Danny

I study it, now that it is too late, the dark jewel of an eye, huge and liquid and gleaming.  There are furrows in the grass where his sharp hooves tore the earth a moment ago when he fell.

He is a giant, five times my size, with power to launch himself over obstacles and return gracefully to earth, often wagging his head as if to say, is there nothing higher?  His shining coat glows red in the sun and his thundering hoofbeats send vibrations through the dirt.

He knows his strength and my weakness.  He knows me to carry treats in my pocket and when I don’t deliver, he merrily knocks me backward with a flick of his massive head.  He could easily destroy me, and yet I put my daughter on his back.  We are safe because he chooses for us to be safe.

But things have gone badly for Danny.  Two weeks ago, he began kicking at his side and twisting his head to see what was biting him there.  We brought doctors and medicine, and for a few days he seemed to be himself again, but the blood test said cancer.  On Thursday morning, I found him in agony, his coat sodden with sweat and grime, trotting desperately around the pasture, trying to outrun his cruel and invisible enemy.

We called the vet and trudged into the pasture, carried his halter this one last time.  Even now, in his misery, he is careful of us, careful not to step on us or knock us down as we clumsily try to corral him, and he urgently tries to escape. 

We took a job at the barn, my daughter and I, when we bought Danny.  We feed and water the horses, lead them from their pastures to their stalls. I knew little about horses when we began, but I always admired them.  If they had been winged horses, they would have seemed only slightly more mythical to me.  

How have such creatures come to exist, so graceful and immense, so fearsome when they choose to fight, yet who set aside their great strength to obey us?  And how is it that we find ourselves in such a world as this, so richly carpeted in green, extravagant in air and light, filled with beings more diverse and majestic than we could imagine?  If you say this is all a happy accident, I will wonder if you’re paying attention because we spend our lives trying to make good things and we know it is hard. Luck does not make horseshoes, let alone horses, let alone verdant worlds.

Well, Grace has somehow gotten in front of Danny and, rather than trample her, he jerks to a stop and she quickly slips on the halter.  We lead him to a quiet place.  She wraps her arms around his head and talks to him as the vet pulls something from his pocket. 

A few minutes later, Danny is gone and I am looking at the furrows in the grass where he fell and the great jewel of an eye that has gone dull.  Grace spreads herself over his still body and weeps and I try to understand why I feel I have lost a friend. 

Only a horse.  Only an animal that flew without wings, on whose back Grace flew, too, the wind whipping through her hair, knowing he would use his strength to bring her safely home. Only a horse, but I would give much to look in his eye again. 

Shayla

She sneaks into the room, leans over the bed and studies the little face, listens to him breathe. He seems ok, so she moves to the next bed, and then the next, and then the next, then she lets out a sigh and slips away, back to her own dark room. She closes her eyes but does not let go of the world, dozes off for a few minutes until the alarm in her mind sounds and she opens her eyes, rolls out of bed, does it all over again, hour after hour until the morning comes.

It has been this way for four years, since the day the quadruplets were born – the day much of her old life ended. And it was quite a life – a job she loved, her third master’s degree almost complete… and she slept through the night. Well, that was then… Her eyes open. Another trip to the kids’ room. She stares longest at Kolten, whose life has been especially hard. Already, he’s been through liver failure, through desperate surgeries that saved his life but, in the process, removed most of his intestine and most of his ability to receive nutrition. Even worse were the months she spent pleading for those surgeries, refused by doctors who thought he would die on their operating table.

Kolten weighed only two pounds when he was born – far too small – but he was twice as big as his brother. Doctors looking into her womb saw the littlest one as a lost cause and wanted to remove him but, no, she said, and she hovers over him now, runs her fingers over his dark hair. Sweet Mason. She checks on her sleeping daughters, Ava and Mila, then goes back to bed for a while.

Shayla could probably do anything she wanted to do, and this is what she chooses. Her degrees are not in medicine, but she seems to know every drug and doctor and test and procedure that might help her kids get better. She trained to be a counselor, but life changed her job description. “I’m a huge fighter now”, she says, laughing, and you wonder how such a transformation occurs. Not so long ago, she was a little girl who loved the north woods, the dappled light under the tall trees, the fragrant soil, the freedom and silence and solitude. So unlike a hospital…

Margaret’s story is not so different. For her, as a kid, it was all about horses and the fun of a big family. She didn’t give much thought to marriage, let alone the possibility of laying her life aside to care for a sick child. But she grew up, got married, and her life changed – specifically, on the tenth day after her daughter was born, when they found a malignant tumor in her neck.

For Margaret and Shayla, the birth of their kids brought a sudden end to the quiet and simplicity they had loved, an abrupt relocation into a stainless-steel world of harsh lights and long halls, fragrant antiseptics, the noise and bustle and seeming imprisonment of life in a hospital.

At first, it was too much. “I felt so fragile and weak,” Margaret said. “When a doctor was coming down the hall, I would go the other way and let her dad handle things. But day by day, I got stronger and more independent and, together, we fought for not just Megan’s life, but for her quality of life, too.”

Margaret’s ordeal is behind her now. Her daughter survived the terrifying surgeries and gained strength, grew up and pushed on through college and a master’s degree. Shayla’s fight continues today and is far from over.

At Wings of Mercy, we often talk about kids and airplanes, but this month we’re especially thinking about the incredible people we call moms – about Margaret and Shayla and all the rest; mothers of sick kids and mothers of healthy kids; little girls who grow up and lay their lives aside to build a safe place for their children, who pray and protect and give comfort even when they have themselves run dry.

We often talk about places we go, but this month we’re thinking about where we began; the womb in which God formed us; the extraordinary person who – with love like his own – gave herself for us. Thank you, mothers. You are worthy of greater honor than we can give.

You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139


Follow the Meads’ journey here: https://www.facebook.com/meadquads

For more of Margaret and Megan’s story, see https://www.facebook.com/…/a.33162194691…/2189682794445952/…

Alsae

The surgeon lines up his drill, a motor whirs and the twirling blade creeps forward, throws up a little spurt of bone chips. A few hours later, the sleeping child is wheeled back to her room, six gray bolts now radiating from her head, six gray nuts locking them to a thick metal band that encircles her brow. It is a wicked-looking contraption – something from a bad mechanic or a scary movie. Ironically, they call it a halo.

The angel who wears it has been here before. It is her second halo; the first came three years ago, before she was two years old. When the bolts stopped hurting, the doctor dropped a line to the halo and hoisted the angel off the ground by her own skull. This is what kindness looked like, under the circumstances, because the angel has a dangerously curved spine. Still, the pictures made me gasp – the ugly hardware screwed into this soft child; her lonely, helpless suspension above the floor.

And then, the video began to play. The angel writhes – no, she is swinging her legs. Higher and harder, she twists at the waist, her feet thrown out in a wide circle. Then, by some trick of physics she has discovered, her whole body begins to spin, blurred like an ice dancer and, laughing, she shouts, “Momma!”. This is what joy looks like, under the circumstances.

Meet Alsae, who has never had a normal day. From the moment of her birth, her digestive tract has been too small. Her limbs are different than yours, and her spine is crooked. It all arises from a rare syndrome called Microgastria and Limb Reduction. So many things wrong and yet, watching her laugh and spin, you wonder if you have ever seen someone more perfect.

Fast forward to 2019. Again, she is a reluctant princess, screwed into another halo. Again, her father has transformed the ugly band into a beautiful crown, filling the grim space between the long bolts with jewels and bright colors. Her mother’s voice is with her always, cheering and proud, as constant and fixed as her crown.

But the day has come for the operation they have long been trying to escape. Their love, her courage, their brilliant doctors’ skill, the painful back braces and long hours spent hanging by her crown – it was not enough to smooth her spine, and now it must be forced. More ugly hardware will invade this soft child, but this is what love looks like, under the circumstances.

The surgery takes place in Salt Lake City, twelve hundred miles from Alsae’s home, and that’s how Wings of Mercy comes into the picture. A metal rod will be placed in her back, overruling the twist in her spine, bending her in a way her body does not want to go. To force her spine without breaking it – this is one problem. If they succeed in that, she will grow but the rod will not, and that is another problem. The only thing worse than doing this surgery is not doing it, and so it is done.

Afterward, Alsae wakes in great pain. The rod has been installed. So far as anyone can tell, the surgery was successful. She has lost flexibility but she has kept her life. It is for Alsae, now five years old, just one more hard blow in a lifetime of hard blows, but that has never stopped her yet, not even stopped the beautiful smile that appears in so many of her photos.

We write this so you will see the radiance of this child, the fierce love of her parents and her grandparents, the great beauty of a life lived bravely through deep troubles. Please pray with us that Alsae will be given rest and healing, and that soon she will inspire us again.

Going Home

Ray leans back, nearly invisible in the dim cockpit, scans the instruments again, stifles a yawn. It’s 2 am and the round trip between Muskegon and Boston would have been a long haul in any case, even without the 60 knot headwinds we’ve bucked all the way home.

It’s Ray Kapteyn’s first mission for Wings of Mercy but he knows the drill. For years, during his career as a missionary pilot, he flew injured people to hospitals around Africa. This trip came up suddenly, but he’s used to that.

Behind him, in a car seat strapped into a passenger berth, little Kolten sleeps. He is three years old and receives most of his food through a port in his belly and medicine through a second port in his chest. He and his mom have been in Boston for two weeks, spending a lonely and painful Christmas at the Children’s Hospital. They came in an air ambulance because Kolten was too sick for a commercial flight. Too sick, even, for a Wings of Mercy flight.

When Kolten was finally discharged from the hospital this morning, they took a cab to a place called Rectrix – an impressive airport building that serves impressive people visiting Boston on private jets. Shayla was not feeling impressive. It had been another rough day. She has three more kids at home, all sick, and she’s been on the phone with her husband, who is as worried and exhausted as she is. And the special formula Kolten needs to survive – she has only enough for one more day. For more reasons than she can count, she has to get home. And so, she cradled her fragile son, lugged their supplies into the opulent lobby, found a seat in the corner, and waited for a plane that would not come.

A Wings of Mercy flight was dispatched from Michigan this morning to pick them up, but – after takeoff – the pilot noted a mechanical problem and had to turn around. Six hundred miles away, trying to quiet her son in the lobby, Shayla answers her phone, hears the bad news, pushes down a sense of panic.
Grace Spelde, who manages the office at Wings of Mercy, got the call, too, and she has been on the phone ever since, calling every pilot she knows; kidding, cajoling, pleading. She needs an airplane to bring Kolten home. It has to be big enough for Shayla and Kolten, his stroller and his medical supplies. It has to be fast enough to make the 1,300-mile round trip. It has to be today.

Hanna Koen works at Retrix, stands behind the impressive wooden reception desk, taking care of busy pilots and passengers. She looks the part; blonde hair, friendly smile, stylish dress. She noticed the little kid and his mom sitting alone in the lobby, the strange medical equipment on the child’s back. They didn’t fit the profile, didn’t seem like the kind of people who pass through this building. She walked over to see if they were ok and heard about Kolten’s hospital visit and the cancelled flight. After a while, she got them some lunch, then found someone to cover for her while she played with Kolten and talked to Shayla. As the afternoon wore on, another plan occurred to her. She would borrow the company car and take them herself, drive them home to Michigan.

Terry Boer has been the president of Wings of Mercy since Peter VandenBosch, its founder, passed away. He’s a busy guy, wrestling with the pressures of his growing aviation business, but he took the call from Grace around three in the afternoon, heard about Kolten’s need, heard there was no one else who could help. Two hours later, an airplane climbed away from Muskegon and turned toward Boston – Terry’s airplane, flown by one of Terry’s pilots.

We made it into Boston by 9 pm and hustled across the cold and windy ramp, through the sparkling glass door and into the Rectrix lobby to find Hannah kneeling on the floor, playing with Kolten while Shayla got their things ready. The line guys serviced the airplane while we set up for the return leg, then packed the bags and strapped in the car seat. By ten pm, we were clawing our way out of Boston’s airspace for the five-hour trip back to Michigan, a long, slow droning interrupted only by a fuel stop in western New York.

It’s just one of the 8,000 missions Wings of Mercy has flown, but it reminded me what makes this work. People like Grace and Hannah and Terry and Ray who set their lives aside for a while to help someone in trouble, remembering that “whatever you do for the least of these, you’ve done for me.” People like Shayla and her husband who set their lives aside – forever, if necessary – to serve and protect those they love.

In the cockpit, Ray scans the instruments, stifles a yawn. In the back, Shayla watches Kolten sleep. It’s been a hard Christmas, but they are going home.