We contemplate the former to understand the latter. And for me there is always a crucifix; the vision of a limp silver chain slack across a dying man’s chest; sweat sticking that crucifix to that dying man’s body.
Back in the day, I kept a “catharsis journal;” a smattering of notes-to-self I secreted away, hoping to banish the mental devils who would linger in the wake of a bad day for me as an EMT (and a worse day for my patient). For some reason, the crucifix had never landed in that now-ancient bit of personal history.
Yet like the standing rib roast we found in a toasted, burnt out gas tanker or the woman calmly talking with the stick shift impaled, this is is a vision that has not, and seemingly will not, depart my memory so long as I am sane: Sweat, silver, skin. Crucifix.
It was there in dear Reserve, mountain hamlet; full of all the love and strife of a small town in nowhere, New Mexico; a wonderful place to live and a hard place to die if death does not come swiftly. For it is 105 miles to a hospital that boasts a doctor actually present, and that over twisting, potholed mountain highways. And if you want a level 1 trauma center, then it’s a good 5 hours for the fixed wing to dispatch, fly there, collect the patient, and return to Al-B-Q. Best of the bad bets: call the medflight helo and drive like hades for Datil, 45 miles north of town and as far as the helo can fly from Albuquerque and return without refueling. Which it has to do, as there ain’t no AvGas in Reserve, NM.
And that was our choice one spring day, circa 1993 or so; paged out to a construction accident off a lazy, winding village road that led to a small subdivision atop a mesa. The guy on the asphalt roller had rolled a hair too close to the edge; the edge crumbled; the roller rolled; without a roll cage, caught in his seat, 16 tons, 32,000 pounds of yellow steel and rusty rollers rolled over, and over, and over. A good 80 yards into the ravine; at some point man and machine parted.
So we found our patient; so began the long run to a crucifix.
In many ways, it was a good run; plenty of help, good gear, new ambulance, decent access despite having to haul him uphill. It did take a while to package him-this was the only patient I ever had where it was easier to list the half dozen bones that weren’t broken than those that were. By every right, his life should have been crushed out of him; yet there he was, conscious, and consciously in unspeakable agony.
We packaged, heaved, hauled; off we squalled in a fury of lights, siren, and surging diesel; by luck Doc Heinekamp was in town and we yarded him aboard, the better to cut down to the carotid and start a serious direct IV line, then two.
But if a lowering barometer foretells bad weather, a rising tide of discarded wrappings, tubing, needles, bandages, splints, you-name-it, metastasizing on the floor of the ambulance forecasts a bad run.
As we rolled, he fought; as he fought, the debris piles at our feet mounted higher. I can never say just what it means to “fight”, but I watched a lot of patients fight, and the fighters mostly lived. Those that didn’t fight either weren’t really hurt, or they weren’t really patients for very long before they became merely a corpse.
This. Man. Fought.
It had taken a good 20 minutes to assess, package and haul; another ten to navigate off the mesa and out of town; almost 40 to the broad spot in the two lane road where the ambulance slid to a stop as the helo settled on the pavement before us. I remember opening the door, wading through nigh-knee-deep debris to stand on the road, peek at the helo to make sure it was stable and posed no threat, and simply be there on the asphalt, in the sunlight, knowing there was now no hurry.
For the patient was a corpse. He was dead, despite his fight; despite exerting every living ounce of energy that a man could muster to deny death its due, he died.
He died almost as we rolled to a stop; he died as I watched him fight the last round. He died as I, having noted the crucifix, having gleaned that he was a Mexican national, who spoke no English; he died as I did the only thing left to do in that moment—in my then almost-fluent Spanish and my negligible knowledge of liturgy, I had prayed the Lord’s Prayer with him, and tossed in a few phrases from what I thought I remembered of last rites; Extreme Unction, indeed. He died as I did my best to give him the only thing I could give him in that moment: the hope of entry into eternal peace.
Few memories from those days dogged me; this one slowly faded away; unlike a few that would haunt me hellishly through the years. Until one day, far, far from New Mexico, caught up in frustration with modern nondenominational “evangelical” worship; with the oft-quoted but undefined “personal relationship” and talk of Jesus-my-buddy; fed up with all this contemporary Christology (or lack thereof), I went to a Catholic Mass held at my law school….
Curious, and curious only about how one worshiped through liturgy (for I had grown up opposed to the Pope; railing about the Romish harlot sitting on seven hills; decrying the dead prayers rotely prayed). I was as wholly objective and detached as I used to be in the brief moments when I rode a helo into an active fire—wholly fixated on absorbing data; wholly detached from the moment; only knowing that I was there to observe, and observe keenly.
So the liturgy began; the slow procession wended its way down the aisle; and I glanced up to see the plain, simple, bare wooden cross that the cloaked figures carried. And then I observed what I did not anticipate observing: my knees were all but poleaxed; I could barely stand; it was as if I was having my own personal earthquake, with all the world oblivious; I was dizzy; the sight of the cross went whacky; suddenly I was not in the Law School’s moot court room, but beside that man; the fighting man; the dying man; faking last rites and watching the most utterly complete, profound, and absolute human death I had ever seen.
And that’s when I knew that Christ really died; a fully human death; a death utter, complete, and abominably grotesque; a death of absolute surrender.
And he died for me—had I been but the last of Adam’s seed, Christ would still have died, for me. Suddenly, “personal relationship” made sense.
He died so that I would have hope of eternal life; of the resurrection. Not because of who I am, but because of what I am, and who God is.
Christ died; suffering incarnate; for me; for all of us. Christ. Died. And because of that, we hope. And we live. And so, we must proclaim. For the last chapter of the crucifix story tells us this:
He is Risen….
He is Risen, indeed!