When 6-year-old Erik Zielke died, he gazed upon his Savior's face.
"Looking up will lift you up!"
That phrase meant little to me until our son manager, in his passing, to give us a glimpse of its true meaning. Now it gives me comfort and hope beyond measure.
Erik was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in July 1987. For the next two and a half years, he put a heroic struggle for life. He wanted to live, but he never lost sight of what was awaiting him when his Savior called him home.
My husband, Mark, and I still live in wonder as to how a 6-year-old could endure such terrible pain with a song in his heart and his eye's looking upward. Erik was able to share his unquestioning faith with us, and together we grew in our love for each other, and even more, for God.
Initially, after Erik was diagnosed, he felt anger - anger for all the pain, anger at God for allowing this to happen to him. Erik was only 4 then. After only 4 years on this earth, he had to start in earnest to explore his faith. "No matter what happens, Erik will be all right. He has a very strong faith," Mark told me as he held me in his arms right after we had been told what the doctors had found. Watching this faith blossom and unfold would touch our very souls and renew our hope for the future.
Erik's condition was critical for the first two weeks. As soon as he started feeling better, he began to put his life in perspective. He wanted to know if he was going to die. We answered him as honestly as we could that we would do everything medically possible to help him, but that in the end, he was in God's hands.
From that point on, his anger started to slip away. He showed an interest, even an eagerness to learn more about God and His promise of eternal life. Erik was beginning an adventure of sorts, an adventure that would help him discover how his faith could sustain him even during his last moments on Earth.
Over the following months, Erik's motto became, "Together God and I can handle anything." He endured his many painful treatments with an attitude of, "If this will help me to live, then let's do it and get on with my life."
He became an ardent list maker - making lists of all the things he still wanted to see and do. "I have so much to do, some days, I just have to push myself harder," he told me. "I don't have any time to waste."
We tried everything the medical profession had to offer. After every avenue was exhausted, we decided that it was truly time to face the fact that our precious son would soon be leaving us. I believe that Erik faxed this truth long before the rest of us did. He was preparing his soul and nurturing it daily by looking up - looking to God for answers and strengthening his faith in the process.
One day, when Erik's pain was even worse than usual, I tried to distract him by asking, "If you could have three wishes, what would they be?"
His first two wishes were for material things. The third he thought about for a long time. Finally, he said, "I wish that Eve hadn't taken a bite of the apple and talked Adam into it, too. If she hadn't, then I wouldn't have cancer, and I would never die. Everyone in the whole world would be happy. Everyone would have what they want and need. I guess one of the first things I'll do when I get to heaven is ask Eve why she did that."
Erik liked nothing better than to tell his younger sister, Whitney, about the wonder and beauty of heaven. He liked to dwell on the "many rooms" part and think about how beautiful God's house must be. He wanted so much to live, but he understood that the life awaiting him would be so much more wonderful than he could ever imagine.
One of the most traumatic ordeals Erik had to endure was a bone-marrow transplant. We had involved him when the decision was being made, whether we should try it. His response was, "Let's do it. God will be beside me and will guide me. We can handle it."
One morning during this particular hospital stay, Erik looked especially tired to me. "How was your night?" I asked.
"I was awake until late," he said. "I got one of the nurses to sit with me for a while after you left. We watched Johnny Carson, and then she had to leave. I just couldn't sleep. I felt sick all over and didn't know what to do. I decided I would pray until I fell asleep. I wanted to talk to God, but I felt to sick to think, so I just lay here and told Him that I loved Him. Over and over, I said, 'God, I love You.' And you know what, Mom? All of a sudden it was morning. I guess it was a pretty good prayer."
One day, out of the blue, Erik said, "Do you know what, Mom? I'm not going to miss you after I die."
I am sure I looked at him with surprise.
"In heaven you're never sad or lonely," he explained, "so I won't miss you, but I know I'll think about you all of the time."
"You know that song I like so much, Mom, "Heaven is a Wonderful Place? Well, I was wondering if maybe the kids at school could learn it and sing it at my funeral. It makes me happy, and I want everyone else to feel happy for me."
Erik's leukemia reared up with a vengeance about four months after the bone-marrow transplant, and his hold on life began ebbing away. "I'll never give up," he vowed stoically, "but when God wants me to join Him, I'll be ready."
We loved this little boy of ours. I wanted to take him in my arms and somehow protect him from all the pain and suffering he had endured and what was yet to come. We knew the only true protection we could give him was to encourage his faith, and to share our own deepened faith with him.
As the days went by, Erik's legs and arms became essentially immobile as his tumors caused his bones to break. His focus seemed to narrow the more his condition deteriorated. He thought about two things: pain relief (more manageable, more or less, with morphine pump) and preparing to meet his Savior.
He did still manage to find the energy to play, even though it was often just in his head. "Since I can't move my arms, " he'd say, "I'll just have you put my toys in front of me, and I can imagine that I'm moving them around and having fun with them."
We never saw any fear in Erik - just calm, unyielding faith. He knew without question where he was going, and he repeatedly shared that knowledge with us. It seemed to us a great privilege just to be with him and to listen to him.
One day, as his father was carrying him back into the house after a visit with his horse and goat, Erik said "When I die, Dad, I want to die in your arms here at home." Somehow, to me, this simple statement made Erik's impending death seem so much more real. My baby, using his faith as his comfort, had the courage to face his future without fear. Surely, as his parents, we could try to do the same.
Our son's grasp on life was now weakening by the day. Each breath seemed more labored than the last. Yet, the more he struggled, the more peaceful he became.
His respirations noticeably worsened on the night of December 11, 1989. He was alert, but very restless. We spent hours talking to him about anything and everything. He loved to hear the story of how much we had wanted baby and how blessed we felt when, after seven years of trying to have a child, he was born. We spent the night just touching him, feeling his warmth and love.
"We'll always love and remember you, honey," I told him. "Always. There isn't one thing I would change about you. You have given us so much."
At 6 am, Erik looked at Mark and said, "Pick me up in your arms, Dad. Carry me into the living room."
Mark and I looked at each other. We both knew our son was dying. The pain in our hearts at that moment was overwhelming.
With all the love he felt for his son, showing in his face, Mark lifted Erik into his arms and, as a family, we walked into the living room. Again, we told him how much we loved him, "Ditto," he said.
All of a sudden, Erik almost shouted, "Lift me higher! I want to look up!" Mark held him aloft, and Erik kept saying "Look up! Look up!"
Then Erik drew a deep breath and, with a look of such perfect contentment I know I shall never forget it, peered down into the faces of his family. Then he closed his eyes forever.
He had begun a wonderful journey, and we had been witness to his departing. Freed from his pain, our little boy was free to soar with God and his guide.
When 6-year-old Erik Zielke died, he gazed upon his Savior's face.