My brother and my son

James Frederick Eilers, 2/9/52—

Most people think that my oldest brother is Tom. Unless we Eilers kids get to know a person well, we don’t get to tell about our brother, Jim, who was Mom and Dad’s firstborn.

When Jim was an infant, he contracted both whooping cough and encephalitis. A mosquito bite was the suspected culprit. The doctor improperly medicated Jim, leaving his brain damaged, eyes permanently crossed, unable to learn to speak or walk. He suffered seizures. They said he would only live to be a young boy. I am glad to report that he is still with us, and really has enjoyed a good life.

Jim was in need of a tremendous amount of care. Nineteen months after Jim, Mom bore Tom. Sue came along a very quick eleven months after Tom. Mom then had two miscarriages.

When Jim was five, Mom was pregnant with me. Here is how Mom would speak of those days: “With Greg coming, I knew that I would not be able to care for Jimmy and three other children. John and I made the hardest decision of our lives, to sign Jim over to be a ward of the state. The day we did that was the worst day of my life. I felt like a terrible mother.”

Typing that, the tears pour from my eyes. As a child, it seemed like exactly the thing my parents had to do. When I became a father, I finally understood the pain.

Jim was first placed in Coldwater. By the time I can remember making the trip, which, it seems, we made about every-other month, Jim was a bit closer, at Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, more than two hours from Montague. The residents at Fort Custer were those often “put away,” many whom society had dubbed “monstrosities.”

Some could talk but, mostly, they made noises, which, to a young kid, sounded monstrous. I recall one fellow, who could talk and was mobile, who always dressed like the gas station attendants of the day. He freaked me out for awhile with his friendly chatter. But, he became my friend, the friend of all of us.

And that is what formed me. First, our parents taught us that Jim, and every resident of Fort Custer, was a human being, beloved by God, and no different from us. Second, we simply got used to being around people who were different from us. We learned they were not going to hurt us; quite the opposite, they only wanted friendship.

When I became a minister, I found myself completely at ease in hospitals and nursing homes and every difficult situation. My experience taught me to respect and value all people, in all circumstances, to practice empathy.

Johnathan Gregory Eilers, 1/14/81–1/15/81

Most people think I have two daughters and two sons. Unless I get to know a person well, I don’t get to tell about my firstborn, Johnathan.

Johnathan was a healthy newborn but, during birth, he picked up a strep infection. When he was ten hours old, it manifested itself. He was struggling to breath. Nurses retrieved doctors and all leapt into action. They cultured him, but it would be awhile before knowing the cause. In the mean time, he was taken from Muskegon to Grand Rapids, to Butterworth’s neonatal ICU.

It was now late at night. My wife had to stay in Muskegon General. I was going to get some sleep at friends who lived near Butterworth. The doctor explained that they had Christian nurses who will baptize, should a baby appear near death, and would I want that? Yes. Thank you.

Johnathan died the next morning. He had been baptized. He lived twenty-seven hours. Typing that, tears pour from my eyes.

We were, of course, devastated. Thankfully, we welcomed Erin, ten months later, and then Jackie, Add, and Alex.

Over time, I noticed how the Lord was using this tragedy for my good. My trust in Him was growing deep and wide. I was now very involved at church and pondering a great secret: I want to be a pastor, but how could that ever happen? (A marvelous story for another day!)

In my eighteen years as a pastor, I told of Johnathan many times and how the Lord worked it for good. Johnathan has eternal life, and Christ will raise him up on the last day into a body that will be perfect, to enjoy the new heaven-on-earth Paradise, forever. (See 1 Corinthians 15.)

Jim and Johnathan: my lessons in empathy and hope.

The Lord used Jim to teach me how to love and respect and work with all people, and He used Johnathan so that I am strong in the sure and certain hope for my own resurrection into Paradise. He has taken care of me that I might fulfill His two great commandments: love Him with all my heart and love my neighbor as myself. Who wouldn’t love a God like that?

I am ready for Wednesday, to tell of my condition. With Christ, I can do all things, and enjoy all good things forever.

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