I was 26 years old on that balmy summer evening in Indiana. Gathered with close college friends at a family cottage on Lake Maxinkuckee, we sat on the outside terrace under the moonlit onyx sky studded with stars as if God had emptied an immense bag of perfectly cut diamonds onto his black velvet jeweler’s fabric. We reminisced about college days and laughed about our midnight runs to Skyline Chili, just off campus at the University of Cincinnati. We were a wild and crazy bunch of Christians, in a wholesome sort of way, never lacking laughter.
As the evening approached midnight, I thought, “It doesn’t get better than this. Close friends, a beautiful setting, a perfect night.” And then someone got the idea to go for a swim. An adventurous group, we jumped right up and ran across the narrow lawn, down the pier and, like lemmings, began diving off the dock, one after the other, hooting and hollering all the way.
Toward the back of the group, I saw my friends diving and thought, “The water’s shallow. We shouldn’t be diving.” My thought had not made it to my mouth before Dan dove in, right in front of me. I jumped in. Everyone surfaced—except Dan. I looked a little beyond where I was in the water and saw Dan floating face down. I swam over to him, screaming for help as I realized he could not move. He was conscious as we pulled his face out of the water but told us he couldn’t feel anything below his neck. Someone ran to the house and dialed 911 while the rest of us carefully boarded Dan and removed his limp body from the water, laying him gently on the grass. Within minutes, an ambulance arrived with EMTs. They transported Dan to the nearest hospital, small and not adequately equipped to care for Dan’s injury. The hospital arranged a transfer to Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Chicago’s north side, several hours away.
All of us quickly grabbed our belongings, piled in cars, and drove to Chicago in the middle of the night, right behind the ambulance. After arriving at Northwestern, we waited for Dan. We prayed for Dan. We were sick at heart with fear of the worst. And then the spinal cord specialist came out and delivered the grim diagnosis. Dan had broken a vertebra in his neck, completely severing his spinal cord. He was permanently paralyzed from the top of his chest down, a quadriplegic. Had the spinal cord been severed just a bit higher, Dan would have died.
How do you take news like that? We sat in stunned silence. I couldn’t even cry. I felt as paralyzed emotionally as Dan did physically. Then we went back with the doctor to see Dan. How do you prepare for such a moment? We saw his face. He already knew. He smiled. We didn’t. We encircled him, not knowing what to say or do, feeling utterly helpless and inadequate. We tried to be strong for Dan while recognizing that our world, and his, had just crashed horribly. All we knew to do was express our love for Dan. So we hugged him, though his body could not feel our touch. We stroked his head and top of his shoulders, the only parts of him that could. We expressed our commitment to stand by him, to help him, whatever that might take. Then he dropped his smile and said somberly, “I wish I would have died. I wish you wouldn’t have pulled me out of the water.” How does one respond to such a statement? Reflexively we blurted out in different variations of the same theme, “Oh no, Dan! We’re so glad you are alive!” But that was us. Our bodies hadn’t changed. His had. In a split second, due to one impulsive, bad decision, his life would never be the same. We would walk out of the hospital; he would never walk again—anywhere.
Couldn’t we rewind the night and start it over? Couldn’t I say, “Don’t dive! The water’s too shallow!” Couldn’t I? Couldn’t we? Couldn’t he? No—we couldn’t turn back time. It marched forward without feeling and found us walking behind a wheel-chaired man who had walked and hiked and swam and kayaked and mountain climbed and danced and ran and hugged—never to do so ever again. Such shocking realities take time to penetrate.
In the days, weeks, and months following the accident, Dan began learning how to live all over again. Extensive rehabilitation taught him how to feed himself with special utensils strapped to his wrists. He learned to get around in a wheel chair. Everything else had to be done for Dan. I didn’t realize till then that quadriplegics need such extensive, infantile care. Dan could not bathe or dress himself. He could not toilet himself. A home nurse had to visit regularly to provide what Dan’s broken body would not allow the grown man to do for himself. So many losses. Loss of physical movement. Loss of the ability to feel touch. Loss of independence. Loss of dignity. Loss of his occupation as a plumber. Loss of a normal husband/wife relationship. Deep emotional wounds. Huge spiritual questions.
I remember talking with Dan and Debbie, his wife, several months after the accident. I asked them what was hardest for them. Sadly, their answers were the same but not what I had expected. They said that of all the losses, the hardest of all was the loss of friends. People they thought cared for them didn’t call. They didn’t visit. They didn’t send cards. I said something lame like, “Well, they probably don’t know what to do or say.” And then I saw the pain in their eyes as they responded, “The worst thing anyone can do in a time like this is nothing.”
I will never forget those words. They forever changed the way I respond to people in pain. I may not know what to say or do. I may say or do something really stupid. But if my heart is in the right place, saying or doing ANYTHING in love is better than saying or doing NOTHING in fear.
I remembered the lesson I learned from Debbie and Dan when I became a therapist and assisted the emotionally wounded and paralyzed. Often, it’s not what we say to people that provides soothing balm for their souls. Being willing to sit with people without being afraid of their pain is one of the greatest gifts we can offer the hurting.
Job’s friends sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights when they first encountered him in his troubles. “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” (Job 2:13) The problems began when Job’s friends finally opened their mouths and started offering their perspectives on his suffering. Oh, if they had just kept their mouths closed and their hearts open, instead of the other way around, Job might not have experienced suffering upon suffering. Often, lack of human empathy is what drives us straight into the arms of God, our great Comforter. But God made us for relationship with each other too. The suffering should find fullness of comfort from direct relationship with God and in relationship with his people. God knows we need tangible touches of love. He knows we need ears to hear us, eyes to see us, arms to hold us. We need to hear love in someone’s voice, to see compassion in someone’s eyes, to feel comfort in someone’s embrace. This is what it means to care for one another, as God cares.
So many years have passed since that life-changing summer night. Though Dan has never stood again physically, he has stood again emotionally and spiritually due to his faithful and loving friends who remained with him and our faithful and loving God, source of all comfort. Someday, certainly, Dan will stand on his feet again. On that glorious day, we’ll all get off of ours, kneeling in praise to our great God who is faithful to fulfill His promise of complete restoration–body, mind, and soul—for all who love him and are called according to his purpose. In the meantime, let’s care for one another well.
The Spirit of the sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. Isaiah 60:12
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Romans 12:15
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4