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:
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.
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.