Me, Jesus, the hospital and death

This is a difficult article for me to write, which is surprising because my thoughts have been so fluid and easy to express over the many years I have been a writer. It’s about Jesus, I think, and what you find when layers of ego are stripped away by a death last summer that lasted exactly eight minutes before Evanston’s paramedics shocked me back to life and delivered me to St. Francis Hospital.

It didn’t stop there. I thought I was well on my way to recovery when, the day after Christmas, I had a seizure that called the fire department to my home once again and saw me delivered to St. Francis, again, to figure out what happened. After you have been dead for a while and then returned they take these things quite seriously. The long and short of it is that a stroke would have been bad, but a seizure, not so much. I was fine in a few days. My neurology team (Yes, I have a whole team of specialists!) pondered the complex and challenging results of so many tests you could not count them and concluded this one was no big threat. I had a few days in the hospital before I got to come back home to my family and my dog, all of whom are immensely important to me in the wake of last summer’s passing.

In the interim, I had this to ponder:

The view from my hospital bed

All day long and well into the night, with the mysterious and frankly troubling sounds of hospital life just outside my door, I looked at this chart. It was surprising. I was nowhere near 170 pounds on that day (I’m 210 pounds now and quite proud of it) and there was no way that even a very kind nurse could have measured me at 6 feet and 11 inches. On a good stretchy day, I might reach 6 feet. One inch short of 7 feet would have made me NBA quality size.

That, I am not.

Well into the second day, I began to focus on the crucifix above the chart, and that is where this story actually begins. I have been a Roman Catholic from birth, indoctrinated by Sisters of Mercy and well educated by The Columban Fathers in Silver Creek, N.Y, when I thought I wanted to be a missionary priest. That was not in my future, so I left the seminary and headed off to my healthy, typical high school life. Lots and lots of girls were in the picture, so I had no time or inclination to think about celibacy. I knew what I was, how I was, even what I was likely to become. I was a newspaper reporter from day one. I went to work for the local paper as soon as I could, blew off college and felt myself enmeshed in a fascinating career that lasted more than 40 years, carried me around the world, paid more than all my bills, helped me raise my family and buy a great house in Evanston. I’m not a shy man. I was great at what I did and I knew it.

Religion, belief, my early life, it all fell deeply into the background as I pursued stories all over the place and got very comfortable writing the kind of stuff that would make other people faint. I was close to lots of violence and death over time, witnessed some awful things, but thought of them all as just one of the components of my job. I didn’t do any staring at the crucifix anymore, not for decades.

Then this past year happened. I could not have planned it, of course. My wife noticed I was slowing down. I ignored her concerns. After all, at 72 what can you expect? When I died in July, though, it changed everything about me. I began to think deeply about my hospital experiences. I’m happy the ambulance delivered me to St. Francis, where and African priest told me it just wasn’t my time to die yet, this after giving me last rites and preparing me for death.

I am happy they took me there the second time, too, and I am very happy that I had a chance to look at that wall and think hard about who I had become, where I had come from, what was deep inside of me, hidden by all those years of nominal success and globe trotting. It gave me a chance to do something I had not done since my childhood. I looked at that crucifix on the wall at the end of my bed and I asked Jesus to save me. Over and over again. I just would not stop.

Did he?

I don’t know that he did and I don’t know that he didn’t, but I do know that there was great consolation and meaning in being able to pray again, just as I prayed when I was an altar boy so many years ago, kneeling during adoration and wondering when that long hour would pass so I could get up off my knees and fool around again.

Don’t make a mistake here. I am not claiming, like TV preacher Oral Roberts, that a 900 foot tall Jesus showed up and talked to me. I am not claiming Mother Theresa’s inner conversations with Christ. I am just another guy, another sinner, actually, who has had this experience I need to write about. There is nothing special about me and God knows, anyone in heaven would not even know where to find my email.

I know the Roman Catholic Church is a difficult place that has presented its share of demons over the many centuries. I knew some of the priests who were abusing children. I have been whacked on the head by an angry nun with a cross at the end of her rosary that must have weighed two pounds. But I have also met priests who were literally the “Alta christi” (other Christs) that their promise demanded. And I have known so many good and blessed nuns over time that recalling them is all but overwhelming.

There are, and have been, still very good people in the church.

But that’s not what stuck to me as I wrestled with a collection of end of life issues that have been frightening and threatening over the past six months. What stuck with me is something from my early youth, the ability to look at a symbol of a man nailed to a crude cross and to ask him sincerely for help. I am so surprised that this feeling is still inside of me.

It’s almost like being blessed, so long ago that the memory has buried itself deep inside me, waiting to come out when I most needed it.

Am I transformed by this experience? Will I now become the determined and faithful Christian that was buried so deeply inside of me as a child? I doubt it. I am just human being with an interesting life that is, sadly, headed for its final chapters. But I am no longer reluctant to look at that symbol and ask for help, without expecting any response. I believe I am heard, and that is a wonderful, old feeling.

15 thoughts on “Me, Jesus, the hospital and death

  1. Mr. Madigan:

    Hello fellow Tribune journalists.

    I have enjoyed your occasional email ‘columns’ the past few years and have fun with your perspective on life — it’s different enough from my own that it feels fresh. One thing that worried me, however, was a sense that your viewpoint on the next life was merely intellectually deep. When you began writing about your health crisis and your eight minute death I began to look for hints that intellectually deep was no longer enough, and today you answered.

    I admit to tearing up when I read: ‘I looked at that crucifix on the wall at the end of my bed and I asked Jesus to save me. Over and over again. I just would not stop.’ — after all, I am an old man too (68, this year), and old men weep more than young men. I confess my joy over your soul’s deep faith. Your essay confirms my belief that if you give a child the knowledge of faith, eventually they will find their way home.

    Welcome home, brother, and God bless.

    Rick Tuma West Chicago Formerly a Chicago Tribune Graphics Department visual journalist. We met during my early years at the paper. It was nothing exceptional, just a few exchanged words of greeting.

    On Sun, Jan 16, 2022 at 3:42 PM Madigan’s Gleaner wrote:

    > Charlesmadigan posted: ” This is a difficult article for me to write, > which is surprising because my thoughts have been so fluid and easy to > express over the many years I have been a writer. It’s about Jesus, I > think, and what you find when layers of ego are stripped away by a d” >

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  2. “There’s Power In The Blood of the Lamb.” Faith can never hurt. We who were raised to trust but still question are hopefully on the right path. God has so many faces so that all people can find hope in him alone if we let it in. Your return to us was prayer that crossed many paths & beliefs. I strive now to be thankful in my prayer & hope for acceptance when my time to move forward into a new life comes. We are blessed with you, with us, with love & life!

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  3. Yes, it is all in there somewhere, but maturity and grace lead us to understand where our search for meaning will surely take us if we are open to the journey. We saw faith in our father and mother on their knees, lived in their lives,they fed the hungry, helped our neighbors, loved and guided us despite our protests. The Man on that cross has been and is our brother, and you know about family love. His is enduring, understanding, and always present. Thank you for sharing brother.

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  4. Charlie, I believe the sense of divine connection is something that, once experienced, never ever leaves you. I have not had a death or near-death experience, but I have had rare, humbling moments of connection with the divine. They are the most vivid and lasting experiences of my life. I think this will be true for you too. Stick around a long time and keep sharing. It’s important. I think you’re 7 ft tall too!

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  5. I am glad you were able to reconnect with your sense of the eternal light. Though raised in the same home and in the same church, our paths to faith and belief are unique. My 4 day stint with hemorrhaging and fading in the hospital brought me to a different point of singular peace…and though we do not see these profound points in the same manner, we do both know that this life,so beautiful in essance, is a point in eternity and that moving on should not be something to fear…but should always awaken a sense of gratitude and awe for the beauty and unity we are all held in.

    I can distinctly remember gramma Madigan wishing us a happy Easter or merry Christmas, that this would probably be he last for oh, 20 years or so…no one knows the appointed hour..so live them all to the fullest. Love you brother.

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  6. In my view (albeit not a very religiously-educated one) all that Jesus really asked of us was that we “Love one another.” If you can do that, you’ve done what He’s looking for. Thanks for sharing, Charlie. Love, Hugs and Prayers for you and your health.

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  7. Dear Charlie aka Butch:
    Once we know Him, though we may drift far from His essence, are we not blessed to be called back to His love, strength and peace!
    I had no idea such events were happening in your life! I do know that after being technically dead for 8 min, awaking with no lasting deficits, was the work of something far greater than medicine.
    You have heard of a God Wink? Well that was more like a God Bearhug. I’m just a simple sinner like you, drifting in and out of the Catholic Church, but I definitely know it has been His hand lifting me all my life.
    I do not pray as I did so many times in my life, however your beautiful words have been my God Wink! Tonight I’ll kneel at my bedside and have a chat about you with Him. Be well my dear cuz.

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  8. My eyes are wet as I write this, Charlie. We haven’t seen each other in decades, but thanks to Facebook and the posting of your columns over the years, I’ve followed you from a distance. I won’t go into detail, but I get what you’re saying from my own experiences. I wonder, too, why I am still here, and for me, I thank God for the time I’ve been given. While I am far from perfect, a sinner in so many ways, I’ve sensed there is a reason. I don’t always know why, but I know there is something. Deep in my heart I know there is something beyond life here, but can’t explain it. I have found, through my experiences over the past 15 years, that I spend more time in prayer, not for me, but for others. And I’ve worked to find room in my heart to love people that I haven’t loved. That’s sometimes tough. Keep on keeping on, my friend.

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  9. I liked this piece. I too rejected the Church as a young person, but returned for various reasons some years ago. I too find comfort in prayer, while simultaneously wondering if it stems from my early training. I’m glad to be back to where I can pray because it gives life some meaning. Most of all, I choose to believe God’s love is to be found in the people I encounter. People like you, even if only via the posts you write. Thank you for your writing. Hope to meet you one day, if only in whatever heaven turns out to be!😊 As the great Betty White said, “ it’s secret!.” I hope it’s delightful and populated with loved ones!

    your cousin, Moe

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  10. Dear Charlie (and Linda as Chief Caretaker),
    Whew! Thank you for sharing this last six months of your experiences. The message is that your job is not finished yet, thank God!
    Father Dave at St. Martha’s Church in Point Pleasant, NJ, is one of the Youtube priests we watch as his exuberant homilies compare to our Sheil Chapel livestream and Holy Name Mass with the Cardinal on ABC weekly. His message this week was that we pray with and for others but have to remember to pray for ourselves, too. Our early childhood Catholic Church and school experiences have prepared us, even if we have forgotten along the way.
    It is fortuitous that you ended up back at St. Francis where all 170+ lbs. of you were guarded by that symbol from your early faith training. May your progress be steady and sure and may you and Linda get time to celebrate each day for many years to come. Our St. Nick’s/PJXXIII offspring still have lots of experiences to share.
    Donna (& Don)

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  11. Charlie, this is one of your best. Lovely, in fact. As one who has long wrestled with my own faith, Christianity and it’s teachings, I found great solace in reading this and happiness for you that late in life you still feel that comfort in a story and tradition that goes back 2,000 years. Glad you’re ok, again, and I am comforted, oddly enough, by this poignant piece. Cheers and happy 2022!

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  12. Reading your article brought a few tears, but more than that, it brought me hope and consolation. May you continue to be blessed by the “ man on the crude cross”.

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