Original posts by Zondervan authors.
Original posts by Zondervan authors.
As I went around the country on a book tour to talk about my latest book (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?), often I told the story of getting caught in a horrific storm while climbing Mt. Wilson with Janet. We had summited despite threatening skies, and were still well above the safety of timberline when the skies opened up and pelted us with rain, sleet, hail, and snow. The lightning strikes got closer and closer. I knew we were supposed to separate by 100 feet or so, so that one of us could survive if the other got hit, but instead we held hands and crouched down, making ourselves as small a target as possible. At that moment I got an important insight about life: "Philip, you’re not in control." Though a control freak by nature, I realized that what transpired on the mountain that day had nothing to do with me. I was in the hands of far larger forces.
I told that story in Los Alamos two weeks ago and added, "Actually, that statement is always true. No matter what I think, I’m not in control of my life. I could die of a heart attack on stage before finishing this sentence. I could have an accident on the highway driving back to Denver — far more likely than being struck by lightning on Mt. Wilson."
And, of course, that’s exactly what did happen. Most of you have read details of the accident, which I won’t recount. I now look back on that long afternoon, strapped immobile to a body board in an ambulance and then emergency room, as a unique gift. All of us will face death, some through a long degenerative illness like cancer and others through an abrupt accident. I had something in between, a window of time in which I lay suspended between life and non-life, with the very real possibility of death within a few minutes or hours, and yet an opportunity to emerge with overwhelming good news, another chance at life.
I hope that I never forget that window of time, or the lessons I learned. Each day I wake up with a profound sense of gratitude for the simplest things: birds flitting from tree to tree, the sound of a creek flowing around rocks and ice near our home, the ability to move a finger, to dress myself. Wasn’t it Samuel Johnson who said when a person knows he is about to be hanged, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. Any near-death experience does that.
I wrote a book called The Gift of Pain, and I’ve had the opportunity to test that theory too. When I was brought to the hospital, I couldn’t have any pain medication until they ran the various X-rays and scans, a process that took several hours. Pain stinks — until you consider the alternative. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to feel any sensation, a sign that my spinal cord was intact. (I have to keep reminding myself of pain’s gift during the healing process.)
The neurosurgeon believes the bone fragments in my neck are lined up in such a way that they’ll heal on their own without surgery. That’s why the neck brace is essential: if one of those fragments dislodges, or moves the wrong way, it would endanger the artery. Even a slight bruising of the artery could cause a blood clot to form. I have a spare neck brace to wear in the shower so that I’m never without it. After 10-12 weeks in the brace, I’ll have flexion X-ray films to determine if there was also disc or ligament damage. That, too, might require surgery, but they can’t really test until the bones heal.
Some of you got an update from Janet on that healing process. She’s the real star, of course. I could not design a better nurse or companion. I can’t drive and can’t lift anything over 10 pounds. If snow is to be shoveled, drains are to be disassembled, or household chores are to be done, the burden falls on her, one she’s taken them on with energy and irrepressible good cheer. I told her the other day that her work load has easily increased by 40 percent. We both assume this is temporary, and both think with compassion of people we know who, through some accident or illness, become caregivers for years, even decades.
I’ve been overwhelmed by support from friends, family, and people I’ve never met. In the act of writing I spill out something of my soul on the printed page, and at a time like this I realize the remarkable link that can forge, even with strangers. I feel like I’ve attended my own funeral, hearing people say kind things about me, but I don’t have to die to hear them! The month of the accident, I was leading an online book discussion hosted by a Quaker publisher. One of the participants wrote me that Quakers have a phrase they were exercising on my behalf: "holding you in the light." I feel held, believe me.
I’ve got most of the post-accident hassle behind me, tasks such as recovering what I can from my trashed laptop computer and digging up receipts for ruined auto accessories. I’m trying hard to stay on top of email, working through piles of notes that might give a clue to my next book, sneaking a peek now and then at NCAA "March Madness," and doing my best to rest at night (not easy for an insomniac in a neck brace).
We experience life as a series of discrete, almost random acts. Now and then, though, looking back, it forms a pattern. I’m trying to remember that too, along with the attitude of Dag Hammarskjold, whom I quoted in one of my books: "For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes."