Excerpts From Relentless Grace

by Rich Dixon on October 5, 2009

This is a series of excerpts from RELENTLESS GRACE. I hope you enjoy them, and that you’ll encounter God’s invitation to give hope another chance.

THE MARATHON

runner… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1(b)

Imagine you’re running a marathon. You’re monitoring the situation, carefully maintaining a reasonable pace based on ability and training. You’ve prepared your body and mind for the race; you know the signs that tell you to run faster or slower, when to drink or eat.

You expect the unavoidable ebbs and flows of mental and physical energy. Hills and headwinds will increase difficulty in some places; sunshine and tailwinds will provide a few easy, enjoyable stretches. You’re eager to confront exhilaration and trial as fundamental elements of the competition.

You also know about “the wall,” that point where you’ll be tested nearly beyond your ability. You anticipate that burning muscles and aching lungs will challenge desire and discipline. You expect the urge to give up, to stop and allow the pain to subside. The lure of immediate relief will entice you to cast aside goals and dreams, surrendering the satisfaction of the finish line in return for an end to the struggle.

Then, without any warning, you fall into a hole.

The publicized course didn’t mention this complication. You didn’t train for it, couldn’t see it coming, didn’t prepare survival supplies or pack climbing equipment. There’s no cell phone reception in the hole.

You try everything you know to escape from the hole on your own, but all of your training, experience, and discipline are useless. No specialized diet or workout regimen could have prepared you to overcome this unanticipated challenge. You simply cannot get yourself out of the hole. You’re stuck. Powerless.

Hopeless.

A doctor happens to walk by the hole. You call out, “Hey, Doc. I’m stuck down here. Can you help me?” The doctor writes a prescription and tosses down some medicine. You take the medicine, and you feel better. But you’re still trapped.

One of your buddies walks by. “Hey, can you help me out? I’m stuck down here, I’ve tried everything I can think of, but I can’t get out.” Your friend tosses you a Bible with some inspiring passages marked. You read the passages and meditate on them, and you feel better.

But you’re still caught in the hole.

Then a radical thought occurs to you: Perhaps I should ask God for help. (Interesting that prayer is so often the last thing I think of when I’m in trouble.) “God,” you pray, “I’m trapped in this hole and I can’t get out. I’ve tried everything, but I’m really stuck. Can You help me?”

You hear a faint rustling sound and turn around. Jesus is there! “Lord, I’m trapped in this hole. I’ve tried everything, but I can’t find any way out. And I appreciate that You’ve come to be with me, but now we’re both stuck here.”

Jesus smiles and puts His arm on your shoulder. “Yeah,” He says. “But I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.”

If you’d like to read the story of Relentless Grace,
you can order a signed copy here or purchase it at Amazon.com.

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TWO FACES

A background of slate-gray clouds outlined the unfamiliar face staring down at me. I felt as if I were waking from a deep slumber, recalling the rough draft of a dream, needing a splash of cold water to clear my head and sort out the border between fantasy and reality. The face hovered over me, right there yet somehow far away and fuzzy around the edges and I didn’t know who—or why. I attempted to ask, but I couldn’t manage to create the words.

Cool air washed over my face; everything seemed kind of quiet and slow and distant. I felt a sort of floating sensation like the gentle rocking motion of waves against the side of a boat. The clouds swayed slightly, and I realized I was being carried. Where? I tried to ask—the question formed in my mind, but no words emerged. I frowned, and he saw the expression. “Just lie still, sir. You’ve had an accident.”

I didn’t hear the end of his attempt to reassure me as everything sort of faded away…

paramedic1

A ceiling tile framed a new face. “Sir, can you hear me?” I tried to nod, but my head remained still, immobilized by the strap pressing on my forehead. She asked again, “Sir, can you talk to me?”

I finally heard my voice, weak and distant. “Yes. What…?”

“You’ve had an accident. We’re going to take good care of you.”

A whirl of activity surrounded my motionless body, questions and commands volleyed back and forth in hushed tones. The atmosphere bristled with urgency, but I could only gaze at the ceiling and wonder what the rush was about. Why was everyone so concerned? Why couldn’t I remember what happened?

EmergencyRoom

The fog cleared a little. I recalled that I was in a hospital, and I surmised that the bustling environment surrounding me must be the emergency room. I heard medical conversations, dialogue from a television drama—blood pressure, pulse, IV’s, x-rays. The face stared down at me.

I started to know, to comprehend the first flickers of fear. The gentle face assured me it was all right. But it wasn’t all right. I couldn’t feel, couldn’t move and now I began to appreciate the seriousness of my circumstances. The concern in the voices and the rush to accomplish a hundred tasks at once finally penetrated the fog. As I stared up at the ceiling tile, an incomprehensible icy terror clutched at my soul.

Paralyzed!

That only happens in the tragedy of a morbid nightmare; movie characters and football players get paralyzed. But the sounds and smells of this real-life trauma center were not props from some artificial, antiseptic movie set; no cameras recorded this horrific scene, no teammates gathered around my lifeless body. I wasn’t trapped in a sleepy fantasy.

I faded in and out of hazy awareness frequently during the next hours. I recall little of that time, the lack of detailed memory a true gift from God. I faintly recollect x-rays, CT scans, and a horrible claustrophobic experience in a primitive MRI scanner. The entire sequence of events felt slow and distant, like some dreadful dream from which I couldn’t force myself to awaken.

I recall one fearsome detail with high-definition digital sound clarity. As that face peered down at me from the ceiling tile I managed to plead weakly, “If I’m paralyzed, don’t let me live. I want to die.

“Please…let me die.”

If you’d like to read the story of Relentless Grace,
you can order a signed copy here or purchase it at Amazon.com.

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CHURCH

Note: In this series of excerpts, this event occurred prior to my injury. In a time of confusion and loneliness, I wandered into an unfamiliar church. I sought a bit of peace in a sea of turmoil. I found a good deal more. 

“See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.” [Exodus 23:20]+

Singing. That’s mostly what happened in Sunday night church. Familiar songs, though I hadn’t attended church since high school. Someone selected a hymn and everyone sang accompanied by a piano.

About fifty people were scattered in the first few rows; apparently only hard-core religious types went to church twice on Sunday. The person choosing the song often requested prayer or shared an experience. They discussed intimate personal issues freely and sometimes quite emotionally. Obviously these people were involved in each other’s lives.

I sat alone in back, fighting the urge to leave. Their comfortable familiarity and my self-imposed isolation enhanced my loneliness. I’d created one more place where nobody understood my haunting fear.

Later I’d understand the peace this group enjoyed as they sang and talked together. I’d learn to come on Sunday night and let the presence of God and His people lift me up.

But that night I couldn’t appreciate what transpired before me. Their cozy little warm-fuzzy-fest made things worse. Why should they float in peacefulness while I drowned in despair? Why were they surrounded by friendship while I sat alone and hopeless?

Church wasn’t helping, and now the imaginary conversation I’d rehearsed in my car was falling apart. I’d convinced myself to approach the pastor, but the leader that night was a substitute. I watched him closely as he spoke for a few moments, meaningless words about foreign notions that couldn’t ease the haunting unrest.

He seemed sincere enough, and these people felt comfortable with him. Maybe he could help, at least fill a portion of one lonely evening. I had to try something; I couldn’t return to that bleak apartment.

 

Small groups gathered outside after the service while I hid in the shadows watching the leader. Whenever one person walked away, someone else stopped to chat. Approaching him alone appeared impossible.

People began drifting to their cars, arranging to meet for coffee while I desperately awaited my opportunity. The last group left and he moved toward the parking lot. I wanted to run into the night, but fear and despair overcame embarrassment. As he opened his car door I stuck out my hand awkwardly.

“Hi, I’m Rich.”

“Hello, I’m Hank. I saw you during the service.”

“Yeah. Um–do you have some time to talk?”

Indecision flashed across his face. He was headed home to his family or to meet someone else. His day was done.

“Right now?” He wanted to put it off, and I almost replied No, that’s okay, maybe another time that’s better for you. But I’d finally reached out, and I needed to grab something.

“Yeah, if you can. I’m having a tough time. I need to talk to somebody.”

Eternity balances on the small moments God uses to modify the course of a life. Frequently such choices appear innocuous, but you look back and wonder what might have been if the coin had flipped differently. Life-altering episodes usually aren’t the anticipated epic events that in retrospect really aren’t so important.

This guy probably encountered many people “wanting to talk.” I’ll bet he frequently weighed the urgency of a particular request, whether prior plans assumed priority, and when a situation required him to change course.

I don’t know how he decided that evening–perhaps a waver in my voice or considerable experience reading troubled faces–but somehow he concluded that this appeal shouldn’t be postponed.

“Okay. Can you wait while I make a phone call?”

I swallowed the urge to say Please, don’t change your plans. No big deal.

This night was a big deal.

So this stranger walked back to the church to use the phone, to tell someone that tonight I needed him more than they did.

If you’d like to read the story of Relentless Grace,
you can order a signed copy here or purchase it at Amazon.com.

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JAILBREAK

“See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.” [Exodus 23:20]

Someone once wrote that we are all in prison but we don’t realize it. And as long as we don’t recognize the cell, we’re stuck there. The first requirement for escape is to acknowledge confinement. You have to see the bars for what they are before you can begin the process of removing them.

My journey along those peaceful streets comprised the very first baby-steps on a much more significant—and difficult—journey toward recognizing that I existed in prison and that I didn’t want to live there any longer. It would be a long time, a lot of painful learning, before I got a handle on what that meant.

And it would be much longer before I accepted that I could discover a key to the jail that confined me. In fact, I eventually learned that the door was locked from the inside and that I had always owned a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The door to my personal jail had always been open, but I couldn’t see it. And I couldn’t walk through a door I couldn’t see, so I remained locked within my own fears and disappointments.

 

“Adam, where are you?” When the first man heard God calling to him in the cool of the evening, he hid in shame. Even after their disobedience God sought out His creatures, wishing still to walk with them in the beauty of the garden. And even though they could clearly hear God’s call, they hid from Him.

On that cool Colorado evening, I heard a call as hushed as the murmur of the breeze. As the traffic noises faded, as we walked in the stillness, I heard—no, I felt—God’s call to me:

“Rich, where are you?”

I didn’t recognize it that night. Clamoring despair so overwhelmed my mind, my heart, my soul that I could scarcely hear anything else. But for just that brief moment, as the world around me became calm, so did the world within. For just that brief moment I heard, I felt, the peaceful, patient voice of God inviting me to walk with Him in the Garden. I couldn’t identify it, I didn’t understand it, and I had no idea what I experienced in the tranquility of those quiet streets. It would be a while before I understood that God had been relentlessly calling to me all along.

“Rich, where are you?”

God was inviting me to step through the prison door, to leave behind the doubt, fear, confusion, and loneliness that locked me behind their walls. I didn’t consciously recognize the invitation, because His message was obscured by the internal commotion that disrupted our peaceful stroll. I didn’t know yet that God was speaking to me. But my heart felt it—a small voice, a whisper as faint as the rustle of leaves in those Sunday evening trees, calling me to something different, something better.

“Rich, where are you?”

If you’d like to read the story of Relentless Grace,
you can order a signed copy here or purchase it at Amazon.com.

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THE MONSTER IN THE MIRROR

Intensive Care became my new home. Five days later a team of neurosurgeons fused the vertebrae, joining crushed and splintered bones with an assortment of metal plates and screws along with a chunk of bone transplanted from my hip.

I emerged from surgery encased in a “halo brace” to stabilize my neck while the fusion healed. This contraption surely descended from some medieval instrument of torture, a metal jacket attached to vertical rods that clamped to a metal ring around my head—my “halo.” Four screws secured the halo to my head. It took some time to assimilate that little piece of information—the thing was screwed into my skull!

As the fog of the anesthetic subsided I gradually became acquainted with this primitive apparatus that served as an inflexible exoskeleton to lock my upper body solidly in one position. Not that I could move much anyway, but this device added profoundly to the discomfort and frustration.

I had to learn to live with my new halo because we’d be together for four months.

 

The therapists tried hard to be friendly and encouraging, to make the best of an awful situation. Jokes, sports, movies, they tried every topic and tactic to distract me from the dismal circumstances and create a more pleasant and personal relationship. I wasn’t playing their game. I was miserable and had no intention of pretending otherwise. I couldn’t see beyond the halo, the catheter, the orthopedic stockings, and this bed that had become my prison. I did everything possible to make sure everyone around me understood the hopelessness, that efforts to help were pointless and doomed to fail.

I also had lost my voice, making a bad situation even worse. The surgeon accidentally damaged a nerve to my right vocal cord, so in addition to the paralysis I could speak only in a hoarse whisper. I really didn’t want to talk to anyone anyway, but communication now required significant effort. I effectively used my inability to speak as a perfect excuse to refuse any sort of positive interaction with anyone. I became increasingly mired in despair and anger.

 

A few weeks after my injury, an aide helped me to the P.T. waiting area. Quite by accident, he parked my chair near a full-length mirror. I didn’t notice at first, but then a movement caught my eye. I saw the mirror slightly to the left, not directly in front of me but still within the limited field of vision created by the brace that prevented me from turning my head. At first the reflection didn’t register. It took a moment to realize the image in the mirror was—ME!

I stared in horror at the ghost gazing back at me through sunken, glazed eyes. He slumped limply in a large, leather wheelchair. Clothes appeared to hang from his emaciated skeleton. The feet pointed at odd angles like those of a rag doll carelessly arranged; uncombed, greasy hair, hadn’t shaved in several weeks, his skin a pale, chalky white. The ghastly specter evoked memories of grainy black-and-white pictures from Nazi concentration camps, an empty half-alive stare that looks but doesn’t really see.

And the halo brace! Screws protruded from his head, every bit like the Frankenstein monsters from those shadowy old movies. The creature might have escaped his shackles in some secret basement laboratory, the wretched result of a mad experiment gone horribly wrong.

I stared, gradually assimilating details of the shocking spectacle. Fascination faded to disbelief and then terror as I began to comprehend my link to the gruesome image. I moved my right arm like a child might do to verify that the reflection in the mirror really somehow connected to him. Sure enough, the monster’s arm flopped across his body as well. That pathetic, half-human phantom was ME!

I’d never actually seen the halo brace. I guess I’d developed some sort of mental image of the awkward apparatus that immobilized my lifeless body, but I hadn’t really considered the appearance of this horrific contraption. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the ghastly image staring lifelessly back at me like some mistaken merger of man and mechanism. I wanted to escape from the pitiful, subhuman specter, but of course I couldn’t move.

Couldn’t run, couldn’t walk, couldn’t push the chair, couldn’t even turn away. That monster remained right there in front of me, and I was powerless to evade his ghostly gaze. As fearsome as the apparition appeared, I couldn’t force myself to squeeze my eyes shut and make him disappear.

I screamed in horror, or I did what passed for screaming with my hoarse whisper of a voice. No one heard my nearly silent wail, so I banged my arms in frustration on the sides of the chair. The spasmodic movements were the only volitional actions I could generate to attract attention and express the fear and anger.

Eventually one of the aides came to investigate the commotion. “Get me out of here,” I rasped. “Take me back to my room.” He didn’t realize the source of my distress, but he pivoted the chair and we headed back toward the elevator. As we turned away, I got one last glimpse of the monster in the mirror. I croaked another horrified moan.

 

Back in my room, no one could console me or make sense of what had upset me. “Just leave me alone! Go away! Let me alone!” I whispered through tears.

“What’s wrong?” asked Julie, my nurse. “What happened?”

But I didn’t want to talk. Didn’t want to tell her about the monster, about the horror of the frightening image that confronted me, about the embarrassment of finally realizing what others saw when they looked at me. I just wanted to turn off the lights and hide my pathetic remnant of a person in darkness. “Everyone, just get out. LEAVE ME ALONE!” Now I was begging, “Please, turn off the lights and go away.”

In the cool darkness of the hospital room, I cried. How could all of this have happened? The entire period since the accident drifted past in a horrible, surreal haze—ambulance, emergency room, Intensive Care, surgery, recovery. Weeks passed in a fog of pain, sleep and drugs, until days had little definition and time either passed or not but it didn’t much matter. The shock of the entire episode blurred the distinction between reality and some sort of bizarre nightmare. I acted in the dream, aware but not really. The whole dreadful muddle seemed like a struggle to awaken from a dream within a scene in a bad movie.

But in that dark room, the fog began to lift. That ghastly, half-dead reflection wasn’t a character in a scary dream or the product of a drug-induced hallucination. The screws in the head, the chair that trapped me, the feet that didn’t appear to be connected to legs I couldn’t see or feel—that pitiful fabrication of some demented imagination was what remained of ME. I had become that gaunt, slumped, pathetic-looking monster. I cried.

I sat where they had left me, facing toward the window of my room. The blinds were mostly closed and I stared blankly at the window. I heard the door open quietly behind me. “Rich?” Julie whispered. “What can I do?”

“Nothing,” I murmured. “Please, leave me alone.” The door closed again.

I cried, stared at the blinds and cried some more. I should have been out of the chair and back in bed a long time ago. I felt dizzy, light-headed, and nauseous, I struggled to breathe, and my back ached. But I couldn’t move, couldn’t turn the chair or call for help if I’d wanted to. I was just there. Helpless. Alone.

If you’d like to read the story of Relentless Grace,
you can order a signed copy here or purchase it at Amazon.com.

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TAMING THE MONSTER

The room became nearly dark as the door closed again, just the dim light from the hallway sneaking under the door. Silence for a few moments, but somehow a different quality permeated the room. A small bit of peace had settled in the shadows.

“Rich.” Spoken so softly I almost felt it more than heard it. “Rich, may I come in?”

Tears flooded my eyes again.

“Al,” I whispered. “Yeah, please come in.”

He crossed the room and stopped beside me. I could hear him there, and then I felt his hand on my shoulder. He stood beside me in dark silence and we stared at the blinds for a few moments. I cried and he held me awkwardly, avoiding the screws, and cradled my head as the fear and pain gushed out. The emotion of this miserable day completely overwhelmed me and the terror of the past weeks seemed to rip at my soul. I sobbed uncontrollably, but I was no longer alone.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Al asked.

 

So I told him about the monster in the mirror and the horrible panic, about finally understanding what I had become. How could I ever go outside the room again? How could people even tolerate such a terrifying figure? Why had no one told me about my freakish appearance?

“I can’t live like this. This cannot be what God wants anyone to be. I need to die—that thing in the mirror needs to die. That can’t be me. What happened to me? Where did I go?”

Al and I talked for a long time that evening. We spoke about the embarrassment of feeling like some strange creature that belonged in a circus sideshow rather than in my body. We talked about who—or what—I was in this lifeless skeleton of a body with the Frankenstein screws in my head. I asked the same questions again and again, “What happened to ME?”

At one point, Al went to the bathroom and came back with a hand mirror. “You need to take another look at yourself.”

I recoiled in horror. How could he possibly imagine I’d want to see that monstrous reflection again? But he persisted, gently telling me I needed to take a better look, a calmer look, I needed to see me in the mirror. After a long time and a lot of angry, fearful refusing, I agreed. Slowly, Al brought the small hand mirror up until it was in front of my face.

I closed my eyes as the reflection appeared before me, then opened them a little. I saw a hollow face with a sallow complexion. The eyes darted back and forth, brief glimpses before looking away and back again. I noticed the same scraggly beard and unkempt hair I’d seen earlier. And then I saw them—the screws and the metal halo they held in place around my head. I squeezed my eyes shut tightly, and waited a few moments before I found the courage to open them again.

The halo of silver-colored metal hung suspended about half an inch away from my head. I could see two of the screws embedded in my forehead about an inch above and outside of each eyebrow.

I stared with some combination of fascination and disbelief. How had my life come to this? How could THAT be ME? Al steadied the mirror for several moments and allowed the image to hang there in front of me. Who is that? Where is me?

Al must have seen the questions on my face because he said quietly, “Rich, you’re in there.”

“Where?” I whimpered.

“Rich, you’re in there,” he repeated. “You are not what you see in the mirror. What you see right now is pain and sorrow and a catastrophic injury that’s going to need a long time to heal. You see fear and loss and grief. You see a brace that looks horrible because of the horrible job it has to do. You see all of that, and you think you’re seeing you.

“But all of that stuff isn’t you. It’s all on the outside and it’ll all go away. Even the brace—four months is an awfully long time to have such a terrible contraption attached to you, but it’ll go away. None of what you see is you. You’re in there, underneath the unimaginable things that have happened to you.”

 

I asked him to pray with me. Al was good about that, a pastor who loved God with all his heart but didn’t just drop “Jesus” into a situation as though that would make it all better and you never should have been sad or scared in the first place because you should just have enough faith. But now he prayed with me, and as he prayed he also reminded me I wasn’t alone. He laid the mirror down, took my paralyzed, limp hand in his hands and prayed.

“Lord Jesus, be here with us. Rich is really scared right now, Father, and he has every reason to be scared. A terrible thing has happened and Rich doesn’t even know where he is anymore. He looks in the mirror and he can’t find himself, and instead he sees a hideous, frightening reflection of Evil.

“Father, hold Rich in Your hand right now. Let him know that Your arms surround him tonight, that he’s safe, and that he has not gone anywhere. Let him know that he’s right here, and that You know all about his battles. Remind him that Jesus felt the fear, knows the pain, and understands what it means to feel lost and alone. Father, help Rich to sense the powerful presence of Jesus in this room right now through Your Spirit.

“And Father, grant to Rich Your peace in this moment. He faces a long and difficult road, but help him to know he doesn’t have to travel that road tonight. Help him to let go, to fall into Your arms, and to be at peace.

“Father, I ask this, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”

The room that had been filled with so much turmoil all day was unexpectedly quiet, still and peaceful. This dreadful situation wasn’t suddenly all OK. But it was somehow OK in that moment. Al and I talked a while longer. He reminded me that there were no magic, easy answers to this dilemma and that I’d likely encounter frightful images again. But he asked if I could let the peace in the room settle over me, just for tonight.

“Yeah,” I whispered. “I’m really tired. I’ll be all right. Thanks.”

 

Al was sure right about one thing. My journey didn’t get magically easier that night. God never promised every season of life would be easy. He did promise we would never have to face any situation alone. That doesn’t make it easy—it DOES offer hope.

Hope provides a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The hope God offers isn’t the sort of wishful thinking so prevalent at birthday celebrations. “I hope I get a new bike” confuses hope with some sort of superstitious yearning. I hope my team wins the big game; I might refuse to wash my lucky jersey because I hope it’ll bring good luck. That’s not God’s hope.

God bestows through His grace the kind of hope that might be more accurately described as “expectation.” God doesn’t promise that I can wish for His peace; He promises that I can expect to receive it. God’s hope isn’t based on wishes or luck or maybe. God’s hope implies certainty rooted in grace and love.

That night I felt the power and the hope of the presence of Jesus. I knew He stood with me, walked beside me and even carried me when I needed it. The palpable tranquility that filled my hospital room that night drove away the fear of the monster in the mirror.

In a moment when I couldn’t see a way out, God provided. He didn’t solve the problem or make the pain disappear. But He did give me what I needed at that moment. He made that night, at the end of an awful day, a night of peace.

 

I wish I could proclaim that I never gave up again, never got frustrated or fearful, never forgot to lean on God’s promises. I wish I could say that after that night I always remembered that Jesus knew the pain and the fear and would always be with me. I wish I had been able to carry the peace of that night through the difficult days and weeks ahead.

But in fact I continued to give up and get angry and frustrated. Time and again I found myself at the end, lost and alone. No way to turn, no idea how to get out of this one.

And every time, God provided. Not an easy way, not an end to the pain. But Jesus was always with me. Somehow He helped me summon the strength to go on when I was certain I couldn’t go any farther. Every time, when I could find no escape from the fear, God provided.

If you’d like to read the story of Relentless Grace,
you can order a signed copy here or purchase it at Amazon.com.

Heaven

Spinal Cord Injury denotes varying degrees of damage to the nerves in the spinal cord. The body’s amazing design incorporates a number of protective safeguards, and often this extremely serious injury isn’t immediately medically life threatening. Even when paralysis prevents most voluntary movements, life-sustaining automatic functions continue. Injuries high in the neck sometimes create breathing issues and cause dependence on a ventilator, and comprehensive treatment addresses a long list of other potentially critical concerns. But SCI is primarily chronic and forces adjustments to just about every aspect of life.

In the weeks after my accident I couldn’t move around independently at all, couldn’t even roll myself over in bed, so to avoid bedsores someone had to turn me every two hours. I pretty much stayed wherever someone left me. And since I still found little motivation to do anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, I tended to stay in bed a lot. Despite efforts to encourage me, this routine resulted in a complete lack of exercise or any other movement at all.

Restricted movement contributed to constrained, shallow breathing which didn’t efficiently clear my lungs. I couldn’t cough effectively because the injury affected my diaphragm. Nurses and therapists tried hard to encourage deep breathing and coughing exercises, but I didn’t put much effort into this important therapy. Over a few weeks’ time the combination of sedentary existence and inadequate breathing created a dangerous situation: I developed pneumonia.

Pneumonia’s nothing to mess with even if you’re relatively healthy otherwise. For someone who doesn’t move around much, the infection can lead to serious complications and even the risk of death. I wasn’t completely aware of the danger, but I vaguely recall significant concern from the doctors and nurses.

As the infection progressed I became increasingly lethargic. Despite the best efforts of the medical team, I spiraled downward. Later I learned that I lapsed into a kind of semi-coma.

 

I opened my eyes in total stillness, none of the hospital noises to which I’d become accustomed. I lay on my right side, and I couldn’t see anything. I moved my eyes from side to side, but darkness obscured my surroundings. I felt as though I floated in a totally black, open space, alone in a dark void. I didn’t try to move, didn’t try to speak, just lay there and rested in peaceful silence.

It was so completely still. I wasn’t afraid even though I could see and hear nothing to help me orient myself. Peace, that’s what it was. It felt like a palpable peace had settled around me. I closed my eyes for a moment, or maybe for a long time.

Eyes open again, the same calm, serene blackness. I glanced toward my feet and perceived a vague shadow of an image. Someone stood beside me, a presence almost felt more than seen. I waited in the perfect tranquility, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I discerned a faint outline. A man, standing very near, head bowed. Even in the silence, I could sense the man was praying. I closed my eyes again, for a moment or a lifetime.

He’s still there. No sound, no movement, just standing there immersed in prayer. Muted details, just the silhouette of this figure standing motionless beside me, head bowed, surroundings so calm I can almost hear his thoughts. Peaceful, quiet, and dark, just this shadowy form hunched over me.

I waited, quiet, serene, and contented, no desire to do anything or say anything. Everything seemed restful, somehow just as it was supposed to be. I couldn’t determine who stood next to me, somehow certain there was no need to know. It was just right to be here, to just be in the tranquility and peace surrounding me. I was exactly where I belonged. I knew I was safe, as though Love had come alive, wrapped its arms around me, and held me securely in this place of peacefulness.

It’s Jesus! Jesus is standing beside me. This must be Heaven, this space of such perfect peace and calm. I’ve died, I’m in Heaven, and Jesus is standing beside me, praying over me. No fear, no questions, just tranquility and calm. No emotions—not excitement, not wonder, not sadness. Everything here is just filled with a sense of serenity; it’s all just as it’s supposed to be. So quiet, so safe, no more pain, no more fear. I took a deep breath, smiled and closed my eyes.

Heaven.

If you’d like to read the story of Relentless Grace,
you can order a signed copy here or purchase it at Amazon.com.

ELEVATOR–Part 1

Note: This is part 1 of my initial unassisted encounter with an elevator. It’s a great reminder that even the simplest tasks can be overwhelming in the center or the storm.

elevators4A hospital elevator appears easily accessible. Smooth floors, wide entrance, clearly labeled controls installed at the proper height. No sweat, right?

I eased up to the call buttons and maneuvered until they waited directly in front of me at eye level. But with my halo brace and lack of stability I couldn’t reach forward to press the button without falling on my nose. I needed another approach.

I backed up, much more difficult than going forward, and turned until I sat beside the buttons.

Uh-oh. Pushing buttons required a new set of movements. My arms still lacked complete control, especially when I reached away from my body. I braced against the armrest, reached out, and—my fingers didn’t work. How do you push a button without using your fingers?

I could use my thumb a bit. Braced again, zeroed in on the “DOWN” arrow, and stabbed. A few misses, and then—SUCCESS! The button illuminated. I heard the mechanism, responding to the call of my wavering arm and barely controlled thumb.

Two chimes signaled the elevator’s arrival. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the car in front of me. I heard the doors open behind me as I struggled to back up.

The elevator waited a few seconds, declared a false alarm, and moved on. I turned just enough to see the doors slide shut.

I rested a few minutes. Moving the chair quickly made shoulders burn and arms ache. While I waited, the elevator returned, and a man in hospital scrubs emerged. Do you need a hand? Hold the door for you?

No. I didn’t want him to watch me struggle. I flailed my arm to wave him on.

Ready for another attempt, I rolled beside the controls and stabbed at the button. My fumbling thumb hit the “UP” arrow. Oh, well.

Quick! Back and turn. I heard the car moving. Back a little more, and I was in position directly front of the doors. The bell chimed once, but the other set of doors opened! I hadn’t anticipated that possibility. I turned and pushed forward, but as the doors closed I sat several feet away.

Why are these elevators so hard to use? Why don’t they wait longer? I’ll never get off this floor without help! This isn’t fair!

I decided I’d have to press the button, choose my door and push toward it immediately. I moved too slowly to wait and see which car arrived.

I teach math. I’ve made up all sorts of silly probability questions using marbles, coins, dice, buses and elevators. Who cares? Well, now I cared. Which one would arrive next? The score was two to one. I’d ask my students to calculate experimental probabilities, graph the data, and make a prediction. Which one should I choose?

As I stabbed at the button again I decided to bet on the car in front of me. Each door is equally likely, and I could get there faster because I didn’t have to back up.

The DOWN arrow lighted again. First try! I rolled forward, turned, and faced the doors. The signal sounded. I looked up and the other doors opened, waited those few miserable seconds, and closed.

With any thought at all I would have just stayed where I was. Someone eventually would have emerged from that car, and I’d have been ready to jump through the doors.

Unfortunately, stubbornness and frustration supplanted clear-headed reasoning and problem solving. So I struggled around in a half-circle and prepared for another try. The score stood three to one. Should I change my bet?

I decided to stick with my initial guess. I probably wouldn’t reach the alternative anyway because of the backing-up thing. I was becoming a fairly proficient button-pusher. I pressed and scrambled to turn, the car arrived, and now it was four to one. The doors opened and closed. They probably just appeared to smirk as they eased together.

Now what? What are the odds? As the wrong car appeared and departed once more, I slumped in defeat. If I hadn’t been so angry and frustrated I might have chuckled at the thought of students dutifully taking notes while I assured them that elevators don’t know the odds and can’t remember the five to one tally.

I wasn’t changing, committed now as a matter of either principle or stubbornness. Besides, I would really feel stupid if I switched and my original choice appeared.

Turn, stab, light, scramble. I heard the whir of machinery, but which one would appear? I stared at the lights, expecting another failure.

A double chime signaled an arrival and a victorious adrenaline rush accompanied the parting of the shiny silver doors before me. I couldn’t stop to rejoice. I rolled forward, prepared to celebrate my triumphant passage through the winning portal.

Instead, I encountered once more a basic principle of my recovery process: no important gain would ever happen easily.

 

Conquest instantly reverted to defeat.

Most people don’t even notice the tiny crack between the floor and the car, but my attention now focused on that insignificant crevice that suddenly swallowed my front wheels.

The automatic doors began to close. A sensor and halted the motion. After a few seconds the mechanism made another attempt. Over and over the doors would close a bit and then part once more.

Stuck in the elevator doorway, in the bulky chair, in the hospital, in my miserable broken body. Stuck and trapped, a perfect metaphor for what remained of what was once a life.

I saw no escape from this unanticipated ambush. The doors continued to open, try to close, then stop and open again.

I honestly do not know how I finally managed to become unstuck. But eventually, somehow, I managed to free my wheels from their snare and rolled into the elevator.

Success! I’d entered the elevator completely by myself. It wasn’t smooth, it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t efficient. But I’d overcome a significant challenge without help.

 

I then encountered another truth that I would rediscover repeatedly over the next months. A triumph always fostered other, more difficult challenges. In a frustrating but inevitable cycle, the celebration of advance inevitably preceded the frustration of a corresponding retreat.

Eventually I learned that I usually moved a bit farther forward than back; continuous effort created slow but unmistakable progress. But it took a long time to discern this pattern of gain and loss and to accept this nearly imperceptible advancement as my new version of “normal.”

As I rolled into the elevator I faced a serious tactical dilemma. The controls were right there, behind me, over my left shoulder. I needed to turn and get beside them.

Before I could solve this newest problem the doors closed and the car began moving. Well, that wasn’t so bad. After all, I couldn’t get lost. There were just five floors plus the basement where the clinic was located. I figured I would just push to the back of the car and spin around.

I was moving on my own! Nobody lifted or pushed or helped. Until you’re unable to move yourself you cannot appreciate the sense of freedom that accompanies independent motion.

I rolled slowly to the back of the car, and the advance/retreat principle reappeared. I couldn’t turn around within the confines of the elevator! The big clunky chair was too long, and the back hit one wall while the footrests banged against the other. I was stuck. Again.

 

I remember just wanting to quit right there. All I’d overcome that day—long corridors, pushing buttons, picking the winning door, somehow escaping that crack. So many obstacles surmounted, and what had I accomplished? I was stuck in an elevator, facing the back wall and unable to move, dead-dog tired and discouraged. The frustration encapsulated my vision of the rest of my life. I would never be able to do anything.

Hopeless.

Down and up, then the doors opened and someone boarded. Moved again, stopped, doors opened. People entered and departed behind me. I tried to ask for help, but the noise of machinery drowned my hoarse whisper of a voice. Life continued behind me while I remained jammed between the walls, locked rigid by the halo, staring at the blank rear wall.

I wish I could relate a courageous conclusion, a clever escape from my predicament and a triumphant return to the rehab unit as conquering champion of the elevator. I’d like to claim some sort of inspirational moment of enlightenment when I suddenly realized I could achieve anything to which I set my mind. But that’s not what happened.

Once again I failed to discover lessons embedded within this discouraging incident. I just stared at the back of the elevator, convinced I was destined for a life filled with struggle and failure. I envisioned someone discovering my body days later, riding up and down those six floors.

 

Finally someone entered and decided to check on me. He helped me get back to the right floor. I rolled out into the hallway and paused beside a window, watching a parking lot and the street beyond. People walked along, cars came and went as the traffic light demanded.

Didn’t they know life had ended? Didn’t they know the world was reduced to pain and frustration and loss? How could they just keep on as if nothing had happened?

DIDN’T THEY KNOW?

I struggled back to my room that day convinced I’d never make it, angry with everyone for making me try.

I eventually conquered the elevator and other more difficult and fearsome obstacles. Thank God they didn’t just leave me alone; despite my anger and disbelief, they kept me going.

When I’m at the hospital, I often ride that same elevator. I laugh when I recall riding up and down, convinced my skeleton would be discovered after years of staring at the back of that stupid elevator.

I tell this story frequently, and I honestly think it’s pretty funny to. The account always elicits a good laugh.

Of course, I don’t include the part about the window and the cars and all of those who went on their way, oblivious to the fact that the world had ended.

That part wasn’t so funny.

 

Back To School

larger_cartoon_classroomPrior to my accident, I taught mathematics in a junior high school. Now, more than eighteen months after falling on my head and losing the use of most of my body, I once again encountered a new group of young teenagers. I had anticipated the first day of school more than fifteen times before, but the beginning of this school year was different.

I sat in my wheelchair. How would kids react to a teacher who couldn’t stand? I’d learned the basics of life with paralysis, and now came the next test in reconstructing my life: Could I still manage a classroom?

I was terrified. Lesson planning, conducting classes, grading, the myriad small tasks that comprise my profession—just a few short months ago I couldn’t turn over in bed by myself. Now this group of fresh young faces looked to me for direction, as though I had any clue how to be their teacher. I wondered if they could see the fear as I struggled to keep my emotions under control and pretended I knew what to do.

I felt their uneasiness. They got much quieter than normal as they entered the room, sharing my uncertainty about what to expect. Who is this guy? What’s with the wheelchair? Does he know what he’s doing? What will this class be like?

Some of the kids knew the story, but for most of them this was just the first day of school and I was another teacher to figure out. They were more concerned with who sat next to them and how much homework their new math class would require than with how I ended up in this wheelchair.

The bell signaled the start of the first class, and I was supposed to do something. I had rehearsed this moment over and over, sitting alone in this familiar classroom, but now I was totally unsure. The whole idea was crazy; I was not nearly ready. How did I let my principal talk me into thinking I could pull off this act? Yeah, I climbed a hill more than a year ago, but this was different. They all waited, staring at me. I had to get class started, but suddenly my plans deserted me. What should I do first?

Call role, that’s a safe way to start. Thirty pairs of eyes stared as I struggled self-consciously to pick up a pen and fumbled to mark the attendance sheet. I gave the kids an activity to complete. They welcomed the assignment, grateful for a diversion from the unspoken questions circling the room. Students worked together and I began moving among them, rolling uncertainly between desks, acting like it was just another first day while the fear knotted my stomach. Should I say something about the chair, about my injury? How long could we pretend there’s really nothing different about this initial class?

One boy looked up as I passed his desk. In the honest, unassuming manner only a thirteen-year-old could manage, he announced, “I think I’m going to like being in your class.”

“Oh yeah? Why is that?”

“Because,” he said with a grin, “I hate it when teachers stand and look over my shoulder.”

Right then, I knew. As I chuckled and shook my head, I knew it was going to be all right. I moved on, commenting a little now on student work, making small talk. The atmosphere in the room lightened a bit, students talking to each other and to me, the first day of the new school year underway. Somehow, everything was going to be OK.

I should remember that young man’s name. I don’t, but I think about him every year as I greet another new group of students. Each year, for nineteen years now, I’ve wondered a bit about the reaction of each new group to a wheelchair and a teacher who writes in what we affectionately refer to as “Chinese Hieroglyphics.” Every year I remember that first day, the uncertainty, the uneasy quiet, and the silly one-liner that dissolved my fear and eased the tension. Each year as I prepare for a fresh collection of new faces, I chuckle to myself, knowing it’ll all be somehow OK.

I’ve learned to adapt. Technology helped, along with a bit of specially designed furniture and some experience with what’s effective. I’ve learned that, just like everyone else, I can take advantage of the many things I do well and that I have to find ways to overcome weaknesses. I’ve learned after a lot of pain and struggle to enjoy my own corny sense of humor, to laugh at myself, to take it all a little less seriously.

That young man’s joke helped me realize it’s better to chuckle than to complain. I’ve learned that my students, like most other folks, see a person more than they see a person in a wheelchair. I’ve learned that my kids, like most people, care a lot more about how they’re treated than whether I stand or sit.

Nineteen new groups of students—I’ve helped them learn a bit of math, they’ve helped me to get my life back.

I’ve received the better end of the deal.

 

THE RIVER

Note: This final excerpt includes notes from the journal that formed the basis for the entire book. I hope you experience a bit of the peace as you sit by the river.

riverOne day I was riding my hand cycle on a bike trail. I stopped for a drink, and as I looked around I experienced a sense of peace and tranquility. I surveyed a location that could serve as the image for my place of center. Mentally re-creating these calm, serene surroundings might help me to visualize and express in more concrete terms what it means to become closer to God and to what He intended for me.

I imagined my mental “center” next to a path along a river. I could sit in the warm sunshine, or in the cool shade beneath a dense canopy of trees, solitary and isolated from the world around. Simply being in such placid surroundings prompted me to reflect, slow down, and become more aware.

The path disappeared into the woods. I could not see the approach from either direction. People appeared on the path, biking, skating, running, or walking. They traveled slowly or pushed their pace to extremes. Some seemed immersed in the beauty of this place; others focused on the path, their workout or their destination. Some traveled alone, some in pairs or groups; they were friendly, or indifferent, or even rude.

I realized that the path and the people were not about me. They were not mine to control; it was not my job to figure out why they were here or whether they were traveling the proper route. I was free to greet each person without judgment, secure in the knowledge that God had created the path and the people on it.

The river assumed different forms. Sometimes it churned with anger and danger, sweeping away anything in its path. At other times it babbled pleasantly and invited me to listen and become absorbed in its kindness and peace. Sometimes it dwindled to a slow, dried-up trickle, barely alive among rocks and mud.

I realized that the river is what it is. I could fear the torrent, worry about being carried off, wonder about flooding and destruction here or elsewhere. I could fret when the flow diminished, imagining drought and hunger, emptiness and despair, certain that it would never change. I could become mesmerized by the pleasant bubbling sounds on a lazy summer day and forget the danger and fear. None of this impacted the river.

I thought this changing state of the river had something important to teach me. I wrote some of my observations about the river:

The river is what it is and goes where it goes, as God is who he is and does what he does. Nothing I say or think or do changes it. God, like the river, just is.

I am paralyzed with fear that I might be engulfed, as though the fear will somehow protect me or change the river’s impact. I worry about its course after it passes, as though the worry will alter the river’s direction.

I lose hope when the flow diminishes, certain that there will never again be enough. I complain that it’s not fair, that the same river destroys some and nourishes others with no seeming regard for merit.

I cry to the heavens, as though on my advice God ought to change the nature and destination of the river He created. I’m certain that I know the very best state for the river. I question God’s wisdom and purpose when the river flows in such obviously “wrong” ways.

The river originates beyond my understanding and travels beyond my understanding. It is infinite, created by infinite God. I know that the river is what it is, and will go where it will go, and that it was created for and works for good.

The river just is, yet I struggle to accept it.

As I sit quietly in this place, I can gradually stop trying to change what I cannot change. As I allow myself to more fully BE in this place, I become more aware. I can watch and listen to the river in whatever state it exists, learning while asking nothing of it. I can trust that God who created it knows its proper path. Fear and worry diminish.

The river is what it is. I am detached from it, feeling no desire to alter it, aware that the river is not me, that I am not determined by its state or responsible for its course. The goals become awareness and acceptance rather than control and a self-centered need to know WHY.

I began to believe that this mental place of center could impact my perspective on nearly every important aspect of my life. I wondered about the character of the metaphor that made it speak so directly to my heart. I identified three aspects to this image, each representing a fundamental element of my identity.

I am fully functioning, “centered,” when I am in relationship: with others, with myself, with God. I am enriched to the extent that those relationships are open, honest, agenda-free encounters.

This is what I experience mentally in my place of center. Those traveling on the path represent the people that enter my life, my relationships with others. The place where I sit in solitude signifies my relationship with myself. The river concretely characterizes my relationship with infinite God.

This place by the river and the path speaks to my identity, who I AM as a creature created by God in his image. I am centered, whole and at peace when I am in relationship because that is who I am and how I was created.

Being centered means being here, right now, with another, with myself, with God. When I remind myself to “sit by the river” I’m remembering to claim the identity inherent in my nature as a person created in the image of God who values relationship.

This notion of center dominated my thinking and writing for a considerable time. The image spoke about every facet of my existence. I became immersed in its implications and applications. I experienced a wonderful sense of peace as I envisioned myself in this mystical place of center.

The metaphor offered a structure that brought order to a previously chaotic jumble as I wandered through a lifetime of thoughts and feelings. This process of reading, analyzing, and writing had an amazing settling effect. I felt free to trust that this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t concerned with destination or outcome. I didn’t consider how my ideas or activities might appear to. I felt clearly that my exploration was guided by God’s Spirit; that was sufficient.

If you’d like to read the story of Relentless Grace,
you can order a signed copy here or purchase it at Amazon.com.

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Did you enjoy this article? Please leave a comment, visit my website, and/or send me an email at rich@richdixon.net.

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