It has been a whirlwind of a new year, and only 20 something days have passed. My wife and I returned from a wonderful conference on Youth Ministry that truly awakened our souls and stirred something deep within us. Ideas that had been trying to take root in our hearts and souls; thoughts that had been germinating were now given flesh and began sprouting inside of us, causing much excitement to pour forth from the two of us as we began to plan and dream for a huge year in our ministry. We could not wait to get home and start sharing it, planning it, and executing it. The future felt so vividly bright, that it almost burned.
Then this buzz all came crashing to a screeching halt. Our dear friend Ronda Holm called us on Jan 9 around 4:00 in the afternoon. She was crying and clearly upset. She managed through tears to tell us that her son Branson had been in a very serious accident snowboarding outside of Flagstaff, AZ. He had fallen on his head and suffered brain injuries. At the time he was in an urgent surgery. It was scary and horrible news. Immediately I felt sick, and had a dark feeling begin creeping its way into my soul. Fight as I would try, this darkness would prove to continue to claw its way in for the next 12 days. She asked us to start praying. Jessie went right over to their house to be with Ronda and help in any way she could. I went to the church to lead youth group, where I planned on having the group pray together. We had no clue just how serious the injury was, or really even what to pray for. So we simply prayed for God to act. But, deep inside of me an all-consuming fear began to join with the darkness. I knew Branson had been told just a year or so ago to be very careful with head injuries as he’d suffered at that time a pretty bad brain trauma from a 4-wheeler accident (yeah…the guy was adventurous ☺). Jessie helped the Holm family make travel plans to get to AZ immediately as Dr.’s began to fill the family in on the stark fact that this was a SERIOUS accident. We all fell to our knees and waited helplessly for news.
Before we go any further, let me back up some and tell you about the Holm family. Many years ago, they moved to Medford from Seward, AK where the father, Brad had been a missionary and preacher. To state the Holms are an amazing family is an understatement. They are as good of folks as you’ll find anywhere. Brad and Ronda have 4 beautiful kids. Shannon is married, lives in GA and has 1 son and another about to join us in this world any day now. Crystal is a nurse and world traveler, and is currently working temporarily in the Bay Area. Whitny lives in Medford, is married to a good friend of mine named Ryan Davidson and works for the 9-1-1 system. They are an incredibly fun and sweet couple. Branson was the only boy, a “surprise” for the entire family if you will. As the youngest and only boy, in many ways he was the "pride" of the entire crew. I could tell you why, and WILL tell you why…but I'll save that for later in the story ☺. These guys are simply all fantastic individuals. They are kind, giving, graceful, soft spoken and loving. They have become “surrogate grandparents” to my own children. Our youngest daughter, upon entering the church sanctuary each week immediately asks for “Mrs. Ronda”. ☺ They are forever part of our life. I am saying all that to say this: We love this family immensely. They mean the world to us and our relationship goes WAY beyond friendship.
Now…back to the tale. As the hours began to wane, we quickly learned that Branson had indeed been gravely injured. The evacuation team had acted valiantly and heroically, getting him from the slopes to the operating table in under 40 minutes! The Dr’s had worked masterfully, removing a massive clot from his brain and stabilizing him. It was obvious that it was bad, but not yet clear just how bad. The bleeding and swelling were making it difficult to really measure the extent of the damage. As such, they left his skull open and kept him unconscious in a medically induced coma to monitor him and to let Branson’s brain rest, and try to heal. In what seemed like slow motion we began to get bits of information that told us Branson was in for a long and difficult fight. The medical team decided the only way he could possibly think about healing would require his brain to work as little as possible. So, they pushed him deeper into an induced coma and lowered his body temperature. They made sure that no outside stimulation would cause the brain any activity. This included, light, sound or touch, which I imagine was pure torture for the family who simply wanted to talk to and touch B.
It was very difficult being so far away, (or maybe it was divine intervention. I am not yet sure which) All I know is that I just wanted to see Branson and the family. So we kept in touch daily. It was an eye opening lesson to see how quickly information spreads in the modern world. Between word of mouth, email, Twitter and Facebook, it seemed like the entire country knew about our beloved Branson immediately. As I monitored the many pages on Facebook and kept our own churches’ page updated, I was floored at the amount of love, support and prayers pouring in, from EVERYWHERE. That following Wednesday two groups from our church got together for an intense time of prayer and pleading to God. At the same time I received messages that other groups and folks were doing the same thing that night from as far as TN, TX, CO and other places. It was powerful. Our group met and prayed. We prayed hard! We cried, worshipped and begged God for our friend’s life. We had specific requests and general pleas. It was an incredibly moving night. Even in this state, Branson had managed to draw us all closer together.
Over the next few days, little by little, and really almost cruelly, we began to get reports that in our minds and hearts seemed hopeful. He had coughed! A toe had wiggled! His brain swelling was coming down! So, we began to allow glimmers of hope to crawl in. Yet, the darkness was still there, deep in my soul. It seemed to have truly dug in its’ claws by now, but light was still trying to find a way in as well. It was a battle.
So, I tried to hope. Besides if ANYONE could fight this thing it was B. He was undoubtedly the single most amazingly gifted athletic person I have ever known. I watched him throw a no hitter. I saw him go from never skating seriously to being an honor receiving hockey player in one year. I’d watched him throw a football 60 yards in the air. He was STRONG! If anyone could partner with God and beat this thing, I was sure it was my buddy Branson. So we all simply continued to pray for a miracle and waited in growing agony to hear about our friend.
This hope was quickly overtaken. The darkness inside me was not ready to be displaced yet, and it quickly took its’ dominion back on my soul’s pulse. It turned out that what we believed to be responses were nothing more than normal and involuntary reflexes. In other words, Branson had nothing to do with them. In fact, most of the movement was actually due to seizures that he had begun having. We went from hopeful to near hopeless in one phone call. The Dr.’s were concerned with several issues, and really needed to see what they called a “voluntary response” soon. On Sunday, I shared the most recent reports with our family at church and we all began praying for exactly that. In the back of my mind I began to think that maybe my dear friend was not going to pull this one out. Of course, I didn’t really want to believe that, so I quickly tossed that thought out like yesterday’s trash! Yet, it didn’t go away, it was still there, hiding and brewing deep within me.
Over the next week, the news got worse and worse. All indications were bad. From everything they could see, Branson’s brain was just TOO marred. Simply put…he was not getting better. The last days of that week were the toughest by all accounts. He began to have more frequent and more intense seizures. His brain and blood pressure began to increase, he spiked a fever due to infections, and a clearer picture showed brain damage that in all reality simply could not be overcome. It was bad. Finally, the darkness took over completely. I felt empty. I didn’t even know what to pray anymore.
So, the medical staff gathered the family around them and gave the prognosis we never wanted to believe could be coming. Basically, the injury had been fatal from the beginning. At the time his life was spared by only a few minutes. They have a scale of 3-15 to monitor brain activity. Branson was at the lowest, a 3 when he came in. After thousands of prayer flooded the throne of God and after extensive and excellent critical care, his number would only climb to a meager 5. The state of consciousness is measured as an 8, and that was the goal we kept praying for. But, after over a week of efforts, he took a turn for the worse and dropped back to a 3. Branson was not going to bounce back. The best scenario for Branson was dependent care for the rest of his life, and even that did not look likely. Branson loved life, but he loved to LIVE it. This is not living, and this was not something anyone, least of all B himself, would EVER want! So, our dear friends had to make the most difficult decision I could ever imagine. (Though, I think it was already made for them, as I believe my buddy had already gone to heaven.) On Friday evening, Jan. 21, 2011, my friend Branson went home to be with our Lord. We got the news, that we knew was coming. It had dwelled in us all day like an undigested lunch. Late that night in a simple text message from his mother, we were informed that it was over. My wife and I sat in the quiet of our den and stared into the air. We felt numb. We just could not believe it had really happened. This amazing burst of life that had flashed into our world was gone, in what seemed like an instant.
Over the next hours and days we had to share this news with lots of people. First we had to tell our kids. Our daughters are too young to really grasp it. But still, this was an incredibly difficult challenge. Our oldest, Jude was particularly fond of Branson. He thought that he’d hung the moon. Branson always made Jude feel special. He always took time to play with him, hug him and talk to him. Jude found in Branson a cool big kid who showed my son that he was valued and loved. Many times Jude would go to see Branson and they’d jump on the trampoline, throw a football or play video games. So, we knew this was going to require an extra measure of strength. Jude had been flooding the gates of heaven daily with his precious prayers for his friend. It was harder than I ever imagined. He was crushed. He lay in our arms and cried. We simply held him and promised him that somehow, he would be ok. When Jude finally settled down, he asked me if he could write a blog about Branson. So he did. He typed it all himself. He wanted to write more, but got upset and had to stop. But it was really all he needed to write. It was perfect. Here is the script from his blog:
worst Saturday ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
it was the worst Saturday EVER. 'cause i found out my dear friend Branson passed away last night. he was my favorite video game buddie. i used to always watch him play hockey when i was little. He was always kind to me, and i will miss him very much.
Aren’t those gorgeous words? Of course there are spelling, grammar and syntax errors. But the sentiment and pure, innocent emotion in those speak volumes! To me, this little entry into the great digital abyss says EVERYTHING you need to know about why Branson Holm was so special. He was a 22 yr old man. He was popular, gifted, funny, and busy. But, he took the time from his very busy life to make one little boy feel like he was his best friend in the world! THAT, my friends is incredible! That is heavenly. That is what made my dear friend such a shining jewel in a dull and gray world.
So now we find ourselves left with “the rest of the story”. This is the part of grief that seems the hardest. Once the unthinkable actually happens, we sense a strange feeling of relief, knowing it is over and we can begin to move forward. But then comes the reality of the question “How do we move forward”? These past 2 weeks have found me walking through my life and daily routines like an empty phantom. Motivation has been missing. That darkness I spoke of was just too much to overcome. Until, yesterday.
Yesterday I opened a new batch of mail at the church which had been sent in to the donation fund for Branson’s family. There was note after note of people exclaiming the praises of this young man. Several said they had only met him once but were struck by his magnetic personality and felt the call to help. As I read these, I was amazed. I was overwhelmed and I was humbled. This guy had lived a mere and way-too-short 22 yrs, but had left a HUGE footprint on this world! It seemed that every single place he went, he left in his trail people forever touched by the presence of a one-in-a-million person! As this reality set in, I had the sense that I had been in the shadow of genuine greatness for so long, and never really grasped it. A tear fell from my eye, but for the 1st time in 2 weeks, it was a tear of gratitude and actual joy. The darkness that had worked so hard to set terror in my heart fled instantly, and I fell to my knees to thank God for all that he does, even when he takes away! And as I pictured the last time I had hugged Branson just a month ago, light filled my soul.
So I want to close this rambling tome with why I loved Branson so much. As it stands, I have the greatest job in the world, as a youth minister. I actually get paid to make friends with awesome kids and share in their lives!! You can take a moment here if needed, to covet ☺. I love every kid that comes through the doors of my office and classroom. I count Branson on this list. But somehow, like the cream of fresh farm milk, he often rose to the top.
We had a special relationship. I have SO many memories. I remember the first real conversation we ever had. His family was still pretty new to Medford and West Main Church. He was young and believe it or not, at this time, Branson was quite shy. His sister was returning from serving in Iraq, and our group had made signs to go to the airport and greet her with the hero’s welcome we felt she deserved. I had been trying for weeks to get B to open up and he finally did. He shared the struggles he’d felt in moving from his beloved Seward, AK, where he had grown up. We talked about how he was adjusting to our “big” church (which is really funny if you belong to our wonderful family at W. Main). I simply asked him about his life, and offered my hand in friendship. I told him I thought he was going to be a blessing to our youth group. Boy did I have no clue how that statement would manifest itself! And the rest is history. I also remember our last talk, when I was so happy to see him this past Christmas, and the HUGE hug he gave me!
It didn’t take long for Branson to grow into a special friend. I have a virtual closet full of memories that make me smile. I remember staying up late drawing tattoos on him on a mission trip when everyone else was asleep, talking deep into the night about life. I remember watching him play football, pitch a baseball, and play hockey. I remember how when we went to serve hurting kids in the inner city in Portland, they all flocked to him (especially when he did that “booty shake” dance and then back-flipped off the stage when he was challenged to a “dance off” ☺). I remember him nervously presenting a sermon with his dad one Sunday evening in our auditorium. I remember him coming to me in a panic when he was asked to lead a bonfire devotional on a house building mission trip to Mexico, and how I gave him a simple object lesson idea, and how he took it, made it his own and shared mightily to us all. I remember how he ALWAYS took time to love my son and what that meant to him. I remember how everyone looked up to him in the youth group. And who amongst the privileged few present could ever forget the time we had an entire restaurant in Portland sing to him? I have never seen someone turn so red! I remember being sad when he moved away (first to Eugene) but so proud of him. I remember visiting his first apartment and giving him a hard time about a "questionable" swimsuit calendar hanging on his wall☺! But of course…it was impossible to ever be mad at B. I could go on and on. It seems that the good memories of this young man are endless.
Branson lived life. He packed more into 22 years than most will a much longer lifetime. It only takes a few moments browsing through his Facebook photos to see that his life was ANYTHING but boring. He believed in having fun, smiling and making every day special. If an adventure was for sale, Branson was buying!
He had an extremely rare magnetism that drew everyone into him. Maybe that was what made him the MOST unique. He could make ANYONE feel comfortable. He would include anyone at all in his circle. He loved people. He could walk into a teetotaler Bible study, an old folks home, or a raging Frat kegger, and fit in, making everyone around him comfortable and happy. He had no ill will or judgment in him. Perhaps Branson lived out the apostle Paul’s mandate to be “all things to all people” better than anyone else I will ever know! He was blessed with an arsenal of gifts, and I am so thankful he used these gifts to make this world a better place! I truly believe this world is better because of this young man. I can attest that my life is infinitely more blessed because he was in it.
I have spewed too much already, so please accept my humble apologies. What it really all boils down to is this: I LOVE BRANSON TITUS HOLM SO VERY MUCH. And my friend, i hope you can hear these next few words. You were much more than a youth group student to me. You were a friend, and above all you were a son to me. I thank God for you. I pray that at this time, He has His loving arms wrapped gently around you, as you plan the 1st Annual X Games in heaven. ☺ Thank you Branson for loving me back! You will always be part of me. I will see you again my friend, so keep that hug ready for me.