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Stepping On The Serpent


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The Power of a Family's Great Faith and Perseverance

From Tragedy to Triumphant Mercy

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Brenden sitting up in rehab for the first time.

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Brenden and Mary Jo.

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Brenden with his wife, Nicole, and children, Faith (5-years-old), Seth (2-years-old), and Veronica (6 months).

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Brenden's wife Nicole with their son, Seth.

By Mary Jo Flynn (Aug. 12, 2018)

I had just returned home from Mass when I heard the scream of a siren coming down our road. It was a beautiful sunny day on May 31, 2002. I had been enjoying the peace that came from attending Mass and afternoon Confession. My husband, Mitch, and daughter, Kaleigh, were fishing down at the lake in front of my home. I could just make out their silhouettes on the water when a loud siren interrupted my serenity.

From our deck, I watched the sheriff's car speed by our house in a blur. The sound startled me, but I didn't think anything more of it. Car accidents and sirens were common on our country roads. Just as I was about to return my attention to the lake, I caught sight of Mitch running up the drive, a look of panic on his face as Kaleigh hurried behind him.

He'd heard the siren, too, and he was breathless. He pushed past me, searching for his car keys, convinced the siren meant a car accident, and that it must be our son, Brenden. I told him he worried too much, as he often did. He was certain and already climbing into the car before I could argue anymore. Brenden had driven off only minutes ago. He was going to the high school play with a friend. It couldn't be him.

A Parent's Worst Nightmare
I put my arm around Kaleigh as we watched Mitch peel off down the road, leaving us to worry as the car left a cloud of dirt in its wake. Minutes later, a helicopter flew overhead with the unmistakable logo "Mercy Flight." I kept telling myself it couldn't be my son. I grabbed Kaleigh's hand and did the only thing I could think to do. I knew at that moment the accident must have been severe. We stood on the deck with our eyes towards the sky overlooking the lake and prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for the souls in the accident, not yet knowing I was praying for my own son.

Time stood still in those moments of prayer. I didn't realize Mitch was already back, until I heard him yelling. I couldn't make out what he was saying, as he raced about in panic. I started to understand, and Mitch relayed what he saw: "It's Brenden. He's barely alive. Flying him to trauma center over an hour away. Probably won't make it. Mary Jo, I have seen some pretty bad accidents over the years, but this one has to be the worst yet. ... and it is our son."

A Father's Heartache
I never saw the accident Mitch saw, though he would describe it to me with pain only a parent can know. It's an image he can never forget. Mitch arrived at the scene, only five minutes from our home, with an entire string of ambulances and firetrucks lining both sides of the road. He saw what was left of a red Honda Civic, or at least half of it, resembling a crinkled ball of tinfoil. The front half was in the ditch and the rest in a field.

The boys were hit full force. They were ejected from the car, each landing far from the point of impact. Brenden was found in a ditch filled with water, face down, and barely alive. His friend was found in a cornfield and died shortly after. Upon arrival to the scene, Mitch approached the local sheriff that he knew and said, "He's dead, isn't he?" The sheriff replied, "He has a very faint pulse. Mitch, that's not your son, is it?" Mitch then walked to the ditch. He could barely catch his breath and saw the muddy indentations of Brenden's body and blood in the water. Holding back tears, Mitch then bent down, having difficulty taking a breath, and picked up Brenden's favorite yellow baseball cap covered in mud from the ditch. All Mitch knew at that point was that he had to get home to tell us. We needed to get to Brenden before he died. It was a devastating wreck no person should have ever survived.

Before the Accident
At 18 and 19, Mitch and I were married very young. I was raised Catholic, and Mitch was brought up Methodist. While our wedding ceremony was held in a Catholic Church, for 16 years I barely gave a thought to my religion, let alone God. We were young. Life was good. Our worries were small, and Brenden was born into a home of no active faith.

My work as a pediatric nurse led me to baby Jacob, little Ethan, and my faith. Jacob was nine months old when he came into my care. He had an inoperable brain tumor that was growing and pushing on an area of the brain that induced vomiting when you laid him down. He was dehydrated and hospitalized to replace his fluids, and I was the nurse in charge the evening they brought him to the hospital. At the same time, I was also preparing the room next to Jacob for Ethan, a 6-year-old who came into the emergency room with appendicitis and who'd been quickly whisked into surgery.

The Surgeon is Not God — There is Always Hope
Ethan's parents were waiting anxiously for his return, placing stuffed animals in his bed to comfort him and occupy themselves. In the neighboring room, Jacob's parents were holding a close vigil, refusing to leave his side, despite their own need for food and rest. I'd been encouraging them to at least get some coffee, and I promised I would hold him in the rocking chair until they returned. They eventually relented, and I held Jacob's weak little body close to mine as he laid his curly blonde head on my shoulder. I rocked him gently with streams of my tears falling on his little hospital gown. How could this happen to a baby? How were his parents to bear it?

Later that same night, I received a call from the recovery room. Ethan did not have appendicitis, and I would have to join the surgeon in letting his parents know the reality of his condition. I remember standing by the surgeon as he plainly and coldly stated that Ethan was full of cancer, and there was no hope. As the surgeon curtly left the room, Ethan's father looked at me and collapsed in my arms. I looked right into his eyes and very strongly said, "The surgeon is not God. There is always hope."

After my shift, I returned home to seek some compassion from Mitch. I was distraught and overwhelmed with emotion and looking for some kind of reassurance. However, his response was not what I expected.

Please Show Me
"What kind of God causes innocent children to suffer?" he challenged. I was stunned by his frustration. I also didn't have an answer. I knew He was a loving God, as I was always taught, but how could I explain baby Jacob or little Ethan? For the first time in my life, I said a prayer from my heart and it was only three words: Please show me. I didn't expect that my prayer would come with a clear and immediate answer, but my heart was open to God.

The very next day, God appeared at my front door in the form of a cable man. We lived in the country where I had tried to get cable to come to our house unsuccessfully for months. That very next day, a man was at my door, offering to have cable television set up. It felt so unexpected, and unimportant, considering all I was experiencing at the hospital.

I remember turning on the television and finding a program hosted by a nun named Mother Angelica. Not intending to really watch the show, I found myself taken in by her matter-of-fact humor.

For the next few days, I continued to tune in, engrossed in her teachings about Divine Mercy. I sat at the kitchen table filling up buckets with my tears for how I had offended God over the years. I learned how to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and for the first time, prayed a novena on my drive to work for Jacob and Ethan. They both needed miracles.

Divine Mercy at Work
For the first time in my life, I was turning to God for help and guidance. While my devotions were for those two little boys, I was distraught and drowning in my emotions. I began actively looking for a new job, considering anything other than nursing. Something had to give, as I could no longer face the pain and suffering of those children, no matter how much I prayed.

I was down by our lake, pouring over the classified ads in our paper as I waited for Kaleigh to come home from school. I was determined. I had taken a few days off from work, believing I couldn't go another day with such despair, when God sent me another sign.

All of a sudden, the wind picked up and the clouds turned grey. I glanced up at the sky, hoping Kaleigh would be home ahead of a storm, before turning back to the paper. As I continued to imagine other jobs, the wind grew stronger, blowing the pages this way and that, making it impossible to read. Again I looked up at the sky, ready to curse my luck, when those dark clouds started to open over the lake, separated by a piercing blue color. And a clear shape was forming.

Image of an Angel
I thought I must be hallucinating. How else could I explain it? The blue color was unlike any I'd ever seen, and the shape forming before it was unmistakable. It was a perfect image of an angel, as tall as a skyscraper and as bright as the sun. As quickly as it formed, the wind blew back and it was gone, just as Kaleigh's school bus appeared. Something miraculous had happened, and I was only beginning to understand what it was.

God's Tender Mercy Revealed
That evening, as I returned to the pediatric floor, I had an internal knowledge that is hard to describe. The Lord had spoken to me in a way I could never have expected. He said, "I never want pain or suffering to be with these little ones. I don't make them have pain or cancer, but see how these little ones have brought so many more back to me?" I could feel this understanding as much as I mentally understood it. As I moved down the hallway, approaching the rooms of both Ethan and Jacob, I was greeted with the sight of people outside their rooms, their heads bent in prayer. "So many have been brought back to me," the Lord said.

Despite their impossible prognoses, both Ethan and Jacob miraculously survived. The doctors could never explain it, but still, they thrive. I keep in touch with their families, and I am still a nurse. I now know that my work in nursing, opening my heart to God, and learning the power of a parent's love were all in preparation for what would be my greatest obstacle. God was helping me long before I knew I would really need it.

The Spiritual Battle Begins
As I continued to explore and grow my faith, my relationship with God also grew. I began to pray the Rosary, attend Mass regularly, and I even found myself in Medjugorje in 1997, where my experiences gave me strength and filled me with a renewed faith and mission.

My mission became the conversion of my husband Mitch and for the soul of my son Brenden. Mitch had yielded my newfound devotion to God, though he wasn't so convinced for himself. Brenden had become a teenager, and with it came terrible fights and anger, as if the gates of Hell were literally released in our home. The more devout I became, the more ardent was Brenden's opposition. He would disappear with friends, rejecting us and likely delving into drugs and alcohol. We battled him constantly.

The spiritual battle I took on in silence for the most part. I did not preach. I did not say much. Just in the silence of my heart, I begged God for his conversion. I left books out throughout the house, and yes, in the bathrooms as well, many times with the corner of a page turned down hoping Mitch would at least read a paragraph. Mitch was not where I was on this spiritual journey. I yearned so much for him to be on fire with the love and mercy of Jesus, but knew I would push him further away if I shared too much. My cross at the time was trying to keep silent.

The Door of Evil Had Been Opened
I was all too aware of the evil presence in my home and took it on with my armor in hand: the Rosary, exercised holy salt, and my holy water.

Fights would ensue, and out came the blessed holy water, and the arguments stopped immediately! I seemed to do this with an increasing frequency with no fear of retaliation. I knew in my heart I was in a battle for the soul of my son, and I was not backing down. The family joke was, "Watch out for mom, better get your raincoat on!" I did not have little bottles of holy water — I had gallon jugs strategically placed throughout the home for easy access. Exercised salt was sprinkled on Brenden's sheets and food. Brenden would say, "Mom, you need to change my sheets. They are gritty." I was unaware at the time that Brenden and his friends had opened the door to evil by going to the graveyard and partaking in séances.

Begging God's Mercy
The war raged on, and Mitch had a feeling that one of these times Brenden might not come home. Our house became a battleground on a daily basis. I had talked to Mitch about finding out about the teachings of the Catholic faith for the family only a few times and then gave up, but persisted in prayer, silently begging and imploring God's mercy for someone who did not want anything to do with the Catholic faith. I'd like to think it was my influence, but my daughter, Kaleigh, was the real impetus, always asking why daddy didn't come to church with us.

Unknown to me, Mitch set up an evening with the RCIA program and told me as he left, "I don't know why I am doing this, I just am." I smiled as he left and dropped on my knees in tears of thanksgiving. It was a start, and I knew the Holy Spirit and Jesus' Divine Mercy were in charge. Mitch began for Kaleigh, but the reward was for him. Brenden was unreachable.

Then came the accident.

Barely Clinging to Life
I was standing in a trauma center looking at my 17-year-old son Brenden barely clinging to life when I heard whispering. Brenden had suffered several internal injuries and a severe traumatic brain injury leaving him in a coma. Mitch and I were repeatedly told that if he survived, he would have no quality of life.

Three weeks following his accident, it was discovered his body was full
of infection. The feeding tube that had been placed in his stomach was misplaced, and the feeding filled his abdominal cavity, causing peritonitis and septic shock. His vital organs were shutting down. The fluid that was supposed to keep him nourished was now killing him, and I could hear the medical staff whispering about it.

"Oh my God, you have got to be kidding. Come check this out." The medical staff down the hall was looking at Brenden's chest x-ray. Filled with so much fluid, his lungs were indistinguishable in the image. For a second time, my son was faced with death.

You're All I have, Lord
The surgeon on call approached me, and his words were cold and formal: "Do you really want to cause your son more pain and to continue to have him suffer? He will not make it through surgery." He continued, "I have practiced in other countries where surgery would not even be considered. His brain injury will leave him without any quality of life. I can place him in a private room, keep him comfortable, and he will die peacefully within 24 hours, and by then it will be too late to do any surgery. Do you really want to cause your son more pain?"

"Oh my God, how much more can we bear?" I thought. "Please God, please help me. Please." I wanted so much to be the one in the hospital bed — not my son. I would have traded places in a heartbeat.

But I was swaddled in God's mercy and love, relying completely on His direction. If a heart can truly have physical pain, mine was engulfed in a pain that ripped me apart with every beat. I could barely breathe.

Standing Between the Surgeon and My Son
I stood between the surgeon and my son. Something stirred within me — a newfound strength. I looked directly at the surgeon and repeated the same words I had said to Ethan's father all those years ago, "You are not God. There is always hope. I am his mom. I don't want him to suffer anymore. He survived an accident that should have killed him immediately. He has made it this far for a reason. You are the surgeon. Do the surgery."

With tears and a heavy heart, I held Brenden's hand and looked into
his eyes, whispering, "I love you, Brenden. Don't be afraid, I am here, and I will never leave you." Brenden was in there, and though I did not want my son to suffer anymore, I could not find it within me to be the one to end his young life. He was still alive and in the hands of God.

I was alone only for a short time. This was something that made his cross heavier than mine. Mitch had to return to work and take care of Kaleigh. He reluctantly had to leave Brenden and me. I was the one with the medical knowledge who advocated for Brenden's needs and never left his bedside. My cross was at the foot of his bed. When I called Mitch, I told him Brenden would probably be dead before he arrived with Kaleigh, but not to worry, because I would be at his side and hold him close.

Thy Will be Done
I kissed his forehead, knowing in my heart it was probably the last time I would see him alive. He received a second Anointing of the Sick before they wheeled him off to the operating room.

Instead of begging God to keep him alive, I found myself asking God to take him home. It was at that moment that Mitch and Kaleigh arrived. Mitch bent over the stretcher, hugged Brenden, and kissed his forehead telling him how much he loved him.

It was later that Mitch revealed, "I will never forget having to say goodbye to my son maybe for the last time, Brenden's eyes wide open looking at me. I was helpless."

My poor daughter Kaleigh had to witness all of this at 11-years-old. I wish she had not. They took Brenden to surgery, and I went to the chapel. It was out of my hands, and I would accept whatever God chose. For the first time since the accident, I felt some peace. In the natural realm, there was almost no chance he would survive that surgery. Mitch and I were trying to prepare Kaleigh for her brother's death when the surgeon appeared again. Brenden had inexplicably made it through surgery, but in the surgeon's words, "He won't likely make it through the night."

Never Give Up Hope: A Treasury of Compassion
In disbelief, we went to the intensive care unit, only to find him surrounded by monitors. He was always a tall, skinny boy, and now he looked like he was triple in size, filled with fluid his organs weren't absorbing.

As a nurse, I quietly took in the surroundings. He was on total life support. The ventilator was pushing in 100 percent oxygen to his lungs, and yet the oxygen monitor was reading 60 percent and getting lower every minute. I knew he was dying.

At the same time, I could hear a woman in the room next to Brenden screaming repeatedly, "Get me out of here. They are killing me. The doctors are killing me."

Knowing that hearing is one of the last senses to remain at the end, all
I could do was pray and beg God to please take care of Brenden. "Please don't let him be afraid. Please surround him with your love and peace," I prayed.

She Saw a Large White Figure
I never left Brenden's side, even as I could not bear to watch him leave us. The last memory of that night was watching his nurse run in and out of his room with bags of fluids.

I watched his oxygen level slip to 40 percent before sleep took hold. I have no further memory of that night, nor do I have an explanation for what was to come. Brenden survived. It was only three weeks later that the nurse who cared for Brenden told me she knew he was not responding to any medical intervention.

As she entered his room, she said she started praying for him and saw a large white figure to the right of her peripheral vision. When she turned to look, the figure dissipated around Brenden's bed and down the hall. It was at that moment the woman next to Brenden's room screamed, "God's here! God's here! Come see!"

In the weeks following his surgery, Brenden was in intensive care, with each day presenting new challenges and dangers. He continued to fight the infection ravaging his body, and I was given the daily reminder that he could pass at any moment. His weight dropped to 90 pounds. I sobbed uncontrollably every day, continuing to beg God for His mercy. Although I never left Brenden's side, I was beginning to break.

He Wore an Irish Cap
"You promised. You promised you would never give me more than I can handle. My God, my God, I am begging, please," I pleaded with God.

This conversation continued over and over until, at a moment of deep despair, Mitch firmly took a hold of my shoulders and, with a deep tenderness, looked directly into my eyes saying, "Mary Jo, you need to get ahold of yourself. You have such deep faith and conviction, take hold and go to the chapel, get on your knees, and pray to the Lord as you have told me before so many times. And by the way, you know all those books you left conveniently placed throughout the house over the years? Well, I read every one, not just the page you turned down for my benefit, but every one more than once."

I then went to the chapel to pray and receive Jesus in the Eucharist, begging for the strength to persevere. I quietly sobbed in the back of the chapel. As I made my way back to Brenden, I was greeted by a large man entering the elevator in a wheelchair. He wore an Irish cap that was green plaid in color and a large blue hospital gown. As the elevator doors shut, he gently touched my hand and said, "He will be all right."

I stared at the man, marveling at his sparkling blue eyes. Before I could respond, the elevator doors opened again, and he was gone. That's when it hit me: How could he know anything about me? I could not hit the elevator buttons fast enough to go back to where he exited. I went to the nurse's station and described what he looked like. "There's no such patient with that description here," they told me. I hurried back to the elevator and proceeded to go on all the other floors, only to hear the same response. He was nowhere to be found.

As I walked back to the elevator, all I could think of was his sparkling blue eyes, a color I had only ever seen once before. Just like that, my strength was renewed.

The doctors could never explain Brenden's recovery. He had more than beat the odds, though the medical profession stops short of using words like "miraculous." But I knew. Many miracles had occurred. God's mercy and love poured out freely to Brenden and Mitch, and our family. I know that with complete certainty, and I do not need anyone to confirm it.

Brenden would eventually open his eyes and become strong enough
to leave the intensive care unit, though the road before him remained paved with countless, seemingly insurmountable challenges. The many hours of daily rehabilitation at times were exhausting for Brenden and me, and yet, the ripple effect of God's mercy extended well beyond us.

The surgeon who offered to keep Brenden comfortable and end his life visited him in rehabilitation and told me, "Mary Jo, I have two young daughters. Brenden has changed my life forever as a surgeon and how I will practice in the future. As a father, I could never do what I offered to do for your son."

Rehabilitation often found us taking one step forward and then 10 steps back. We prayed and pushed on. Brenden could barely bend his body at first, and we were repeatedly told his quality of life would be poor. His brain slowly began to heal, and his movements began to advance. I sobbed when he first communicated to me through a computer keyboard. A nurse had asked what was most important to him. His answer: "My Mom."

And still, we pushed, hoping that someday he might walk and talk. Just like everything else, he defied the odds. Brenden's first words were "Jesus," which he repeated over and over again. It had been Mitch's prayer that God would answer, as he'd begged Him only that morning to help Brenden speak. Those words represented more than just his ability to speak. His life had surely been saved, and another miracle had occurred with it. Brenden's soul had been saved, too.

15 Years Later
Brenden is now the proud father of three gifts from God: Faith is 5 years old, Seth is 2, and Veronica is 6 months old. Brenden met his wife, Nicole, at a brain injury rehab facility. Nicole also suffered a traumatic brain injury following her high school graduation. They were married on Sept. 18, 2009, and together they share in their weaknesses and strengths with brain injuries, while raising three beautiful children.

Brenden and Nicole speak to all ages about their trials and faith, focusing on the gift of life. Brenden's accident was on the Feast of the Visitation, and now he adamantly speaks about the gift of life under all circumstances.

I often reflect on the choice that was provided to me to end my son's life. I thank God for the strength and mercy poured out to give me hope and strength to believe in Brenden. We must never give up, always run the good race, and fight the good fight in the good times and in the trials that come our way.

Mitch and I are now welcomed with the door bursting open, "Mi-Mi, Pa-Pa! I love you! I love you!" Our grandkids hang onto our legs and run into our arms as if they haven't seen us in a while (by the way, we live down the street)!

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Shamine - Aug 26, 2018

Hi Mary,

It was so beautiful to read this. I have s younger bro who is so lost and I am always begging Our Lord to bring his soul back and your story has been so encouraging. I thank God for this.

Marie - Aug 13, 2018

Thanks for the graces received for humanity from God because of you and your great Trust in God’s Mercy.

Irene - Aug 12, 2018

This was such a great story of Gods love & mercy. I was praying a lot today to find the words to tell my patients husband never give up keep praying, have hope. If God wants someone to pass He will take them home but we must pray with Trust that He wants to heal. I will show this man your story. God bless your family always.

Sonia - Aug 12, 2018

What an amazing story that I personally needed to hear today. Thank you so much for sharing this and helping to inspire and encourage us to keep battling for our families. God is so good!