January 22, 2014 Length: 17:25
Bobby interviews Elissa Bjeletich, the host of the AFR podcast "Raising Saints" and the author of the new Ancient Faith Publishing book In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness.
Mr. Bobby Maddex: Welcome to Ex Libris, the podcast of Ancient Faith Publishing (formerly Conciliar Press). Today I will be speaking with Elissa D. Bjeletich. She is the author of the new AFP book, In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. Welcome to the program, Elissa.
Ms. Elissa Bjeletich: Thanks, Bobby. I’m delighted to be here.
Mr. Maddex: This is a bit more difficult than usual, given the in part tragic and personal subject matter of the book, but I’m going to try my best here. Why don’t you start by telling me a bit about your family and yourself, like where you live, who your husband is, how many children you have, that sort of thing?
Ms. Bjeletich: I’m in Texas; I live just outside of Austin, Texas. I grew up in California, and I found the Orthodox faith through my husband, Marko. His family is Montenegrin, and he was raised in the Serbian Orthodox Church. I was baptized there in 1999. We have seven children, actually. We have five girls who are alive and well and lots of fun, and then we also have two children who wait for us. We have Luka who died of SIDS and Jo who miscarried. Like many parents who have lost children, I don’t always bring them up in conversation, but they’re always in our hearts, and I know they’re relevant today.
I am currently the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Austin, Texas, and I have a podcast here on AFR called Raising Saints, which is about how we talk with kids about the questions of the faith and how we try to raise them up with an abiding love of Christ and his Church.
Mr. Maddex: Let’s go ahead and get past the saddest part of your story. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your son, Luka.
Ms. Bjeletich: Well, Luka was our fourth child, and he was a healthy and sweet baby boy. When he was 45 days old, I put him down for a nap, and when I came back he had died. He died of SIDS, and that experience really changed our whole family forever. They say that the hardest thing for a parent is to bury a child, and that’s probably true and there really are no words to describe it. You bury a part of yourself, and the grief is just enormous, and it never goes away, but you get used to it and it becomes a part of you.
But that’s how parenting is: you love your children, and you never know where that’s going to take you. If your kid loves dinosaurs or soccer, you learn a lot about dinosaurs and soccer. But when Luka died, I found myself sitting with my priest and demanding to know about heaven and to know where my boy had gone and how all of this worked. It was such a difficult time, but I learned so much because I threw myself at God’s feet in the darkness, and I really experienced how our prayers and the Eucharist and our liturgy—how all of the activity of the Church truly sustains us, because it was just so difficult to keep going, to get out of bed, and to function in the world.
I was finally in a place where I really had to call out to God for help all the time. I really could not do anything without him, and he resurrected me over and over again, several times a day sometimes. I’d cry out, and he’d call to me like he called to Lazarus, and he brought me back to life all the time. He made a home for our son among the saints up in heaven, and he carried us here on earth, and I would say that that experience transformed us, and it made us better people.
Mr. Maddex: So you go through this difficult situation and are devastated for a time, but like you said, you were raised up by Christ and are going through the recovery process. And then along comes Mariana. Tell us about that.
Ms. Bjeletich: Well, Mariana is our seventh child. She was born the day before Luka’s fifth birthday, and she was baptized coincidentally on the anniversary of his passing. It wasn’t planned that way; it just worked out that way, but she was a delightful and healthy little girl, so we thought. When she was three months old, she was jaundiced, and the doctors couldn’t understand why at first, but as very small babies do, she went downhill very fast. She was hospitalized at our local children’s hospital and then transferred to a larger transplant center in Houston. She was in complete liver failure, and she came very close to not making it before a liver became available to her for transplant. Of course, we had already lost a child, so at first I think that made us even more scared, because we already knew how awful that is, and we really did not want to go through it again. But we also knew that God had blessed us by carrying us through that experience with Luka, so we had some assurances that maybe other parents don’t have when they go through that, and we knew that he would take care of us, no matter what happened.
Mr. Maddex: Now you blogged about these circumstances while you experienced them. Why did you decide to do that, and for how long did you do it?
Ms. Bjeletich: Mariana and I were several hours away from home at the transplant center. So we’d left Marko to wrangle four girls on his own, and all of our support system was hours away. There were a lot of friends and family wanting updates on her condition, and we were so far away that no one could really visit and check on us. I just didn’t have the ability to answer every email and phone call, so I started a blog just to post the latest news, and it quickly became a way to stay connected and to feel less isolated. Most importantly, though, I really liked the blog because I could remind people to pray for Mariana, and we could feel their prayers.
The blog served to create this community of people all around the world—mostly my friends and family, but strangers, too. People from Asia and Europe and Australia and Africa were all united in prayer for us. I could really feel the Church, the body of Christ, and it was such a blessing to us. I would post updates on Mariana’s condition, and I’d share meditations on the situation, on God and mankind and what it means to suffer or to watch your child suffer.
It was really helpful to me, because writing down my thoughts helped me to organize them and make some sense of what was going on. I was really struggling for perspective. I had to think about her sickness and the possibility of losing her, and I was contemplating the role of prayer and the way that the hospitals work. I was just very blessed to have this means of sharing that process with this community of good, prayerful people. I kept up the blog until she was healthy again, until she was officially normal; then we shut it down.
Mr. Maddex: Okay, so then you have this collection of blog entries. When and why did you decide to compile those blog entries into a book?
Ms. Bjeletich: A good friend of ours and a wonderful priest, Fr. Drago Popovich, would drive many hours to come and visit us in the hospital. Even while we were still there in the hospital that he thought some days that this blog could be compiled into a book, that it would be helpful to others in similar situations. So he had planted that seed, and it kind of germinated for a while. Then people would tell me that they had really found the blog useful in other ways in their own prayer life. They might not have had a sick child, but you know everyone has their struggles, and it seemed to be helpful to have some company in that struggle.
Mr. Maddex: Now I’ve seen books like this before that are originally blogs and then later put together into books, and I’ve always wondered how that works. Do you have to revise the entries? Do you do additional writing? How do you get it all to kind of congeal?
Ms. Bjeletich: I had to add some more information to the book. I needed to write an introduction to let the readers know who we are and how we ended up in the hospital in the first place. But when I was writing the blog, I was always composing the entries thoughtfully. I was already editing and reflecting on them the first time around, so most of them didn’t need substantial revision. But I’d say the most significant thing that I did was to go back and add some of the scarier details. The first time around we had grandparents and big sisters reading this as it unfolded, and we didn’t know if it would have a happy ending or not, so I didn’t mention some of the more ominous issues that arose, and then when we put together the book, I was able to go back and include everything without fear of panicking anyone.
Mr. Maddex: As you’re doing this, of course you are to some degree re-living the experience. What was that like?
Ms. Bjeletich: It really was emotional. As I would read through it over and over and edit it and put it together, it just never got easier. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to go back and to see the miracles that happened, but it’s also very difficult to go back and remember just how scary those times were and how close we came to losing our girl. Again, you know, the book is really about the miracles that happened at that time, and it’s beautiful to be able to revisit them.
Mr. Maddex: Now, this is the story of Mariana getting well, yes, but what else is the book about?
Ms. Bjeletich: Well, the story of Mariana’s illness and recovery really provides a narrative framework, but really I think that this book is about the way that God transforms our suffering into glory. It’s about how we can offer ourselves up to him in our brokenness and our weakness, and he sends us peace and joy. This book is about trying to keep a truly Christian perspective while you’re enduring very painful circumstances. We human beings are fragile, and bad things are going to happen in this fallen and broken-down world. We’re going to get sick, we die, we lose one another, but this book is really my personal testimony, that if we can just offer our broken selves up to God, he will transform all of that pain into something else. It’s not that we won’t suffer, but we’ll find that in Christ, the suffering transforms us and brings us blessings. To me, that’s really what this book is about.
Mr. Maddex: Now you’ve already mentioned that you learned quite a bit from the experiences of losing Luka and then dealing with Mariana’s illness just by clinging to Christ, but what were some of the other profound things that you learned from going through these ordeals?
Ms. Bjeletich: I learned the deep wisdom of Paul’s words to the Philippians 4:6-7: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” I had read that verse before, of course; I had heard it plenty of times, but I think really in the hospital with Mariana I really came to understand that it’s not just the supplications: it’s the thanksgiving, too, that you combine supplication with thanksgiving, and the peace of God really does guard your mind and your heart. I feel like those verses are just written on my heart now.
In that hospital, I really learned how to pray for my child. When Luka died, I kind of lost the ability to ask for miracles. He was not granted a miraculous resurrection, and I was at peace with that, but it meant that when Mariana got sick, I couldn’t ask God to save her, because it felt like somehow I was insulting the memory of the child who was not saved. I think that going through that process with Mariana, I learned patience and I learned that trusting God is amply rewarded, but I learned how to ask for miracles again. I saw a number of amazing miracles there in the hospital, and I learned to see that even when Luka died, we saw miracles. He’s in heaven, and that’s a miracle of eternal life, and participation in the sacraments of the Church and the way that Christ just lifts us up and resurrects us—the miracles abound, whether your child lives or dies; no matter what happens, the miracles abound.
Mr. Maddex: Elissa, would you mind reading one of the entries from the book?
Ms. Bjeletich: Of course. This entry was written late at night, just before Mariana’s transplant surgery. That was a surreal experience, because when you’ve waited on a transplant list, and especially when it was starting to look like an organ might not come in time, people get really excited and they congratulate you on the surgery and they’re so happy for you, but if you’ve ever had a child undergo surgery, you know that it’s a stressful and difficult time. But with transplants, we’re just more aware of how lucky we are to be receiving life-saving medical care. I feel like we should always be so excited and grateful that there are doctors who can operate on our sick children. At any rate, I titled the entry, “The Operating Room is Booked.”
The surgeon has booked an operating room for seven o’clock tomorrow morning. Until they have their hands on the liver late tonight, we won’t know for sure, but so far everything looks favorable for transplant tomorrow. We thank God for all of these developments. All good things come from God. I can’t imagine how I’ll sleep tonight. It’s really a good thing that I’m well rested. I’m feeling very good for Mariana, but I cannot help but be so sorrowful for her donor. From what I understand, her liver is coming from a child between 12 and 14 months old who was the victim of child abuse. I thank God that the child’s parents made this generous choice, but I’m also so very sorry that this child led such a tragic life with such a brutal ending. I know that God will now be giving this child the rest and peace and love that he or she should always have had. This world is such a difficult place.
Fr. Dejan just came by and said some prayers for Mariana and anointed her. We are ready for tomorrow, whatever it will bring. This is my prayer tonight and in the morning:
O Lord Jesus Christ our God, who patiently endured the scourging and wounding of your most-holy body, so that you might save the souls and bodies of your people, look graciously, we beseech you, upon the suffering body of this your servant, Mariana, and strengthen her to endure patiently whatever you should see fit to lay upon her.
Bless the means employed for the working-out of her cure, granting that she may so endure her sufferings in the flesh so that the wounding of her body may serve for the correcting and salvation of her soul, for yours it is to show mercy and to save, O Christ our God, and to you we ascribe glory, together with your eternal Father and your most-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
I love how as we face surgery the Church reminds us that Christ patiently endured the scourging and wounding of his body in order to deliver us. Surely these wounds will likewise, with God’s blessing, be for the healing of soul and body.
Today was the Sunday of the Holy Cross, the ultimate example of how an instrument of humiliation and death is transformed through God’s life-giving power into the instrument of Christ’s victory over death for all time. As with all things, may he transform the suffering of this child who has died and the sufferings of our Mariana into joy and beauty. Through his grace, I’m sure he will.
I’ve been hearing the most remarkable stories from home. Today at church, during the beautiful procession of the holy cross, Fr. Vasileios asked everyone to pray for Mariana as they knelt before the cross. There are children who swear he had a special glimmer in his eye as he asked it, so they knew this was the time to pray most fervently. Just a short while later, my phone would ring with news that a liver had been granted to Mariana. I wonder what was happening while my beloved friends knelt before the Lord. Were the donor’s parents making the final choice of whether to donate their baby’s organs? Was the UNOS board making its selection, determining which sick child would be saved? I cannot help but think that the Lord inspired our priest and allowed that phone call to come just after those prayers, because he wished to send us a message: Your prayers matter. I hear your prayers and I love you.
Holy Lord, have mercy on us, and have mercy on my sweet child.
Mr. Maddex: Oh! Well, again, it’s Elissa Bjeletich, author of the new AFP book, In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She did a very touching reading for us there.
Elissa, what audience were you imagining when you wrote this book?
Ms. Bjeletich: I was writing primarily to my friends and family, of course, but they’re both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, so I was always aware that I was writing for a religiously mixed audience, and I stopped and explained a few Orthodox ideas here and there, clarifying things like why I was talking with the saints or what Pascha is—not just that it’s Easter, but what the experience of Easter is like in our Church. That works out nicely now, because it means that the book is accessible to people outside the Church, and, God-willing, it will be helpful to them as well.
Mr. Maddex: What do you most hope that readers will take away from this book?
Ms. Bjeletich: I hope readers will come to trust that they can take the leaps that I took. I hope that they’ll respond to their own struggles by offering themselves up to God, and I pray that he’ll transform them and turn their mourning into joy, as he has mine. If any book can do that, then may glory be to God.
Mr. Maddex: Very good. Is there anything else you would like to add before I let you go today, Elissa?
Ms. Bjeletich: No, I think we got everything.
Mr. Maddex: [Laughter] All right. Well, I thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Ms. Bjeletich: Thank you. I really appreciate it, Bobby.
Mr. Maddex: Once again, I have been speaking with Elissa D. Bjeletich, the author of the new AFP book, In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. Purchase this and other great books at store.ancientfaith.com. Thanks for listening.