiet room I keep to myself, inside myself, where my love and heartache for Aiden live. I didn’t punctuate them with tears or tack on any other thoughts. I may have even seemed nonchalant about it; a well that deep can’t be swallowed in the minute we had so I offered only a few drops.

It’s always risky to bare your heart, even in a mild form and in a fleeting manner. It’s possible it will be ignored, or mocked, or misunderstood. Sometimes people are uncomfortable in the presence of grief and turn away, or mumble their way through clumsy attempts to offer sympathy while moving quickly to easier subjects. And then sometimes, just sometimes, someone gets it right and meets my eyes and takes a moment to feel my pain, and for that one moment the weight is a little lighter. This is what makes the risk worth it.    

This wasn’t the day for sympathy and lightened loads. The reply came back hollow and flippant.  

I was glad I hadn’t exposed more of my heart. I’d taken a small gamble, with someone I trusted, and it hadn’t paid off. I backed out of the conversation and went home.

It felt like betrayal. Some people should know better. Some people should know what they’ve been handed and treat it with respect, even awe that you’ve entrusted them with something as valuable as a little piece of your very self.   

In the next days her comment would come back to my mind and I would feel it again and the anger would wash over me and I’d be back in that room and I’d think of all the things I should’ve said, the ways I should have defended myself and put my friend in her place and fought back for the love of Aiden. Because the love of Aiden is what it comes down to: my heart has been rent open over the loss of my boy and he was too special and too real to just let it go. My heart screams “I can’t let it go! I won’t! A million sunsets and trillion miles won’t be enough time or distance for me to let him go. He’s real and he’s my son and I’ll never move on from him!”

As the sun rose the morning of Aiden’s departure from this earth, this thought rose in my mind and became steel in my soul: I won’t let this ruin me. And here it was, the pain of Aiden leaving and the aftermath trying desperately to ruin me, and to ruin a friendship.

I won’t let this ruin me.

I fought the bitterness off for three days and, in the end, I won.

Growing up, my mom used to lament that I was stubborn. In the difficult days of our marriage, my husband has cursed my stubbornness. At times like this, I bless it. God gave me an iron will when I want to have one, and against bitterness I want that blessed stubborn determination.

Bitterness must never win.

This is where grace came in, where love for another person outweighed the love of self.

Once I’d worked through my initial feelings, I realized the day my friend was dismissive, she was emotionally and physically drained from private struggles she was trying to make sense of, compounded by outside stresses and deadlines. I had seen the signs of insomnia on her face and heard the weariness in her voice. The pressures life was throwing her way were very real and very weighty.   

Under normal conditions a friend could be forgiven for momentary insensitivity; under the degree of strain she was experiencing, I needed boatloads of compassion and the love to cover a multitude of sins… or, in this case, a single instance of oversight.   

Bear each other’s burdens…

As badly as I wanted grace from her, I wanted grace for her.

And that’s it right there, isn’t it? We all need grace. We’re all on this road together, carrying our various and varied crosses, hoping against hope that someone next to us will have grace enough to meet our eyes and lighten our loads for a moment so we can continue on and not feel so alone. Along with the embracing arms of God, aren’t the greatest gifts we have the people next to us who bring comfort? Because the One next to us put the ones next to us for that reason.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”  2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (NIV)

Lord, may I never be so self-focused on my own grief and need for grace that I fail to see others’ grief and need for grace.  


*Disclaimer: my friend and I have talked about this, she has read this post beforehand, and I have permission to post this. 



The Veil

One night Tim had a dream that Aiden came home. After his long absence from us, Tim walked with him, hand-in-hand, filling him in on what he had missed. Aiden was especially eager to see his brother Noah.

Aiden and Noah in England

When Tim told me the dream just upon waking, I cried. It seemed right that our boy would come home, to our hearts and arms, where he belongs.

For all its impossibility, it felt good and proper because I know where he should be right now- the gaping hole in our lives stands as testimony to that- it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think he could return, at least in our dreams. (As King David said in 2 Samuel 12:23 when his infant son died “I will go to him one day, but he cannot return to me.” So, in our dreams it must be.)

He left an empty space behind because he is real. He filled space and time for over eight years. I carried him inside and birthed him. I nursed him, held him a thousand times, sang him a thousand bedtime songs. His arms were around me, his breath on my cheek, his voice in my ears. His small hand held mine as he chattered away.

And then I saw him leave. In one terrible, holy moment he was gone. Though I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and kissed his face, I knew he wasn’t there. With that last, long, breathy release of air he stepped out of my world. He crossed the river…awoke to glory…passed through the veil.

Just as I am convinced of Aiden’s life on earth with me, I am convinced of his continued life elsewhere. He is just on the other side: the other side of my current reality; on the other side of the invisible veil between this life and the next. I feel him.

I read a blog in which a bereaved mother described her child as running ahead of her, just out of sight. I like that description, though it doesn’t fit my perception of where Aiden is. For me, Aiden is still parallel to me, separated only by the veil. I’m not chasing him, and he isn’t following me. We move together. Together, but apart.

The veil between us is solid and concrete. I can’t pass through it until my time comes, and while I speak to Aiden often, I can only hope he hears. The veil, for all its thinness allowing me to feel Aiden’s continued life, is vast and impenetrable.

Tim and I were very aware of this veil in another recent terrible, holy moment. A year-and-a-half after seeing our son through it, we stood by Tim’s dad Renato as he passed through. All the love and memories of a lifetime filled that room and enveloped my father-in-law and his wife, kids, and grandkids. All that time came down to this moment, and in the midst of many words of love and compassion at Renato’s passing, I heard Tim’s voice call out urgently what was also on my mind and the tip of my tongue: “Dad! Tell Aiden…”

Snippets: Anniversaries

On July 22, 2011 at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, England: Despite arriving very early, it was afternoon when Aiden finally went in for his MRI. He was sedated, head first in the MRI machine, with Tim and I standing on either side of his legs. The terror was like electricity passing between us when we made eye contact. The loud clicks and bangs of the machine were muffled by our ear plugs, but made appropriate background noise to the thoughts and feelings we were experiencing.

At one point I turned away from Aiden and the burning fear in Tim’s eyes and looked at the men behind the widow running the test. They were laughing heartily. Huge smiles were smeared across their faces and their lively chatter was a heavy contrast to our dark mood.

“If this turns out badly,” I thought “I will remember how joyfully these men ran the test that diagnosed my son, and I will hate them.”

It turns out I don’t hate them but I can never forget them.


Aiden at Addenbrooke’s, the day after his cancer diagnosis

Daddy’s Love

After Aiden’s July 22, 2011 MRI he was taken back to his room to sleep off the sedatives he’d been given. Tim and I sat for a while before deciding we should eat something before the doctor came back with results. He left to get our late lunch. I sat on the edge of the hospital bed and tried to watch the old black and white movie that was playing on the little TV hovering over us.

The doctor came in much sooner than expected. He trailed in a couple of other doctors and some nurses. “Hello, Mrs. Vergori. I’m a pediatric oncologist. We need to talk.” I only needed the specifics at that point; I knew an oncologist I’d never met wouldn’t be the one to break good news.

The trouble was that Tim wasn’t there. We waited a few minutes. I could feel my heart pounding through my ribs. My mouth was dry and my stomach cramping. The medical professionals huddled awkwardly in the background while Dr B asked if I wanted to go look for Tim. I took a quick turn around the food court and skimmed through the convenience stores without finding him. I hoped I’d missed him and he was back in the room. He wasn’t.

I waited a few more minutes before telling Dr B that he would have to talk to me alone. He answered that I would need Tim with me for the news. I told him that I already knew it was bad news and that I couldn’t sit there while they all stared at me with the knowledge of my son’s condition. I couldn’t wait. He conceded.

I followed him out of Ward C (the pediatric oncology ward, I would later find out—they had suspected cancer all along, even checking him in there before he was diagnosed), and into what I later knew to be the Pediatric Day Unit. It was where kids with cancer went for treatments that didn’t require hospital admission. It was closed for the day. I was led by Dr B into Room 4, and followed by our medical entourage. They filed in and took seats facing the doctor and me. All eyes were on us. He and I were the show.

His English-accented voice was soft and direct. I tried to catch what he was saying but it came in hard, earth-shaking waves. I could only hear small threads of the total monologue: The brainstem should be narrow, but it was big and bulging. A tumor. No cure. Radiation supplying a small amount of time. Treatment. Our family was American. We might want to move back home immediately. I don’t remember saying anything but I must have because he answered: without treatment Aiden had months; with radiation he might have a year.

What struck me as absurd, and still does, was that after his talk our audience let out a collective sigh and someone exclaimed how brave I was; “not even a tear”. Had someone knocked me silly with a cast iron frying pan I may have looked and acted much the same as I did then. If you’ve ever had a car accident, you may have experienced the slow-motion moments from when you realize you’re going to crash until the seconds after when the damage is done. That’s where I was: slow-motioned shock.

The entourage filed out and I was left with Dr B. I can’t tell you if we spoke. I have the sense that we did. Somehow he knew when Tim arrived and went to get him.

I could see through the windows into Ward C from my hard plastic seat in Room 4. I saw Tim walk down the hall, shopping bag in hand. I saw the doctor pull him aside, and Tim gesture that he would put the food in the room. I could see his tension. His face didn’t show emotion, but I saw the intensity of his eyes.

And then I experienced my first wave of conscious emotion: I felt unspeakable sorrow that Tim was going to be told his son would die.

It’s strange, the way the mind parcels out bits of emotion slowly so one isn’t overwhelmed. It was days before I had a coherent thought concerning my own feelings about the cancer. I actually apologized to others when I told them about the tumor. “I’m so sorry I have to tell you this…” I remember the shock on a friend’s face when I broke the news- I fully comprehended her thoughts and feelings. I couldn’t tell my own for anything in the world.

And so it was with my first emotions: I was horrified and broken that Tim would have to walk into Room 4. When he did, he took on the weight of the new world we lived in.

Tim’s thoroughness and hope were apparent from that first meeting. He asked intelligent questions, seeking to understand. He heard the name of the diagnosis: diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. He gleaned information from Dr B, and throughout that night formulated more questions to ask in the morning. (We stayed a night because Aiden remained very sedated.) He expressed deep concern for the pituitary gland that would be killed off due to radiation, even though we were told that it wouldn’t matter- the doctor said Aiden would be gone by the time that became an issue. Tim refused to believe that. He only agreed to radiation when he was assured what was lost with the pituitary could be replaced with a pill.

Once we got home, he spent hundreds of hours researching possible therapies for Aiden. Since so many cancers have gone from terminal to survivable, it’s reasonable to assume that DIPG has a medical cure as well. Tim set out find it. His studies ranged from natural treatments to legal drugs. While I did much of the hands-on work for Aiden, Tim did the virtual work via the internet. He read many studies and eliminated options while pursuing others.

He reminded me of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. He never gave up. His eyes remained on the horizon, looking for the signs of hope. While we were told to accept the inevitable, Tim wouldn’t. Giving up on Aiden wasn’t an option. Eleven months after the diagnosis, he remained so singly focused on Aiden’s recovery that I had to call his attention to the signs of Aiden’s last minutes approaching.

I’ve learned volumes on Tim’s character through this experience. I have seen the deepest level of loyalty, faith and determination possible. What must have looked like denial to some was actually one of the deepest loves known- a father’s for his child.

Tim has a famous family saying that, honestly, drives the kids and me a little nuts: “Stick together!” We don’t walk through a parking lot in a broken group without hearing him call it out. But now it means something more to me. I don’t just hear “stick together”, I hear “I won’t leave you.” That’s what he said to Aiden and what he would say to any of our kids, and to me. It’s not that Aiden was the special exception that received this devotion; Tim initiated it because of who he is. He wants to provide for us, to protect us.

I’ve learned so much of God’s love for us. The pain I endured seeing my son suffer and die, my heavenly Father endured for my sake, though His son Jesus was perfect in every way and needn’t be subject to human suffering. The dedication Tim showed to Aiden is only a shadow of what God shows to us. God’s love is Tim’s love, perfected and multiplied. What Tim showed in months, God shows outside time. Tim is limited by the boundaries of his skin; God hasn’t a single boundary. His love is perfect.

“When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father,the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth.I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)

How I Feel

“I don’t want to ever be ‘okay’ again. I want to be happy and enjoy my time with family and friends and do what I’m here to do and count my many blessings, but I never want to go a day without feeling my loss. That loss, that hole in my life, represents my deep, undying love for Aiden. It represent the years and the moments of our lives together. Have him back? Yes. Live a life completely comfortably without him? No. He was too important to move on from. So, I’ll not be ruined by my broken heart but I will feel my broken heart and carry it with me till I die. If I have to live without him, I wouldn’t have it any other way.” -Reese Vergori 

Round and Round

“For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it? How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed  

I’m definitely feeling this right now. I have found myself experiencing the same emotions I had in the weeks after Aiden left, with the same intensity. I think this is partly due to the fact we are approaching the one year anniversary of his death. The same leg cut off time after time.