The hot puffs of air turned to vapor around Chuck’s head as he jogged back towards his apartment. Brick and steel skyscrapers twisted the crisp breeze off of Lake Michigan into a maze of offsetting currents, updrafts, and biting, contrary winds. It was a tough way to start a day, but when you worked in Chicago, it was the best way to prepare yourself for the gun-to-the-head nature of the marketplace. Chuck braced his chin down closer to his chest and leaned into the wind. As he ran down the last quarter of a mile to his building, his mind ran down the list of contacts, appointments, and phone calls that needed to be made as soon as he got to work.
His wife and children were still asleep two time zones and a couple thousand miles away. They weren’t on his mind. They hadn’t been for a long time.
The blow came from somewhere within the long shadows made by the flat rays of the dawn. Solo. Pointblank. Powerful. Delivered with pinpoint accuracy. It crushed in the side of Chuck’s skull and put his lights out. It also snapped his head so severely that it smashed the third vertebrae at the base of his skull. Chuck’s legs crumbled beneath the force of the blow and his momentum hurled him headfirst down a cement stairwell into the basement landing of the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Chicago.
Some time the next day, his mind stirred from deep within a black hole of unconsciousness and allowed him to detect the beeps and muted groans of the life-support equipment that surrounded him. But it was several days before he understood he was wearing the head halo of a broken neck victim and was going to be a long-term resident of the Intensive Care Unit at Northwestern Hospital and the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute. It took even longer to piece together the events that put him there.
If you put everything on a time line, the false alarm that brought the fire trucks racing to the curb next to the stairwell had to have been turned in a minute or two before Chuck was attacked. Because of the height of the fire truck and the fact that some of the firemen were actually riding up on top, they were easily able to see the man lying in the pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs.
They immediately called in a paramedical team from the fire station a block away. It’s a good thing. Chuck had received the feared C-1 break to his neck. This is the same kind of broken neck that actor Christopher Reeve received when he plunged headfirst from his horse. This injury stops the respiratory process. If he hadn’t received help within a few minutes, he would have suffered irreparable damage to his brain. The emergency team saved his life.
And so began the restoration of an assaulted man’s brain, a broken man’s body, and a stubborn man’s heart. Sitting across the table from Chuck two and a half years later, it was hard not to think that he was pulling my leg with the story he was telling me. It was beyond belief that a man who had sustained those kinds of injuries could walk, let alone speak coherently, write legibly, or draw the conclusions from the ordeal that Chuck now draws.
I had known Chuck for almost a year, but only casually. He attended a men’s Bible study that I teach with a friend every Tuesday morning. I had heard that he had been whacked on the head a few years back, but I had assumed it was your average, run-of-the-mill Chicago street mugging that leaves you with a splitting headache and an empty wallet. But when Chuck slipped into the seat across from me at CoCo’s that morning to tell me his story, he took me on an unsuspected odyssey through a life punctuated by repeated acts of personal irresponsibility, countered by generous doses of God’s grace.
Chuck had been born and reared on the Dakota prairies in the 40s and 50s by a loving mom and dad. His father was a German Baptist pastor who had found Christ through the ministry of the Pacific Garden Mission of Chicago. Chuck had enjoyed grace on a platter as a child. But sometime during his second year at Moody Bible Institute, Chuck decided he had a better plan for his life than God did. He threw his faith aside and chased pipe dreams littered with money, influence, power, and self-gratification. His first marriage didn’t last long. His second wife gave him two beautiful children, but he was so preoccupied with himself and his own ego needs that she had long since turned brittle and indifferent to him. She was the woman who was far from his side and his heart the morning a blow out of nowhere sent him hurtling to the bottom of that stairwell.
Chuck told me, “You know, Tim, wives are like trees. Trees need fresh air, sunlight, and water in order to grow. When I came home, I sucked the air out of every room I entered. I kept my wife in the dark by never letting her know what I was up to or allowing her to be a part of my daily life. And I kept her thirsting for affirmation and encouragement. All she heard from me was the whining and groaning of an overgrown spoiled brat. I didn’t blame her for serving me papers in the middle of my therapy. I’d given her no reason to stick by my side.”
Two and a half years after being clubbed beyond recognition during a morning jog, Chuck now walks among his fellow man humble and grateful to God for His mercy. He’s developed a close and tender relationship with his two kids. He and his former wife are enjoying civil conversations and bright moments together. He’s a careful student of God’s Word and a faithful encourager of the friends God has surrounded him with. It’s all the result of a broken neck that God used to rescue a wayward heart.
I asked him, “Have you been able to forgive the person who cracked you over the head?” “Oh yes,” he said, “I did it shortly after I learned what happened to me.” I leaned forward in my seat, “So they caught the guy that nailed you?” This is where Chuck’s eyes danced and he got a slight grin on his face. “No, they never caught him. They have no idea who did it.” And then he dropped his voice to a whisper and looked around the restaurant before he said his next statement. “I don’t think they could have caught him even if they were there when it happened. Who knows, he might even have disappeared right after he struck me.” I didn’t budge but just stared into his eyes trying to figure out where he was going. “You see, Tim, whoever it was did me a favor and brought me back to God. And if it took God snapping my neck to get my attention, it was better than the destructive path I was going down. So for all I know, it might have been an angel dressed in black. Regardless, I’m a different man … a better man because of the ordeal.”
Later on, as I watched Chuck shuffle to his car, I wondered how many times God has used catastrophes in our lives to redirect us from a path of self-destruction. Who knows but that some of our worst moments were nothing more than the work of angels dressed in black sent from a loving God who cares for us enough to get our attention and keep it.