Cumberland Times-News

December 21, 2013

Don’t ask ‘Why?’ There may not be an answer

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— If you’re old enough ... do you remember where you were 50 years ago today? I do.

When a magician saws someone in half, I always chuckle a bit, because that’s pretty much what happened to me.

I have a magnificent scar that starts at my navel and goes clear around to my backbone, making a bit of a zigzag somewhere in the middle.

It is considerably longer now than it was when I got it. Fortunately, scar tissue stretches. Otherwise, I would have a permanent lean to the right.

It was a day or so after the doctors had nearly bisected me that I was lying in my hospital bed in Morgantown, watching television with my parents, on Dec. 22, 1963.

A succession of tormentors in hospital uniforms had been making me get out of bed to walk around, despite my protestations that my guts would erupt through the incision and fall out.

They also made me roll over on my side (an act that in itself hurt badly enough) and cough, not just once but enough times to keep me from developing pneumonia.

So there I am, propped up in bed, trying not to even move. When I sneezed, the resulting sensation was exquisite.

That’s when Bonanza came on, with the episode about Hoss and the Leprechauns who turned out to be circus midgets.

I have watched the reruns a few times since then, and it remains one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen on television or anywhere else.

To say that I screamed with laughter would be appropriate. My parents asked if I wanted them to turn to another station, and I said that after what I’d just been through I could use a good laugh — no matter how much it hurt.

I literally and figuratively was in stitches.

Eventually, they took me home ... minus one of the kidneys I was born with. I had fallen into the bleachers and squashed it five days earlier — on Dec. 17 — while playing basketball. (Ever passed a kidney stone? If so, you can appreciate what this felt like.)

Doctor Bob McCoy from Keyser told me I could get along fine with just one kidney, but I should drink beer to keep it flushed clean — advice I have taken to heart.

This leads me to Andy Smith, the once and future cook at Gettysburg Eddie’s, my friend who got run over by a train and lived to tell about it.

I have told him he got a rare gift: He got his life back; not everyone does.

Andy may not realize it now, but eventually he will notice that he doesn’t look at life the way most people do. Most people don’t know what it’s like to go through life knowing that, except for a miracle from God, they would be dead.

At some point, it will occur to him that he is still here for a reason. What it is, he may never find out.

I told Andy about a friend who was a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. He was shot down four times, and each time the gunner on the other side of the aircraft was killed.

Today, he is married to a woman whose fiance, a helicopter pilot, was killed during the same war. I will remember his funeral to the end of my days.

My buddy says he doesn’t know why he came home without a scratch, when other guys didn’t.

I finally told him that I know the reason he came home. I see it every time I see him and his bride having a wonderful life together.

“Why?” is a question Andy will start asking one day. I know, because I’ve asked it myself, more times than I can count. Why was Jim Bosley flying that helicopter, and not me?

Several years after the fact, I ran into one of the doctors who took care of me during my spell in the hospital. He recognized me immediately (I had gained 75 pounds by then) and even remembered my name, which I found hard to believe. His name was Orteza.

“We still talk about you,” he told me. “We don’t know why you’re still alive.”

Doctor Orteza said I didn’t just rupture a kidney. After I rolled out of the bleachers and got up off the floor, I ran around the basketball court for another 10 minutes  — until the shock wore off and the pain started — with my aorta completely severed.

The aorta is the biggest blood vessel in a human body. Send water through your garden hose at full blast, then chop it in half with a hatchet and see what happens.

“You should never have gotten up off the floor,” said Dr. Orteza.

Other doctors, nurses, Army medics, Marine corpsmen — you name it — have told me the same thing. They all look at me the same way, and they usually say the same thing if I show them the scar (two words that, depending upon the way you say them, can be either a prayer or a blasphemy).

Why am I still here? I no longer dwell on it. Whatever the reason is, I thank the Lord for every day I’ve had since Dec. 17, 1963, and promise Him I will try to live up to it. He has blessed me with wondrous things since then.

I woke up last Tuesday, got out of bed, looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Happy 50th birthday, Jimmy.”

My mother always said the Christmas of 1963 was the best Christmas she ever had, even though we spent it in a hospital.

It was the Christmas her son didn’t die.

She herself passed away on Dec. 17, 1995 — 32 years to the day after my fling with mortality. She had spent three and a half years in a wheelchair, paralyzed on one side from a stroke.

Mom put up an incredible fight for a long time, but finally she looked at me with eyes I can still see and said in a voice I can still hear, “How much longer, my love? I’ve had a wonderful life, but all I want now is to be with Mother and Daddy and Lohr (her brother) again.”

My dad and I felt this way: No matter how much you love someone, the time likely will come when you have to let go.

It was time to let her go, to a place where our faith told us there is no pain, sorrow or infirmity ... a place far better than anything he or I had ever known or could imagine. Her physical presence was gone, but the love we shared remained very much alive (and still does).

Was that the best Christmas I ever had? Or the worst? That’s not how I look at it.

Christmas to me is about love ... nothing more, nothing less.

Merry Christmas, my friend.