Because so many of you have asked what has been happening the last months, I will give you an account. First with the joyful praise for what God has mercifully done, and second for what you may benefit if you someday experience the same.
A thousand years earlier in Peru, several thousand years in the Middle East, people already knew of trepan-ning — cutting out a hole and snipping out parts of the brain, if it made trouble. Chewing coca leaves to bear the pain, those that endured it in Peru, and survived, gratefully returned to a normal life.
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In the Middle Ages, as in the picture above, Christian people early discovered trepanning as the cure of insanity, intolerable pain, and brain tumours. Not as much has happened since as you might think.
* * * * *
On Sunday, 20 June 2010, the boys and Maria climbed a mountain with me, right behind the settlement of Montumana, North Coast. We saw a Tassie Devil. Shading our eyes we could see far out across the Hunter Islands. I told the boys how we used to climb the Chihuihuite mountain in Mexico, long before they were born. We had a great time, but in my heart I knew something was different. I pulled myself up, ridge after ridge, so much steeper, so much more tired than anything I had felt before.
Is this how I would feel on becoming old? These last months, particularly as my fiftieth birthday passed by, it seemed my energy waned. With continual head-aches, I had difficulty looking up. My son, Stanley, had much to show me of the southern galaxies, just having learned how to manage a telescope. I wondered if I should eventually lie flat on my back on the yard to see them, and I had to stand on a chair to write on the chalk board at school.
On Friday, the ninth of July, I spent much of the day arranging a shipping container almost ready to dock at Launceston. Between phone calls I managed to write a series of articles for the Mennonite Encylopedia, for my friend Sam Steiner at Waterloo, Ontario. Just before Gebetsstund (daily prayers) David Ulmer, David Waldner and I managed to paint an apartment -- three bedrooms, a hall and a living room. My head had been aching steadily for weeks so I did not worry about it. But the next morning I experienced another stage of pain.
During three in the morning to breakfast (my normal quiet time) I wrote a Sunlit Kingdom letter, “Waiting or Doing,” and processed a number of letters. Then the brothers came for Brüderrath (morning council) and I told them I would stay at home. I had a head-ache. I had planned to paint at the plywood factory with the brothers.
After the others came back from the midday meal, I called the brothers for anointing of oil. The pain had become extreme. By this time my entire head had become intensely painful, with the pain steadily travelling down to my fingertips, to my nose, and down into my middle. But thankfully, while the brothers were praying (just like a group of brothers once prayed for me at a Bible School in El Salvador) the pain disappeared and I could sit up, praising God. Only as I sat in peace in Christ, everyone having gone, a message, crystal clear, came to me: “You have a tumour in your brain and you will need to have it taken out, in Hobart.”
In total peace, an hour later, the pain gradually returned. I had tried to read from the Bible, but strangely I could not see past the word Isaiah. Only on the title-page, on the beautiful name of Isaiah, “The Lord is gen-erous, Salvation of the Lord, God is his helper,” could I focus at all.
We got visitors, a nice young family from Sydney, who planned to stay with us for a few days. But our eve-ning did not turn out. Just before dark, Hank took me to Burnie. It rained the whole way.
An intern doctor at the Emergency Ward kept fluttering his fingers from one side to the other of his face, always asking how far I could see. I saw nothing except straight ahead. Other doctors appeared, they did a CAT-scan, they spoke with Melbourne. My arm attached to a tube, they kept asking if I needed another dose of morphine. How beautiful those poppies in the sun now appeared on Table Cape! But how strangely and calm the extreme pain of my need, my brain dying, my entire body giving way -- is this how it feels to die? “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy, on me a sinner!” I heard one doctor explaining to another how they must try to keep me from going into convulsions. One bag, the next bag hanging from a silver tree beside me now.
That first young doctor squatted down and spoke to me: “We have discovered a tumour in your brain, and we will need to transfer you to the Royal Hobart Hospital. I am very sorry. . .”
Inside, I smiled and thanked God. It was my confirmation that God has everything under control.
Far away I heard another doctor, a young American doctor, talking to Hank. On several occasions here in the hospital he had spoken Spanish because he had studied in Costa Rica. He had asked if I ever heard about Beachy Amish people, because he grew up amongst them, he said, at a place called Macon, Georgia. Now I heard him say to Hank, “It's bad luck! Definitely very bad luck. . . .” But as I rolled away, the windy night against the bare glass of the corridors, many lights along the sea below, I rejoiced in something totally unlike luck, or lack of it.
God telling me something. Without a question I knew that I had a reckoning with him like I used to have when my Dad would call me up!
Fear (godly fear), yes. As when my Dad came walking in with a stick in his hand (something he only did rarely). But total peace that night when I knew that whether I lived or whether I would die everything would rest in God’s omniscient hands.
* * * * *
The following day at Hobart my wife Susan, with Joey and Andrea Davis from our community, came to see me. Only a few hours later Jerry and Nancy Voll from the Danthonia Community in New South Wales also showed up. All of them managed to stay in the same place, a few streets from the Cat and the Fiddle Arcade, the Parliament Building, the Constitution Dock and the Jam Factory along the sea. A little community as we settled in for the next three weeks.
Two doctors, both born and raised in Madras, in India, only do neurosurgery in Tasmania -- Mr Arvind Dubey and Mr Yagnish Balasubramani (“mister” is the chief surgeon in any Australian hospital).
Before I left for the surgery a cheerful young lady came to speak with Susan and me. “I will be your speech therapist,” she told me. “We will have lots of time to get better acquainted.” Odd, we thought to one another after she left. Must be just another over-precaution of socialised medicine. . . .
During the night, before I entered surgery, I had a remarkable visitor. At three o’clock in the morning an old man in a house coat came tottering into the room. Graeme Love, a white-haired man, had been living alone since his wife died fourteen years ago. Every day he had a stray cat and a sea gull that came to his house, looking for food. Now alone, in the hospital, he somehow quickly became a friend. Now the nurses hurried him out. Thankfully, he managed to share his good wishes with me.
The Volls, the Davises and Susan came through here early so we could pray together. I barely remember that, and promptly went to sleep when they rolled me out.
* * * * *
The next I knew was in Costa Rica on the east side -- somewhere beyond Desamparados, a suburb of the capital city where I worked as a school teacher. In a taller (machine shop) I kept hearing an old air-compressor, puttering along. Opening my eyes I discovered I could only see the left side. I could use both eyes, but they worked independently. I saw a young lady and a man but both of them had two faces, one above the other, somewhat catty-corner.
What had happened? Had I fallen down?
What a mess in which the whole place stood around me! I saw hoses and pipes and all sorts of clutter. Obvi-ously everything had been thrown in over top of me. Maybe they had dropped me into all of this rubbish or tied me up within it? I tried over and over to get out. Is this a dream? But after a long time I became convinced this was real. These people must have trapped me, and every time I tried to get up the lady hurried over to put me down.
After another day, or perhaps several days, I woke up with a friendly girl holding a box, an electronic translator, before my face. The box was speaking to me and I had been struggling to answer. I heard the girl declare, “That is Spanish! Is there anyone here who might speak it at all?”
But a tow-haired boy at the feet of my bed shook his head. “None at all. No chance of anyone speaking in Spanish here.”
Amazed, I discovered them laughing and speaking in English. They sounded European. I heard the girl called Jane, and the boy Luke. But when I struggled to speak they shrugged one to another. “He sounds like he is speaking in German now,” Jane said. “But I don’t understand that either.”
Over and over I tried to say something in English but I could not remember one English word. Was this a dream? I slept and awoke, time after time, but it kept on going. Was this day or night? I figured out this room was a hospital. I stared at the walls with all the instruments, the well-dressed people. Even the ceiling and the people’s clothes looked clean. An English boy called Nick kept checking me out. I decided this room must be okay and safe, a number of foreigners managing this part. But I kept hearing the old air-compressor and all the talking and chattering of a sidewalk just outside a tropical city. East of San José I figured. . . .
I prayed. The only word I could remember was Jesus. So I prayed, “Jesus.”
All I could pray was, “Jesus.” But it was enough, and I rested in peace in my heart.
For a long time (a week after I entered the Royal Hospital) Hank stood above me, telling me things. Then I saw Susan, my boys, and some of the other sisters and brothers. As in a dream the story of Australia came back to me, our community at Rocky Cape, the Danthonia people, Hobart. . . .
How naïve Susan and I had been! We had expected to walk out of neurosurgery in a few days. When we spoke to my doctor to ask him how long we would need to stay, Mr Balasubramani (he had told us we could call him Yagnish for short), answered a bit vaguely, “A week at least.”
We were startled. But little by little we began to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened. Neurosur-gery -- entering the skull and cutting apart the brain, trepanning as they used to call it -- could hardly avoid major repercussions.
Later, once I could register what had happened, the doctor explained how it went. The tumour that I had in my brain has been forming for a long time. No doubt for years. Gradually it was becoming more and more intrusive to the brain, situated at the left side just under my ear, toward the back.
Because I am right-handed this tumour invaded my brain. During surgery the doctors decided to take ninety percent of the tumour and the damaged tissue that had grown into it. Thankfully all it messed up was my speech, one quarter of my sight, and the part of my brain that involves calculation, the lodging of facts, etc. If the damaged part of my brain would have been any lower it would quickly have erased my motor skills. The lower, the closer it comes to the spinal cord, the more unlikely it would have been that I could have recovered successfully.
Very quickly as my brain cleared enough that I knew I was in Tasmania, the whole operation became end-lessly fascinating. Awestruck, in the hands of God.
The reason I have a problem with my eyesight is not because anything has happened to my eyes. One doctor checked them and while wearing my glasses I can read perfectly well. What happened is that I have lost the connection of the lower right quarter of each eye. That part of the eye is still seeing fine, but I just cannot connect. That part of my eyes is lost to me.
For instance I drive down the highway. On my right side I see the white stripes starting about thirty metres before the vehicle. Climbing up a mountain (as I have returned to my favourite haunts in the Rocky Cape park) I manage fine, but both of my feet walk clearly in the left while I do not recognise anything on the right.
On the left I can easily read a paragraph. But on the right side of a book I lose my line. At the hospital they told me I should learn how to read a book sideways. And they insisted I must learn how to turn my head completely to the right before I would cross the street. . . . Do you catch any of the object lessons I was get-ting? Read Matthew 6:22-23.
Much more of an issue than my eyesight, was comprehension. At first when I read I could laboriously figure out words but they seemed like things from another language. All of them were words I have never seen be-fore.
That is true.
After the surgery one of the doctors explained how my brain would reprogram itself. Once again I stood in amazement before God.
“This is the way it works,” he explained. “If you had been a left-handed person you would not have suffered much damage. Your left side would have been largely unused. But as it is, your left brain was programmed with a large amount of usable knowledge. Some of this was destroyed. But what remains of your brain temporarily remembered the rest of it. If you quickly transfer that to the empty parts of the right side, much of it can get reconstructed. The brain is a miracle!”
Not the brain, but the One who designed it, kept me wondering as I thought about it. Hour after hour I lay awake, remembering everything and everyone that had happened in my life. People of all kinds, friends and neighbours with whom I had lived ever since I was a child, came to mind in North and South America, in Europe, New Zealand and Australia. All so clear, everyone in front of me, whether living in the flesh or not, I stood with them under the trees around the Hof. Many carriages and visitors on Sunday afternoons. I could not speak with anyone in my language (south German) or in Plattdeutsch or High German or English or Spanish. Nothing mattered. Everything made sense in another way. So peaceful. Shimmering light at high noon. But during those quiet times while I could not talk I also wondered and feared. How would we stand, all of us, at the judgement seat of Christ?
About the second week I could pray two words, “Jesus, mercy!” Another week later I could pray “Lord Jesus, have mercy, sinners!” And so came the rest of my vocabulary, piece by piece. That is, for as far as it has come.
Luke, the young man that started to walk around with me, soon had me walking out to Argyle street in front of the Royal Hospital -- even though I still had quite a few attachments. From the street we could look out across the bay, the yachts along the bright red Aurora Australis, the UN ship of the Polar Expedition, docked in the winter before the old stone shops of Salamanca Place. The better I got the further Justin and Joey helped me around with a wheel chair. We found the historic synagogue, all the first Jews transported to Tasmania by England for their misdeeds, now living as the wealthiest people in Australia. We climbed onto the high window ledge of the Wesleyan chapel where Sir George Arthur, the British governor, sat with his wife and his family (some day I may tell you more about him). And the final Sunday we visited St. Davids, the Anglican cathedral in Hobart, where David and his sister Miriam Waldner, the Davises, and our family enjoyed the excellent singing.
After a month away from our small community, our brothers convinced the therapists to let me go home. What a joy for all of us to be together again -- but how much has changed!
By the time I came home I could speak, but with many gaps and a constant struggle to communicate (a situation that continues to some degree). German, my first dialect, was the easiest. Uf eh mol iss es au gfanne wu ich schonn ’e bissel gschwätzte hawwe kenne. . . . (All of a sudden I could begin to hold a conversation.) But with much effort my English and the rest of the languages are coming back. My children have become a big help to communicate, filling in the blanks for me as needed. I still find it tricky to remember their fancy English names. Just too bad I didn’t call them Menno and Amos and Joe.
At the hospital they immediately noticed that all the arithmetic my dear school teacher, James Bauman, taught all those years, had blanked out. Eventually I learned to say the names of the individual numbers again. But when the rest of the people call for a number at Gebet I hear a very different sequence. Will it ever come back? The therapist seemed very concerned that I would learn how to count money. I smiled, and how thankful I am to God for the bright young brothers in the community!
Reading is still difficult for me. Many times I read a sentence over and over but I cannot understand. I read every word, often out loud, but nothing connects. Only as I struggle with it day after day I gradually under-stand. Everything I read, write, and speak comes together. Everything finds itself back into a new order, thanks to God, on the right side of my brain.
Early in the morning as the first light of day struck Mount Wellington, as soon as I could walk, I pulled a chair to my window in the Royal Hospital. There with a Bible I began to find words, one after the next. The first speech therapists suggested I read my book sideways, because of the blank quarters of my eyes (and brains). But thanks to God my eyes adjusted again to reading normally, in the Bible. After two months, one early morning, my brain suddenly started to rediscover what I had tried to show it -- the alphabet and words I used to remember. Praise God! How lovely when I began to recognize the words I used to know! And ever since I am getting better and better.
The Bible was my first tool, far better than any speech therapy at the hospital. And right next to that, thanks to God, was the wealth of correspondence from my friends around the world! First my brothers and sisters read all the letters out loud. But after a month or six weeks I could read the letters myself. How wonderful they sound in such a remarkable luminous way! At first it took me a long time, sometimes ten minutes or longer just to figure out one sentence. The first sentences I managed to write took hours. What a difference when I concentrate on one person at a time!
Facing up to God, standing on the brink between this life and the next, everything changes.
Until now, my life continued in a flat chronological line. I thought of my life starting as a dot on a line, everything marked off, all things neatly progressing to my final end. When I woke up after my operation, everything had changed. My perspective of God had switched. No longer trotting along my little Anabaptist road -- my Mennonite, or Hutterite, or Bruderhof road -- I found myself in suspension.
Shocking. Hanging there above nothing. All I had left was one horizontal connection to Christ.
Even though I was aware of others, my brothers and sisters, I could not hang on any of them. They were likewise suspended in space around me. Neither they nor I had any footing on the earth.
All I had was Christ -- the Light of Christ straight above me. Everything else was below me, fathomless and dark. An illusion.
What a relief! What an unspeakably great joy in Christ, on whom I could hang in this strange wonderful space, suspended between this world in the next! But long before I fully returned to consciousness, during this first week, I knew that I had been in the wrong and I must tell my brothers, my Anabaptist brothers and sisters, if I had another chance.
Thanks to Christ Jesus our first Anabaptist people, unsere Leut (our people), clung to nothing but to him. They had no earthly foundation. Nothing solid, no wealth, no culture in which to rely, but Christ. In our first communities, springing to life directly from the seed of the first church of the Apostles, we built again what “King Josiah” had found.
But this close to Christ, very, very close to swooping out of this life into the next, I was not only joyful. I feared.
I feared that many of us Anabaptist people are not ready to meet one another at the judgement seat of Christ. Yes, we are decent, godly, kind, industrious people. We raise our families. We preach the Gospel. We build our schools and keep our marriages intact. Some of us have built hard-working lovely communities that stand as a light to the world. But we ban and shun one another, not because of what is right and wrong, but because we disagree one with another. And shall we all stand before the judgement seat of Christ, smiles on our innocent little faces, when we have delivered one another to Satan? When we split one from another, and turn our backs one from another, pushing the weak into the world, or pushing the strong into the trap of legalism?
Because of our divisions we are vulnerable, fair game to the devil, scattered here and scattered there into frightful dangers right and left.
What shall we say?
* * * * *
Back home, on the ninth of September, I cleaned up my room. This is the room where my wife, Susan, does her sewing, where the children play, and where I write before breakfast. As some of you know I have many books and binders. Every year the collection bulges into more and more stacks on the floor (like my uncle Menno Sauder used to have it). This day, barely able to write or speak fluently yet, my daughter Maria helped me. This day of reckoning for this room. And what happened?
I won’t tell you the titles so I do not cause any offence. But all the religious books, all those “fight books,” those preachy “we are the right people, you are the wrong people” books that my friends have been sending me for the last thirty-five years, we carted them out and Maria hauled them off with the wheelbarrow.
All afternoon a storm had been brewing from the south-west. Darker and darker the sky grew while the gum trees rustled in the first fits of wind from the Southern Ocean, one hundred kilometres west of here. My son struck a match back in the incinerator. The flame roared up while we sang at Gebet, and it turned dark. Then the wind rose and the rain came, whirling around us, beating upon us all night long.
We had a cozy night with the children. “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has, cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:33). How little I imagined what God would expect of me, what I would lose and what I would gain when he used two Indian doctors to knock out my skull and reshuffle everything I had stacked up in my brain for fifty years!
Trepanning. I have lost much. Virtually all my higher numbers have blanked out -- even three-digit numbers in our songbooks force me to turn to the little children for help. With blank parts of my vision the brothers do not let me drive. When I try to speak as normally as possible in town, I get stuck and they get strange expressions -- even more so if they were people I used to know. But I am learning to enjoy the experience.
A lot of the time, reading is bewildering (it doesn’t make sense). Writing is a chore, about as hard as I had it in 1966, with Miss Salome Rudy in first grade. Speaking is tricky and quickly gets tiring. In contrast, in heavenly peace, nothing has become more rewarding in blessed silence. Sitting alone on the rocks at the sea.
Everything I know or remember of my life belongs neatly into “before” or “after” what happened at the Royal Hospital in July, 2010. But this second little piece is nothing more than a benefit from God, an extra moment, graciously allowing me to work with my children, my wife and our community for a little longer.
All of us here at Rocky Cape, our community, our family, and I, thank you from our heart for your prayers during this time. God answered them. All I ask now is that God will help me to use my borrowed time for his glory.
I remember Hezekiah.
Rocky Cape Christian Community
19509 Bass Highway
Detention River, Tasmania 7321