Flying Free


April 8th is Hayden’s birthday. This is the first birthday his family will celebrate without him. And yet in many ways, who he is, and was is so very alive in their memory. Certainly this thirteen year old’s life had an impact that lives on. And so did his passing.

There are times in life when it feels as though the stage has been set, and the people and circumstances that come into our lives are anything but an accident. Little did I know that Hayden’s life would have such an impact on mine. Hayden passed away a month before my son suffered cardiac arrest. His mom, Melissa, a nurse, was just finishing up her shift the night they brought my son, Tanner to the hospital.

We didn’t know it then, but Tanner has a heart condition called CPVT. He had suffered cardiac arrest at school and when he was revived, his body went into convulsions that just wouldn’t quit. He was airlifted to a children’s hospital an hour away from home, and put in a medically induced coma. It was all like a terrible nightmare, but at the same time, it was amazing how people rallied and came together in such a short period of time. Our family traveled from three cities to all meet at the hospital, and we were all in shock as we listened to a doctor share the severity of Tanner’s condition.

Waiting to see Tanner felt like an eternity. When we were finally able to see him, our hearts were broken. Tubes were everywhere, and he looked as though he had suffered a stroke. The nursing staff was kind and efficient. One nurse in particular seemed to be looking at all angles of meeting needs, not just of Tanner, but of our family.

She was kind, and dutiful,coming in and out of the room quietly and skillfully ensuring that Tanner had what he needed. She even told one of my sons to “make sure that your mom gets something to eat” and to another, “Be sure you call your mom when you get home.” She had a gentle smile and a presence about her that helped me to relax knowing that we were in good hands.

So, when I walked into the waiting room, probably looking exactly how I felt, I did not expect to hear what I heard. A precious nurse named Stirling came up to me and said, “Can I tell you something?” She was standing with Melissa. I said yes. I don’t remember the exact words, because so much of the night is a blur. What I do remember is the appreciation I felt when I heard that she was the one who had pushed for Tanner to be put in the polar suit to cool his body and slow the brain activity. He was originally on a bed of ice, but the polar suit cooled so much more efficiently. And why had she pushed so hard to ensure this for my Tanner at the end of her shift? Because a month before, she had walked in my place. As her story unfolded, I listened in wonder and felt such a strong sense that once again, God had gone before us and brought exactly who we needed in order to get through this moment in time.

Melissa’s son, Hayden had suffered cardiac arrest at school as well. Like Tanner, his body convulsed and he was brought to the same hospital. He was brought to the hospital, given the best of care, but, a week later, he passed away. He died. Melissa had started to share the story with me and when I asked about how her son was, she said, “I just want to believe that he is an angel in that room.” My mind started racing. “Wh…what?” I whispered in disbelief. ” He died?”

Yes. A month before, she had been in my shoes, but her son had died. And now, on her first day back after grieving her son, she was advocating for my son in ways that I couldn’t. I later found out that the nurses were trying to keep her from Tanner’s room. It was just too close, and too soon. But at this fork in the road, Melissa chose to get in there and use not only her nursing skills, but her maternal instinct, and compassion borne of grief to make an incredible impact on not just Tanner’s life, but our family’s as well. I have no words for what that must’ve felt like for her, or for the depth of appreciation I have.

There are so many angles of this story, and so many angels unaware, I am sure. But one thing I know is that Melissa’s courage, wisdom, and tenacity has encouraged me so much. Not only that, Tanner came out of the coma, and is still so very “in there” and fully back to normal! (Whatever that is for an adolescent!). I wonder what the outcome would have been if she had just gone home that day instead of fighting for my son who she never even knew.

And her son, Hayden, who I never even knew? Well, his memory is fully alive in my heart and in my family. I would later find out that he and Tanner had a lot in common in terms of their approach to life. They both have had some tough things to overcome, and they both had so much to give. When Melissa gave me some orange ribbons from Hayden’s memorial service, I smiled and told her that by far, orange is Tanner’s favorite color. The orange balloons that were freed at his memorial service, are a wonderful reminder of the connections of these two thirteen year old boys. He has more orange shirts and hats than one could imagine! And now, he has a frame with some orange ribbons to remind him of Hayden’s Life, and the way God allowed Tanner and Hayden’s lives to connect.

I don’t pretend to understand what exactly happens when we die. I so believe in eternity, in Heaven. but when I think of Hayden, I smile and think of orange balloons flying free. Free. And those he left behind share the joy of his memory, and intense gratitude for the impact that his life had. No I didn’t know Hayden, but in a beautiful way, we are connected, and I will forever be grateful for his life, and the beautiful, reverent, and courageous way his mom has let his life impact those he never met.

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