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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

The Monster in the Mirror

By Rich Dixon
July 24, 2011

Twenty-seven years ago I fell while installing Christmas lights at my home. It was the beginning of a living nightmare. The diagnosis: three shattered vertebrae, with uncertain spinal cord damage. Only time would tell if my paralysis was permanent. The past 27 years appear to have answered in the affirmative.

Surgeons fused the vertebrae with metal plates and screws. A “halo brace,” a metal jacket joined to rods and attached to a metal ring around my head, stabilized my neck while the fusion healed. Four screws secured the halo to my head.

The initial shock of the accident soon merged with the daily struggle of recovery and rehabilitation.  At first, physical therapists simply helped me into an upright position, allowing my body to adapt to diminished circulation. Yet even this simple movement became a difficult obstacle.

The surgery also damaged a vocal cord nerve; I could manage only a hoarse whisper.

Day followed dismal day. Eventually I transitioned to a rehabilitation unit and began learning to live inside my damaged body.

Each morning an aide lifted me into my chair for the trip to the physical therapy clinic. One day he parked me near a full-length mirror. I didn’t notice immediately, but then a movement caught my attention. I gradually realized the figure in the reflection was me.

I stared in horror at the ghost gazing back through sunken eyes. He slumped limply, feet pointed at odd angles, clothes hanging from a skeletal frame, skin chalky white. Screws protruded from his head like the monster from an old Frankenstein movie.

I moved an arm to verify some connection to the reflection, and the monster’s arm flopped in response. I wanted to run but could only bang on the sides of my chair in frustration — the only available means of expressing the crushing fear and anger I felt at that moment.

Eventually an aide noticed my agitation.

“Get me out of here,” I cried. I didn’t want to talk about the horrible monster in the mirror.

A surreal fog of pain and drugs enveloped the following weeks. But one fact would not fade or blur: That pitiful specter in the mirror was what remained of me.

Then one day I heard a rustle as the door opened. “Rich,” a voice whispered softly, “may I come in?”

My pastor had stood by my bed frequently during those terrible days. Often he left me late at night with words of calm assurance that Jesus held me in His arms, that He understood my fear and knew my pain.

“Al,” I whispered, “yeah, please come in.”

I felt his hand on my shoulder, and I started to cry. He cradled my head awkwardly, avoiding the screws, as the tears flowed.

Finally I couldn’t cry any more. Al got a cool washcloth and cleared away a day’s worth of tears. “You’ve had a rough day.”

He called for nurses, who lifted me into bed, arranged my legs, and applied another cool cloth.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

I told him about the monster in the mirror. “God can’t want this. That thing in the mirror needs to die. What happened to me?”

He got a small mirror. “You need to look again.”

I saw the hollow face and screws, and the metal halo suspended around my head with two screws embedded an inch above each eyebrow. The image hung there, staring at me with sunken eyes. Where was I in this awful picture?

“Rich, you’re in there.”


“Inside. You see pain, sorrow, a catastrophic injury and a horrible-looking brace. But that isn’t you. It’s terrible, but it’s outside. None of that is you. You’re underneath the unimaginable figure you see.”

I asked him to pray. As he did, he reminded me I wasn’t alone. And he held my paralyzed hand.

“Lord, be with us. Rich is scared, Father. Hold Rich in Your hand. Assure him that he’s safe, that Jesus felt fear, knows pain and understands loneliness. Help Rich sense the powerful presence of Your Spirit.

“And Father, grant him your peace. He faces a difficult road; help him know that he doesn’t have to travel the whole journey tonight.”

As Pastor Al ended his prayer, the room suddenly seemed still and peaceful. He reminded me that there were no magic answers, that I’d encounter frightful images again. But he asked if I could allow God’s peace to settle over me, just for the night.

“Yeah,” I whispered. “Thanks.”

He smiled, squeezed my hand and turned to leave.

My journey didn’t magically get easier. God never promised an easy life. But  He did promise that we would never have to face any situation alone.

That night I experienced the power of Jesus’ presence. When I couldn’t see a way, God provided. He didn’t remove the pain, but He gave me a peace that seemed impossible only minutes earlier.

I wish I could declare that I never gave up again, never forgot to lean on God’s promises. I wish I could say that I always remembered Jesus knew the pain and the fear. But every time I experienced the temptation to quit, to get angry and frustrated, God provided. Jesus was always with me. When there was no path away from the fear, He remained by my side. When it felt I had fallen into an inescapable hole, He was there.

God set me on the path of an incredible journey that evening. With His help I learned to live life in a wheelchair. Eventually, I resumed my career teaching junior high school mathematics, and I’ve even written a book, Relentless Grace, sharing encouragement from my pain.

Jesus doesn’t just admonish us to count our blessings. He doesn’t sit at the edge of the hole and provide an uplifting sermon. Instead, He jumps down in the hole with us. And best of all, He knows the way out.

RICH DIXON lives in Fort Collins, Colo.

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