out of the basement

sweetmarimaribasementstairs

We have “Big Garbage Day” once a year in our town. Last Spring it provided the perfect opportunity to clean out our old, unfinished basement. After hauling several loads of unwanted junk up and out to the curb, I was finishing up by sweeping the basement floor. It was rather dark and dingy down there…actually, it was downright creepy! Standing at the foot of the stairs, alone with my vivid imagination, I thought, “What if I was trapped down here? Forever.”

Forever to exist in a damp, musty, crumbling basement…knowing that the sun was shining outside. That its golden light was filtering through the trees onto a lovely flower garden, alive with birds–hopping and teetering from feeder to feeder. Never to lean back on an elbow in the lush green grass again, to close my eyes and drink in the sweet vanilla fragrance of the Korean Spice blossoms: lacy, blush-pink, and lovely. I would know only darkness. Trapped. Completely alone.

What if I really was cast into this deep, dark basement? Forever.

That’s exactly what happened to a dear friend of mine. Emlyn was a senior citizen who took a big risk…he left a small business that he had operated for many years to enter college and earn his Bachelors Degree. During that time, something was ignited within him. He absolutely loved learning and so, at age 65, he set out to earn his Masters Degree.

Just as he was hitting his stride in this adventure-of-a-lifetime, he was blind-sided by a massive stroke. Suddenly bound and helpless, he was thrown down the basement stairs, bludgeoned by each and every step, landing in a heap on the floor. Crumpled, captive and alone. What followed were many dark days: a long hospitalization, culminating in a somber visit from his physician. “I’m sorry…but due to the extent of your paralysis, your lack of progress over the course of an intensive therapy program and your complete inability to speak–you require an extremely high level of care which is only available in a nursing home. “Boom” went the basement door!

While Emlyn lay in that hospital bed, weak and unable to lift himself out…somehow he managed to get a toe in the door before it had a chance to latch shut. He was determined, ”I will not live out my days in this basement…I do not face only one choice…the nursing home. Although I cannot bear my weight, some day I will walk in the sun…and dance in the rain. Somehow, this mouth of stone will laugh and sing and take an important message to the world. I WILL NOT FADE AWAY IN A BASEMENT! Even if, my lips remain silent, and my mind, crippled by this terrible assault.”

Three years of speech therapy. Emlyn worked diligently, but still words did not come willingly. They were tangled up somewhere on the path between his highly active mind and the numb, lifeless lips, tongue and throat which betrayed him. Brilliant thoughts and poignant feelings were building up inside him…would they ever touch the outside world or would they simply wither away…prisoners of endless silence?

Emlyn was determined that they explode into life! Somehow, they would change the world!

He set to work teaching himself to write. He had lost much of his ability to spell as well as his knowledge of grammar. Fortunately, he was united with a computer and software that would conjure up whole words when he pressed just a few keys on the key board. Even with this incredible technology, this was a slow, arduous process. Emlyn would not give up; when he finally defended his Master’s Thesis, we celebrated a truly heroic victory.

Although knocked into a very dark basement, he refused to live out his days there. He was a fighter who overcame many obstacles and challenged the thinking of the well-meaning people who wanted him “safe” and ”cared-for” in a nursing home. He struggled up out of the basement one step at a time, developing the strength of mind and body to lug the dead weight of paralyzed limbs out of the bed and into a wheel-chair. Out of the wheel-chair and into a motorized scooter–eventually into the driver’s seat of a little white pickup.

Not only did Emlyn spend his days rolling down the streets of town in that truck, he also traveled around the state, eventually driving by himself halfway across the country. Later Emlyn took to the air and traveled to Puerto Rico and Europe! He devoted much time and energy, going into classrooms at universities and in pubic schools; zipping through the doors of senior centers and city hall. He wrote to legislators, appeared in newspaper columns and, to my delight, befriended me in our apartment complex. Emlyn engaged people everywhere he went and called them to come up out of the basement. He devoted the rest of his life to unfurling a banner of hope and liberation; it was an inspiration to others. His life was an example of what amazing things a person with disabilities could accomplish.

Emlyn was determined to never just accept his disabling conditions. Nor would he merely overcome them. He would stop at nothing short of thriving: a wondrous process of fighting for and, more importantly, savoring the freedom of a rich, full life.

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I, too, have found myself paralyzed…though I have no good excuse. I have not been blind-sided by a massive stroke. But there are times when I simply allow low self-confidence and the fear of failure to hold me captive. I fail to exercise the many abilities I have been given as I let my fear hinder me from facing and overcoming challenges. That’s when I truly am a captive in my own “basement”.

Why are there days that I find it difficult to stand before a group as a speaker? Why do I doubt that I can get up and communicate a message to a roomful of eager listeners? When I can think, I can put sentences together and speak with a mouth that hinders me not. I can walk to the lectern and move about freely. I have not undergone three years of speech therapy to have someone tell me, “I’m sorry, we’re really not getting anywhere.”

When I am gripped with hesitation and dread, I think…“O Emlyn, you would be so disappointed with me.”

But then, I really think about it. No…not Emlyn. With a sparkle in his eyes and a look of compassion on his face, he’d be gesturing wildly–calling out my name with his fiery eyes. He’d be coaxing me out of the basement one step at a time. “Only you can tell your stories, Mari. Only you!”

And it’s true…only I can tell my stories. And only you, can tell your stories…or do whatever it is that God has gifted you to do. To do all of those things that seem overwhelming or scary or intimidating. You see, we give each other something wonderfully unique and powerful when we offer up the very best of what we have to give. We cheat ourselves and others when we choose to be “safe”, to remain “captives”, instead of climbing up each step, out of the basement. Out of the basement and into our world, to infuse it with life! Life that is full and rich and free.

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sweetmarimaribasementstairsIf you find yourself in the basement, this blogpost might help you in getting up and out of there. Lift your focus to the top of the stairs where One is calling you…giving you the strength to climb. Then step out into this world with the strength you find there, looking down cellar doors and into hiding places, calling out to other basement dwellers, “Come on up…Come out of the basement!”

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“For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”

I Thessalonians 2:11

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Another lesson I learned from Emlyn:  “The Freedom to be Heard”

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2 thoughts on “out of the basement

  1. Wow! Your writing is so vivid. I could feel the blows as each step bludgeoned the poor man as he was thrown down the basement stairs. I’ll be sure to stop by your blog on a regular basis to treat myself to your creative mind.

    -Dr. Sterling

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