Speaking to the Mountain: Chapter 1

Prologue

It’s deafening, the sound of your own body torpedoing through air. I don’t know why people call it jumping. The word diving isn’t right either. It’s really a matter of leaning: You lean through the yawning hatch of an airplane and lie down on the air. The roaring wind catches you like a hammock and drowns out the pounding of your heart. A hair-raising ecstasy swells in your body, cell by cell, to the point of nearly bursting. The feeling isn’t erotic, and it’s too beautiful to be terrifying. Finally, an intense rapture and utter calm braid inside you. The union makes perfect, surprising sense when you feel it. There is scant room for fear. Belly-surfing on air, you take simple pleasure in the wind filling your mouth to a satisfying roundness. (Mine made an O. My cheeks rattled like maracas, and saliva curled around my lips.) 

You don’t worry about your chute opening, not like you thought you would. You’ve done everything right! You just savor this experience until you reach back and pull. What if nothing happens? What then? Will you wish you’d never flown?

Brenda Palmer never leapt from a plane, only experienced a simulated skydive in a wind tunnel engineered by her husband, but in all the ways that matter, she can tell you about the terror of a pull-cord that doesn’t perform as expected. She knows now that expectations have a funny way of masquerading as faith. And I know, too, because she told me all about it, and now I’m going to tell you. This is her story of faith and expectation, and it all begins with a sandwich. 

And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight.
These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.

Isaiah 42:16

**

“Mike, don’t eat the strawberries.” 

Brenda was wiping down counters in her kitchen, aligning dish towels on their hooks as another minute rolled over on the oven clock. Her husband was poking his head into the fridge, and she knew he was homing in on those berries, one of his favorite foods. “They’re for a recipe I’m making tomorrow night. Do you want me to make you a sandwich before you go?”

Mike had an 11:30 a.m. tee time, and now he was flirting with being late. He was normally punctual, but he and Brenda had lingered in bed a little long that morning, enjoying the novel emptiness of their nest. They had taken their usual coffee and toast out on the patio instead of at the kitchen counter. Mike had read the newspaper, front to back. Then he’d gone to the grocery store to pick up a few things that Brenda forgot on her earlier trip that day. It was one of those deliciously lazy spring days, when the minutes ooze into hours, thick and sweet. 

“Are you going to take this sandwich with you or eat it here?” Brenda called to Mike. He didn’t answer, but she heard a muffled noise from another room. Brenda left the turkey sandwich on the counter, rounded out of the kitchen, and walked up the little dim hallway toward the corner room of their mid-century home. This room was Mike’s office, a nest of space with just enough square footage for the “man things.” There was the thick and stout leather chair. There was the bookstack. There was the commanding wooden desk, half as big and twice as heavy as a Cadillac. Brenda knew she’d find Mike on the other side of it, giving his usual serious consideration to one CAD file or another for his wind-tunnel project. 

Instead, she found him sitting catatonic behind his desk in his high-backed swivel chair. He had his head tilted backward, chin-up, with his mouth frozen slightly open. His eyes were blank. Her first thought was more of a wish—that he must be playing a joke—but hijinks were not Mike’s style, and in her bones, she knew better: something was terribly wrong. 

Patting Mike’s cheeks and shaking him, Brenda yelled his name again and again. He showed no response, so she ran to the adjoining bathroom and grabbed a small towel from the cabinet. She cried out to God as she made a clumsy attempt at running the towel under the faucet, but she simply could not stay away from Mike long enough to soak it. 

Brenda’s hysteria was interrupted by the phone ringing. The sound made her swallow her screams long enough to try to speak. When she answered, nobody was on the line, but with the phone now in her hand, it dawned on her to call 911. She robotically touched the numbers on the keypad, but the dispatcher that answered the call asked several time-stealing questions, which Brenda could barely comprehend in her frantic state. After answering enough of them, she finally got the words she wanted: “We’re on our way.”

How does anyone wait for an ambulance? There is no surer way to slow down the clock. Brenda instinctively called her friend Sandy, the pastor’s wife at her church, a Pentecostal megachurch with a staggering headcount of nearly 2,500 members. In many churches, members believe—whether consciously or not—that the higher the clergy, the closer to God. Catholics have their cardinals, bishops, and Pope. Pentecostals have their elders, associate pastors, and head pastor. A hospital visit from one of the elders is the next best thing to one from the pastor’s wife, which is right behind one from the pastor, who is the closest earthly connection to God. That line of thinking was certainly the unspoken standard in their church, but it was never Brenda’s way. She knew that goodness and strength were inborn in Sandy, not inherited or assigned. Even so, they lent no heavenly credits or superpowers, and friendship with Sandy transcended church politic and hierarchy. 

“Hello? Brenda?” 

It was unusual for Sandy to be home in the middle of a weekday. A megachurch never sleeps, and the pastor’s wife is as busy as the First Lady, leading meetings and making appearances, doing community work, helping with services, and just being present for people in need in the congregation. 

“Sandy, something’s wrong with Mike.”

Sandy heard the panic in Brenda’s voice. “I’m on my way.”

Though Brenda instantly felt less alone, she remained frantic, still trying to figure out what she could do for Mike as time moved like molasses through cheesecloth. Impulsively, she reached out, grabbed his nose, and began blowing warm puffs of air into his mouth, trying to “revive” him though he was still breathing on his own. She felt the warm air come out of his nose and onto her cheek. It wasn’t doing him any good. She cried out loud to God again. Never, not even in childbirth, had she heard such animal sounds coming from her own mouth. It was as if someone else were screaming.

Unable to simply sit and wait, her mind wildly spinning, she decided Mike would be better off on the floor. How would she get him there? Brenda was a petite five-foot-four, and for the briefest moment, her animal fear morphed into anger. Here she was, neck-deep in terror, and her husband was was just sitting there, unable to help. How could he not help her? This man had even pumped her gas for her; she had seldom so much as laid a finger on a gas cap in her life! Now he did nothing, and he was so heavy! 

Putting her arms under Mike’s armpits, Brenda tried to heave him up, but his body was was limp and heavy as a sack of cement. He didn’t budge. The impossibility of moving him made it seem that much more important that she get him onto the floor. Determined, she tried a second time, then a third. On her third attempt, the big swivel chair flew out from under Mike’s legs, and she barely managed to guide his body as it crumpled to the floor. Now she could see the truth: Her husband didn’t look like he was in shock or sleeping. He looked dead. 

How many minutes had passed? Two? Thirty? Brenda resumed her irrational effort to perform CPR. This time, with each breath she blew, Mike’s eyes slowly opened and shut. Again she cried out loudly to God as she filled her own lungs for another breath and another and another and another. She knew Mike was not looking at her—or at anything else, for that matter—but the fact that his eyes kept opening told her he must still be alive. 

Finally, the front door opened. Brenda heard footsteps quickly approaching the office where she was heaped over Mike. It was Sandy, whose face turned ashen at the sight of her friends. 

“Oh, Brenda. Oh, Brenda. Did you call 9-1-1?” Sandy sort of slumped against the wall and began praying out loud. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Brenda took note: This was the second person to pray for Mike since she had found him in this state. Power in numbers. Power in prayer. Now did God hear them?

Minutes later, the EMTs arrived, and right on their heels was a neighbor named Ben. Like Mike, Ben was a NASA guy, a contract monitor who had retired just a few years earlier. All tweed and loafers, large white teeth like tiles, and a rich-chocolate voice that carried for miles, he was a husky Virginia gentleman. He had big, old Virginian composure and a beautiful accent unique to those parts. (“Let’s go oat to the water,” he might say, or, “It’s aboat time.”) Today, he was speechless.

Ben apparently had seen the ambulance pulling up in front of the Palmers’ home, just as he was about to leave for a friend’s 90th birthday celebration. Perhaps there was something he could do?

With local family roots that run five times as deep as they do wide, Ben also had a genteel but firmly masculine air that made him seem always in charge of the situation, like he owned the town. He was not the sort to panic, but his stalwart air seemed shaken by what he saw after he hurried across the spring-green lawns between his and the Palmers’ homes. Mike’s lifeless body sprawled was a terrifying sight.

Ben clearly wanted to help but must have thought the situation looked hopeless. Was he watching a good man die? As with Sandy, his reflex was to pray. Ben cobbled together unhinged prayers, repetitive chants, the kind one prays in a panic, pleas to an invisible father. He leaned against the wall with Sandy as he murmured them, watching from some distance without even meaning to distance himself. Here was a catastrophic situation lacking a person who knew what to do about it, a zeppelin careening toward the earth. What else to do but pray?

The EMTs were struggling to get Mike out. They enlisted Ben’s help in moving the giant wooden desk. It was blocking them from getting Mike on the stretcher. Ben looked relieved to be of practical use, and the massive desk felt almost light as it shifted with his help. Yet the desk was only half the problem: The hallways of Brenda’s and Mike’s beautiful old home—narrow, dimly lit, and creaking with the moaning songs of old wood—instantly went from cozy and quaint to oppressive and tight. They made passage of the stretcher next to impossible. 

Once Mike was loaded into the ambulance, Brenda was told to climb into the passenger seat. An EMT lent her a hand as she made her way up, her eyes firmly locked on the stretcher, looking for signs of life. Mike’s eyes were fixed open and framed now by the metal of the stretcher and by the busy gadgetry of of an ambulance interior. One of the responders shined a light in his face and noted that one of Mike’s pupils appeared to be larger than the other. Hands belonging to other medical personnel moved in and out of her line of vision, strapping things onto and around her husband. She couldn’t shake the idea that Mike might already be gone. That’s when she noticed one of Mike’s shoes peeking out from beneath the sheet: blessedly, it moved.

“I don’t know who you are,” Brenda said to the EMT at the wheel, as the ambulance slowly pulled out of the driveway, “but one day, I’m going to find out.” 

The man nodded stoically, looking straight ahead as he drove. He was taking every precaution at each red light and intersection. Past the beautiful seagrass, beyond serpentine waters that snaked toward the coast, with a view of fishing boats pocking the distant horizons, the ambulance moved as if in slow motion. It drifted up the divided highway, slowing gently at turns, bothering with road signs and signals, using the proper lanes and never so much as lurching. Surely the sirens were blaring, but it seemed to Brenda that the thing was in no hurry at all. In fact, the normally 20-minute drive to the hospital seemed to take as long as it ever had in her own car.

Sandy lingered for a bit with Ben back at the house, the two of them unable to fathom what they could or should do in the wake of things. Assurances were exchanged. He’d call the hospital later to check on things. She’d head over there on her own in the car. They locked the door behind them and parted ways.

Sandy’s husband, Pastor Ron Johnson, met Brenda at Riverside Regional Medical Center, a major hospital sitting on 72 acres of the Virginia Peninsula. Ron was standing on the sidewalk at the emergency entrance as the ambulance pulled up to the roundabout. He immediately recognized that Brenda was too shocked to make even the most basic decisions, so he took over without discussion. She could barely breathe, let alone find insurance cards. 

Brenda and Mike had, until this day, enjoyed a somewhat peaceful and charmed life, so Brenda hadn’t really experienced true panic before this time. Now it coursed through her body as Ron walked her through the seemingly impossible act of just registering Mike through admissions, then asked her to give him the name of someone to contact in each state where she and Mike had ever lived, not just their home state of Tennessee. They had lived in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas—the playing fields for major corporations in the aerospace industry, a trade that had kept food on their table for 20 years and counting. Brenda unearthed these names and numbers from a small notebook in her purse, handing them over with shaking hands. She felt frozen, numb, scattered, and deeply distracted. What was happening to Mike as she robotically signed forms and did as she was told? Where was he?

Finally, Brenda was brought to the examination room where Mike was stretched out on a gurney and hooked up to a ventilator. Mike barely looked alive. The room was sectioned off by a privacy curtain and, making it seem the sort of place set aside for extreme situations. Was this claustrophobia settling in? The room was the size of a small bedroom, its only provisions the gurney and sheets. She sensed that the size of the room was meant to provide an additional layer of isolation and privacy, which must mean it was reserved for the direst of cases. 

Once Sandy arrived to the hospital, she joined Ron and Brenda in their holding pattern in the emergency room. Ron began the contagion of necessary calls to the contacts Brenda had provided to him. They, in turn, would make dozens more calls, eventually reaching out to a wide network of close friends from Fort Worth to Africa. While Ron made the calls, Sandy stood outside the examination room, praying. Theirs were the first bodies in a vigil that would grow exponentially over the coming hours. Word was spreading fast.

Watching the comings and goings of people in white coats and scrubs, Brenda noticed that nobody seemed particularly hurried. Nurses milled around desks. People pulled on drinks from water fountains, minding not to get their stethoscopes wet or let the wisps of their ponytails fall into the arcing stream. Soft-soled shoes squeaked and padded up and down the linoleum floors, bodies in casual motion casting shadows under the fluorescent lights. Were these really emergency personnel?

Brenda felt alone in her urgency, in her desperation to quickly bring Mike back from wherever he had disappeared. Afraid to hope but afraid not to hope, she stood very still over him, staring at his salt-and-pepper hair, at his handsome face that their daughter always said turned way too many women’s heads. She put her hands on his hands and prayed. He was still wearing his golf clothes: a black and white shirt, black slacks, and an old pair of worn loafers. To her, he was the most beautiful man alive, and she was afraid she might be losing him.

***

It is as much confusing as it is comforting to watch doctors and nurses go about their work when it’s your own loved one stretched beneath their prodding hands. The man they worked on now came into Brenda’s life in the fifth grade. In fact, she and Mike had been “a couple” since junior high.

Mike was widely respected among his peers as a brilliant engineer, the real deal, a bona fide rocket scientist. Nobody went lightly into a debate with Mike, who could make quick work of winning. The project he had been working on that morning in his home office was nothing short of groundbreaking, the world’s first aerodynamically designed recreational wind tunnel for simulated skydiving. In other words, Mike was walking virility, walking brilliance, walking confidence. But to these people slogging around him in white coats? Brenda sensed he was just another body on a table.

As an aerospace engineer, Mike’s trademark was an obvious intellect coupled with stoic humility. Though he was only in his mid-40s, his personality and profession had already taken him and his family through many cities and opportunities that thrust him up the career ladder doing wind-tunnel design and testing with big names like Pratt & Whitney, General Dynamics, and Lockheed. Such wind tunnels were designed to test and improve the aerodynamics and safety of planes. The recreational wind tunnel he had on his plate currently was an exciting twist on this longstanding work, a calculated career risk, an adventure of sorts for a man who was not one for taking risks in his business life. This project was commissioned work, brought to him by a zealously imaginative entrepreneur named Bill Kitchen.

Bill Kitchen’s fortune was built on giving people a scream. He was a mogul in the recreation industry, a visionary behind innovative thrill ride ideas such as the popular Skycoaster, which combines the sensations of bungee jumping and hang-gliding. When he dreamt up the idea of giving average Joes an improved way to simulate skydiving, he found Mike Palmer and believed that Mike might be the man who could design the project. 

Mike, excited by the idea of being a pioneer, was up to his elbows in this trailblazing project before he collapsed in his office. Indeed, his prototype, the first SkyVenture wind tunnel, had opened a few months prior just outside Universal Studios in Orlando. Now the designer’s brain and all it held—including critical engineering and operational thought—were under attack. 

What was attacking? This question taunted the doctors working to keep Mike alive. There was no official diagnosis yet, only theories. They knew he was experiencing some sort of brain incident. Was it a stroke? If so, it was a severe one. That was their first theory. It was also the most convenient one, since the protocol for treating stroke is quite straightforward, and often the effects can be reversed if treatment is made soon enough. But if the doctors took that route, and were wrong, the results could be catastrophic. 

Some of the people who had received a call from Ron were beginning to arrive at the hospital. Mike showed scant response to anyone, with the exception of the church’s associate pastor, Don Rogers. Mike and Don were woodworking buddies, so they often spent a lot of their free time together. Brenda assumed this was why Mike moved his head ever so slightly toward Don when he heard Don’s voice. The movement was barely discernible to others, but having watched Mike lay motionless for a while now, Brenda noticed even his slightest stirrings. Was he maybe awake inside there somewhere?

As Brenda waited, she asked one of the nurses to phone a family friend, Dr. Stan Yeatts, who was an OB/Gyn at Riverside Hospital. Stan was among Mike’s closest friends, so it was not only because of his medical connection that Brenda wanted him near. This was an important call to make, and the nurse informed her it had already been made; Ron really did have things covered. Brenda, Sandy, and two other friends who had arrived at the hospital were taken away from the general emergency waiting area and escorted to a small, closet-like room away from the exam room to wait for news of Mike’s condition.

Stan was nearing Washington, D.C., when he got the voicemail message, three hours into a trip with his wife, Kim. This was all happening at a time before cell phone towers were ubiquitous, so reception was spotty. Able to make out only parts and pieces of the story, Stan and Kim prayed all the way to their destination. Once there, Stan called the hospital for news. That’s when he realized the situation was more precarious than he suspected: Mike had been showing decerebrate posturing, a grave brain-damage tell.

When a patient experiences decerebrate posturing, his body will stiffen as he hyper-extends his limbs, rotating his arms such that his elbows face away from his torso. He’ll clench his jaw and tilt back his head. He’ll bend his wrists forward, often as far as they can go. All of these postures are signs pointing to dramatic damage to the brain stem. Collectively, they imply that brain death could be just around the corner. Stan, like anyone with medical training, understood the gravity of this report. Yet, with the heart of a healer and a strong faith in God, he also recognized that even terrible odds are not death sentences. They can be beat. Now he prayed that Mike’s medical team shared that sentiment. 

Stan wasted no time connecting with his peers on the hospital staff. Unafraid to intrude on behalf of a friend, he asked to speak with medical personnel working on Mike’s case. Based on what information he could collect, and because of the uncertainty surrounding diagnosis, Stan noted it would be in Mike’s best interest to be referred to an internist. However, a patient cannot be thrust upon an internist; the latter has right of refusal. Stan pressed and pressed, but no internist on duty that day would take Mike. The seriousness of his condition, Mike’s precarious state, and the questions surrounding it, meant nobody wanted to accept the baton being passed on his case.

Finally, with Stan’s persistence, Mike fell into the hands of a neurosurgeon named Dr. Jim Adam, who just happened to be nearby at his office that morning. Brenda was thankful a route had been chosen and was eager for answers. Her gratitude quickly gave way to anxiety once she met the neurosurgeon. His bedside manner left something to be desired. 

Dr. Adam had blackest-brown eyes, walled off behind glasses, that sat in sharp contrast to his slightly graying hair and pink-fair skin. His mouth was a narrow line that pulled a little to one side of his wide and round face, as if about to smirk, except that he was very, very serious. He addressed Brenda with a sort of steely detachment and, it seemed to her, avoided meeting her eyes all the while. 

 “Our CT scan of Mike’s brain confirmed that he’s experiencing a brain hemorrhage,” he said. “It’s substantial, but we can’t know where that blood is coming from because there’s too much fluid and blood in the way.” 

His words hit Brenda’s ear like a radio broadcast, distant and canned. Her mental processes felt incredibly slow, so that she was grasping only bits of what was being said. Her mind chewed on these bits like gristle before realizing there was another word and another, spitting each one out to make room for the next, with very little chance to swallow any of it. The words were tossed onto the scrap pile of evidence that kept mounting in the wrong direction: The separated room for extreme cases. The doctor who wouldn’t look in her eyes. Was she really about to lose her husband? 

“You have two options.” Dr. Adam said the word options with both gravity and detachment, the way they’re said by someone offering rather than weighing said options. Weren’t options the sort of things discussed on car lots, things like heated seats, all-wheel drive, and a moon roof? How could options apply to the fate of a human being? 

“We can either perform surgery immediately to determine the nature of the bleed, or we can insert a drain in the area of the hemorrhage,” 

Even as he spoke of cutting into her husband’s brain, the doctor showed no hint of tenderness, no compassion, no sense of concern. In fact, there was no hint of any emotion at all. 

“With the drain, we’ll wait for the blood and fluid to sufficiently drain so that we can perform an arteriogram,” he explained. “Then I’ll be able to see exactly what we’re dealing with.”

Brenda continued listening without quite hearing. She’d have been hard-pressed to tie her own shoes in that moment, let alone process life-or-death questions. The words came at her like a shredded document, just fragments of sentences, pieces of words, tumbling into the air haphazardly. Brain and head and blood and fluid and tests. Brain and tests and fluid and head and blood. Their order didn’t matter. They were all bad. 

“If I go in and do surgery right now,” Dr. Adam continued, “chances are I will do further damage to the brain because I can’t see what I’m doing.”

Zing. There it was. The phrase damage to the brain is what finally penetrated the protective space where Brenda’s mind had been hiding for several hours now. It crawled into her ear and rang there, the only part of this robotic soliloquy that she truly heard. But not knowing what to do with the phrase, her mind refused to accept it. This doctor could not possibly be talking about Mike, she thought. Surely he meant someone else! 

Ron and Sandy knew their role here. Though experiencing their own heartbreak over the situation at hand, they still had their wits about them and were behaving as if Mike were a family member, not just a friend and certainly not just a parishioner. With zero timidity, they asked the questions Brenda would have asked, had she not been in shock. Perhaps the most important came from Sandy:

“What would you do if this were your brother, doctor?”

“You cannot ask me that question,” Dr. Adam shot back. His eyes locked with Sandy’s, and as they did, Brenda searched them for the slightest hint of compassion. She found none. For a moment, nobody spoke. Only the electricity running through the light bulbs could be heard. Finally Brenda managed.

“When do I need to make the decision?”

“That’s why I’m sitting in this room. You must make the decision right now.”

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