Per doctor’s instructions, I stepped into the scalding shower, hand pressed for support on the tiled wall, inhaling a deep gulp of steam. Suddenly, I gasped, coughing and choking while trying only to breathe, desperate for air.
One week prior, I had flown home from an extensive, precautionary surgery. Dropping my shoulder bag, I embraced my family, one-by-one, joyful for a return to the warp and woof of precious mundane. Our sons had spent the entire day installing drywall for a friend, and now lingered in our kitchen, sipping iced coffee, hair damp from showers, smelling of cologne and laundry detergent. Jacob’s face was flushed.
Are you feeling okay? I asked, and he nodded.
I pressed the back of my hand to his forehead. It was on fire.
104 degrees, as it turned out.
This quarterback son of ours was in the thick of his senior year football season. News stories fired rapidly: virulent flu epidemics were sweeping our county, wiping out entire teams. A few local high schools had boarded up, waiting for this sickness to spindle.
I spent the next few days pressing cool compresses on Jacob’s head, persuading him to sip broth and Gatorade, while urging down a few saltines and applesauce to bed his stomach for ongoing ibuprofin. I stripped his sheets twice per day, spinning the dial hot on the washing machine, tipping more detergent in as I waged all-out war on this invisible contagion. His bedding was drenched from profuse sweating as the fever raged and abated, raged and abated: endless waves in a sea of ache.
There’s nothing else to be done, the pediatrician sighed, when I called, frantic at his weight loss, excessive fatigue, and pallor. If his fever spikes over 104, bring him straight to the ER.
I slept little, fear rising tall.
But then one morning Jacob asked for toast. He was shaky and pale, but hungry and feverless. My relief was sweet, and short lived. By morning, everyone else was bedridden, except for me.
That next week was a blur: measuring medicines and keeping charts, scouring bathrooms, serving oyster crackers and tiny ramekins of applesauce, taking cat naps, hauling laundry: repeat. Five days later, when everyone was asking for soup and more toast, please, I was grateful to have bypassed this terrible flu.
Or so I thought.
The aches began suddenly, and I was chilled. I sped to our local walk-in: a precautionary measure because of my recent surgery.
I was labeled Flu-B, and remember telling the doctor I did not feel too terrible, except for an odd feeling in my chest: a shortness of breath. She pulled a cobalt breathing apparatus out of her metal drawer, measuring my oxygen levels while I inhaled then exhaled, informing me all was well. Measurements were perfect. I had a slight cough, all part of this horrific flu.
I want you to go home, and take a long steaming shower. Breathe deeply, and it will help. She signed a prescription for an inhaler, just in case.
It’s precautionary, she smiled. I don’t believe you will need it. But you will feel very poorly, come morning. This I most definitely knew, after watching my family flounder in near delirium for a week.
But no one else had labored breathing, I told her. This seems different.
Hot shower, she pointed at me, all teacher-like. And rest. You will be fine.
I have shared words about this son of ours. Quarterback is code for leader, commander, captain, guide. At some point this description is insufficient for Jacob. He is all of those things and more, wrapped in a blanket of gentleness and humility.
I could not breath as the water beat hot on my back. I inhaled, and a seal-like barking cough erupted from my chest as I gasped. My daughter, only eleven at the time, heard it and banged on the bathroom door.
Mom, are you okay?
The cough abated, allowing me a momentary breath.
I need a doctor, I wheezed.
In that moment, I would have told you I was dying. My thoughts were sharp, and as I pulled one leg and then the other into my sweatpants, I knew only that I must get dressed before anyone found me. I pulled a t-shirt over my head, but did not untangle my wet hair.
Then, Jacob knocking.
Mom? I am taking you back to the clinic. Can I come in? He had just returned from football practice, and it was a Wednesday. My husband was teaching our Wednesday night church service, and had already left.
I tried to answer, and the gasping began. I remember hearing Lauren sobbing, and Jacob assuring her that all would be well, and to please get in the car. He opened the bathroom door, and seeing the terror in my eyes, remained calm. You might have thought we were going for an amble in the park. It was the same face he held when orchestrating his team down the field and scoring. The effect was soothing; I felt courage flicker.
It’s okay, Mom. We’re getting help. He led me to the back door.
My hat, I wheezed. He found it, handing me my New England Patriots ball cap, to cover my damp hair.
As Jacob later spread his wings in college, he was called Tom Brady by students and professors. At that time, Brady was rocking and rolling as the New England Patriots quarterback. Their faces are remarkably alike, so much so in fact, that our son was part of a university article regarding doppelgangers, the name for true look-alikes.
The Patriots are our team, (well, for four out of the six of our family members) and by that I mean they are our team. We take these things seriously in our household, and Jacob had spent his entire boyhood keeping a scrapbook of all things Tom Brady and New England Patriots. To top it off, he threw the ball just like Brady, which made this whole look-alike thing fun.
He downplayed it all, laughing and waving it off, turning the tide of all conversation towards the person before him. So how about you? Do you have a favorite team? Genuine humility is a super magnet; especially for the unrecognized, the marginalized, the outcasts. It is warm, inviting, and kind. The arrogant remain mystified by its pull.
Jacob was breaking records his junior and senior year in high school. He never spoke of it, just played and executed, played and encouraged. While Tom Brady was slinging insults at his receivers who dropped passes, Jacob was signaling plays with calm authority, patting backs of those who dropped his spirals. I had a solid view, perched high in those Friday night bleachers, adoring those arched passes of beauty, artistic in their seamless execution. The result of years of practice and whole-hearted love for the game. Jacob’s goodness and kindness towards everyone was prodigious in itself; pulling the excellence out of each athlete, who trusted their quarterback. They simply knew that he desired victory with integrity.
By the time Jacob peeled into the clinic, I assumed I wasn’t dying, although each time I coughed, it felt as though I would never again draw breath. With each cough, I would gasp, desperately sucking in air, willing my lungs to open.
The doctor rushed me into the back room, recognizing me from earlier in the day. Days later, Jacob told me that he was frightened when I struggled to breathe in that office, because of the terror on the doctor’s face; her charts and notes and equipment falling useless.
She fumbled again for the blue breathing apparatus, and asked me to inhale, reporting that my oxygen levels were good.
But she can’t breathe, Jacob said evenly. She needs to go to the hospital right now.
I looked at the fear in my daughter’s eyes, and asked Jacob to care for his sister. Please take her home, and tell your dad, I gasped.
We’ll be fine, Mom. And so will you.
He hugged me and they left.
Over time, I have watched him serve the biggest slice of his favorite pie to another. I have seen him empty the dishwasher when no one is paying attention; when it would have been easier to pluck one clean glass and shut the rest inside for another to empty. I have noticed him caring for the neglected, tender in his words, hand upon slumped shoulder, quiet; inconspicuous. I have watched him deny himself the chance to be proven right by not correcting. I have known him to stop in the middle of the road and lift a turtle to safety, and I have seen him sing as he works, joyful in hardships. I have observed him step away from insults, diffusing a crisis by calm retreat rather than retort. I have watched him rise up to defend us, his family. His protective instincts know no bounds, and his friendships eclipse only the arrogant. I have never once had to repeat myself to him: he listens with entirety, remembering stories and preferences and details; holding them with surety and precision. Jacob’s Bible is continuously open on the counter, his bed, and his desk; worn-out, marked, cherished.
His soul is an entire table, really. A banquet feast of fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
The doctors in the ER told me that the flu had uniquely manifested itself in my lungs, leading to difficult breathing. They kept me overnight, and provided an inhaler. I limped home the next day, where the flu took a wicked turn, wiping me out for a week as it had my family. But I could breathe.
When Caleb (who had bypassed the whole Flu-B saga, away at college at the time) became engaged, he asked Jacob to be his best man.
During Caleb and Natalia’s reception, following their vows, we danced and laughed and twirled, long dresses and suits swishing, uncomfortable shoes kicked off, fire pit hot as guests warmed their hands in the chill. Then the music paused. It was speech time. Jacob stepped forward, under the tent, sparkly lights glowing over the planks of the dance floor. Tears sprang up as I watched him stand before his older brother, one of his best friends. I held on to those memories now whipping through my mind: their childhood years spent sharing a bedroom, building Legos and forts, riding bikes and playing football together.
This best man pulled his speech from his suit pocket, thanking everyone for attending his brother’s wedding. He looked directly at Caleb and told him he loved him. He then shared a childhood memory which illuminated the kindness of Caleb. Everyone leaned in, loving the story, which concluded with: And this is why, you, Caleb, are really the best man.
Caleb’s eyes filled; we were all undone. Jacob shared several more vignettes, repeatedly ending with: And this is why, you, Caleb, are really the best man.
It was a speech for the ages.
There is a scene in The Wizard of Oz, a moment where everything comes crashing down, truth is revealed.
Toto, the tiny dog, yanks back the curtain of secret powers. The jig is up: this Wizard is a mere mortal. His entire existence was a sham, and he had deceived his entire kingdom, pretending to be something he was not.
I have seen the curtain pulled back in Jacob’s life, revealing his secret. There, within, lies a bridge called Abiding. A bridge leading directly to the Lord, a bridge that Jacob chooses to travel each day. There is a hidden gem that he practices rather than preaches. It goes something like this: Love God most and go live your life.
Not too long ago, Jon and I sat in the living room, catching up with Jacob, now a man who writes articles by day and songs by night, singing his stories handsomely. He had been given a work assignment to cover a news story about a well-known Christian artist who was encouraging music majors at a local university.
What’s he like? Jon asked.
Jacob paused, coffee mug in hand.
The only way I can think to describe him, is to say that humility goes before him.
How so? asked my husband.
Well, he walked into this huge gathering, and he noticed others, stopping to speak to everyone. Sometimes these famous people have a list of needs or demands. He was the opposite of that, relaxed and peaceful, and was interested in hearing the music and stories of the students. I have never seen anything like it. Very cool. He smiled, just thinking of it.
Never seen anything like it? I thought. But our son had just perfectly described himself.
And then, a flash of knowing: the truly humble never regard their own humility. Of course…
Humility precedes him.