One summer, when I was only seven, over a period of a few weeks, I experienced an onset of severe headaches. I completed the second grade that last school year, and It was my first summer living in southern California. My parents, sister, and I moved from Northern Minnesota six months earlier. I found no interest in spending any of my first summer in California complaining about my headaches. I figured they would go away on their own, and they did.
At the age of seven, I wanted to take advantage of every moment of my first summer in southern California. If that meant suffering a few minutes of pain so I could play with my new friends, I would do it. Coping with that pain worked out well the first few times. It did not work out well on the morning of July 13, 1984.
That morning, running alongside a friend from school, I shouted words of encouragement. He rode my bicycle around the cul-de-sac. No one ever taught him to ride a bicycle. My sister taught me during the last summer we lived in Northern Minnesota. I decided to pass on my wisdom. My father left earlier that week for an airline trip. My mother went on a morning shopping trip. She left my 14 year old sister with the responsibility of watching my friend and me. Watching us, she and a couple of friends threw a football to one another other.
Then, running alongside my friend, I suffered a headache so painful it almost paralyzed me. I needed to lay down. I told my friend to go play video games in my room. I ran to the other side of the Cul-de-sac, through the garage, and into the family room of our house. I fell onto the couch and closed my eyes.
Sometime later, my mother came home and saw me lying on the couch. She came over to me and tried to wake me. I could only respond, “I have a headache” and would say no more that day. She pulled me from the couch. Sitting on the floor, she held me upright trying to get me to answer her pleas. I could do nothing. I could not respond. I could only listen to the desperation in her voice. I could only watch the fear in her eyes. My eyes shut.
Sometime later, I woke. I lay in the backseat of our station wagon. My mother stopped at a stop light. She rolled down the passenger side window. She told the officer in the car next to us of the emergency. He turned on his sirens and escorted us through the light. My mother insists that never happened. I believe her. I am sure I hallucinated it. I fell back into my coma.
One more time before I fell into a deep coma, I woke. I lay on a bed. I looked up to see a bright light and a nurse. She asked me a question. I don’t recall the question. I do remember the light, the noise, and all reality disappeared.
For the next month of my life, I cannot tell you from personal experience what happened. I can only tell you what my mother, father, and my doctors told me. I do not recall any out of body experiences or going to Heaven. I do sometimes wonder if when I get to Heaven I will recognize it. I do wonder if going to Heaven will feel more like home than earth feels like home.
After the doctors and nurses examined me, the San Diego Children’s Hospital (Now, Rady’s Children’s Hospital) sent an ambulance with a medical team of three people to the Scripp’s Clinic. I died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and would die again on the operating table.
At the hospital, a neurosurgeon diagnosed me with an A.V. Malformation. The blood vessels in the back of my brain entangled themselves due to a birth defect. It caused a diffuse brain injury. There are about 60,000 miles of blood vessels in an average child’s brain. The brain surgeon needed to find the one vessel that burst without damaging any of the other blood vessels. My mother contacted my father. He wanted a second opinion. The doctors said my life was on a thread, and I was moments from dying. My father shouted into the phone telling her to sign the papers.
On August 13th, 1984, one month after I went into my coma, my parents met with my doctors. I continue to lay in a coma. The doctors warned my parents I might never wake. After the meeting, my parents went back to my room. The children’s pastor of our church met them there. My father decided not to allow the doctors word to be the final word. He led the trio in a prayer that God would perform a miracle.
After they said ‘amen,’ my father took his thumb, pressed it with ease against one of my eyelids. He slid it to reveal my eye and then he let go. My eye shut. Then, he took his thumb, pressed it with ease against my eyelid again, and slid it toward my eyebrow. That eye remained opened, and I opened my other eye.
At that moment, I woke from my coma to see nothing but light and three figures of pure light. I can only imagine they were the images of my parents and children’s pastor. I sometimes wonder if they were three of the angels assigned to watch over me.
One day, still in a catatonic state, in one of my therapy sessions when my speech remained slurred to the point I found it difficult to form words, without warning, I lifted my hands and started praising God. One of my head nurses, who was a Christian called for another one of my nurses. This second nurse, an atheist, came to witness my sudden display of praise.
When my Christian nurse returned with the atheist nurse, my Christian nurse asked me why I was praising God. I smiled, looked up to Heaven, said, ‘because He is taking care of me,’ and then fell back into my catatonic state. My atheist nurse admitted she could not explain what she witnessed.
On August 31, the doctors released me from the hospital. The hospital staff threw a going away party for me. The doctors gave my mother one more warning. They said they didn’t know when I would start walking again. That led to my parent’s fearing I would be a vegetable for the rest of my life. They sent us home with medical equipment to care for an invalid child.
Two weeks later, crawling down a hallway in our house with my mother walking in front of me, I asked her to stand behind me. I told her I wanted to try something. She said ‘okay,’ and then she walked around and stood behind me.
Then, refusing to remain crippled for the next two years or to remain in a vegetative state, I placed my right hand on the wall. I thrust my left knee upward, placed my left foot on the carpet, pushed myself up with my feet, and stood. I took a couple of steps. My mother, overwhelmed with joy, encouraged me to keep walking. I could find no strength to walk another step. I placed my hands on her cheek and said, “In His time.”
Then, a few weeks later, my mother brought me to the hospital. She brought the medical equipment with her. I sat on a chair in the waiting room, while she returned the equipment to the nurses station. She told them I did not need it because I could walk, but they insisted I needed the equipment. She told me to walk over to her. I stood and walked to her. Nurses and doctors not even assigned to my case came running to witness the impossible.
For the next two years, I went in for annual checkups. I never returned after my second checkup. The doctors said they could do nothing more for me. They said medical science could not explain my recovery.
Throughout my childhood, I carried burdens most children did not carry. David, who did not come to my school until two years after my brain surgery, learned about the summer I spent dying. He laughed at me and called me ‘airhead.’ He said I would always remain brain damaged. I internalized the pain. The next year, Darryl came to my school. He joined in on the ridicule. Two years later Tim joined the taunting voices. The list of taunters grew. I often contemplated suicide. I was 10 the first time I thought about taking my life. Thoughts of suicide allowed me to internalize the pain.
Though, physically I was healing, mentally and emotionally I suffered. I became angry. I threw tantrums. I ran out of classrooms. I did not know how to cope in a world full of people who belittled me because they did not understand me.
After some time, I went to see a child counselor. Sitting in her office, we threw a big, rubber ball to each other. We spent those hour long sessions talking about my week. One day I threw the ball too high. It went over her head. She asked me to go get it. I walked across the room, picked up the ball, and then I went back to my seat. We continued throwing the ball to each other.
Then, a few moments later, she threw the ball too high for me. She looked at the ball behind me, looked toward me, and asked me to get it. I ran out of her office, across the waiting room, out through the front door, and sat in the courtyard. I never went back. I felt she set up a standard that when I made a mistake I needed to redeem myself. But when she made that same mistake rather than redeeming herself, she put that burden on me. I felt it unfair, so I ran. Running not only helped me cope with the pain of childhood taunting, but it also helped me to cope with any situation in which I did not understand how to adapt. Running eased the pain.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I ran out of a classroom for the last time. That day, our teacher told us to get into groups. I found myself in Darryl’s group. He made a joke about me. Other kids laughed. I ran out of the classroom. I ran down the sidewalk, across the parking lot, and down a hill. I sat under a tree.
After that day, I realized running out of classrooms wasn’t the healthiest emotional response to difficult situations. I found more acceptable ways to run from uncomfortable situations. I ran when I refused to graduate from a high school I hated. I ran when I moved to Seattle. I ran when I moved to Boston. I think back to my past and notice patterns of running from uncomfortable situations and relationships.
Now, more than 30 years after I spent the summer dying, few people know my story. I realized recently that the reason I do not talk about the summer I spent dying is because the taunting of children caused me to feel shame. That caused me to equate the summer I spent dying with shame. I learned to avoid the shame cast upon me by not talking about my A.V. Malformation.
Though, to overcome the shadow of shame cast upon me by the taunting of children, I need to reframe that which once caused me shame. I will not be ashamed of what glorifies God. I need to tell people the reason I walk with a limp is because when brain surgeons are racing against time to try to find a leaking blood vessel somewhere in a tangled mess of thousands of miles of blood vessels, making sure your spine is in alignment is not a priority. Sometimes, those people who ask about my limp will ask me if I want them to pray that God will heal my limp. I thank them for their offers to pray for me, but I turn them down. It’s not because I don’t think God can straighten my spine. It’s because I believe God left me with a limp on purpose.
Though, I know people who offer to pray for God to heal me of my limp mean well, my limp is my legacy. When someone offers to pray for me, I wonder if they want to pray for something they think burdens me or a difference they think makes me incomplete. I don’t feel myself limp. I don’t notice my limp. I only think about it when people ask about it. God healing me of my limp would not be for me. It would be for other people. I would not go around praising God for healing me of my limp. I would rather people ask me if I’d like for them to pray for God to heal me of the thinning hair on the crown of my head. I would praise God for a full head of hear. God leaving me with a limp does not mean I am incomplete. My healing is complete in Christ. I am complete. God left me with my limp for a purpose. My limp is the monument of my life to the glory of the power of God over death.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, He left the scars on Jesus’ hands. Those scars became Jesus’ testimony. God left the scar on the back of my neck and caused me to walk with a limp for a purpose. I am not ashamed of my purpose. Children who belittled me belittled me because of my differences. I will no longer allow the shame cast upon me by the taunting of children to define me.
One of my favorite books is As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. It’s about a Father and his sons in 19th century America who travel in a boat down a river to bury the boys’ mother. When they complete their journey, the Father leaves the boat with the body of his wife. He returns with a woman and tells his children to meet their new Mother.
One of the mysteries of that book is who is the new Mother. I think their new mother was their mother renewed. The title of the book gives it away. As I Lay Dying. I believe Faulkner’s story is the story of the renewal of the human spirit.
In the same way, though I spent the summer of 1984 dying, every day I live is a day to live my life renewed. We all go through our battles. We all face our demons—spiritual, emotional, mental, and sometimes physical. We all have stories to tell, dreams to dream, and purposes to accomplish. We all limp through life, but God gave us all destinies to walk into. God gave us all a chance to live our lives renewed. We are all giant slayers rising.
Everything done to Jesus during the week leading up to His crucifixion was done to remove honor from him and to cast shame upon him. Christ took my shame upon Himself, so I would not need to live according to the shame cast upon me by the taunting of children.
Though, there is one more thing I must do to overcome that shadow of shame. Darryl, David, Tim, and any other kid who ever taunted or belittled me for what you did not understand. I forgive you. Your debt is cancelled. I choose to walk into my destiny. I choose to overcome the shadow of shame that once held power over me.
Erick Pettersen resides in northern San Diego County, California, where he serves faithfully in his church, C3 San Diego. His passion is to allow God to bring emotional healing to others by telling his story through articles, speaking engagements, and his upcoming book, The Rising of a Giant Slayer. For more information about Erick or to book him for a speaking engagement, visit his website, giantslayersrising.com.