In a single night, the twisted culmination of all my childhood fears was magnified tenfold when I heard the blood-curdling screams of my mother and sister end with gun fire. I instantly jumped out of my bed, knowing that I had only seconds before my stepfather Jed got to me. The pounding of my heart was nearly as loud as the screams of my mother and sister. “Should I hide?” I wondered. No; Jed would find me for sure. I quickly took the only option I had: I flung the bedroom door open and ran! As I reached the top of the carpeted staircase and began to descend, I heard Jed’s heavy steps on the creaking floor behind me. I missed a couple of the stairs but caught myself on the wooden banister before I tumbled any farther. I realized my hurried escape from this madman was all in vain when once again I heard the gut- wrenching sound of gun fire. My lifeless body fell relentlessly to the bottom of the stairs.
Suddenly, my eyes flew open and I sat straight up in the bed. “You’re okay, Shawn,” I said out loud, calming myself as I’d had to do night after night from this recurring hellish nightmare. As I looked around the room, I immediately felt a comforting peace flood over me. “I’m at Grandma’s house!”
I was safe. With my tranquilizing realization, I gently fell back to sleep, smiling.
The anticipation and excitement I generally felt before a weekend at Grandma’s was truly on par with Christmas Eve or the night before a coveted trip to an amusement park. Maybe it was just the simple fact that while spending time with her I got to truly experience, even for a short time, what it felt like just to be a kid.
It seemed as though my Grandma had meticulously prepared for hours before each visit on how she could fashion our limited time together to be the most enjoyable and exciting experience ever. I’m sure it was just Grandma being Grandma, but to me it was magical.
At one time or another, Grandma must have recognized my artistic abilities and love for creating things. I’m not sure when the tradition began, but I clearly remember running to the hallway closet to peek into the large box of goodies that Grandma had been collecting for me. Each time I eagerly looked into my cardboard treasure box, I was never disappointed to find newly added items like brass buttons, small cigar boxes, and colored construction paper waiting for me inside.
Creating things with my hands was very therapeutic for me and I would often spend hours on end sprawled out on the green carpeted floor of the guest bedroom cutting, drawing, and formulating some sort of childhood masterpiece. This creative flow had become an effective way that I comforted myself and steadied my traumatized emotions.
I recall one time in particular while playing in the guest room at Grandma’s, building a single-story house made of paper, Elmer’s glue, and cardboard boxes. I scrupulously designed and decorated each room, one by one. Grandma would sometimes come in to sit with me and enthusiastically ask me questions about what I was building. She would also often have to lovingly prompt me to break long enough from my architectural composition to enjoy a sandwich and chips before continuing with my creative burst of obsession. Otherwise, I would have stayed in there all day.
In the evening, Grandpa Roy would often head into town to the American Legion or his favorite bar while Grandma and I indulged in a classic movie night with some of her famous homemade chocolate popcorn. We loved old movies, especially the ones with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Grandma would sometimes reminisce during the commercial breaks about going to the picture show for a dime when she was a little girl and how much simpler life was then. Nobody could tell a good ole story like Grandma!
Grandma was so unselfishly affectionate towards me and I drank in her love like the parched summer grass consumes a nourishing rain. To me, my grandmother was sunshine. She was the most beautiful song that never gets old, played over and over again. She was a nurturer, a healer, a childhood companion, an inspiring creative teacher. She was a gift to me.
I could easily see the bright rectangular florescent lights in the hallway of the hospital pass one by one as the transporter wheeled me into surgery on the gurney. As the anesthesia began to take effect, an overwhelming fear gripped me like an unexpected blast of thunder. Something wasn’t right. Something was desperately wrong! I had to get off the table!
As I attempted my escape from this terrorizing nightmare, I woke up in another, far more frightening with the voice of a man screaming at me. “Shawn! Shawn! Cough so you can breathe! Your lungs are filled with fluid. Shawn, can you hear me?! Cough! You have to fight or you’re not going to make it.” Any attempt to cough was derailed by the excruciating pain shooting from my abdomen that had been cut open by the surgeon’s scalpel. I didn’t want to die!
Twice during my eight-hour recovery room battle, death came close to claiming its prize, which made my pre-surgical premonition appear to be much more than a hallucination induced by too much anesthesia. Waking up alone in intensive care hours later with stabbing pain in my throat from the breathing tubes and in my belly from the deep incision in my abdomen, I wondered if death might have been the better option. I’m forever grateful that my merciful Maker had other plans for me.
My wife came to visit me a few hours later in ICU, informing me that the Dallas hospital had failed to communicate anything to her about my close-to-death experience. Aware that a general recovery room time-frame was under three hours, she approached the nurses’ station multiple times for information but received none. Only when a doctor approached her eight hours after my surgery to inform her that they were moving me into the intensive care unit did she realize the full extent of my condition.
The medical profession defines what happened to me as pulmonary edema. I was basically drowning in my own body fluids, probably from an allergic reaction to the anesthesia. Adding to my distress, my intestines also temporarily shut down, rendering me unable to relieve myself. The pain I experienced as result was unlike anything I could have imagined—far greater than the chronic back pain that had initially driven me to attain the lumbar spinal fusion.
Since my early childhood, I had suffered with neck and back pain. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I’d discovered that I had been born with a minor spinal birth defect. My parents never seemed to believe me when I complained about the pain, which most likely contributed to why it was left untreated. Because my back issues had not been properly diagnosed, I repeatedly suffered throughout my teen and early adult years by doing chores and activities that my spine was incapable of performing safely.
In my early twenties, while driving to work at my first church position in southern Illinois one rainy night, my accumulating back problems went over the edge when my car was broadsided by an oncoming vehicle. Treated for whiplash and a cervical spine injury, I was unable to work for months. When I was able to return to my leadership responsibilities at the church, I had to quickly retreat to a room adjacent to the sanctuary to lie flat on my back as soon as I finished.
I spent months going to chiropractic appointments and living with debilitating pain. Over time, I was able to return to my everyday routine, but the chronic pain and the acute sciatica which eventually developed dominated my life.
By the time I was twenty-nine, my pain was literally paralyzing at times. I recall many nights having to depend on my wife to help me to bed because of the crippling pain and temporary loss of mobility in my left leg. It became increasingly challenging not to allow the fear of becoming physically disabled to completely submerse me in its grave of discouragement.
Following the surgery, as I completed the fifth and final physical therapy session that my limited insurance plan provided me, it was quite obvious that I would have to take my rehabilitation into my own hands. Still walking with a cane and unable to tie my shoes, I hobbled out to the college (where I was teaching) running track night after night to walk my laps. My slow, feeble movements resembled those of someone much older, but each persistent step I took filled me with an inner strength and hope that I would not always be like this. Something far greater inside me would not allow me to give up.
There were days that I struggled to get out of bed because of the intense pain and looming depression, but I persistently summoned the stubbornness that I’d inherited from my mother to press forward, determined to get to the other side. As I fought for months to regain what I had lost, I was often humbly reminded of the times that I had been so impatient at the mall or in the line at the grocery store when I encountered the disabilities of others. How insensitive and un-Christ like I had been. “Never again,” I told myself.
It’s amazing how the depth and insight of spiritual teaching becomes so much clearer when we are walking through the darkness. Much more than our victories, pain makes us who we are.