Category Archives: This is my story

When I looked Down

When I looked down, he was dead.

It was supposed to be a trip I would never forget; it was a trip I will never forget. We left the small town of Bay St Louis when I was 13. My dad was going to speak for the 40th anniversary of the church he started. My mom was traveling too, on another flight the next day. Unbeknownst to them, my brother and I were working out a surprise. He was driving an RV across the country with his wife and kids and as fate would have it, I was attending a trade show the same weekend in the same area. I moved my flight up a few days so I would be there on the same days as my dad. My family would all be together at the same time in our old hometown; a treasure beyond comprehension.

Can you believe I was on the same airlines with the same connecting flights as my dad; what are the odds?

The morning started as planned. I arrived at the airport having carefully kept my travel plans secret. I started recording the video as I walked up behind him, walking slow, struggling with his suitcase. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he was surprised, thrilled and then… relieved. Surprised because it was so unexpected. Thrilled as it dawned on him that I would be traveling with him to our old hometown. Relieved, because he would now have help to change gates in Chicago; O’hare can be difficult to navigate and he would lose his breath so easily. He checked his bag and we talked as we went through the various security and border crossing checkpoints. The flight was full and there were no seats together for the first leg of the flight, but we secured seats for the second leg; we would be together in Chicago.

The flight from home was mundane. I got some rest; I read some. We landed in O’hare with a bit of time to change planes, but not a lot. I was high on excitement and expectation. He was so glad for the trip and the turn of events, but sore from the trip. His knee was acting up. We found a porter with a wheel chair to spare and we made the trip to gate H4 with time to spare. We passed a food court on the way; a burrito place stood out. You can tell there’s good food at an airport when the flight crews eat there. Dad was hungry and I was happy to oblige. With my dad resting comfortably and checking his phone for messages, I left him my bags and ran back to see what was so good about those burritos. I ordered one chicken and one steak to go; I would let him choose.

A stranger ran up to me, “The man you are travelling with in the wheelchair doesn’t look well. I think he’s passing out.” “It’s ‘ok’”, I said. “He falls asleep at the drop of a hat. He’s done that all my life.” I’m next to pay. Credit card tap didn’t work. Tried again; same result. Entered the card and typed in my PIN. Third time’s the charm. Another stranger… running, “Come now, they’re doing CPR!”

I ran.

I pushed through the crowd looking at the man that inspired so much of who I am. Head to the side, looking out of touch, mouth was moving like blowing in and out faintly. I inched in beside him and grabbed his hand and yelled, “Dad, are you ok?!?”.

He was dead. The eyes were pointed towards me, but there was no life behind them. The blowing breaths were in time with someone pressing hard, doing CPR. I looked harder into his eyes, as if by will I would make them have life.

Everything in me said I should jump in and help, but this was life-and-death; not metaphorically. I learned CPR in Boy Scouts, but that was 35 years ago. This is not the time to try and remember; I’m sure I don’t remember. These people seemed to have a solid understanding of what they were doing. I found out later that there was an ER doctor, a cardiac nurse, and an EMT that were waiting to catch the same flight. Strangers to each other, they worked as a team. Chest compressions, strong and fast. A voice, “I saw and AED, I’ll go grab that.” Another voice, “Paramedics are on their way; a minute out.”

“Dad, can you hear me? Dad! Ernie! Dad! Squeeze my hand”. Nothing.

A voice, “I’ve got the AED. Pad’s go here and here. Unit’s on and charging.”

Another voice, “Ok everyone, stand back. AED is a go. Its gonna shock him”.

The eyes looked forward and went wide. The body jolted upward from the floor.

“Resuming compressions”

“Dad! Ernie! Dad! Ernie! Ernie! Dad! Ernie!” Nothing.

A few seconds

“Stop for a minute…. AED says he’s good”

“I’ve got a pulse, it’s weak.” Compressions continue.

Another moment. Compressions stop. “He’s breathing on his own”.

“Dad, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand!” The eyes still look lost and unfocused. But the breaths are real.

Squeeze. I breathed… for the first time in minutes.

Paramedics rushed in and went to work. I stood back and took a picture. You can always go back and erase pictures you never want to see again, but you can never go back and take a picture again. It seems morbid or grotesque or dishonoring, but always take a picture if you can. I dialed my mom on speed dial, “Dad’s just had a heart attack, I think. Paramedics are here. They’re taking us to a hospital.” I called my wife.

They put him on a stretcher and lifted him to a cart to descend stairs. Someone handed me his glasses, missing a lens. Someone handed me his small document case and his phone. I didn’t look anyone in the eye. I didn’t thank anyone. I breathed. I tried to focus my thoughts. I can’t focus my thoughts by trying harder; only by calming myself. I’ve learned this through enough crisis.

The ER doctor that used the AED found me on Facebook and asked about my dad. From that, I had his name. When it was all over, exactly the same day that I left Chicago, I ran into the Chief Development Officer for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “There’s someone I need you to thank.” He’s getting a commendation. Hopefully he knows the names of the other two.

Police officer, “Is this your father? Is this his ID? How old is he?” more questions. I did my best to answer, but my mind was blank, flushed with panic and adrenaline. “Yes, Yes, He’s…. 70-something. I can’t remember.” I don’t remember if he was done asking me questions. I followed the paramedics.

I’ve been through my share of negative experiences. I can be calm under pressure, but this was something else. Our bags were heading to New Orleans; I had checked my carry-on at the previous gate, people were driving a distance to pick us up. my mom needed to know details, my wife needed to know enough that she could be there for me. God, I needed my wife; we battle together. Dad was loaded into the back, I started to follow. I was on the tarmac of an international airport; they stopped me and ushered me to the passenger seat of the ambulance. You can’t open the door from the inside. I could talk through a window to the back. “How’s he doing? Is he OK?”. The reply, “He’s stable. He’s OK”.

We proceeded to the hospital, Resurrection Medical Center, an apt name. People aren’t very good at getting out of the way of an ambulance, please respect emergency vehicles. Into the ER, we are met by kind staff. I’m asked to wait outside while they cut away clothes and started their procedures.

“Sir, can you tell me your name? How old are you? Do you have history of heart trouble?”

“Ernie Culley. 72. I had a heart attack 14 years ago.” It occurred to me for the first time, he had been out for some time. He might have lost memory or brain function, but he could answer the questions, address, Social Security Number, age, birth date. My heart skipped a beat and then quickly calmed again; he could have, but he didn’t. “That was a new shirt they cut.” “I’ll get you a new one”; he knew recent details too. Short and long-term memory, OK.

We carried on from there to follow the protocol, oxygen, admitted, close watch overnight, angiogram in the morning revealing 85 to 100% blockage in all coronary arteries. He’ll need open heart surgery, major bypass reconstruction, probably a pacemaker. Surgery booked for Monday, 48 hours later, “He might not make it till then. His heart is very very weak. He’s only alive because his body has tried to grow new vessels around his clogged arteries. It really is a miracle he’s even alive right now.”

I called and gave updates to those that needed to know, and a lot of people needed to know. I didn’t say he might die tonight, or tomorrow. I couldn’t speak those words. Words have power. I have one thing. It makes all the difference, “Father, how will this end? Will he be OK?” I can hear the “Yes. He will be OK.” It’s a simple answer, deep in the depths of my mind, not audible, but there’s a feeling that makes the voice unique. I can’t describe it better, but it’s the same voice that told me my daughter would live through cancer. It’s the same voice that has prepared me for the outcome countless other times, almost always positive, but sometimes preparing me in advance for what is to come. He will be OK!

That doesn’t take away the sleepless nights when the heart monitor starts to go erratic. It doesn’t stop the panic when alarms sound in the night. But it quickly follows the panic, followed by a deep inhale, hold, exhale, hold… box breathing is something I learned calming autistic meltdowns for my sons.

There’s so much emotion going through something like this. Anger, guilt, loss, fear, hope, gratefulness… and everything else, all at the same time, like standing in a garbage dump and smelling a bouquet of different flowers. Sometimes smelling the pleasant, sometimes smelling every variety of offensive, sometimes smelling all together to create a smell that’s not natural or supposed to occur.

I write these words, because I know loss. I write these words, because I know overwhelming pressure. I write these words because I know grief. I write these words because I know hope. I write these words because I know God. I write these words because I know calm in a storm. I write these words because I know that in order to move from here, I have to cope, I have to own the thoughts and feelings, I have to process, I have to compute it all, I have to cry, I have to see it all, I have to share. My life cannot accommodate down-time for battle-earned scars. I embrace this process quickly. There is no weakness in being vulnerable… it is the only strength.

A son should never look down and see his father dead, surrounded by strangers, holding his own breath, thinking everything and nothing. I should not have been there; it’s just not right. But there is no one else that could have been.

Today I sit on a plane heading home, reliving it and processing through words. My dad is alive for the moment, with a long road ahead to rebuild strength and heal wounds. I don’t know what the future holds. In a few hours I will walk through the front door of my house, and I will embrace the living, the loving, and the chaos. I will hug my wife and not let go. I will see all the things my children will share with me; it’s their only way of relating. I will be present for them, but I will not be holding freshly earned scars. They will already be prominently displayed on the mantle of my life with the other tragedies and triumphs that I have earned thus far.

This is my story (songs in the night)

Its an interesting journey at 40-something to think back to the significant things that impacted who you were growing up. My hope with this series of posts is that my kids will see a bit of what made me, and by extension, what their heritage is. And I want to write it down, because its easy to forget to share this stuff. After the last post, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about stories that I can remember and what had the biggest impact on me. Today I want to share about a series of memories that were a common theme in my childhood.

Songs in the night

When my girls where young and I was getting them settled for bed, I would sing. I would sing the first songs that came to mind:

He is my peace, that has broken down every wall
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there’s just something about that name
Majesty, worship His Majesty
In moments like these, I lift up my hands

These are  old church choruses and the reason that they were the first songs to come to mind at bedtime, is because they are the songs that I went to sleep to… hundreds of times.

When I was in 2nd grade, my parents worked for a church in New Orleans, LA. My dad taught in their Bible college and ran a printing press for them (it used to be the only way to mass produce flyers and bulletins and such, to run a full sized, plate and ink printing press), and my mom did the graphic design and layout work for the printing press. Then on Wednesdays we would pack up and take our school work with us and drive to Bay St. Louis, MS, where my parents were starting a Church.

I don’t remember much about what we did then, but I know that we had a place at the Walnut Grove apartment complex in New Orleans for half the week and we rented a house in Bay St. Louis, I think on Melody Lane, for the other half of the week. I also remember sitting in the back of a home or two, some that smelled of sulfur and too many people and slightly past my bedtime, and falling asleep while the meeting was going on.  My dad was pretty much a one man show. He sang and spoke and did everything.  What I remember most is going to sleep to the sound of a man singing songs that gripped my heart.

When my dad lead that group of people in singing, he played guitar and sang songs that were simple enough that you didn’t really need words printed out to follow.  He would close his eyes and sing these songs, to God; not like a religious figure from long ago or following some liturgical pattern, but like God was right there in the room, and like when he closed his eyes it was just him and God, and he sang like that might be his last moment to share with this God all the love and adoration and respect that he had… and he had a lot.

Thinking back, I remember many times like that.  I remember going to sleep in a dark room and a wood-slat floor with my mom sitting beside me and my brother while my dad was in the next room singing and talking, some in English and some in Indonesian; I would have been 3 or 4. I can still remember some words to some simple Indonesian songs that I learned listening, while I fell asleep. And though the language wasn’t his strong suit, it was the same passion and intensity and honesty.

And then he would reach that point in the singing where he would keep playing his guitar and he would make up a song right there. He had taught everyone in the home meeting about this type of worship and so all at once, the group would go from singing one song together, to singing 30 or 40 songs at the same time, and they would all get loud.

I don’t think my dad ever gave a second thought in those moments to his two young sons laying down in the back of the room, but nothing could have had a bigger impact on me than to feel the reality of God in a room while 30+ people shouted words of love and adoration, that should have sounded like chaos, but instead had the most amazing harmony and unity.

At 7 or 8 years old, I had no idea how rare these moments would be. Throughout my life I have rarely encountered anyone that would sing with the emotion that my dad does. But this is the foundation that I had to build on.  When it was my turn to go and find God for myself, I didn’t have to look very hard. My dad showed me how to connect with Him, not in words or theory or religion, but in pouring out my heart in emotion.

So today, you will notice that when I sing, I sing loud. I don’t like music that is sung without emotion. U2 remains my favorite band, because Bono brings raw emotion to every song. And songs like this make me cry…

This is my story (the girl in the phone booth)

As my girls get older its clear that they are heading out on their own, and my influence is winding down, or at least its going to change. Which means that I find myself wondering if I have passed on everything that I can, that truly makes a difference.

That leads me to think about the things in my life that have truly made a difference. When I filter out my thoughts to those things, I am left with an odd but profound assortment of stories. I want to write out those stories for now, for tomorrow, for the next decade… so that my kids can come back here one day and remember who they are and where they came from.

phone-boothThe Girl in the Phone Booth

When I was 22, I was newly married and had my first daughter on the way, and I was a youth pastor in Vancouver. We had no money and were in-between places to stay and were crashing at my in-laws’ house in Langley (about 40 minutes east of Vancouver). I got it into my head that I could be lead by God in my day-to-day activities and I would think about this while I was driving. I would ask God to lead me, and show me where to go and then I would be driving down some street and “feel” like I should go right, and so I would take the next right and I would “feel” the next turn and the next turn until I was either mostly lost or trying to turn up a one-way street or something.

No matter how many times I ended up somewhere ridiculous I became committed to this experiment… and it was obvious that I was not hearing God almost ever. In four or five months, I probably made 20 or 30 of these side trips that went nowhere.

Then, one night I was driving my brother in law home and I was within a few blocks of their (our) home and I “heard” something that sounded completely different than all the other times and it said, “keep going straight”. I told my brother in law about my experiment and he was excited about it and so I kept going, and it kept saying “keep going straight”. The road went from being a major road to a smaller road, to a residential lane, and I was about to give up when I saw.

On the corner up ahead of me was a strange scene. There was an old phone booth with a girl inside. Outside the booth was a car with two people, one inside the car and one outside the car. The girl in the booth was crying and had her foot up holding the booth door closed and the guy outside the car was screaming at her. I knew right at the moment that I saw that scene that we were there to save that girl.

My brother in law got out and started talking and then yelling at the people in the car, while I convinced the girl in the car to come with two new random strangers. She did not need any convincing and ran to our car. My brother in law and I got back in and drove away and made some attempt to make sure that we weren’t being followed.

Here’s her story.

She was from Kelowna and had run away from home. She arrived at a big mall in the Vancouver area and was befriended almost immediately by a guy with a small entourage of friends.  They gave her food and a place to crash and some clothes and probably some drugs and it was great for a few days.  Then the guy explained to her that he’d had a bad turn of events and needed her to do something to pay for all the stuff he’d done for her… and she got scared and somehow got away from him. I have no idea how she got to a phone booth deep in rural Langley, but somehow she did and the people in the car were ‘his’ people and had tracked her down and were trying to get her back.

We took her to my in-laws’ and my mother in law looked after her and she acted like it was the most peaceful moment in her life. It was very late, but we called her parents and they were overjoyed to hear from their daughter and they drove all night to come get her. They were there early in the morning. And I never heard from that girl again… can’t even remember her name.

I don’t know if she had any clue the living hell she was about to enter. I don’t know what kind of hell she lived in that made running away seem better. I don’t know a lot, but what I did find out for the first time, is that an average guy can be lead by God if he listens. And I learned a lot about how God values people, because it was His direction to save that girl.

I wonder how different the world would be if more people tried to listen and offered up a little time once in a while to do something unexpected. I wonder how different the world would be if I did that a little more often. I wonder what ever happened to the girl. (If anyone in the Kelowna area knows a lady in her 30s that has the other side of that story, I would love to meet her again.)

But, for my sons and daughters, this is one of the things in my life that changed me and made me a bit of who I am.