DOUGLAS — Craig Berendes had come to terms with his mortality. He was dying. Any hope of a must-have kidney transplant had waned months earlier.
The 68 year old was at rock bottom. His only hope was his faith.
Yet, he had come to terms with the fact he would be dead soon.
“I just wanted to go home with the Lord,” he said. “I’m done.”
That faith pushed him to a new church, Unity Christian Fellowship.
“The Lord came to me and said, ‘I have two paths for you,’ and they both will be blessed. So I took the new path and ended up at Unity, where I met Brian.”
Yet, even after exchanging a few pleasantries at church over the next months, Berendes and Brian Brooks hardly knew each other.
Berendes, a handyman who had been too ill to work much of the time, was still just waiting to die. He did odd jobs when he could.
Brian Brooks admits that 20 years ago, he wouldn’t have even considered what he was about to do.
“The thing that came through all of this that – I have come to realize – is I’ve got a God that gave his Son for a guy who needed a heart transplant; that’s who I am.
“I was a selfish, ugly dirt bag most of the first 30 years of my life; everything was about Brian,” he said.
Somewhere along the way, he had a change of heart. Now he’s a deeply religious man.
His life, he realizes now, was redirected by God onto a path he never saw coming.
“God’s timing . . . it was amazing. In hindsight, I realize now that God put this all together. God’s timing, I wish I would have been . . .” Berendes said, his words simply trailing off into some deeply philosophical or religious thought.
That timing couldn’t have been better.
Berendes was nearing the end.
Brooks’ faith was as stronger than ever.
“I hadn’t even really met the guy, maybe shook his hands a few times,” Brooks said. “I didn’t even know he was sick.”
That changed one Sunday.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I’m a handyman in town, so if you ever need help let me know. Apart from my dialysis three times a week, I can help.’”
Surprised, Brooks knew he needed to know more.
Berendes’ only hope was a new kidney. Prospects were dim or nonexistent. Six potential donors, including his wife Mary, had been rejected.
More than three and a half years of dialysis had taken its toll on the 68 year old.
Brooks felt his heart pulled from his chest. He knew Berendes was still selflessly giving to others in need, never complaining.
Brooks wondered if he could be so strong in the face of near-certain death.
Then, he offered his kidney.
But he didn’t know if he even truly meant the words.
In Berendes’ mind, this was just a precursor for rejection number seven.
The idea still weighed on Brooks and his wife Jennifer for several weeks.
“To be honest, I kind of sat on it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Do I really want to do something like this?”
The two were acquaintances, not family, after all.
“The first two weeks were hell,” Brooks said. “In hindsight, I realize God was in control.”
Jennifer is a well-known “worrywart” who researches every little thing. Her husband was sure she would object.
Something about this was different. God gave her peace with all of it, which was itself a miracle, he said.
An initial visit to the University of Colorado Medical Center in Aurora brought a glimmer of hope. Early signs pointed to Brooks being a match.
The next Sunday at church, the donor sought out his friend among the crowd.
“(Brian) said, ‘I’ve been praying about this, Craig, and the Lord told me my kidney’s a match for yours,’” Berendes recalled.
Then, news of total kidney failure grounded Berendes. His condition worsened. He battled numerous infections. Things looked dismal.
“Dialysis wasn’t enough,” Brooks said. “He’d seemed to do better, but then take a dive again.”
Berendes was moved to daily dialysis at home, 10 hours a night. It helped, but only so much.
Despite the hardship, support from his new church family lifted the man more than they will ever know, Berendes said.
“It was just a miracle from God. I’ve never experienced that in my Christian walk before.”
“A couple times we thought he was dead,” Brooks said. “He was that bad.”
Sick and barely able to walk, Berendes stumbled to church one Sunday, where he felt God’s plan.
“The Lord said, ‘It is a match and you will receive it.” Berendes was lifted by the thought.
The message gave him a sense of hope, a road map to overcome a required stress test. Starting from the darkest depths of his life, he pushed forward, one step at a time.
“I could barely walk, let alone run on a treadmill for two minutes,” he said. He knew he had to pass the stress test, which meant forcing himself to get better.
His wife joined him in walks at Keith Rider Park. Over time, his physical condition improved until he was cleared for surgery near the end of September.
The positive news came from Brooks.
“I remember calling Craig and saying, ‘It’s a go, it’s gonna happen,’” Brooks said. “It was the coolest thing that I’ve been a part of, having Craig on the other end sobbing and laughing at the same time.”
At the time of the call, Craig was at the church fixing a bathroom fixture.
“I found a couch and cried for two hours,” he recounted. “I was thanking the Lord for his grace and glory.”
Oct. 25 is a day both men will never forget. Brooks had kept good on his offer, giving his healthy kidney to save Berendes’ life.
“Thinking back, I praise God for my suffering so my brother can live,” Brooks said.
In essence, it taught him to “be who you say you are,” Brooks said.
Since the surgery, Berendes is doing better. His health and strength are returning. On Dec. 4, he was cleared to come home.
If all goes well, he should be back to his old self come February.
This experience taught Berendes the importance of paying it forward, and listening to the Lord. After all, everything is in His hands.
He learned that lesson amid all the others.
Despite being still sick, he was changing a faucet for a man when he told the man the Lord told him he couldn’t charge for the labor, only the parts.
“The day I was leaving for the hospital (for surgery), the man came by and said, ‘I have something for you,’” he recalled. “He handed me a $100 bill and said, ‘You have to take it because the Lord said I have to give it to you.”