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Crisis and Faith: How Losing Almost Everything Can Help You See What Matters

04/08/2013 05:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

My 4-year-old son Lio had been in a coma for more than a week. While his bed was about to be changed, I maneuvered myself around all the tubes and wires and slid my hand under his back up to his head. With my other arm under his knees, I carefully lifted him up onto my lap and sat down in the vinyl-covered chair beside his bed. I wasn't expecting his skin to be so warm and I let myself feel a bit comforted.

After seeing me hold him, his grandmother (my mother) wrote in her diary that the sight of Lio draped in my arms reminded her of one of the most well-known Easter images: The Pietà, that famous Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding Jesus after the after the crucifixion. She finished by saying, "Lio will come back to us too."

In the past I've often found words like this a bit difficult to take in. It's almost as if that most famous Christian miracle, like the miracle I was praying for (that Lio would defy the doctors and cheat death himself), could be undone or made impossible by speaking about it in such an obvious way. Maybe this is more my problem than it is my mother's. But her attempts to describe the indescribable have caused me a crisis of faith because I know that words are slippery things that often suggest the opposite of what they say on the surface. But sometimes in life crises are really second chances in disguise.

My crisis began 10 days earlier. It was going to be the most important day of my career: I was scheduled to give the keynote address at a huge international media conference in Sunderland, in the north of England. I had worked all my life that moment: I had published journal articles and written reviews; I made ambitious and challenging radio for the BBC and for NPR stations; my work was in museums; and I had just traded in my good academic gig in New York for an even better one at a university in the U.K. I felt like I was at the top of my game, I was driven and striving, with this constant itch to be forever notching up more lines on my résumé.

As it happened, I never got the chance to deliver my amazing talk on new ways of making radio. Instead, I was met at my hotel by two policemen who lacked the usual swagger and who were struggling to look me in the eye. They told me that there had been an accident on the highway and that my wife Sasha had been killed and that our son Lio was very near death in a hospital in London. I collapsed into the chair behind me and, as I struggled to process what I'd just been told, the person I'd been all my adult life simply died too -- and died quickly.

Three hours later I was by Lio's side in pediatric intensive care. The space was dark and windowless, lit mostly by the small red LEDs of medical equipment. There, surrounded by a halo of computer screens, I found my only child with a fractured skull, severe brain damage and a horribly shattered left leg. It was suggested that I consider donating his organs. Doctors told me he would likely not make it and told me that the best, the absolute best-case scenario that I should allow myself to hope for was Lio one day attending a school for the severely mentally handicapped. Absolutely everything I'd ever wanted for my life and for my son's life had evaporated in a matter of hours.

But as I looked at him, bruised and battered as he was on his hospital bed, something began to fill the void. I don't know where it came from or how I came by it, but I was getting something. I had lost my wife, but at least -- at least in that moment -- I still had our little boy. As I stood there, my thumb wedged in his tiny clenched fist, I found myself saying, "I will face this. Nothing will stop me doing what needs to be done, saving Lio and getting him out of here. He will do it." Then I found myself seeing the rest of my life unfolding, and unfolding happily, pulling Lio back from this precipice. I had been burnt empty by fear, but this little meditation that I somehow stumbled onto was putting something back, and while the fear would swallow me again and again I would again and again fall back on a version of this little pep talk.

The next morning Lio was still with us. And with this simple fact in mind the tiny kernel of faith that I had nourished by his bedside all night long stirred and grew a little bit. Gradually, with infinitesimally small steps and in the face of some brutal and devastating setbacks, Lio got better over the next days: He was taken off of his respirator and breathed on his own, unaided, when I'd been told that this might never happen. His brain started regulating his body temperature on its own again. And his muscles, initially as tight as steel springs, began to loosen.

How and why these improvements happened, no one seemed sure, given, as the doctors were fond of saying, "the original nature of his injuries." I like to think that I had something to do with it. I almost never left his bedside. I would read to him from his favorite books. I would spin out for him over and over again the magical stories that his mother and I had invented about elves and dragons and a littler miller boy who lived in the Italian Alps, stories that had been a part of his bedtime routine since he was a toddler. I would trace little lines and circles with my fingers along his face and his limbs four times a day while special brain stimulating music was playing to him in headphones.

With each incremental movement he made in the right direction, I collected another piece of my heart. In those moments and through that closeness I discovered something. I came by a profound sense of meaning and a knowledge of what I was really meant to be: not a high-flying academic, but a father -- the best father I was capable of being. Where the old me was hounded by a non-stop restlessness, an ambition to always be achieving more and having more, there, in those quiet and anonymous moments at my unconscious son's side, I found my purpose. I felt a clarity that had eluded me my whole life. Sometimes today, if I get too distracted by more traditional ambitions, I push myself to remember that clarity.

The moment when I held Lio in my arms for the first time after the crash, the moment that my mother thought looked like The Pietà, will stay with me forever. As I held him warm and broken in my arms, something happened that even I wasn't expecting. He opened his eyes. Like a newborn baby doing it for the first time, he opened his eyes for me. I can't honestly say whether they were focused or not, but he did open his eyes. As I looked at him and (maybe) he looked at me, everything else in the world stopped and I stared transfixed for the first time in 10 days into the blue of his eyes. I was lost in simply their color. There it was, beyond any subjective hope, a sign that Lio was really and truly on his way out of a coma.

The word "rebirth" is certainly a bit worn out, clichéd at best and tedious at worst. But after what we've been through, I find myself making an effort to be more charitable with other people's words, not just my mother's. The crisis of the crash -- six years ago now -- changed me in ways that I'm still coming to grips with. Perhaps most importantly, faith, in both general and specific senses, is now something that I don't shy away from, that I don't seek to avoid either as a sensation or a topic of conversation. In fact, faith has become an odd kind of tether to those terrible early days in the hospital. It's a conduit to the purpose, meaning and love I found there in those dark moments by my son's bedside, days which remain, in the strangest of ways, the most contented of my life.

Martin, Sasha and Lio Spinelli

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