Loner on the Heights

By Richard Drebert
©Good Catch Publishing

My helmet beam cast eerie shadows along the iron ceiling of the oil tanker’s empty belly. I slipped a steel hook through the rat hole (eyelet) in a metal beam a couple feet above my head and hung from my two foot stirrups for an instant. I rope-walked a long step in midair, swinging my tense body beneath the beams — 130 feet above the vessel’s deck. At the center of my back, I felt the satisfying tension in my retractable lifeline.

Riggers stared up at me as I swung and clung like a spider between lofty girders that resembled the ribcage of a dead whale. Each rat hole in a rib received my steel safety hook and was attached to the top end of my rope stirrup. I dangled from these stirrups and swung in them from rib to rib, spaced about 4 feet apart. In my wake, I fastened straps and pulleys into each vacated rat hole from which riggers would suspend vertical steel cables. Struts (steel braces) between these cables would support tiers of planks as scaffolding.

In this massive steel canyon, welders’ voices echoed far below as they waited for me to descend on a safety line after anchoring the last pulley on a beam.

I knew of two rope walkers working inside tankers who fell to their deaths — our protective systems weren’t perfect, and sometimes we ignored safety mandates. Often we rope walkers free-climbed when our lifelines tangled — or if it wasn’t comfortable.

But clinging to ropes at devilish heights never chilled me — or my father, who worked as an emergency lineman for Pacific Power and Light. That fear of falling gene had skipped us both.    

And it wasn’t a plunge off a high-voltage tower that killed my father — and set me on a reckless path free-climbing my way through life …

 ***

 As a boy, I never worried when Dad rushed to the airport on emergency calls. He worked with the PP&L emergency response team that flew all over the Pacific Northwest, restoring electricity to shivering families after storms knocked out the power grids. I believed he was invincible.

Dad loved the Game of Kings and seldom missed his weekend pilgrimage to the golf course near our home. My 6-foot, 3-inch Irish giant and I strode like monarch and prince onto the beautiful green together — when only hours before, Dad had been handling 700,000-volt transmission lines in high winds and soaking rain.

My father had grown up a loner, nearly raising himself after divorce broke up his parents. Bitterness bled through his personality when we visited my grandma, Naida, and his stepdad, Pete, in Vancouver. Grandma bought a house with a den reserved for Dad when our family visited on holidays. He shunned visits to Naida and Pete unless he had a place to escape. Dad lounged in his den with the television, while everyone else chattered elsewhere.  

Mom had a difficult childhood, too, but Dad loved Grandma Dottie and Mom’s father, Grandpa Bruno — hardworking, hard-drinking Italians. We saw them often when I was young.

My father was an only child, but not me. My older sister, Ginger, was my babysitter and friend when Mom and Dad were away. We grew up in a tiny green house in North Portland, and after nearly 13 years, we knew every quirky neighbor on Central Street.

 

“Bye, Mom! I’m goin’!”

I bounded down the steps, waving my little Bible at Mr. Coffman, my church chauffeur, who unfolded himself from behind the steering wheel of a big black Lincoln Continental. Mr. Coffman leaned lanky arms on the roof of his car, smiling as I hopped in with other kids sardined in the backseat.

Mr. Coffman always wore a spotless black suit, no matter the weather, and he carried himself like a hulking funeral director.

“The church van’s broke down again, kids …”

I didn’t mind. My kind undertaker always delivered me to Sunday school at the Wesleyan Lutheran Chapel right on time. It was the gracious, caring people at my church who planted a single seed of truth in my soul, even though Dad’s indifference to God confused me.

“If God’s real, he’s real; if he’s not, he’s not, Mike.”

My parents had little time for religion — as long as there was work to do, beer in the fridge and a golf green nearby, Dad was happy; Mom had her friends and us kids to keep her busy. For the first 13 years of my life, my parents worked hand in glove, slapping the McGinn label on a bright future.

 

In 1980, Dad bought Mom her dream home, and the basement alone was nearly as big as our whole house on Central Street. The beautiful Northgate Park sprawled out our picture window, and we had two bathrooms instead of one frantic one. I left my boyhood chums in a different district and stayed to myself at my scary new Portsmouth Middle School. I was the only Irish-Italian oddball in my classes, and my best friend on my new street was a German Shepherd, who lived next door.

My father primed me to play football by challenging me with nickel bets on favorite NFL teams. I grew up studying every move of pigskin heroes; it seemed natural to put my own big hands and feet to work on a gridiron. Northgate Park had a football field right across the street, so I joined a Pop Warner Football team.

In my helmet and pads none of the older kids from my Portsmouth Middle School recognized me — but they felt me as I bashed my shoulders into their knees or intercepted their passes. Kids from Portsmouth admired the mystery kid in jersey 75. He seldom said a word after games or practices and trotted off the Northgate field to his house across the street.

Everything changed the morning I decided to wear a Pop Warner t-shirt with my number 75 to school.

“Whoa! You be number 75? Hey, it’s the ghost who hits so hard!”

I basked in my newfound jock celebrity.

Leaving my old school, my friends, even my church behind didn’t seem so bad after all. For a few months, my family nested in comfortable dreams — until my father moved away and never came back.

 ***

 “How’s Dad?”

It was my first question to Mom every evening as she fixed dinner after rushing home from the Portland hospital. Mom was a solemn, weary woman now, after watching my father endure his painful chemotherapy treatments.

When his lung cancer went into remission, I hoped that my bulletproof father had busted through the line, heading for a touchdown — but he faltered before reaching his goal. His cancer metastasized. Ginger and I were devastated when Mom told us that Dad had bone cancer, and there was no cure.

Dad’s desertion from our day-to-day lives overwhelmed all of us. I missed his booming voice at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning: “Hey, Mike! Wanna go play a few rounds?”

Dad believed he was protecting his children from the trauma of watching him waste away, but Ginger and I only felt rejected and confused. The last time I visited him in his hospital room, Dad put on a brave face, but I barely recognized this frail man whom I loved so dearly.

I saw my dad alive only three times in his last seven months, and this season of grief ruined my tomorrows. One day my mentor was gone for good, and Ginger and I knew we were on our own. My big sister and I grew apart, retreating to safe places inside ourselves, where no one could “get to us.”

Mom adjusted to a hard life as a single mother, tending bar late into the evenings. Often I remember the front door opening about 3 a.m. and turning over to go back to sleep. Like my father when he was a boy, I learned to fend for myself, living alone much of my teen years.

Less than a year after my father died, Mom faced foreclosure on her dream home, and her Italian hackles rose over the bank’s ruthless ways of dealing.

“I’ll burn it down before we give our house back!”

To avoid the looming financial ruin, she sold the house with all its bittersweet memories. We moved to a small rental on the other side of Northgate Park. 

           

“Let me the h*** OUT!”

But no one in his right mind was going to unbolt the door to a classroom where a maniac fumed and screamed. I was tossing student chairs at the door. After ripping off the chalkboards from the wall, I grabbed a desk and shattered a window — then Mom came.

She was mad, too — that they locked me in a classroom at all. But I was out of control. I simmered down when I knew she was outside, but as soon as the principal opened the door, I was gone. I needed a drink or a joint, and I headed off the middle school campus to find friends.

No one could read Mike McGinn, and I liked it that way. The rage inside me never left me, and after Dad died, I felt like I’d swallowed a cinderblock — it lodged in my guts. My only relief seemed to be when I beat on someone or some thing, or drank myself into a stupor, or got high. 

At school, teachers were my enemies, and I didn’t care if the whole world knew that I smoked pot or drank — they could all go to h***! Bring on the consequences, because pain distracted me from the constant throbbing anguish inside me.

My friends knew that a landmine might explode any second if they stood close to me. A boyhood chum made the mistake of saying something about my dad, and I threw him through the Portsmouth principal’s window. Suspensions only fueled my hatred for school, and by the time Mom enrolled me at Roosevelt High, I attended classes only if I felt like it.

My junior year, my last year at school, I wandered the halls in search of friends so we could go party at someone’s house. I was a man-sized kid, with a full mustache and beard, and I hung out with the druggies and drinkers at Roosevelt, who also hated school.

 

I had been driving since I was 14, never bothering to get a driver’s license, and only once did I face a judge for a serious driving incident. One day I sideswiped a parked car in Mom’s Mustang and sped away, leaving the scene of the accident.

No one came after me until Ginger drove through the same neighborhood a few days later. Someone recognized Mom’s Mustang and its glaring dents that fit the gouges in his own vehicle like a jigsaw puzzle.

The authorities slapped my wrist for the hit-and-run and revoked my ability to obtain a driver’s license until I was 18. But I didn’t need a license, anyway. I believed that consequences were usually brief and painful and just part of my life.

 

Mom purchased a small home across the street from Roosevelt High, and I couldn’t wait to move out on my own. I found a rental and a roommate, and we partied whenever I wasn’t working. Stocking gut trucks wasn’t my idea of fun, but I kept the warehouse job with Canteen Food Services for a couple of years. Canteen supplied chips, candy, etc., to workers all over the Portland waterfront, so with my connections, I found a better job.

On Swan Island, at the Portland docks, I landed employment as an apprentice welder, descending daily into the bowels of the cruise liners and freighters to repair tanks or boilers. It was a perfect place for me to hide from the world when I wasn’t drinking at my favorite bar or smoking pot with other addicts. The more hours of back-breaking work the better, and I believed that I was living up to my father’s hard-driving McGinn legacy.

Yet if my dad ever felt fulfillment in restoring heat and lights to the homes of little old ladies and schools, his brand of satisfaction eluded me completely. Sometimes I wondered if starting a family (as he had) might dislodge the relentless heaviness in my soul. But how could a woman ever fit into my lifestyle — patching up ships by day and drinking and smoking weed late into the night?

During my years as a welder, I never seriously contemplated adding a steady relationship to my life until the night I met Denise. She was my life-altering blind date, which I expected to be a bust. Instead, the woman fascinated me. Over several beers and games of darts, I found out that she had a 4-year-old son named Daniel and that she wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship, either.

But as the bar emptied and her friends grew restless to leave, I was changing my mind. In Denise’s blue eyes I discovered an intense invitation that came from someone other than this beautiful woman. A feeling stole through my intoxicated mind that through Denise I might find true peace.

On our dates, Denise broached the subject of religion sometimes, but only a sliver of light slipped through my selfish fog at the time. Although she had been struggling in her life, she had clung to her belief in a Jesus who had been her friend since she was a little girl. Denise believed that God cared for her more than any man ever could.

I wasn’t put off by Denise’s religion talk. In fact, our conversations about the Bible intrigued me. I was bowled over by her depth of character, and I welded shut the door of my heart with this wonderful woman inside.

After a few months, I convinced her that I was raw material for a lasting relationship. We moved in together, and suddenly I was a father.

 ***

 It felt right, like my dad must have felt when he and Mom married — but I didn’t see a need for a marriage certificate to seal the deal. I went to work as a rope walker, and the danger-filled high work sometimes took me out of the country to the Orient for weeks at a time. I often worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, and Denise tolerated my strange lifestyle. The money was good, and I began to raise Daniel the way Dad raised me.

We had our second child, Charissa, and with more responsibilities I stepped up my drinking and smoking pot. Denise hated it and hid her fears, praying that I would quit, but I was willingly blind to her concerns. Unlike arc eye (temporary impairment from staring into the bright ultraviolet welder’s flame), my blindness to the gift of my family was growing permanent. This beautiful woman’s unconditional love reminded me of how wretched I was.

One day I lost my temper and threw away my high-paying rope-walking job. Our ramrod was simply living up to his name. “Seagull” would show up at a jobsite, crap all over everyone and fly away. I was at the end of my rope. I was in Los Angeles at the time, and I called Denise when Seagull canceled my Portland airplane ticket — out of spite.

“It’s for the best, Mike. I’ll wire you the money. Come on home.”

Denise still stayed with me, even though my addictive behavior was growing too much for our family to bear.

 ***

 One day out of the blue, when unemployment checks were about to run out, an old friend from Pop Warner Football days knocked on the door.

“Mike, you lookin’ for a job?”

“D*** right.”

“Ever carry hod? It’s hard work, but good pay. You’d be all over the state.”

Perfect.

I jumped at the chance — without a clue that this age-old trade would ultimately reroute my future.

A hod (mortar) carrier knows what it means to be under the gun in burning heat or knuckle-numbing cold. The hoddy is responsible for mixing mortar for block layers and delivering the hod, minute by minute, to the masons troweling mortar to stabilize block or brick. The hoddy is the first to prep a job, by setting up scaffolding, and the last to leave a job, tearing it all down.

It was at the end of this season working with block masons that I slipped closer to a point of no return. At every break between muscling mud, I drank beer or smoked pot. At lunchtime, too. Then after work, my friends and I hit the local bars or tailgated a few six-packs.

At home, an uncomfortable feeling nibbled at my conscience when I passed Denise’s open Bible on the coffee table. I thought that I was pretty broadminded, tolerating her religion talk. I saw myself as my wife’s family provider — a man’s man who didn’t give a d*** what anyone thought of him, including the faithful woman who loved him.

As I strayed, Denise grew more dependent upon this Jesus she talked about and less dependent upon me. She sensed that I was headed for disaster, and if she stayed with me, she would see her children and herself mangled at the bottom with me.

It wasn’t long after I had purchased Denise a new house that I came home one day to find her gone: kids, clothing, car seat, knick-knacks. Even the fragrance of her perfume had left the premises. I popped a top and flopped into a chair where the stench of beer reminded me of the years I had lived alone. I hated remembering … I hated me — but I could face any consequences. It was my lot in life. A razor-sharp sense of rejection cut through me as I pictured my father’s face.

Dad didn’t even want to see me before he died …

My feeling of abandonment hit me hard, and I picked up the phone.

My drinking buddy answered. “Hey, man. I’m on one — let’s party.” My throat felt raw, and I hoped alcohol would deaden the feelings of loss. I told myself that I didn’t care, beating back emotions that threatened to overwhelm me. I loved Denise. I loved my kids. How could I live without them?

Suddenly my adolescent rage rescued me from guilt, and I spun rubber to a secluded place to get stoned. By the time I stumbled into our dream home the next morning, I had racked up a DUI — the first one I ever had. While booking me, the police ferreted out my sordid driving record, which screamed SCOFFLAW! (At 18 years old, my license had been suspended — and it still was, more than 10 years later.)

In the following weeks, I smoked pot incessantly and drank all night, after slinging mud and setting up scaffolding for masonry jobs all day. Denise and I talked sometimes, mostly arguing over my lifestyle, but she wasn’t budging. She said I had to quit all of it before she and the kids would come back.

I landed in jail again on my second DUI exactly 30 days after my first. My court dates were piling up, and I didn’t give a d***.

No woman was going to tell me how to run my life. Our problems were her fault. I could go it alone.

Then I lost my job.

 ***

When a great friend introduced me to a seductress in pure white, I fell hard.

I had never felt so enhanced, so alive. It was as if I had been asleep my whole life, and now I was awake. Suddenly I didn’t care about looking for work, or my unemployment checks, or if I paid my bills. Sure, I had lost the house to foreclosure, but I melted any icy sense of failure by staying high.

When methamphetamine hit my brain, I smashed open the gates of perdition and stood up to the devil himself. I could take on anyone. I could work harder, drink harder and out-think everyone around me.

Where the h*** did all this extra time come from, anyway? For months I slept in tiny snippets between days and nights of partying. My new friends dominated every moment of my life, involving me in their projects, and I ate up their acceptance like a needy teenager. After all, they poisoned me for free. I never lacked for a line of meth whenever I wanted it.

Denise watched me leave my stirrups and freefall past her, and it broke her heart that I didn’t even try to grab a rope as I plummeted down.

She was shocked every time I visited the kids. I was sucked up, lost to the outside world, eaten by a cancer of the soul, wasting away. My body twitched, and I had dropped 25 pounds, reflected in my bony shoulders and skeletal jaw line.

After nearly two years of being separated from Denise, I had moved into a nice apartment with a yard, and in sober moments I yearned to have my family back. Yet I demanded that our reconciling be on my dysfunctional terms.

Denise was praying. Not just to have her family healed — but for God to rescue me before I splattered against the iron deck rushing toward me. It must have been her petitions that slapped my conscience alive one morning.

 

One day I stood in my kitchen, suddenly sober, undone, realizing that the crack house I lived in was like me. At first, it was well-kept, solid, admired. Now everyone knew it was falling to pieces. Junkies had piled garbage on either side of the front door. Old cars on jack stands replaced lawn ornaments. Friends used a camper in the driveway to vomit in, then flop inside to sleep off binges. My home was ruined.

I threw a few things in a knapsack and walked away from the meth, the friends, the house — not to rehab, but to my mother’s home across from Roosevelt High. I wanted my family back, and I had to start over before I hit the cold iron deck and died.

Twenty years ago, in my childish egotism, I would have bragged that the McGinn grit helped me kick my meth addiction. I would have told you that I had no mentors, no real friends to help me, so I grabbed hold of cable on the way to the bottom and saved myself — but I know better now.

A force far stronger than my own will protected me for pivotal moments of decision. The seed planted by kind people like my undertaker, and nurtured by Denise, had survived the drugs, the rage, the corruption in my life, and finally it began to take root.

It’s the only way I can explain the miracle of my choice and ability to kill my addictions: to alcohol, to pot, to deadly methamphetamine.

But consequences are often retroactive in a man’s life …

 

In my two-year plummet toward annihilation, I had been arrested for receiving stolen property and did time in jail for other minor offenses. While living with my mom, my probation violations suddenly stacked up on a judge’s desk, and he sent the police to track me down.

The authorities were like block layers, screaming at me to deliver more mud — and I couldn’t keep up! It was just easier to ignore their warrants for my arrest as long as possible.

Denise saw that I was determined to stay clean and sober, and she and the kids moved into Mom’s house with me. Then the sledgehammer came down: The cops showed up one afternoon and handcuffed Daddy in front of my whole family.

Standing before the judge in my orange jumpsuit, I told him dejectedly, “Your Honor, I’m tired of all the probations and violations and warrants — just give me jail time, and be done with it.”

The judge obliged and slapped me with 18 months. With my time served, work time and good behavior, I spent six months in a room with 50 other druggies and thieves. Being warehoused at the Inverness Jail in Multnomah County convinced me that my lifestyle as a hard-charging free climber was over for good.

Denise rented an apartment in Gresham, still on pins and needles about what I would do when I hit the streets a free man.

“Mike, I love you. But if you go back to the way you used to be, don’t bother coming home.” It was her ultimatum that helped me lock the door on the past. I had to fundamentally change who I was as a man or lose everything. Was this even possible?

After taking public transportation to Gresham, I hoofed it along the streets, thinking of my new baby daughter, Hannah, and hoping for the fairytale reunion I had replayed in my mind for months. A peculiar incident rolled around in my head as I walked.

Brad, a hard case I knew on the streets, was sitting on his bunk at Inverness, reading the Bible, and I commented how surprised I was.

He said, “I read the Bible to give me peace of mind, Mike.”

Had I ever known peace in my whole selfish existence?

I wasn’t disappointed as I walked into Denise’s living room, and I melted into her arms surrounded by my kids. Standing there, I set my jaw toward a sober family life — no job, no prospects, but full of hope.  

 ***

 On probation again.

I would rather have slept in on Sunday mornings, but Denise wouldn’t tolerate it. She had our church all picked out, and it was right across the street. I spent a few months as a millwright before starting permanent work as a hod carrier for a masonry outfit where a couple old friends worked. I knew it would take time for Denise to trust me again, and going to church (I sat in the pew expecting lightning to strike) was proof of my commitment to her and the kids. I didn’t expect to really meet God there.

But Brad was right. When someone read the Bible, I really did feel peaceful. Maybe it was high time that I made a commitment to religion after all.

Denise’s life had radically changed while we were muddling through the years together, and her relationship with Jesus was stronger than ever. At church I started to pray to God the way I was taught at our Lutheran church when I was a kid, and sometimes I really felt like he was listening.

A couple weeks before my daughter Charissa was scheduled to be baptized, Denise issued a very strong suggestion: “You need to get baptized, too, Mike.”

It was the perfect way for me to bond with my wife and kids. It was a win-win — all I had to do was overcome my fear of standing in front of the whole church!

After Charissa and I were baptized, I felt different somehow. I stood high above the horizons of my past and realized that I had lived like a loner, but never was alone. I should have been dead and buried a dozen times, considering my reckless lifestyle, but someone, for some reason, had saved me.

And if Jesus truly was the one who saved me, I needed to learn about him at any cost.

I set out to try to understand the Bible, and Denise was amazed to see my metamorphosis begin: from a secretive, bound-up significant other, to a partner who showed his gratitude for her commitment. Now when she sent me off to work, she knew that I wasn’t dumping my sandwiches and getting high for lunch.  

           

One day, in Yakima, Washington, I was tasked to break down scaffolding, where I worked 20 feet above hard-packed gravel. Our block walls rested on concrete footings, and beneath me, pieces of rebar stabbed the air about 32 inches high.

It was a great view of the city from my high vantage. I was unhurriedly stacking wood planks, one on top of the other, when I uncharacteristically lost my balance. My toe caught the edge of the stack, and I stumbled forward, easily straddling the pile of planks with one boot. I should have recovered my balance like I always did — but my foot descended like I had stepped on a rotten stair.

My momentum carried me downward, and I knew that my full weight rested on a plank with no support beneath it — a widow maker. I plunged headfirst, a** over teakettle, my empty hardhat knocking about the steel uprights. My body never stopped until the top of my bare head hit the earth.

I lay for an instant, stunned, between rebar stubs. I knew that a forklift would soon careen around the corner to pick up more disassembled scaffolding — so, from my back, I waved my hands in the air. The driver skidded to a stop when he saw me on the ground.

“Mike! You okay?”

I wasn’t. Blood oozed from the top of my head. I tried to sit up, but my head flopped onto my chest like a dead chicken’s.

Lying on my back, I was wide awake, surprisingly feeling little discomfort, and I tested my legs and feet and toes. They all moved fine, so how bad could it be? Paramedics loaded me into an ambulance, and we screamed off to the hospital.

Denise didn’t believe the nurse at the other end of the line when she told her that I had fallen from a scaffold. No way — it had to be a bad joke from some of Mike’s old friends. Mike was a rope walker. He felt just as much at home 100 feet in the air as he did in his easy chair!

The nurse handed the phone to me. “No, she’s got it right, hon. I fell on my head … everything still seems to work … I’ll meet you at Portland Oregon Health and Science University. People here say they’re better equipped to handle broken necks …”

The brightly lit Intensive Care Unit at OHSU seemed as cold and unfriendly as the physician who poked and probed my neck and back. Finally, he shook his head. “Look, Mr. McGinn, X-rays don’t lie: The impact of your fall has damaged your C-2, C-6 and C-7 vertebrae.”

It was time to tell the man one more time: “I can move my feet and legs and toes, too, Doc. And I never really felt much pain at all …”

“Mr. McGinn, I want you to know that you should be paralyzed or dead right now.”

But I wasn’t — either one.

“A broken C-2 alone put Christopher Reeve (the now-deceased Superman) in a wheelchair for life,” he muttered and left me alone to chew on his diagnosis.

Denise stood by, praying, and I submitted to more exams by a few more doctors. They settled on a procedure to stabilize my upper body before surgery — a contraption known in medical parlance as a halo. They were about to start drilling holes in my head for screws, when a senior physician derailed their whole morbid plan.

“Let’s try a neck brace instead, to keep him stationary — it might give the vertebrae a chance to heal themselves.”

Thank God.

Denise was my rock during the whole uncomfortable bracing process. She prayed with me, encouraging me. Loving me. In my hospital room, over and over, physicians told me, “There’s no reason you should not be dead.”

The following day, I fell into my old ways of dealing with pain and uncertainty: I chided myself that I should buck up and bear the consequences. I didn’t need anyone’s pity or compassion.

But on my first day of total immobility, I began to feel unhinged.

If God is real, he’s real. If he’s not, he’s not.

Dad’s words rolled around in my head like mud in a mortar mixer, and I feared that I really was on my own in this world after all.

 

That second day after my fall, Denise stood by my bed, cheerful and compassionate like usual, with her faith in her Jesus set like concrete. She was my head nurse, always watching over me like a guardian angel, so when she checked over my wounded crown, it wasn’t unusual.

“What’s this, Mike?”

I thought, Oh, no, what now? She moved my hair around, frowning.

I could see her blue eyes beginning to tear up as she said, “Oh, Lord …” and I swallowed hard.

“Mike …” Her words caught in her throat. “There’s a handprint … on your head.”

“What do you mean, Dee Dee?”

“I see fingerprints, like they’re burned down to the skin. Five of them — a perfect shape, as if your head was cradled by … God’s hand. It’s easy to see, Michael!”

I remembered how Denise had cradled Hannah’s little head; it was the picture of love and protection, and it shook me to the bone. Nothing on our jobsite remotely resembled these five fingers of God’s delivering hand.

I just plain cried as I realized that Jesus must have absorbed my consequences.  

The next time the physician examined me, he was glad he made the call to clamp me into a brace rather than screw on a halo. My C-2 vertebrae had begun to heal in a matter of days.

To be able to move my limbs with a broken neck defied logic and even science — but not faith. I finished out the week at the hospital and left for home, knowing that God held the blueprint of my life — not the doctors, and not me. God was turning my whole world upside down!

Denise delivered me to OHSU for spinal surgery, just two weeks after my two-story crash, and after a four-day stint in the hospital, I went home to heal, bolted in an upper body straightjacket. For weeks Denise had me all to herself — and she never let me forget that Jesus was the reason I was alive.

“Pay attention, Mike! Jesus is waiting for you to accept him as your Savior.”

 

After weeks of immobility and six months of painful physical therapy, my masonry boss wanted me back at my old job. Incredibly, I was able to grab a wheelbarrow and shovel hod again.

Denise and I bought a home across town, and in time, I apprenticed as a block layer. Our church across the street from us in Gresham became God’s gracious stepping stone for new beginnings.

We lived in a new community, and Denise launched out to find us a church close to home. A nephew recommended New Beginnings Christian Center, now called Anthem Church, and Dee Dee sensed God’s touch there the first time she visited. She couldn’t wait for me to experience it, too, and I followed her lead, knowing how Jesus spoke to our family through her.

Man, is this really church?

Pianos, guitars, drums … the place rocked with Jesus-centered music, and I never spent a moment bored or wishing I was somewhere else.

At the close of a Sunday service, Pastor Brad did what he often does. He asked those in the sanctuary to close their eyes and lift a hand — to acknowledge that they needed a Savior.

I prayed for God to forgive me that day, and I gave Jesus my beat-up old self — body, mind and heart — once and for all.

Why had I waited so long?

The big coarse cinderblock that had rasped inside my soul for more than 30 years suddenly melted away like wax. Relief streamed into me, and God troweled his healing love into every nook and cranny of my heart, where guilt had once been.

Best of all, the constant dread of consequences disappeared, too. In its place, Jesus deposited the expectation of God’s forgiveness and favor — every time the alarm awakens me to a new day!

Maintaining my relationship with Jesus was so uncomplicated that it shocked me. I once believed that religion was like scaffolding inside an oil tanker: complex to set up and deadly if you missed a single strut or pin. But anyone can live a life for Jesus — because he holds everything together.

Whenever I slip, he is my lifeline!

 ***

 Why was I spared?

One evening when I was young, I was traveling at a high rate of speed and felt that death wobble in my motorcycle’s front tire — a biker’s nightmare. Suddenly I was skidding along the pavement on my side.

It’s the cars around a biker that usually disfigure him. Often drivers following behind a fallen rider do the permanent damage.

When my bike finally stopped grinding sparks on the pavement that night, not a single car was in sight on the highway. I stood up, barely able to walk a straight line after partying all night, and I checked my minor road rash.

My not-so-good friend, the classmate I tossed through the principal’s window, didn’t fare so well. He overdosed on his demon drug and died. Another old friend (jacked up on meth) met a semi-truck head-on — and I had many friends like these who shared hard living with me, like an infected needle.

How feeble were our bonds, compared to the kinship I have with true brothers and sisters in Christ today!

I’ve been meth-free for more than a decade now and drug-free for more than eight years. I’m a happily married family man, who builds foundations and walls as a journeyman bricklayer — serving Jesus 24 hours a day.

My mentors and friends at Anthem know where I’ve been, and many of us share the knowledge of what it means to be lost. God protected us until the moment we were found.

On each of our souls Jesus has stamped an indelible imprint of mercy — the very handprint of God.

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