Lisa and I went for a drive the other day. I wasn’t on call, and the morning was sunny, clear, and brimming with hope. We needed to get out of the house, so we loaded our son’s dog Dude into the truck and hit the road.
We drove up Casper Mountain Road, through Beartrap Meadow and over the backside of the mountain. We came to a junction of two roads we’d driven before: we could go straight and up to Muddy Mountain, or turn right and wind through gorgeous countryside and back to Casper the long way around.
The third option was a little two-track road to our left. We had no idea where it went, but we both felt adventurous and we had time, so we turned left.
On the GPS, it looked like this road would eventually lead us back to civilization on the east side of Casper. Twelve miles of muddy, sometimes scary, low-4×4 terrain later, we still weren’t sure. But we came around a bend after going through a beautiful mountainous pass and were stopped in our tracks at the view.
Red rocks and prairie crashed into each other, a boulder field erupting out of the meadow like God tossed them there randomly. I climbed up one boulder the size of a horse trailer and had a little bit of trouble getting back down. The mountains rose in front of us and the culmination of colors and scenery hit my eyes in an entirely unexpected way.
The green of a sage prairie is totally different from other greens to which my eyes are accustomed; those of pine forests in Oklahoma or hardwood-lined paths in Alabama. The variety of smells and sights, all those reds and browns and greens and the blue sky jumbled together in my brain and my eyes and was absolutely breathtaking. I’ve seen many beautiful bits of God’s creation, but those things are beautiful to me in predictable, familiar ways. A river or mountain in Colorado and one in California are different, but still seen as known entities.
For whatever reason, this particular view on this particular day struck me as altogether new.
I tried to explain to Lisa why it was so stunning to me, but found I did not have the words. In that moment, all I could do was worship the God who had the creativity to craft such a scene in a place so remote that only a fraction of the planet’s population would ever even see it. It was as if He made it just for me and Lisa, just for that day.
The wind picked up and blew my cap off my head, interrupting my stream of thought. I chased the hat across the field and finally caught up to it. When I picked it up, I noticed the writing across the back:
The words took my mind back to Iraq, where in 2005 I met an injured American soldier a few hours after a car bomb exploded near him. Medics flew him to the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad, and I worked to remove pieces of shrapnel from his brain and repair the holes in the bottom of his skull that were created when the bomb fragments passed through his eyes. After surgery, I was uncertain whether the soldier would survive, but when I called his wife back in the States I told her the one thing I was sure of: he would be completely blind.
The soldier was stable enough to leave our hospital at Balad Air Base the next day for a medevac flight home to the States. I went back to work treating the countless other tragically injured people the war’s endless assembly line brought into our tent hospital everyday, and he became a part of my collective memory of my work there in Iraq: nameless, unknown people jumbled into nightmarish memories filled with specific sights and sounds and emotions but only generic faces and no names.
After the war, I went on to rebuild my life. I went through a divorce, struggled with post-traumatic stress, married Lisa, raised a family, lost a child, and moved to Wyoming. A series of personal wars, losses, victories, and countless examples of God’s grace and mercy kept me going, most tangibly in the form of Lisa’s steady presence in my life and our children (and now grandchildren’s) love.
I had no way of knowing it, but all the while the soldier was rebuilding his life, too.
In mid-2016, I received an email from an army chaplain in Ft. Riley, Kansas. His wife was a former patient of mine, and he wrote to tell me about a speaker he’d heard that week.
While listening to the speaker’s amazing story, the chaplain connected the dots and figured the soldier’s injuries must have been treated about the same time as when I was in Iraq. He asked a few questions, and it became apparent to the soldier that I must have been the one who took care of him when he came through Balad.
The chaplain reconnected us.
Scotty Smiley and I spoke on the phone not long after. Based on his date of injury and his story, I found him in my journal of my cases from Iraq and it was unmistakeable: I operated on him. Scotty’s wife Tiffany remembered me calling her that night, but she wrote down my name as “Dr. Lee.” All these years they thought Scotty’s doctor was Asian!
Scotty came home from the war blind in both eyes. But his story did not end there. Together with his wife, he went on to do things most people cannot do even with their vision intact: he earned an MBA from Duke, learned to surf, ran an Ironman triathlon, won an ESPY award, and became the first blind officer allowed to stay on active duty in the US army. Tiffany and Scotty had three sons, and now travel the country helping veterans and inspiring others with their work and ministry, Hope Unseen.
The whole story is told brilliantly in Scotty’s book, which you can get from Amazon by clicking the book cover below:
The words on the back of the hat, Hope Unseen, meant something new to me that day on the mountain. I don’t know if my heart was in position to receive it then because of all I’d been thinking about, or if God was using the moment to teach me something. (You can get your own Hope Unseen hats and t-shirts, and get to know Scotty and Tiffany at their websites, www.hopeunseen.com and www.tiffanysmiley.com)
I thought about how I’d been feeling all day, everything striking my eyes as new and different, and then I thought about Scotty.
I wondered how he felt, when his concussion cleared and he came t0 realize he was blind. How the world must have seemed to be rushing at him, everything different and strange. Sure, I’ve read his words in the book, and even spoken to him on the phone about it, but that day on the mountain it was somehow more clear, more important to me.
When you lose your sight, do your other senses each become five percent more important to you? Did Scotty’s brain ‘see’ Tiffany’s voice and smell and feel in different ways that somehow painted her for him, or trigger his memory of what she looks like to him?
With these thoughts swirling like the wind around me, we got back in the truck and headed further into the mountains. We saw more strange and new sights, and lots of wildlife including a ferruginous hawk and a rare black coyote.
I thought more about Scotty, and wondered how many times he’s wished he could see Tiffany again, or how many times he’s remembered the last thing he ever saw, the gray car that blew up in front of him that day in Iraq? I have lots of nightmare fodder from my time in the war, but at least every day I can see something beautiful to help push those memories a little farther away.
Then I thought about something I wish for every day, and it brought tears to my eyes.
In some moment of every single day, I wish (and often say to God or Lisa) to have just one more glimpse of Mitch, our son who died in 2013.
With each passing year, his memory and my mental images of him blur a little more, like how photographs fade over time. And I am saddened by the fact that I know there’s a growing gap between how I remember him and how he actually was.
And when I think about Heaven, to be honest with you, I usually think of seeing Mitch again before I think of meeting Jesus even though I know that’s wrong. But I suspect God’s okay with that since He knows what it’s like to lose a son.
Proverbs 13:12 says, “…hope postponed grieves the heart.” It’s a good description of living after such a loss; you still love your life but you’ve now got a tangible stake in the next one and it hurts your heart a little every day. I wonder if Scotty still grieves over what he can’t see even as he’s built an amazing life, an enviable life with the four senses he still has?
My eyes saw a lot of new things that day on the mountain, but as we got near the end of our drive I realized I wasn’t done learning yet. We saw rocks and plants and flowers and birds we’d never seen before and couldn’t identify. I felt like a small child who’d wandered into a part of the zoo he’d never seen before and needed someone to explain everything to him.
The GPS said we should almost be back to a road we knew, Hat Six Road. We came around a bend and could see the cars on Hat Six about a mile across the prairie in front of us. But then we came to a gate.
It was locked with a chain and padlock.
There was no other way around. Even though we could see our destination, the locked gate proved insurmountable. We had to turn around and head back the way we’d come.
I bet Scotty Smiley has encountered a lot of “locked gates” in his journey since he lost his vision. But he’s found a way around many of them. Including climbing a 14,400-foot mountain.
I’ve found a few in my life too, including the gate of loss and pain. When you hit it, you don’t have the option of just going back to where you started. You have to find a way forward, and no one else can simply explain it to you. Life is lived in community and family, sure, but processing pain is an individual accomplishment as surely as climbing a mountain is done one step at a time by the climber.
In my journey through life, there have been many things I couldn’t see clearly enough to understand. I’ll never understand, for example, some of the human atrocity I witnessed in Iraq. I lack words to explain how it feels to lose a child and I’m sure Scotty has some aspects of his experience he can’t fully express also (although he did a masterful job of sharing it in his book, which you should read).
But I know that’s what Heaven will provide: new eyes to see what’s real.
1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things, as when we stare into polished metal. I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face. In that day, I will fully know just as I have been wholly known by God. (The Voice translation)
When I read that verse, I think of how I’ll see my son again, but I’ll see and know him even more clearly than I ever did in this life. I won’t see him through the filters of being his dad, or knowing his problems and fears or what I think are his strengths. I’ll see him like God does, exactly how he is. Scotty will see Tiffany again and see his boys for the first time, with Heaven-eyes, perfect eyes.
And as my friend Gordon Livingston once wrote, “That is what passes for hope.”
Our drive showed me many beautiful things. But it taught me even more.
On this Memorial Day, I’m not thinking only of the brave soldiers who gave everything in the fight for freedom. I’m also thinking of those who gave some, which amounts to everything sometimes.
To me, Scotty Smiley represents the best America has to offer. He was injured in a way that could have defined the rest of his life, and he could have let it define him. But he was bigger than the injury, his faith and his hope and his heart added up to more than what that bomb took from him, and his life now is more full with four senses than most of ours are with five. Locked gates don’t turn Scotty Smiley around; he climbs over them.
My Hope Unseen hat now reminds me not only of Scotty Smiley and his amazing story. It also reminds me of a day on Casper Mountain when God opened my eyes to see a whole new world, and changed my mind about how I see everything else.
I’m glad it didn’t blow away, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Hope doesn’t blow away; it’s always right there.
We just have to look for it.
Through Memorial Day, Amazon has my book No Place to Hide: A Brain Surgeon’s Long Journey Home from the Iraq War on Kindle for $1.99 (usually $9.99)!
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