Not Where I Want to Be
As I start this post early in the morning this past Saturday, on the eleventh of May, I should be sitting in my reclining chair on a high-speed train to Pamplona, where I will board the 4:00pm bus for Roncesvalles, a monastery town on the western slope of the Pyrenees Mountains. Instead I am sitting in my home office in Naples, Florida; hobbled by bandages wrapping my right arm and leg.
The tenth of May, was my take-off date for Spain, and a pilgrimage to the bones of St. James. It was to be the beginning of my walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I was to fly to Philadelphia in the afternoon and catch another flight to Madrid early that evening. By 8:25am, the next morning, I would land in Madrid, Spain, where my goal was to get to the Puerta de Atocha Train Station quick enough to catch the train to Pamplona. From there Roncesvalles and then over the Pyrenees to St. Jean Pied de Port in France; my starting point for the Camino pilgrimage. None of this was to be – at least not yet – in my “compostela”(constellation). My stuffed backpack was set out on the dining room table, my collapsible walking sticks nearby, euros were crammed into an envelope along with a charge card or two, and I wasn’t around to carry any of it. No. for me, the tenth of May was my day to be lying in a hospital bed at the Kendall Regional Hospital Burn Unit. The night before had brought me much adventure, a lot of pain, a few revelations, a large dose of peace-of-mind, and a certainty of purpose in life as God has set out before me.
My Day in the Garden of Gethsemane
The day before my travel to Spain started out with clearing my desk of recent bills to pay, and a general organization of things so I would not leave a messy footprint in the house for my wife, Kathryn, to deal with. During that time I was laying out my day’s plans with quite a few stops; at the office, my parents apartment, the gas station, back home, onto a goodbye lunch with my assistant, Kim, and then to the local farmer’s market for a couple of large rib-eye steaks to grill that evening and enjoy with Kathryn, and my son, Miles. With all of that activity, one would think that I had little room in my head for ponderings and apprehensions, but there was. Throughout the entire day I was much possessed by, and troubled with, a definite apprehension, a fear, of what was coming shortly. Was I up for the task of the pilgrimage? Did I have the spiritual conviction to carry out God’s will? Why me, God; who am I do do such important work for you? Will I let people down who are following me on my journey? Can I carry them with me? Would you please take this cup from my hands?
My time schedule in getting to St. Jean, I feared, was over-ambitious and expectant. If I don’t get out of customs in the Madrid airport fast enough, I’ll miss the 11:35am train to Pamplona. If I miss that train, I may very well miss the last bus to Roncesvalles on Saturday, and there is no bus on Sunday. Will I get stuck in Pamplona and thus delay my arrival in St. Jean. Oh God, I’ll lose a couple of days that need to be saved for the walk to Santiago. Will I find a hostel to stay in each night? Will my hips hurt? Will I be able to walk the distance. Yes, there was much to worry about, I thought, and I knew I just wasn’t looking at this whole thing in the proper manner. But the day was moving along fast; things needed to get done, so I focused on the tasks ahead.
A sense of relief came with the late afternoon sun, and Kathryn had come home from her store. Miles had set up the Wii game machine for the three of us to play some golf, the whether was sunny and cool, and I had lit the gas grill to cook those thick rib-eye steaks I had bought on the way home. After a few minutes I noticed that the grill seem incapable to rise in temperature above 300F. I knew the tank was pretty full and figured that I had not tightened the hose to the tank firm enough; thus preventing a full gas full to the burners.
Everyone! Do not ever be so stupid!
I simply left the grill burners ignited, did not turn off the gas tank valve, and reached in to tighten the hose adapter to the tank adapter. I turned it the wrong way….. I immediately heard the hiss of gas, and realized that I had but a second or two to turn the gas off before the burners above would ignite the freed gas. I didn’t make it. I heard the boom of ignited gas, saw the enveloping ball of flame coming my way, and threw myself backwards. I landed on the steps of the terrace and kicked against the steps to propel unto the lawn.
Was I on fire? I knew I needed to get behind the nearby, wood planter for protection in case the gas tank ruptured and exploded. When condition was I in? I yelled out to Miles, but he was already in action; having seen the event through the living room windows. As he came running I yelled out to get a blanket. Miles acknowledged and ran for a blanket; I got the fire extinguisher. His very brave efforts got the flames dampened and stopped. He closed the gas tank valve, and then sought me out.
I had headed for the bathroom to access the damage. An immense, overcoming pain was rising rapidly along the right side of my body. Kathryn came in. I could see. I could hear. I felt blessed for that. What I saw in the mirror was discouraging, and of great relief. While a good chunk of the skin on the underside of my right forearm and right leg, just below the knee, had been burned away – leaving the flesh below raw – this appeared to be the worst of it. From my head – where my hair had been scorched and eyebrows burned off – on down the length of my shoulder and arm, and terminating near the ankle, I was rapidly developing a deep, red glow signifying first degree burns that might soon begin to blister. The areas of burned skin; second degree in nature. It seemed obvious…. the hospital.
The True Pilgrimage
We arrived at the emergency room and soon found myself in the ER with a growing staff of nurses and doctors providing immediate and calming treatment. IV, sterile water pads on the wounds, an initial dose of Dilaudid, antibiotics, and a tetanus shot came along in a step-by-step process to try to minimize the burns’ fruition. The first nurse that began to treat me was very encouraging; keeping the questions flowing so answers could be forthcoming from me, and at the same time kept it easy going and without any sense of over-urgency. Somehow in the questioning I noted that my travels plans to Spain the next day seemed perhaps out the window, and the nurse asked what I would be doing there. It began….
“I will be going on pilgrimage; the Camino de Santiago.”
The nurse responded with, “Oh, that’s something I have wanted to do for some time, and I am planning to walk The Way next year.”
Something clicked inside of me, and I began to talk much of the pilgrimage; the journey that I was about to go off on. The attending staff was listening, asking questions about the Camino de Santiago, and what the pilgrimage entails. It was a lively conversation that calmed me much and carried my mind away from my pain and problem. I felt purposed. I was spreading God’s word amongst the staff, and I could sense the influential and healing powers of His word upon us all. They asked repeatedly if I needed more pain medication, and assured me that I would probably feel quite woozy from what had already been administered to me through the IV. The pain was receding. I was not woozy. Rather I sensed the community at work, together for one cause.
“No, thank you. I do not need more.” Came my reply.
The attending ER physician, Dr. Lee, came by to access the percentage of damage to my body, and determined I was to head out for the Kendall Regional Hospital Burn Unit. The burns were a little too aggressive for them to handle here. By now it was evening and night had settled in. A helicopter would be landing on the roof in about forty-five minutes, and they began to prep me for the trip over to Miami.
Tenderness, Care, Strength and Love
To be the recipient of the ministries of so many nurses, doctors, EMS individuals and family members in a moment of crisis is a truly cathartic event that releases and saturates you in the most splendid of all of God’s treasures that He gave mankind when He created us – love. As I laid their – accepting of all of the ministrations from everyone there – I experienced the incredible tenderness with which each person went about their duty in preparing me for the flight over to Miami. The care to not cause me further discomfort and to protect me from what would come was of their primary concern. Their persistence and strength in completing their tasks was there in full commitment to me. Their self-sacrifice was my gain, my peace, my hope and my healing.
When the helicopter arrived, I was soon visited by the two EMS flight attendants. They engaged me greatly in distracting conversation and a lot of joking while they worked me onto a narrow stretcher. From there, I was padded for extra protection from bumps, and gently strapped into place…. you know, in case the helicopter turns upside-down or something, I won’t fall out. Up to the roof, out the door into the darkness of the night and the chopping sound of the helicopter.
Its a most odd feeling; one where you fully realize that at this time you are completely in the hands of others. My head was braced so I can only look up, and all I could see was the darkness of the night. I knew I was on a roof top, which seemed to give me the sense of suspension rather than foundation. My life is in the hands of others regardless of my physical condition; my spiritual condition is to yield control of my life and receive from others for a change.
I’m strapped down to the stretcher, the EMS are rushing me along, and I soon found myself being slid into a tight space at the rear of the craft with a ceiling just inches above my face. Once in all the way, my head popped out into a slightly higher space where I sensed the two EMS attendants were sitting just ahead of me, and just behind the french pilot. Sound-dampening headphones were gently placed over my ears to cut the engine sound and permit me to talk to them via an attached microphone. Up the helicopter went without me really sensing it and into the darkness of the night.
The flight was perhaps forty minutes in length. I spent ten to fifteen minutes with EMS keeping me comfortable and checking my attitude. I spent the remaining time with God in a good conversation. The first thing I sensed was that God was right there with me; more profoundly so than I have ever felt before. With Him there, there was no place for doubt, fear, anger; no reason to question why me and why now. What I did know was a certainty that in seeking God, one can both find Him and reap all of what God has to give us; His tenderness, His care, His strength, and His love. I was filled with all that God breathed into me and had so much that I could have passed much onto others without losing anything that I should ever need. And I did.
We landed on the roof at the Burn Unit. I was slid out of the back of the copter and rolled across the rooftop to the entrance, where I saw a coordinated team of angels (the physical world ones) ready to take over for EMS. Down the elevator we went to the Emergency Room, and I soon found myself in that cocoon of attention that I had experienced earlier. Again the many questions. Where’s the damage? What had happened? Are you feeling pain? They had quite a bit of concern over the possibility that I might have inhaled the gas flames, which would have scorched my windpipe and lungs. If that had taken place, I might have been in real trouble, but God had kept my eyes closed and my mouth shut as that fireball came to take its toll. After the helicopter flight and God’s personal ministrations and truths, I found myself amazingly at peace and in good spirit. I cared not for what my condition was – for I knew God would take care of that – and rather sought out conversation with the angels about my upcoming pilgrimage and the faith that would carry me through the whole journey. Again, I was so encouraged to see so much interest on their part, and I soon began to hear of their own thoughts on faith and how it heals so strongly. I was questioned much about the need for further pain medication, but I assured them it was no longer necessary.
In the midst of doctor’s coming and going, my condition was reviewed by Dr. Fred Mullins, the head of the burn unit and a nationally renowned professional in his field. Not being in the hospital at the time, the video screen in my room lit up and I watched as a camera, mounted at the top of the screen, moved about; surveying the damage to my arm and leg. His words to his staff was succinct and encouraging to me, but he wanted me to hang around for awhile rather than think I could take off for home and take care of myself. Damage had been done and it needed to be treated and repaired. The video screen went dark. A few minutes later one of the nurse’s handed me a phone. It was Dr. Mullins again. He wanted to tell me that he well understood my deep desire to get on the road to Spain and start my pilgrimage because he and his wife had biked the southern route of the pilgrimage, from Madrid to Santiago, sometime back. It had left an impression on him that would forever dimension his thoughts and words.
After about an hour it was pretty well determined that I was a very fortunate fellow. The second degree burns would need dressing with a synthetic skin in the morning to promote healing, and outside of dressing the first degree burns and blisters for the moment, they would deal with the expectant problems of those burns in the morning. I was placed into a wheelchair and taken upstairs to room 503 in the west wing. Kathryn and Kim were on their way over from Naples and I would see them before I fell asleep. They would go on to check into a room for the night. A room was available for them that late hour of midnight at a nearby hotel; room 503.
The attending nurse made me as comfortable as possible, and provided me with a light meal since I had not eaten since lunchtime yesterday. The past six hours was somewhat spinning in my head and I really wanted to push that to the side. I knew God was waiting for my words before I fell asleep and I so wanted to give them to Him.
“Thank you Lord for loving me so much. Thank you for protecting me from my own foolishness. Through you, all things are possible, so I rest in the peace of your healing hands tonight and give myself to you forever; through this life and on into eternity in your kingdom. I love you, and will forever be your servant sitting at your feet, looking to your word in obedience and forever letting your will reign over my life.”
During the night I sensed the nurse coming and going; just checking my vitals. With I found myself awake in that dreamy state of consciousness, and I would come back to God like a child playing in the yard while a parent is watching. The child ventures out to unknown things before him, finds wonderment and confusion, excitement and temptation, and then comes racing back to just make sure their explorations are safe and obedient to his parent’s wishes. Then out he goes again to venture even a bit farther. I knew as I pulled the sheet up around my shoulders that all would be good in the morning, so with each advance upon me by the nurse to administer an IV drip for pain management, and what she thought would be a surgical procedure in the morning for my burns, I met her with a “Thank you, but no. We’ll face that in the morning if it’s necessary.” The night was long and faithful.
I had no particular revelation that came to me, upon looking at myself in the mirror before the doctor’s arrival that morning, in seeing that all of my first degree burns and blisters had completely disappeared. What was left were the two patches – one on arm and one on leg – of flesh where the skin had burned away. They looked clean, well defined and ready for the doctor and his synthetic skin.
I do believe the doctor was a bit more surprised than I was, and it was soon determined that after treatment for the two second degree burns I could be discharged to go home, with a promise that I would be back in one week so they might check on the healing process. I had a good conversation with the attendants and doctor not only about my upcoming trip, but also about faith healing all things to the mystery of man. It confounds us and encourages us that there is something more than us on this lonely planet; that there is a force, a God, that protects, heals, loves, and unites us into a common purpose. The doctor offered up a testimony of a patient currently in the ward that came in with extensive and angry burns. The whole staff was caught up with her intense optimism, and her continual prayers of thanks to God. And there was much conversation over the mysterious rapidity with which her wounds were healing. He went on to talk about those patients who let fear and pessimism rule their lives, and how their wounds and illnesses tend to heal so slowly or not at all.
Kathryn and Kim soon came by to check me out of the hospital. On the way back to Naples I heard that Kathryn had received a telephone call that morning from friends of ours, Mary and Bill Coakley, from St. Peter the Apostle church; our church. They were quite concerned as they had heard through “the vine” that I had been in an accident. In calling Kathryn while with Father G., Kathryn via a speakerphone was able to recount the past day’s adventure, the healing, and our imminent return to Naples. That was the beginning of a series of phone calls and emails from friends and family leading up to a few more calls today as I write this post. It gives me notice to just how strong we all can be when we are fully reliant upon God’s ministrations over our lives.
Even those who see themselves as quite atheistic; you know, those who may be agnostic-to-hostile about there being a God, but are confident they don’t really need Him, if He did exist, as they navigate life. Well, in this case, they seemed to have to admit to those immaterial forces that overlay and perhaps even rule our lives. My sister was one such concerned caller.
She had called Kathryn while I was in the hospital and expressed much dismay, fear, and an outrage about the injustice of what had happened, as if somehow pain and scars changes and diminishes everything in one’s real life and purpose here on earth. When she called me at home later that day, I engaged in a conversation that, I believe, highlights the state of secular man and woman. Our conversation came around to her concern for me taking this pilgrimage on in the future. She alluded to some “force” that was obviously trying to thwart my efforts to go, and so shouldn’t I heed this force and relent; stay at home? My question was a simple one:
“So who do you think is the one attempting to thwart my pilgrimage?”
Now in my sister’s mind it is politically incorrect to converse on matters of a God. It’s marginally OK to discuss spiritual matters as long as some humor and sarcasm is thrown into the mix, but God is basically a no-no. Now she had to handle my question, so what came forth was her allusion to the “cosmos” being behind this conspiracy. I noted back that we both know that the cosmos has no intellectual capacity or intent to control the decisions and actions of any man or woman. No, it couldn’t be the cosmos, it would have to be something or someone else. At this point my sister blamed God.
“No”, I said.
“If you know anything about the nature of the God of Christianity and Judaism, you would understand that His true nature is love; He would never directly cause harm to His children.”
And God will also not intervene in my foolish actions of free will to harm myself, for that is what love is. Love can never be about controlling the lives of those you love, but rather it is the willingness to self-sacrifice oneself for others and to be able to “let go” of them to their own decisions and actions.
“No”, I said.
” If there is an attempt to thwart my pilgrimage, it can only come from an evil source with an intellect.”
Now things I do not fully understand I have learned to leave them to the side for a future time when I might better understand them. Satan is one such black hole of understanding on my part. I have been told by others that Satan seeks me out – to impede my search for God – but I have decided long ago to simply ignore him; not to curse him, shout at him, threaten him, or even acknowledge him. Never tempt something you do not fully understand. Satan may be able to take advantage of my weaknesses as a man, but He cannot stand before God – that I do know – and so if I seek God and keep myself close to God, I may have a confident expectation of sanctity and a preservation of my purpose as God has willed.
“No”, I said.
“I’ll not talk much of Satan, but any attempt to thwart my pilgrimage could only be one from evil, and so I cannot listen to or be turned from my mission.”
I went on a bit to explain God’s love for man and woman. My sister, for the first time I can remember, gave me the space to talk, gave her ears over to listen, and her mind to think about all that was before her. She noted, in listening to my voice, she could clearly sense my peace and my strength.
Later that evening I got even with that rib-eye steak I never got to eat the night before. I ate it, along with a baked potato slathered in butter and sour cream, and a large helping of floating salad.
Saturday Morning Mass
I really wanted to go to morning Mass. First, to thank God. Second, to let people see me and know I’m still kicking. We sang our processional hymn, a brief prayer, and then Father Russell’s eyes went out amongst the congregation where they affixed upon me. A smile became evident, and Father greeted me and began to explain to everyone a little bit about my recent journey. His good words encouraged me tremendously and I wanted to speak, so I briefly noted my recent events. What I really wanted to speak to, and Father Russell permitted me to do so, was to tell everyone of God’s tenderness, His care, His strength, His healing of my burns, and His love. Also, to speak of the many good conversations I had with so many people these past few hours, about faith and God.
Father Russell’s homily was about one’s pilgrimage; a walk that starts at birth and doesn’t end until one’s last breath has passed one’s lips. It is not any particular moment, nor any particular event, but rather we are all called to God’s service throughout our lives; a service of encouragement to others. Hearing his words was a watershed for me. I realized at that moment that I had been focusing too much on my upcoming walk as if it were my sole pilgrimage. No man or woman can surmount such a task. Only God can carry us over such trials, and yet there I had been – the day before my trip – trying to handle it all myself. I had created my own garden in Gethsemane and my own fears. I thought I was focused on God, when in fact, I was really focused upon myself in those hours before my accident. One’s pilgrimage is always around one’s self, and it’s a pilgrimage that can only be accomplished in the presence of God and with His guidance.
Now all that I am is well settled. No matter the circumstances one finds themselves in, no matter the trial, no matter the pain, we all have the choice of how to think, speak and act as humans created by God. God created man and woman, and they were good. One can act as God created us, or one can act as man has limited us. I can sing or I can cry. It’s my choice. You know, my analogy about the child that ventures out into the yard and then comes running back to his parent for approval and safety has a disclaimer attached that children rarely read as they become adults. It says:
Caution. To venture too far from your parent is harmful to your health, and this God cannot be held responsible for actions that void the manufacturer’s agreement.
We become adults and we take too much upon ourselves as we try to replace our parent, God, in our lives. It’s a tragic mistake, yet easily fixed. Turn to Him. Smile, and get on with your pilgrimage. It’s all around you.
See You on the Camino & God Bless – Reese