Looking death right in the eye – again…
On Sunday, June 13, 2021 I had a very confusing, disorienting, embarrassing experience. I was happily preaching at third service (our 11 a.m. service), just closing in on the finish line of the message. I remember starting to feel a little dizzy (nothing unusual after speaking) when, suddenly, I lost my place. Again – I’ve lost my place in the message before. Easy – I make a quick joke about being off my notes, look down at my notes, get back on track and move on…
I looked down at my notes and suddenly, they didn’t make any sense at all to me. I mean, imagine looking at a piece of paper where the word “apple” is written – your brain tells you you’re seeing “orange” not “apple”, but you can’t figure out why you KNOW this is not right. I could not make heads or tails of the notes. I paused and, witnesses tell me, I said four times “give me a minute, something’s wrong with my notes.” I tried to laugh it off and said, “looks like someone switched my notes” and I honestly thought that is what happened. I thought maybe between services someone had switched the notes off my podium where I leave them…but they didn’t seem like last week’s notes by some accident either. In fact, I couldn’t figure out what Scripture I was looking at. It was as if I had never read those words before!
Someone brought me another set of notes from the sound booth – but I said “these are wrong too. What was I just saying?...” Then a very nice lady in the front row recited back to me what I had just said – in fact, someone said she preached it very well! But…I couldn’t understand what she had just said! It was like I could hear the language; I knew it was English, I knew it should make sense – but my mind simply did not process it.
At this point a wave of panic, embarrassment and serious confusion took over. I said “Well, that’s funny…let me just try and finish this out by looking at the PowerPoints.” But when I looked at the slide on the screen…well…the picture seemed familiar, but the written point made no sense to me – at all!
Now I began to shake – mostly with fear. I didn’t know what to do so I just said “I have to sit down” – which I did – right on the front edge of the stage. I have never felt so confused, so lost, so completely at a loss as to what was happening or what I should do.
I am hugely grateful for what happened next.
Half a dozen folks came to my assistance. My wife was right beside me, my friends Doug and Carey jumped forward, Mike (my security super-dude) was Johnny-on-the-spot to make sure I was safe. People crowded around, someone started praying, I heard someone deep in the audience calling out to the Lord for help. I was still confused, not sure why I was sitting down. They tell me I was white, clammy, and shaking. All I can remember is monumental confusion and terrible embarrassment – literally hundreds of people were looking at me. You might think that’s no big deal – after all, those same hundreds of people had been looking right at me for nearly an hour already. But I felt like I was stark naked.
After a few minutes I heard someone say “Folks, we’re ending the service now.” Then two people helped me to my feet and walked me to my office. In my easy chair I burst into tears – I just didn’t know what was going on, what was happening to me. I have no idea if I said anything at all. They were rushing around, checking my pulse (okay) and my blood sugar (normal) and my blood pressure (also fine). Then the 911 firemen guys showed up and I really felt a surge of embarrassment. “No, no, no, no…I don’t want to make a fuss over myself, over nothing.”
But it wasn’t nothing – that was for sure!
And then they were saying I need to go to the hospital. Words like “stroke” and “heart attack” were floating around. I’ve had a heart attack, and this felt nothing like THAT – I wasn’t in pain! So, when they asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital I didn’t know what to do.
There’s a part of me – a big, BIG part of me – that FEARS drawing attention to myself. I’ve been warned 100,000 times against pride, how pride brings a guy down. I’ve been given the lecture by people I trust so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve been warned about being anything like some of my infamous relatives who were so full of themselves that when they sat down on a toilet, they expelled little clones of themselves. Self, selfishness, pride – Ugggghhh – ungodly, horrible, nasty, avoid at all costs…
But I was the center of attention – like it or not. And this wasn’t about pride or getting sympathy. But I still wanted desperately to hide, wanted to just creep away and maybe, eventually, I-don’t-know – MAYBE go off to the hospital when no one was looking. But not an ambulance! Not lights and sirens. Not everyone looking. No! It was almost too much.
Ahh…and then my lovely wife…Ahh man watch me tear up just typing this…she came to my rescue. She told me it was okay. I didn’t need to be afraid – I can just go with these guys and it’s okay. You’re not drawing attention to yourself – this isn’t your fault (she knows my deepest fears…)…It’s okay…Oh Lord - her voice was like an angel to me.
So – I let them take me away. I told the story to the doctors, the nurses, all the medical people who asked me to repeat it a thousand times. They did two CT scans, and an MRI. I don’t like MRI’s – tiny little space and buckets of noise are not my idea of a good time. But I made it.
They tell me I had a “transient ischemic attack” or TIA. It’s where the oxygenated blood to your brain gets squeezed down or blocked. In my case the blocked area was in the Wernicke region of the brain (I guess because that is the region I was using at the time) – that’s the area that processes language. Some people think of a TIA as a mini-stroke, and I suppose that might be technically correct but the way it was explained to me is that a stroke leaves damage, but a TIA is like getting a bruise – it heals up really fast and doesn’t leave a trace. It turns out that when my cardiac doc changed my heart meds, he took me off a blood thinner. I guess I was supposed to stay on aspirin, but someone missed that – so I wasn’t. Without a blood thinner, a heart patient like me can produce itsy-bitsy little blood clots that normally get absorbed – unless they DON’T. So, my veins etc. are all clear now and the solution is to get back on a blood thinner.
And I thank God for so many people that rushed to my aide, for my wife, for my kids, for the docs and nurses and ambulance dudes – MAN I am so blessed it’s…sort of painful in a heart ache sort of way.
Again – I found myself looking at death…at life…at my life lived to date. It wasn’t a near death experience like my heart attack, but I didn’t know that at the time. Even though it wasn’t near death per se, I’m only in my early 50’s and I’m dealing with potential stroke and heart attacks. I was a tree trimmer. Trees fifty times bigger than me learned to fear my tree trimming power. I was the guy who worked 3 and 4 jobs to feed the fam, I was the single parent that didn’t quit – look at how tough I am - me, me, me, me.
I’m sitting in my underwear while nurses poke holes in my arms. Heck – they won’t even let me take a pee without standing next to me, so I don’t fall. Something dark and secret in my HEAD happened to knock me on my butt in front of hundreds of people. Your pride in a moment like that is – useless, foolish, worthless. "So – where’s your toughness now DOC? Where’s your tenacity to work or push through Pat?"
I fear pride. I fear drawing attention myself and I guess going through this a really good antidote against letting that happen - right? I mean, you can’t beat what you can’t see, young padawan. Your life is a vapor. It’s a mist on the morning breeze. The sun rises and it’s gone. If you don’t keep your focus on the one and only true God who holds your first day and your LAST in the palm of His mighty hand, you’re going to get humbled mighty quick.
So - you know what I know now? I don’t care how tough I once thought I was – I could have a plumbing valve the size of a pin-head lurking in my noodle that might take me down in a second. I won’t even know it!
Are you listening? This is you too! Maybe you’re tougher or smarter or more successful or prettier than me. There are lots of prettier people. But you could have something deep down in one of your cells just waiting to explode. I’m not trying to be morbid – just real. You’re just as much a mist on the horizon as I am. Will you get your heart right with your Maker before you blow away in the morning breeze?
I learned that I need Melissa’s calm, sweet voice in my ear. I learned that I need wonderful, sweet, caring people – I need them…I want them in my life…I want to be here, I want to get one more hug, I want to live.
But it doesn’t matter how much I work out (or don’t) – it doesn’t matter what I eat really because even body builders who measure the exact number of cabbage leaves they will eat with their bean-curd – THEY DIE. We all die. We all live on borrowed time.
So, I want to hold on to my wife…my babies…my grandbabies…my family and friends…my wonderful church. I don’t care that I was the center of attention for moment – I DO care that that moment showed the power of love over me. I want to hold on to that really tight. I don’t want miss the FACT that God has connected me with a whole lot of wonderful people.
So…If I didn’t tell you…I love you guys. I really do.
A life nearly spent…
There are fewer days ahead of me than behind me now. Two major incidents in four years shows me that truth. What can I say to you, dear reader? I can only say that if you have not made your honest peace with God, you better do that right now because you just don’t know what time you’re going to get. And you need to cherish those people that connect with you. Don’t take them for granted.