The Winning Essay!

This month's Food for Thought column is the Prayer Soup scholarship essay winner, written by Hannah Dercks, a  creative writing student and high school senior from Wisconsin.

I never thought my father would die.

Our future was planned out. He would hug me as I, the timid freshman, stepped into the large, frightening world of high school. He would protect me as I, the crabby sophomore, went on my first date. He would praise me as I, the confident senior, took center stage and received my diploma. He would help me as I, the excited college student, moved into my tiny dorm. He would guide me as I, the joyous bride, walked down the aisle. Now, he wouldn't be there for anything.

When my father fell, he landed on his shoulder and his head. He plummeted to the cement, receiving nine rib fractures, six spine fractures, and an Epidural Hematoma that devastated his brain, filled it with blood. He would die. If, by some miracle he survived, he would be in a vegetative state. Who would've known that thirteen feet would change everything for one man?

His affectionate wife stood outside the operating room, praying that her best friend would not be taken while her fingers progressed the beads of the Blessed Mother. She would not accept this devastation. His thirteen year old son, roaming the trails of their land, tried to distract himself from the shock. He didn't expect this tragedy. His twelve year old daughter, watching cartoons in the darkness, tried to escape the horror. She - I - couldn't lose my best friend.

His eyes were dark red, blood pooling over any white. Half of his head was shaved. Black stitches and icy staples perforated the side of his skull. His voice was rough like gravel, scratching my eardrums. His movements were slow. He floated like a ghost, a perceptible image of death hovering over his head.

I never fathomed the possibility that I'd lose my math tutor, soccer coach, food enthusiast and best friend. I thought he would be the same daddy I saw a week ago. The strong man I adored was so weak. However, my father's smile changed my fearful thoughts immediately. I smiled in return and swallowed back my fears. Even though he was in such terrible pain, he wanted me to feel hope. Fortunately, my daddy was still here. I needed to talk to him, hug him, tell him I loved him while I still could. He needed me. And I wasn't going to let him down. Since my mother stayed with him at the hospital, I decided to be the responsible and compassionate seventh grade girl I believed myself to be. I washed dishes, made grilled cheese with olives for my brother, folded laundry and worked hard on my school work. It was like I was praying, doing good works to help others suffering alongside me. I reflected a lot during this time, putting my best foot forward to get through the storm. People looked at me with pity as I carried on my routine, but I just shrugged and smiled. They didn't bother me. I was too busy becoming a responsible young woman. I stayed positive on those cold December days. I had to hope. I had to pray. I had to believe.

I have prayed since I was a little girl. I was brought up in a Catholic family, informed on the grace and the love God gave us. But, I'm not going to lie. Praying to the the big guy in the sky is quite challenging, especially when you're a young girl whose attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish. So, traditional prayer wasn't exactly the most popular option during this phase of my life. My impactful prayer experience happened as I fell asleep. It was dark outside, and snowflakes gently descended upon the earth. Two weeks had passed since the fall. A colorful lamp sat beside me on the table, slowly spinning a fluorescent lily. As I watched the snowflakes whirl and the lily dance, I eased into a prayerful, meditative state. It was oddly calming. Maybe the reason I eased in to peace was because I wasn't folding my hands and bowing my head. I was being myself, letting my mind flow and focus on whatever I wanted. I didn't force myself to "get in the zone" and formally pray. A feeling of serenity washed over me, and I was lulled to sleep by the whispering of the wind and the gentle dance of the lily.

A week later, a miracle happened. God answered my prayers. My father didn't die. He wasn't a vegetable. The doctors said there was no medical explanation: "It was a miracle". He was coming back home. Thanks, gratitude, and happiness filled my heart with warmth in the frozen winter. My father showed me that determination and optimism can make a difference. My joy made my heart pound, reminding me that with courage, love, and prayer, I can make a scary situation better. My father's perseverance (his own form of prayer) in the face of doubt carried him through.

This experience changed me. I've had many times when my prayer, my deep immersion into my soul, has left me empty. But, when it came down to it, these acts of prayer changed everything. My brother roaming those winter trails on the prairie was a form of prayer for him. Nature is freeing. Sometimes a breath of fresh air, listening to the wind whirl, and looking at the intricate icicles hanging from the barren branches can change a person. Solitude can free the body, mind and soul, giving you a chance to immerse yourself in reflection. My good works filled me with a sense of relief, distraction, and hope. Doing good deeds for others helped me reflect and have faith during such a devastating time.

What changed my life the most was falling into that serene sleep. I didn't do what was traditional, the typical Catholic way of prayer. I prayed in a way that was good for me. It's hard to describe how such an experience can change you. I reflected on my past, present, and future, thinking about what I needed to do to make my life and the lives of those around me count. If my father never fell, I know I would not have discovered how instrumental silence can be for the healing of the soul. It was - and still is- a form of prayer that gives me hope. To this day, I sit in my room and reflect on my day-to-day experiences, trying to find ways I can make it through the rough seas of life. And, when things get hard, so hard that I feel my heart shattering inside, I close my eyes and remember the night when the sweet snowflakes danced and the lovely lily twirled just for me. Prayer can be anything - the thoughts floating in our minds, the snow falling outside, or the lights above our heads. And, sometimes, prayer can be as simple as falling asleep.