There is a famous class that I’ve heard about years at Sewanee, one that is eagerly anticipated in the theology halls of the Episcopal seminary, where those hopeful of becoming priests must come to grips with one of life’s most daunting realities. Through the years I’ve talked to several of my friends who deeply appreciated the lessons because men and women of faith are each forced to face it, just as every non-believer among us. Sometimes no matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we pray, no matter how much trust you behold to the Master, and despite how hard we carefully plan and prepare for our most trying journeys, things simply do not work as we had hoped. You try, and as the rope becomes more unraveled, those with grit try more desperately, and it still is simply not to be.
To the seasoned traveler who has been down some rocky roads, my scars tell better stories than all the world’s colorful tattoos can never do. So, I believe the biggest consolation comes in the too simple phrase, “If God brings you to it, God will see you through it.” And, sure enough, the wisest ones among us can point precisely to any big tragedy in their life and claim, “Nothing bad has ever happened to me that God didn’t use it for something greater than I could have ever imagined.”
If this sounds like a pep talk, you are right because I am giving myself a little “get ready.” Don’t fret; I’ve got ‘my game face on’ because I am going to need it. Tomorrow I am going to lose a lifelong friend – my right leg will be amputated.
The infections have now gotten intolerable and, as the best doctors in the country will unanimously agree, an amputation is the last remaining option save jumping off Lover’s Leap. Candidly, we all knew there was a huge risk when I asked the brilliant Matt Brenard of the Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopedics group to replace a terribly arthritic knee in July 2018. Matt is a far better orthopedic surgeon than he was a baseball pitcher for the University of Alabama in his college days. But, let’s be up front, my medical malady caused my body to reject four different artificial elbow prosthetics at The Mayo Clinic 15-20 years ago. Some decried the knee replacement folly but, in hindsight, you dadgum right I would risk it again – my knee was so bad I could hardly walk.
Before Matt could even remove the stitches, the infections started to perk. The Vanderbilt infectious disease people have helped me in the past so then I had four surgeries by one of their aces in Nashville. We tried everything - two courses of everyday IV antibiotics for a solid six weeks both times. By now I have had 14 surgeries in the past 18 months and some fear I am developing an immunity to the very drugs we may need down the road to save my life. Yes, as the rope has become more unraveled, the more desperate I have become. That’s what led me to Mark Freeman, an Erlanger guy who probably knows more about bone infections than anyone I have ever met. This is Mark’s gift, I call it his “blessing,” and, again, we tried everything.
Jason Rehm, who I have enjoyed for years as he’s tended to me at The Plastic Surgery group, even performed “a muscle flap,” where he took part of my calf muscle and looped it somehow around my knee to get a better blood flow. It worked, but the infection was tougher than all the antibiotics. While I take fistfuls of strong antibiotics, and nausea meds to keep them down, Dr. Freeman tells me I have the worst luck of darn near anybody he ever saw and, what’s more, now I even believe it.
Don’t you see? I am assured I have had the greatest collection of doctors that I have ever known. I have to laugh when they all ask that I never reveal their identities due to my horrid batting average, but I’ve watched them worry over me for over a year -- if one of my children needed help, you’ve just read my picks and as someone who from years of experience knows more than the average struggler, my guys are each a bonafide winner. Jay Sizemore is my infectious disease guru and has been for a quarter-century. If it wasn’t for him I would have croaked long ago and, ironically, would have died with two legs. Nonetheless, the way I look at it, God sent me into their medical careers to keep ‘em humble and, baby, I’ve done my part.
I had no idea that there are 185,000 lower-limb amputations performed in the United States every year and the success rate is so good well over two million people manage just fine. Most of my medical charts have my name on the second line of the label. The top line is reserved for my alias – I’m known more broadly as “The Complication.” This is why those who help guide my decisions feel a vascular surgeon might be the best choice for my set of circumstances. Rather than reveal who we picked In fairness I must give the poor guy more anonymity – the Vegas odds are 3-to-1 he’ll back out by this time tomorrow.
In honesty, I had never given much thought to actually losing my leg until about a month ago. When the inevitable was first presented, I said I was headed to one of those free-thinking states to drink the Kevorkian cocktail. Instead, I evoked “The 24 Hour Rule,” sat in my rocking chair, and started my pity party. A great life’s lesson: Any time you get devastating news about anything, say “24” out loud, where you can hear it. Better, go to a mirror and say it where you can watch your lips. Trust me, your knee-jerk reaction will be dumb. The next solution you grasp will be stupid. But give it a full 24 hours … not just 18 or 20 … and, so help me this has become true time and time again in my life. In just 24 hours, God, and those who you love more than your long underwear, will help you find the wisest solution and chart its course.
Whining and crying and self-inflicted agony is so silly. So here I am, my pity party about to get hot, and I thought of the days long gone when I was pretty wild. Listen, I was good at being bad, and one thing I loved was driving one of several Corvettes I had back then and – always by myself lest I kill some girl. I would find a country road and play with what is still called “a four wheel drift.” What you do is find a road with little if any traffic where there is a pretty pronounced turn. (there is a great one in the climb up Signal Mountain from Sequatchie.) You get about a third of a mile away and then you slam through the gearbox so when you reach the curve your speed is real.
That’s when you corner so hard you can feel your tires “drift” to the outside of curve, sliding and squalling and a threat to any ditch. At the precise right second, you downshift into second, full throttle and, with the engine red-lining the tack, steer back to the road as you coax the sheer power of the car to overcome the pull of gravity. Oh my mercy, it’s scary. It is so loud the rear tires scream like insane banshees, but fun – oh mother-of-pearl – yet in my pitiful moment I realized that, no, now such raw splendor will be gone forever.
I was so wrapped up in the memory, and knowing I’d never do it again, that my cigar was shaking as badly as the ice in toddy, tears running down my face … when this loud inner voice from surely above broke the reverie. “Yo! You! Yeah, Mario Andretti! It’s you right leg that is sick! Your left leg works the clutch in any Corvette that has ever been built, and you can still feather the clutch in a Renault Dauphine if you want. Grow up, you big baby, and enjoy the stars! Hey, and your own goal is to stay vertical!”
So help me. I laughed so hard at myself and the pity party was over almost before it started. You see? If God has allowed this, there ain’t no problem. God will see me home.
Well, except for one more small detail. Every day my readers realize my psychiatry exercise is telling a story, sharing a thought, offering my opinion. After today my keyboard will go cold for a while. My great friend John Wilson, publisher of Chattanoogan.com, understands. I can’t predict where we’ll be in two weeks, four weeks, or even in January. I have been told not to worry, to “let go and let God … you need to get well.”
I’m all for that. After all, I have no other option.
I wish you a Merry Christmas and my profound hope for a healthy and Happy New Year. I don’t want this to be goodbye, just so long ‘til next time.
Oh, and you’ll know when I get back: I’ll be the one with a peg on my leg, but with my smile on my face.
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ONE SOLITARY LIFE
Dr. James Allan Francis was born in 1864, became a pastor at age 21 and served in ministry for the remainder of his life. He came to Los Angeles in 1914 and his most famous words, now known as “One Solitary Life,” originated as part of a sermon that he delivered on July 11, 1926 to the Baptist Young People’s Union at a Los Angeles Convention. A friend transcribed the message titled “Arise, Sir Knight,” and Dr. Francis published it that same year in a collection called “The Real Jesus and Other Sermons.”
Since one section of the sermon was particularly popular, minor changes were made to the original words in order to circulate them independently. This adapted version was first published around 1930 by The American Baptist Publication Society and was titled “Jesus - A Brief Life.” This is the version that follows.
Over time, Francis’ powerful description of Christ came to be known as “One Solitary Life” (the last words of the passage), and it was most often circulated during the Christmas season. Truly, it is remarkable to consider how Christ’s birth proved to be predictive of how he would spend the rest of his life on earth — in great humility.
Interestingly, Francis’ passage was so widely circulated that, along the way, it’s authorship fell into obscurity. In fact, to this day, the words continue to be credited to an anonymous author. Perhaps this anonymity is fitting. After all, Francis’ purpose was to turn attention to one particular man and his “one solitary life.”
THE TEXT OF DR. FRANCIS’ FAMOUS SERMON
Here is a man who was born in an obscure village as the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village.
He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty and then for three years was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never owned a home.
He never had a family.
He never went to college.
He never put his foot inside a big city.
He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born.
He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness.
He had no credentials but himself.
He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of his divine manhood.
While still a young man the tide of popular opinion turned against him.
His friends ran away.
One of them denied him.
Another betrayed him.
He was turned over to his enemies.
He went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed upon the cross between two thieves.
His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth while he was dying, and that was his coat.
When he was dead, he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today he is the center of the human race and the leader of the column of progress.
I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that were ever built, and all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon the earth as powerfully as has this one solitary life.
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“A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!" – Tiny Tim, in the 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens.