Eleven years ago, I fell off a cliff.
Because that day had been impacting our lives ever since and will continue to do so for as long as we’re alive, we thought it might be a good idea to share this part of our lives to give you a glimpse of a specific challenge we face here every day.
The story goes like this:
August 6, 2005, Matt and I were newlyweds, hiking in Payson, AZ with a large group of friends in Box Canyon. By nature, we’re both pretty enthusiastic people and at that time, we were all about taking everything we did to bigger and better levels of enthusiastic-ness. If you know us now or knew us during that time, you know what I’m talking about.
As we were all trying to pick the best path down into the canyon, our friend Nate decided to just go straight down. As I watched him navigate the steep descent, I decided right then and there that he was going to get seriously hurt or die with that kind of foolishness.
I can smile at that now.
We broke off into different groups and soon it was Matt, our friend, Joel, and me meandering along the river at the bottom of the canyon, following wherever it went by alternatively hiking alongside it, swimming across pools of water, or jumping over small cliffs into the pools of water on the other side. We were having the best time and when the rain started to fall, it was just one more adventurous thing to love about the day.
The river led into a waterfall, dropping over another cliff, about 25 feet down, into a pool of water on one side and flat rocks on the other. We fanned out to determine if we should jump into the pool or climb down the rocks. As Joel and Matt headed over to examine the depth of the pool on the water side, I went over to the rock side and there it was that I had one of the most foolish conversations with myself that I’ve ever had. I don’t remember all of it, but the gist was something like the following:
‘I’m 21 and feeling quite invincible. Shoot, I had almost fallen off of a dozen paths that day alone. I had almost slipped countless times along the river bank. If anyone was going to get hurt, it was going to be Nate with his reckless, let’s-go-straight-down-the-canyon approach.’
Now, if I had really stopped to think about how slippery the face of the rocks that made up the cliff might be in light of the rain, I might have made a different decision.
Foolish and confident, I decided to try to scale down the cliff.
Thus it was that I threw my whole body out on the rain-soaked rock, my fingers clutching the wet shelf of the cliff and my drenched sneakers balanced on a thin, rocky ledge.
My foot slipped.
I fell, scraping against the sheer face of the cliff as I dropped, and I had time for just one thought: what a stupid way to die.
I landed upright and my left foot took the full force of the impact, completely shattering my ankle. I landed on my left wrist next, and then, finally, I hit my head.
Somewhere above me, I heard Matt yell for Joel to hike out and go get help since none of us had cell phones with us. (He would hike out of the whole canyon thinking that I was dead, eventually flagging down a car, and bringing a volunteer search-and-rescue team to us hours later).
Meanwhile, I lay on the rocks, unable to breathe since I had the wind knocked out of me, convinced that I was dying. As my vision blurred and I watched the undisturbed river go trickling by, I prayed one prayer:
God, if you have anything left for me to do on this earth, then let me live. If not, then let me die.
The answer came with air rushing back into my lungs.
I sat up, saw my ankle clearly broken with a trickle of blood from the compound fracture running down one side, and screamed. I went to scoot myself back from the water and my left wrist collapsed as it, too, had been shattered in the fall.
Matt, still at the top of the cliff and believing me dead, breathed a sigh of relief. And then, being the man that he is, he threw his shoes down to me and scaled down the same rock face that I had fallen off. He did not fall—which I can only attribute to God’s kindness to us since those rocks were slippery even when bone dry, as we would find out later.
Once he was down to me, Matt dragged me into a nearby alcove to get out of the rain where I proceeded to begin shaking from the rain and cold and shock.
With no easy way to get out of the canyon, Matt and I waited in that alcove for Joel to come with help, assuming he made it.
Hours passed. The sun came out. The rocks dried. And we waited without knowing how or when we would get out of the canyon.
A couple of our friends happened to hike along where we were and we were able to tell them what happened. Another hour later, we saw an older gentleman—part of a volunteer search-and-rescue team—in a brightly colored vest hiking down to us.
Can I just take a minute to say THANK YOU to everyone who volunteers on teams like this? It was a Saturday and there was this whole team of people who volunteered to come and get me out of the canyon! I am still humbled and blown away by that fact.
Soon, I was duct-taped into a stretcher and a rope was threaded through it. I was then hoisted up hundreds of feet out of the canyon via a rope-and-pulley system set up by the volunteer team and operated by them and our friends.
The team had to stop every 20 feet or something to re-set the pulley system so it took a while to get me to the top. I was hanging vertically in the stretcher through much of it, looking out over the canyon, certain they would drop me any moment or that someone else would slip and fall trying to get me to the top. The best line of the day came from Nate who reminded me, “Cameron, it’s statistically impossible that anyone else would get hurt today.”
Finally, five hours after I fell off the cliff, I was in an ambulance headed to the hospital.
In God’s providence, there was an orthopedic surgeon available who took one look at my x-rays and announced, “I hope you weren’t a dancer because you’ll never dance again.”
It became evident that I hadn’t just broken my ankle; I had crushed it. I had surgery that night and, three days and a few rods and pins later, I went back home to Phoenix where I had to have another surgery with more pins involved to fix my broken wrist.
Due to my broken ankle and my broken wrist, I was in a wheelchair for the next three months. My sweet and selfless grandparents moved up from Tucson and into our house to take care of me since I couldn’t do anything by on my own. To make matters even more difficult, I got pregnant a month later and added morning sickness to the list of ‘difficult things in my life right now’. It also added another line item to the list of Matt’s roles in life that had shifted so much over the past three months: from single guy to husband to caretaker to father.
It was the hardest year of my life, that first year of marriage. And from it, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: Don’t Slack on Reading God’s Word—even if you’re in a wheelchair and pregnant and can’t do much.
It wasn’t intentional on my part to stop reading the Bible, but that is what happened nonetheless. John Bunyan once said of the Bible, “Either this book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book.” This was proved true in my life during this season as sin gradually crept into both my life and Matt’s until there was an eruption of anger and frustration and bitterness—all rooted in our combined lack of pursuit of the Lord.
It was a difficult lesson to learn, but in God’s mercy, the story has a happy ending. Because what we learned is that we can’t stop reading God’s word, especially in trying circumstances. That’s when we need Him the most! Our motto from that time is Hosea 6:1: “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.”
The Lord did bind us up—we got to have Susanna and I got out of the wheelchair!
So where does that leave me today and why write a blog post about it?
Well, the truth is that while I walk fine and most people can’t tell, I actually have significant arthritis in my ankle. The fall pretty much obliterated the cartilage and three surgeries haven’t been able to fix that or restore movement to it completely.
I am in some degree of pain whenever I’m standing on it and the pain generally progresses the longer I’m on it. I can’t really run and, in the state of Arizona, I am legally handicapped—meaning, I can’t walk for 300 feet without being tired or, in my case, in pain.
What this means here in PNG is that I can’t always do what everyone else can do here—can’t walk as far or as often and when I do, I’m usually in pain. It also means that Matt being gone for long chunks of time as he has been for house building is a big deal for me. Matt likes to say that I only have so many steps in a day and when they’re used up, that’s it for me for the day. When he’s gone, I use more steps and so I need help in order for my household to be sustained until he comes back.
Last year, my mom came out on her own dollar to help me during the first house building trip and on ours during the second for this reason. For this current trip, Julie Kellso—a friend from the US—and my co-workers are helping me whenever they can.
If you think about it, this is a specific way you can be praying for us, both during the times when Matt is gone and even when he’s not.
I am so thankful I fell off the cliff that day! I’m thankful that I lived through it, first of all. It taught me to appreciate life and think more and not just go throwing myself on every available rock face with nary a thought. I’m thankful that I can be here doing this! While there are some things that I can’t do, there are many that I can, including being here in Papua New Guinea for the sake of the gospel.
But perhaps most of all, I am thankful that I fell off the cliff because God brought so much good out of it, both in our hearts and in our marriage. He taught us so much more about Him, that if I could go back and not fall off the cliff, I wouldn’t.
So that’s the story of how I fell off the cliff. It’s not a tragic story or a unique story, but it is my story and, really, the story of one trying circumstance that has been ongoing for the last decade by which God has taught me more about His goodness than I would have known without it. So praise the Lord for pain! Praise the Lord for life-changing accidents!
Because, with the Lord, the bitterness and pain of those things is not unmixed with joy and hope.