John 11:25 – “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
I was pregnant with my fourth baby, Johnathan Judah. I was on heparin injections, weekly ultrasound appointments, and progesterone. The baby grew well and, besides precipitous labor, it was a smooth pregnancy. I had decided to take a year off to have my fourth child, as of November 1st. This was something my work had approved. Resting was helping reduce the preterm labor symptoms. I was progressing well. I was laying on the couch resting at 36 weeks, when I got a call from my sister-in law. Hunter was in critical condition at the hospital.
Rewind a couple of days, my brother had gone into the hospital two days prior for an elective tonsillectomy. I had warned him that this was a bad idea. All surgery has risks, there is no such thing as a minor surgery. He had assured me that the tonsil stones he had warranted the surgery. He was willing to accept this risk and write me off as an overprotective sister. I would hold onto the warning for the rest of my life, wishing he had listened. The surgery did not go well. They stopped taking out his adenoids because there was too much bleeding. Why you take out adenoids, when tonsils are the source of the problem, I will never understand. He had been in serious pain after surgery and they were keeping him for twenty four hours to observe him. I had called that day and he had written a note, “I <3 U.” That would be the last communication I would ever have with my brother. His voice was too strained to speak and the next day, he was too out of it to call. We would, later, find out why.
My sister-in law was hysterical. I immediately went into triage mode. This was going to be fine, Hunter was going to be fine. He was fine just the day before, and was supposed to have left the hospital. They would have transferred him to another hospital, if his symptoms were really severe. He had just texted me earlier that day, they were odd texts, but responses none the less. I would later find out he was texting me “I can’t text and drive, it is not worth a life,” because he was almost completely incapacitated. But for now, that was unacceptable, he was okay. He had to be okay.
I got a call from my dad forty five minutes later. “He’s dead,” was all he said. I became hysterical, screaming “No,” over and over again. Then, “This is not real life, this is not my life.” My dad has no recollection of that phone call. I was in shock, he was in shock. After that, I called my doctor to get medication to help me sleep. I was sure I wasn’t going to survive this. Brian wanted me to go to Montgomery that night, but I wasn’t ready. I would regret not seeing Hunter in the hospital that night, not being there amongst his friends. I regret not seeing him for every minute that I could. My mom sent me an image of him lying dead in the bed. This image was traumatizing and would haunt me for awhile. It would be one of the first components of PTSD that would consume me for months.
That night, we still had to assemble my daughters bike for her birthday, the next day. My sweet father-in law came over to help. As they assembled, I walked outside. I am not typically a hyper spiritual person. I don’t believe in the paranormal or ghosts. But something wrapped its arms around me that night. I don’t know if it was an angel, the holy spirit, or my brother. I will say it felt like him. It felt like one of his warm bear hugs, and to this day it brings me comfort to reflect on those moments, after he died. I wasn’t alone.
The next morning, we threw a quick birthday celebration for my four year old daughter and flew out the door. That was the last time I would be home for over nine days. It would take us nine days to view him, autopsy him, fly him home and bury his body. It would take almost a year for us to find out what really happened that night.
We drove to Birmingham, Alabama to meet up with my Uncle, Aunt, Cousin, and my parents. Seeing my parents was one of the most difficult parts. That first time you all make eye contact, and the unspoken loss hangs in the air like thick fog. It took my breath away. I almost collapsed into their arms and cried. My dad wanted to see my brother’s body as soon as possible. So, we went to the morgue. My brother was Air Force. So, his body was set up for autopsy, before we even were able to request it. His body was being transferred from the local coroner, who we later found out was on his first day as coroner. Hunter would have been his first autopsy. Instead, he was being transferred to the University of Alabama Birmingham for autopsy by an actual M.D. The Air Force like F.B.I. (I will call them the FBI from here on out, to make it easier to explain) was in charge of Hunter’s case and was opening a criminal investigation.
We arrived at the funeral home to view my brother’s body. Nothing could have prepared me for that. My parents were in there as they removed the body bag, but I was didn’t see him until he was fully exposed. This was the best he would look until his interment. He just looked like my handsome, strong brother but asleep. I found it concerning that his shirt was not ripped open, he didn’t have any bruising from CPR type movement. He looked like he was sleeping, but he was cold to the touch. That wasn’t the most alarming part.
I didn’t know exactly what happens to a body after death. I now know the bodily fluids start to seep out. He was surrounded by a puddle of yellow liquid mixed with blood. This image would prevent me from eating steak for awhile. I developed a PTSD effect from seeing liquid blood on a plate and would fall into anxiety attacks in restaurants. As well, he had blood and vomit draining from his mouth. It was my brother but a broken shell of him. I collapsed under the weight and pain of him being gone. I fell down on the table and sat on the floor. I cried so hard, I couldn’t even breathe. I talked to my brother in my mind and asked him to help me get back up.
I couldn’t explain it, if I tried, but something said, “Look up.” Now, my brother was a joker. He loved to make people laugh and would definitely be cracking a joke, had he been in the room. I opened my eyes, and screamed. There, inches from me, was another dead person. No bag, just laying there. This person was old and, as my sister-in law joked through her pain, ready to go. I jumped back and everyone rushed to make sure I was okay. I told them what I saw, and we all looked down. We laughed so hard. We said Hunter had to have been there too. He would have been tickled to death to make us laugh though our pain. We could feel his presence. We were grateful to the Lord for his grace in helping us laugh in our agony. It gave us the strength to leave the morgue that night, and for me to get up off that floor.