Saturday, September 10, 2011

Two Years Later

September 4, 2009 was a gorgeous Friday.  I had the morning and early afternoon off, then later in the day I was going to officiate at a wedding in Minneapolis.  I spent the morning checking gopher traps and doing some light chores in the yard.  It was one of those peaceful mornings that, if you're lucky, you can enjoy in early September in Minnesota.  About nine-thirty, Julie told me she was going for a walk around the three-mile loop.  I took the book I'd been rereading -- C.S. Lewis' classic book The Great Divorce -- and retired to the hammock I keep strung up out in the pine trees.  What a perfect way to kick off Labor Day weekend, I thought to myself.

I came in the house after a half hour or so and started straightening up the living room.  I remember reaching down to pick up a stray pencil, and BAM!  In the back of my head, right at the base of my skull, I had the worst headache I'd ever experienced.  I honestly thought one of the vertebrae in my neck had shattered, because if I turned my head I heard and felt a terrible crackling sound, like bones grinding against each other.  I tried sitting down in my recliner, then leaning back.  No good.  I tried laying on the floor, rolling up a towel under my neck.  Nothing helped.  The pain was excruciating.  Eventually I started to sweat, then I got chills.  Nausea came next, in waves, and I staggered to the bathroom and lost my breakfast while trying to keep my neck immobilized.  By this time my shirt was soaked through.  I gingerly moved back to the living room and eased down into my recliner.  Whatever else was happening, I knew I wasn't going to make it to the wedding that afternoon.  I figured I'd better find someone to cover for me.  I called one colleague who couldn't do it, then a second who was able to cover the wedding for me.

About that time, Julie came back in the door from her walk.  She took one look at me and decided we'd better call someone.  She talked to a nurse for a few minutes and decided to take me to the emergency room.  I reclined the passenger seat in the car and tried to close my eyes and make the pain go away.  We pulled up in front of the ER doors and I struggled to get my seat upright, get out of the car, and walk into the emergency room.  Julie parked the car and joined me a few seconds later.  A young doctor did a quick CT scan and told me there was some blood accumulated on the surface of my brain, and that they were going to call a helicopter and take me to the University of Minnesota hospital.  He called the U of M and let the phone ring twice, then he hung up and said, "They're not answering.  We'll try North Memorial."  His hurry was the first time I had a sense of just how urgent my situation was.

In a matter of a few minutes, a helicopter arrived and I was wheeled out, lifted in and the gurney was strapped down.  My memories of being wheeled outside, lifted in, of meeting the flight crew and taking off, are all a blur.  I stared at the ceiling of the helicopter wondering if I was going to survive the flight.  It was not a panicky or fearful thought.  Lord, I thought, whatever you want in all this.  I trust you.  I wanted to see outside, suddenly, and I levered myself up on my right elbow to look out the window at the Mississippi River below us.  It was gorgeous.  Not a bad last image, if that's the way this goes.

That was the beginning of an adventure that kept me in the ICU for a day and a half, on the neurology floor for thirteen more days, and out of work for over a month.  The docs called it a subarachnoid hemorrhage.  Three CT scans and three angiograms later, they never did find a reason for the bleed.  Some small blood vessel let go, then sealed up again.  Of people who experience a subarachnoid hemorrhage, roughly a third die.  Another third experience major long-lasting effects.  The final third heal up and go back to life as normal.

People ask me, even today, why I think it happened.  I don't have a clue.  I did see God at work in the middle of the whole experience in hundreds of small and big ways.  But I don't think I'll ever see one grand purpose.  I see dozens of tiny things -- good things -- that came out of that time.  The closest I come to a reason, or a lesson, is something that occurred to me the last couple days I spent in the hospital.

For fifteen days I lived with the reality that my brain might explode (figuratively speaking) at any moment.  Through it all, God gifted me with a deep sense of peace.  I realized over and over that facing death is about trust.  There were a few times when I thought, like that moment looking down at the Mississippi, that the timer on my life might be counting down to less than a minute or two.  In those moments, all I could do was trust.  I was so thankful over and over again that I know Jesus, the one who has been through death and waits for me on the other side.  I know the one in whom I have put my trust.

One day, just before I left the hospital, I sat looking out my hospital room window and trying to get my brain around a huge transition.  I had been focusing on my death: writing out funeral plans, having those hard conversations with Julie, writing "what-if" letters to my girls, looking friends in the eye and acknowledging without words that we might not see each other for a long, long time.  Now I had to turn a corner and begin to focus not on dying, but on living.  I had become strangely comfortable with living in trust in the face of my death.  It was a lot like lying back in a hammock, trusting that the knots and the webbing would hold.  My existence, and my safety, depended on someone else.  Now, turning back to focus on life instead of death, I realized something.  Facing life is exactly like facing death.  You can't do it on your own.  Your existence, your safety, are  not up to you.  You have to trust.

If there's anything like a big lesson that came out of my experience in the fall of 2009, that's it.

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