Sunday, January 20, 2019

2019.01.20 Accident

On a stormy November day, on a local street in Brookline Massachusetts, the wind and the rain grabbed onto an outsized branch, detaching it from its trunk and jet propelling it through the passenger side windshield of a car and deeply into the body of a woman named Susan Butler. It crushed her innards. Susan, age seventy-one, suffered multiple internal injuries and sustained multiple surgeries to repair multiple organs at a Boston hospital.

The horror of this accident—and accident it was, for who can blame a tree for being a tree, or God for creating a world of such cruel fragility—seized many people with vicarious traumatic reactions, even those who, like myself, knew Susan peripherally. A woman of quiet unassuming grace and practical wisdom, formed and fortified by her religious faith as a Christian, Susan was a longtime mentor in the Education for Ministry (EfM), which is how I knew her.

A week after the accident I went with my husband Dick Simeone to be with the EfM seminar group Susan mentored with Laurie Brown her co-mentor. We lead a Prayer Vigil, including a reading from Romans 8 about divine omnipresence, and a hymn I composed to the tune #508 in the Hymnal:

Breathe in her breath of God
healing her body’s pain
so that she may in purest love
breathe in and breathe out again.

Breathe in her breath of God
making her body whole
so she may know Your life in hers
and hers in Your gentle hold.


As Susan lay in the hospital we prayed, sang, and wept for her healing. Susan’s husband of forty-five years, Jim Butler, a physiologist and senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, offered to come speak to the group. Jim was driving the car when the accident happened and was unharmed. “Unharmed” is a ridiculously inaccurate word to use, but I mean unharmed in body only. I thought Jim’s offer was incredibly brave.

Here, in his own words, is his offer: “I know that all of what's said in efm is confidential; I also know that many of you are hurting for information and feel helpless, as do I.  Would you think it a good idea if I came this Wednesday to speak with the efm group?  I have no idea how I would handle talking about this, but am willing to try.  Of course I know this is unconventional, but then this is an unconventional time, at least for Susan and me.  It may be that sharing some of this would be good for all of us.  I would offer two things, depending on what you think: 1.What happened and the medical aftermath.  2. My own thoughts on life, death, dying, and whatever road Susan will be on.”  His was a gracious and helpful gift we all received with gratitude. For many this gift was the beginning of their being able for the first time to feel their hearts and to sob.

Jim told us how very much Susan wanted to talk and could not. He created a word board by which she could nod to letters. She was able to firmly indicate NO to certain further procedures, and the couple struggled together, with love and fear and hope, for a month before Susan died on December 9th.

Here is the postcard Jim sent their family and friends in gratitude for “Love and Support:
It is with a heavy and broken heart that I write in response to all your cards, speaking of your love for Susan. I thank you for that, and apologize for the impersonal nature of this postcard, but I am swamped with cards, love, and prayers, and this is the best I can do. I know Susan always responded with a postcard, and I am trying to do the same, on her behalf. Please know that you are all very near and dear to me, and to Susan.”



I am touched by Jim’s own own spirituality. He is not religious, as Susan was, but, when I sent him Socrates’s phrase: "Wisdom begins in wonder",  he wrote this:“Yes, I know this attribution to Socrates. It's pretty foundational to my own spirituality -- to see the divine, not just in a beautiful flower, but also where it's hidden. That's harder, but no less important.  Sometime I'll tell you about homework I used to assign (graduate level physiology): take a walk, look, touch, wonder. Students hated it; it's too hard.”  This spoke volumes about the sensitivity of this scientist who, when I suggested he was a theologian, firmly denied it.

How do we deal with such heartbreak? I don’t know. One thing Jim did was to find a tree on the hospital grounds, embrace it and tell it it wasn’t its fault. I wept. Accident comes from the Latin root ad+ cedere = to fall into. That’s what the sodden branch did: it fell into Susan. Simply so.

It is so very hard to accept an accident as just an accident. We want causes, explanations, we want to place blame or responsibility somewhere, even if it us upon ourselves. But this was pure accident.

For this all we can do is gently tend to our own feelings and surround ourselves with people who say dumb but well-meaning things, such as: “God will not give you more than you can bear.” What baloney!  Or worse: “Everything happens for a reason.”  If your heart is broken by a tragic accident or a senseless death, such words plunge like a sharp knife into your heart and break it all over again. Just say I love you, or,  Is there anything I can to help? 

When Dick was hit by a car and suffered significant injuries to his leg, a friend asked what I would like. “Can you please bake me some chocolate chip cookies.”  She did and delivered them. I have no idea exactly how that helped me cope with an injured husband and a parish to manage, but it did. 

Before she died, Susan Butler silently mouthed to Jim the three greatest words in the universe: I love you.