The doctors said her younger brother may not live through the surgery and to prepare for the worst.
Chris Lee could come out in a vegetative state and it would fall on the family to determine whether to switch off life support.
Olivia Lee was on the phone to her mum who was at the hospital. Half an hour went by and they found out that Chris would live but that there was a chance he could be completely blind.
Chris had been stabbed in the eye and had his head stomped on in the early hours of Easter Sunday in 2012 during a night out in Kings Cross after a drunken altercation.
After two agonising hours, Olivia and her mum were told the doctors could save one eye. “It was a very fast two hours of miracles,” Olivia said.
Having lost their father a few months earlier to cancer, Chris was grieving by going out and drinking, leaving Olivia frustrated and distant.
“I was so frustrated because I wanted him to help out at home. He was the second eldest. We had a younger brother and sister and he was just going out,” she said.
“I was completely numb throughout the whole two hours after finding out about his accident because I was angry at him. It hurt that he was going out every second night because I was just trying to keep what I could together.”
Christian unconditional love is a fundamental commandment. However, many people can live their entire lives without experiencing the circumstances that bring this unconditional love to light.
For Olivia, it was by her brother’s hospital bedside that she learnt what it meant to love unconditionally.
“We were on bad terms all of the time. But when he went into hospital, my mum called me and said that when he was coming out of the theatre, the first thing he said was that he wanted to talk to me,” she said.
“When she told me, I broke down. I didn’t want to be angry at him. I went to the hospital and sat by his side. When he woke up in a daze, he looked up at me through these gauze baubles that covered his eyes after the surgery. I remember holding his hand and he said, ‘I am so sorry’, and that’s all he said, over and over again.
“That’s probably my favourite moment with him because I knew in that moment what it meant to love someone unconditionally.”
The healing process was arduous. Olivia took on the responsibility of driving Chris to his appointments and making herself available whenever he needed her.
“I was just very ‘matter of fact’ about the situation,” she explained. “I just blocked everything else out and focused on what he needed. I didn’t know if he was going to heal and I wouldn’t have blamed him if he didn’t.”
Olivia was completing a Liberal Arts degree at Campion College, which she said was opening up her mind in a different way to the faith.
“I just remember thinking that the only way for him to heal is for him to make his way back to God,” she said.
“My biggest strength is that I can love my brothers and sister in a way that only an older sister can. But without my dad, who my siblings respected so much and were so close to, I needed someone to fill that gap.
“I decided to pray a novena for nine days. I prayed to God to give me someone who would be that vessel to bring Chris back to the faith.”
Choosing to see the signs
It was through her family’s struggles that Olivia Lee learnt to not only see the signs but to choose to see the signs of God working in her life.
“It was on the ninth day of my novena that I was in the library at Campion College and a guy from class, Brendan Jackson, was sitting near me,” Olivia recalled.
“I didn’t like him at the time and I thought, whatever he said to me, I was just going to be really short with him.
“But he was persistent and kept asking me questions about what I liked. I wasn’t forthcoming with answers but he took that as a chance to talk more about himself, which annoyed me even more.”
But it was then that Brendan shared something about himself that Olivia was not expecting to hear – Brendan’s father had also passed away. Not only that, but he ran a young male adult group to help provide a forum for young men to be mentored and supported.
“It was ridiculous because it was the last day of my novena. I just thought, ‘This is the friend who is going to help my brother.’ It was what I had prayed for and that night I went and I begged Chris to attend Brendan’s group,” Olivia said.
“He agreed, after a lot of tears from me, but I knew he wasn’t keen to go. I thought, ‘God, you’ve got one chance, please don’t stuff this up.’
“I drove Chris to the group and he said he would only stay one hour and to be there to pick him up at 8pm.”
Olivia made sure she was there at 8pm on the dot. She sat in the car and waited. Three hours went by and Chris eventually knocked on the car window.
“It was midnight. He hugged Brendan and when he asked if Chris would attend the following week, Chris answered, ‘Yes.’ I couldn’t believe it. My novena had been answered,” Olivia said.
“Chris now goes to the group on his own. Sometimes he even runs the sessions.”
Olivia chairs the Parish Pastoral Council of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta and is also the Pastoral Associate at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) in North Sydney. A significant part of her work is engaging with people who are on the fringe of the faith.
It is through her understanding of unconditional love and choosing to see the signs that she is able to engage students in the faith.
“I just bombard people with love like Brendan bombarded me with questions. I make it all about them and I skip the small talk,” Olivia said.
“The students are responsive because I am genuinely interested in them, but even if they’re not responsive, I’ll just keep walking past them, smiling and asking them about them. I have no fear of rejection anymore because of this job.
“They’re not interested in the faith because they think the faith doesn’t care about them. They’re at that age when they’re making some of the most significant decisions in their life about vocation, but they don’t know how to see the signs. They’re not choosing to see the signs.”
Olivia believes one of the most difficult questions of the faith is, ‘Why is it a mystery?’
“They ask me how I can have faith in God but what they don’t yet understand is how to recognise the signs. There is beauty in choosing to see the signs of God working in your life,” Olivia said.
“Even when things seemingly go so wrong, sometimes you need those moments to learn to choose love and, ultimately, God.”
Read more about Chris Lee’s story here: Chris Lee’s Conviction to Curb Street Violence