The Broken Hearts Club!

LONDON, ENGLAND –  I should have known that this trip would have some twists and turns.  Just that one instant when Melinda said, “Go, do it!”, and I realized I’d actually be taking that father-daughter journey that I had dreamed of, was enough to foreshadow a significant experience.  That moment was a portent of things to come – one of many such powerful moments I’d find. Transformational experiences actually do mark our climb out of the dark abyss into the light.  Crystalized memories, a hand hold here or a foothold there.  Steps in a journey.  Each of us know them: Certain critical points in time forever etched on the surface of our consciousness.  A wall of those etchings, interwoven by the thread of our daily lives, displays the tapestry of our experience here on Earth.  Tapestries of our lives.

London provided me with just such an incredibly sharp crystalline moment forever etched on my heart, literally.  Because of the unexpected and powerful nature of the experience, this was more akin to a “wake up call” from God.  It was as if a powerful hand grabbed my collar and gave me a great shake!  Along the way I traced a spiritual pilgrimage through The City, was witness to a heart-wrenching emergency, and hosted the first “Good Riddance Day” celebration in Britain-on the day the Broken Hearts Club was formed. Come, follow in my footsteps.

Everywhere you turn in London there’s either a pub or an old church. Pub and church. Physical and spiritual. New and old. Life and death. Some say that life moves like an arrow through time, streaking inexorably toward a conclusion or terminus.  Three different way stations in my London exploration offered uniquely different experiences in support of that point: Holy Trinity Brompton, St Faith’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey, and Southwark Cathedral. I’d seen the pubs, and was still enjoying them as time permitted, but now I was being drawn to the old churches. Tatters were beginning to show in the fabric of time that I wore around my neck like a good scarf.  A tug on my scarf from the past seemed to draw me to Westminster Abbey that Sunday morning, July 1st.  Maybe it was someone grabbing me by the coat collar.

I had been hoping to celebrate Eucharist there in the “Home Sanctuary” of the Anglican Church. Back at St. Clement’s El Paso, we had just called a new Rector under my leadership as the Search Committee Chairman…in the Spring of 2007. It had gone smoothly and the man called to lead us was well suited to the tasks.  We were now planning a formal separation from the Episcopal Church USA, while still remaining in the Anglican Communion under a provincial structure in formation for North America.  This was a huge undertaking by my fellow parishioners, fraught with plenty of risks for our Parish, for the plan was to leave while retaining all of our property – almost unheard of then, and now.  Only a handful of parishes had even tried what we were attempting, few if any ever succeeded.

That struggle against dark forces and institutions was heavy on my heart. Schism and turmoil was now in the air back home in the United States.  Today, far away from that fray, I prayed for guidance and comfort for my friends as I walked toward this hallowed ground where Protestantism began with the English Reformation in the early 1500’s. Westminster Abbey and all of the saints buried there seemed to be calling to me through time. It was as if I knew these stones.  There was an intimate feeling ambient on the dew-covered paths and lawns. The texture of the moment was a palpable weaving of light, air and moisture.  I had walked nearby the Abbey just the day before, on Saturday afternoon’s West End self-guided walking tour (https://davetzold.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/west-end-tour/), and I had planned to return there today for Sunday services. Fortune deemed otherwise.

View of side of Westminster Abbey from St. Margaret’s

Getting off at the Westminster tube station, I had plenty of time to cross Parliament Square and past St. Margaret’s Church to get to the 11:15 am Holy Eucharist.  The side doors were closed facing toward St. Margaret’s, so I sauntered around the front.  There, calmly overseeing a queue of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen winding through crowd control lines, a London Bobby stands guard and subtly motions my eyes to a nearby placard announcing that Westminster Abbey was “Closed to the Public” today in observance of the formal Installation of the Mayor of London, an invitation-only gathering it seemed.  Change of plans!

Alright then, think quick. Right, Alpha it is!  Brompton is a quick tube shot away. God had me by the collar and I didn’t yet know it. I had been juggling in my mind the need, while in London, to experience both the “historic” sources of my faith (Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s and Southwark Cathedral) while also exploring more deeply a new flame sweeping the Protestant globe – the wildly popular Alpha Program developed by the Reverend Nicky Gumbel at an old “downtown” parish church off Brompton Road.

Here was my chance to trace down that thread, but I was being led there for a purpose far beyond the pragmatic and inquisitive reasons that I then discerned. Holy Trinity Brompton sits almost hidden off the road, behind the Brompton Observatory, next to the huge Victoria & Albert Museum. Parking is nearly non-existent and attendants take charge of a valet-like service which I noticed as I rushed up to the church by foot from the South Kensington tube station.  A simple red sign board welcomed me as I walked up the path to the church, hoping I wasn’t too late.

This is a holy place fed by the breath of God, literally filled with the Holy Spirit, and I felt a remarkable peace settle around me as I quietly slid into the back bench against the wall of the sanctuary and let the rush though the tube system and quick walk up from the South Kensington Station slowly subside.  The 11:30 service was just beginning.  Nikey Gumbel was preaching from the same stage, built out into the center of the old church sanctuary, that I’d seen on many of his Alpha Series videos over the years in our Alpha Program back home in El Paso. Wow, the power of the moment was palpable, being there, in person!  I felt warm and my skin goose-prickled.

Nicky Gumbel preaching at Holy Trinity Brompton

It was obvious I was in a very special place, not just because of the physical experience – as the warm glow grew stronger around me and the hair on my skin seemed to stand on end.  Bright faces responded to my glances around the sanctuary.  The music and message was invigorating and deeply soothing.  I closed my eyes and was swept up in the worship service, floating somewhere wrapped in a deep sense of love and peace, when suddenly a light touch on my arm jolted me back to the moment. Nickey Gumbel had just called for a few moments of prayer and intercession. She was smiling gently and looking up into my eyes with deep concern.  “I saw you come in a moment ago, and for some reason was drawn to ask if I could pray for you!”  I stammered a reply “Yes, yes I could use some prayer.”  We held hands, I closed my eyes and her prayer came effortlessly…rolling over me, enveloping me in graceful rhythm and meter…a prayer language I could not discern.  It was a tongue I had never heard, but sounded vaguely familiar.  The words were fluid and soft, like a warm flood reaching to the heavens.  I was carried away, drifting on the lyrics of a song I knew was a personal invocation framed by the Creator. Time stopped. I did not want it to end. My breath came in shallow puffs, I could hear the sounds of other prayers around me and the focused invocations of this young woman who was sent to me.  The soft music died away, and the journey I was on came to an end. I stood in the same place I had first begun, but I had traveled far beyond the confines of that Holy Brompton Sanctuary, or the miniscule dot we call Earth. “Thank you“, I whispered, tears running down my cheeks.  Words were not available to say more at the moment. She smiled and took me by the hand to meet her fiancée.  I wiped my cheeks and tried to compose myself. They told me about the moment they noticed that I had slipped into the sanctuary, how she suddenly felt a strong sense and as she watched me, a glow or light seeming to shine around me.  Hanna had remarked about this to her partner, who encouraged her to seek me out, for they both felt a sense of God’s hand. The rest you now know. What was left to discern was what it meant.

Children playing on the Green outside the Cafe at Holy Trinity Brompton

I visited with them for a while, thanked Hanna for the beautiful prayer experience, and excused myself out to the green and their Cafe where I enjoyed some refreshments and watched the children play and adults mingle.  It was time to move on, and I needed to walk and clear my head and understand what had just happened.  For something had indeed just happened, something strong and deep stirred inside of me. That afternoon, though, I was taking my daughter Devin and her friend Garland to the “Concert for Diana” at Wembley Stadium, an event that was sure to be memorable.  I headed back to the hotel to rest and get ready, pondering the meaning of this amazing experience I had just had.  This was the first way station on my spiritual journey through London.  At the time, the experience seemed to be about the silent prayers I had lifted up for the situation at St. Clement’s, back home – with the plans and negotiations underway for a historic but risky separation from the Episcopal Church USA.  All that certainly needed to be covered with prayer – and hadn’t I asked God for His intervention and protection on the matter?  Ironically, for all my thoughts at the time about others back home, this would actually turn out to be about me.  He wasn’t finished with me, as I would find out over the next few days!!

Westminster Abbey cloisters

Monday morning, the Abbey was open for business as usual and the walk-around self guided tour narrated by Jeremy Irons was a singular highlight of the trip. Even with all the visitors, the huge cathedral and associated buildings offer quiet places for contemplation. Centuries of faithful have sought answers to prayers within these walls.  Why not mine?  I lit a candle to those silent prayers. This time, my daughter Bailey and her troubles with her first marriage to Samuel were also heavy on my heart and I sought special benediction for her care.  Around the corner, at the Transept, was the famous “Poet’s Corner” where so many famous souls lay in rest under the stone floors.  I gazed at their names carved in the walls and floor plaques, amazed at the countenance seeming to gather to watch after the events the day before at Holy Trinity Brompton.

Prayer candles in the Abbey sanctuary

I was drawn away from the groups of visitors milling in the center of Poet’s Corner.  Off against the side wall, I spied a small heavy door with a non-discript sign stating the chapel within was available for quiet contemplation and prayer.  What was this?  I felt another tug on my coat collar.  No one was near, so I reached out, pulled the door open and stepped inside – being sure to pull the door closed behind me.  I was alone. It was quiet and dark, unlike the light and noise of the crowds out in the main sanctuary.  I let out a deep breath. A calm descended on me, physically drawing me to my knees.  I looked up at the altar and the ancient fresco on the wall, the tapestries, furnishing and art welcomed me like a lost friend.  I felt a deep murmur rising from inside me, spontaneous and unexpected it burst forth echoing within those dark stone walls.  It was a chant, ancient in its meter and tone, an acapella prayer song I had learned years before:

Create in me

a clean heart, oh God!

 Let me be like You

in all my ways.

 Give me your strength,

teach me Your song.

 Shelter me in

the shadow of  Your wings.

 For we

are Your

righteousness.

If we die to ourselves,

and live through Your death,

 We shall be born

again

to be blessed in Your love!

St. Faith’s Chapel – Westminster Abbey

Tears once again fell from my eyes and down my cheeks – though I felt uplifted and peaceful, not sad.  It was as if the song had come from within as a response to my prayers, the reply was obvious: all was well, do not fear. Here I was, inside this huge ancient cathedral in a dark and quiet chapel, yet I was at that moment one with the Creator.  I knew this was an experience I would never forget, here was my second way station on the journey I was tracing.  My own needs were far from my thoughts as I eventually rose and passed out that small thick door into the busy Transept and busier Sanctuary, witnessed a celebration of Morning Prayer and Eucharist, and then out to the streets – to wind my way through an old London that was fast becoming familiar to me.

SOUTHWARK CATHEDRAL sits across the Thames River from the City of London, best accessed by the Tower Bridge. As the afternoon grew cloudy and rainy, I padded over the river and through the old byways on the South Bank, winding my way at sunset to the front of the old churchyard.  The tug on my coat collar was steady and firm. Here, on this site, Christians had worshiped for over one thousand years. I wondered what I would find as I pushed through the narthex doors and shook the rain from my umbrella.

Southwark Cathedral

Once more, the tug on my collar proved purposeful for there, in that beautiful old Cathedral, an Evensong Service was beginning just as the last rays of the setting sun touched the top of the steeples.  I was stunned.  What luck!  These voices were certainly more beautiful than my own lonely echoes earlier that morning at Westminster!  I found a seat in the back of the sanctuary, wiped the rain from my jacket as I laid it over the adjacent chair back, and relaxed with the music wafting through that Holy space.

Evensong at Southwark Cathedral

Only a handful of people were in the pews with me.  It was like having a personal worship service!  The voices and chants, the liturgy, the Gospel readings/singings, the ceremonial pace, and the censures wafting sweet incense to the heavens all combined to deeply move me as I absorbed this unique experience.  I found myself thinking about my own blessings: my children Bailey, Devin and William; my wife Melinda, and all that we had been through over the 25-years or so. El Paso seemed so far away, impossibly distant…yet, there was a thread connecting us.  I thought about the two previous spiritual experiences at Brompton and Westminster.  How sudden and unexpected those scenes had played, how powerful they were in hindsight.  It was then that I realized that something more than experiential was happening, even now. This was deeper, more meaningful.  I was tired, and the evening was settling into dusk as I donned my jacket and umbrella and left by the side door.  The third way-station on my spiritual path shrank into the winding warrens of the South Bank.

As I worked my way back to Blackfriar’s Bridge, across which was our hotel, I realized that the Evensong service I had just attended was the capstone to a triad of experiences I had had no hand in creating – but had been orchestrated for me by a caring God. There was profound meaning here, maybe something akin to what C.S. Lewis referred to in Narnia as “Deep Magic“.

Like that, I was certain I was the recipient of something profound:  first, the “spiritual washing”, a kind of cleansing and girding that had occurred in the prayer experience at Brompton on Sunday; second, the personal and spontaneous joy and praise I felt at St Faith’s Monday morning; then finally tonight, this beautiful sanctification or “blessing” during Evensong in Southwark Cathedral.  Why?  Why me?  Why now?

These questions echoed in my mind as the London cityscape went from dusk to dark and the lights sparkled off the surface of the Thames River slowly coursing under the Bridge. It was now early evening on Monday, July 2nd, tomorrow would see Devin’s group off and her move into my rooms at the Crowne Plaza-The City.  Our “real” vacation was about to begin, or so I thought!

TUESDAY MORNING found me up early at the prospect of moving my daughter Devin into my rooms at the Crowne Plaza and spending the next two weeks touring England and Scotland together.  She had actually been awake long before me, since her group had to catch the train to Heathrow early.  We had breakfast at the hotel’s downstairs cafe where we caught up on each other’s adventures.  Devin and I decided how we would tackle this start to our new adventure, then off we we went…little knowing what was to come!

The Tower of London, of course.  Where else could we visit together and share such a time capsule of British history?  The tube took us nearby, and dropped us within a block of the main entrance facility.  How fun to be with my little princess on this great adventure! After a few days of London together, we’d be off for our adventure in Scotland.  Or, so I thought.

The tour through the Tower was aided by the self-guided audio.  Having been there a few days earlier by myself, I moved us along smartly through the exhibits.  The weather was better today, no downpours to contend with.

The wooden staircase...Tower of London

Climbing a long wooden staircase into the Tower Keep, a sharp pain stabbed through my left chest near the top landing and I told Devin to go on ahead while I caught my breath.  “What was that?”, I wondered to myself.  In a few moments, the pain ebbed and I stepped on up and into the Tower.  No matter, I thought, on with the tour!  It must have been something I had eaten.

Armory-Tower of London

 

Remembering that moment on the Tower staircase much later that day, I realized this must have been when “it” happened.  But, I was oblivious to what was going on inside my chest.  All that I was think about was the joy of that moment in time with my daughter, whatever had happened on the stairs was gone.  That moment was full of the parade of history as I sidled up to Devin and we walked though those ancient corridors of English history.  Armor, weapons, flags, all arranged in such beautiful symmetry for their appointed purpose here in the Armory of Kings.

There was even a moment of levity as we took photos of each other on the king’s high chair in his private chambers.

We left the Tower and decided to head over to Harrod’s to get some lunch and shop a little together.  The tube ride to Harrod’s was where “it” began…again.  I was fortunate that Devin had spent some time at Harrod’s with her high school friends a few days earlier, and was intimately familiar with that huge store…as we will soon see.

 
 

Vertigo hit me while we were still minutes away from the station outside Harrod’s.  It crept up on me, starting as a slight dizziness and getting progressively stronger in quick waves.  I held onto the railing as we ascended to street level, shaking my head to try to clear the effect…to no avail.  I mention something about it to Devin, and she looks at me – scarred and very concerned in the same glance.  As we enter the store, she takes my elbow and guides me to a stool in the cosmetic section and asks a clerk to direct us to the escalators to the lower level…to the “Clinic”, she says.  I ask, and she tells me that she had noticed the other day, on the floor plan of the store, that they had an emergency clinic in the basement.  There, the physician assistant checks out my vitals, makes a call and informs me that I’m having a HEART ATTACK, and that they are having a taxi take me to a nearby cardiologists office.  I am progressively worse as the minutes tick by.  We ascend to the street level and, with the help of the Harrod’s staff, get into our taxi.  Soon we are pulling up to a row house converted to offices, and I ask Devin to pay the driver, as I can barely keep conscious.  Approaching the few steps up to the front door, I grab the railing…and I am gone……..collapsed and heart stopped…finial of the railing catching my jacket as I fell and holding me awkwardly dangling on the wrought iron decorations while Devin screams for help!  Two women rush up from the sidewalk nearby and help her get me off the finial as the doctor’s staff open the front door and drag me into the entryway.

I remember looking up at an upside down face telling me to sip some water, as he sprayed what turned out to be Nitroglycerin under my tongue and made me swallow a couple of aspirin.  Devin was wailing in the background, a couple of nurses were talking on a cell phone as a small “first responder” car arrived.  The paramedics quickly started to work on me, getting vitals and preparing me for the ambulance just a few minutes behind them.  I demanded that Devin ride with me, using all the concentration I could muster as they bustled me into the back of the vehicle.  It was 3:45pm on July 3, 2007 when Devin snapped a photo of me in the ambulance on the way to St. Mary’s Hospital…at my insistence.  All I could do on the short ride was grit my teeth to the pressure in my chest and recite the “Lord’s Prayer” quietly.  If I was to die, and I knew then that this was pretty serious, Death would know who my Lord was!  I drifted in and out of consciousness…the pain not so terrible as I thought it would be.

 
 
 
Ambulance to St. Mary’s…3:45pm July 3, 2007
 

The ambulance pulled up to the emergency entrance and I was whisked right into a separate Cardiac Catheterization Unit, one of the few newly-built CCU ER units in the NHS system it turns out.  As the doctors and nurses moved me to the big operating table under the spotlights, with huge video monitors hanging overhead, I saw a row of windows off to my left where I could see Devin crying and talking on her cell phone.  They prepared me quickly for an angiogram, using local anesthetic on my inner thigh and inserting the catheter up my femoral artery. I remember several tubes coming out of my arms, and medications being injected through them.  The screens above my head lit up and showed a live picture of the catheter moving in my artery, winding its way to my broken heart.  It was surreal.

The doctor keeps up a constant narration in my ear as they find the 100% blockage of my right coronary artery, and he takes a moment to point it out to me on the screen overhead.  Then, as quick as a snake, he removes the catheter, attaches a stent insert balloon tip and winds that wire and its precious cargo back up through my artery to my heart!  It was funny, in a way, floating there on that table, all those people bustling about, no sensation of feeling the catheter inside my artery or my heart…as the doctor once again gets my attention.  “Now, let’s just count to three…and we’ll have this fixed….one…two…three…”  Suddenly, instantly almost, the pressure and pain in my chest was gone.  Just like that!  The stent was inserted, the balloon removed, and they were patching me up and wheeling me to the Cardiac Care Unit up on the sixth floor.

Remarkably, and this speaks more to the miracle of this whole experience, twenty five minutes had elapsed from arrival at the Emergency Ward to my being taken to my CCU bed for two days of observation!  Upon returning to the United States and visiting my cardiologist for the first time, he remarked how this was an unbelievably fortunate thing…to have been treated so quickly and so professionally….and so thoroughly by the British medical National Health Service (NHS).  Thank God for the NHS, and their quick care of a visitor from Texas!

New stent seems to be working!
 

The days in the Samuel Lane CCU Ward on the eighth floor of St. Mary’s were some of the best of my life.  Truly.  We had eight beds to our ward, occupied by several English gentlemen.  One, also named David, was a barber/hair stylist for the movie industry in London; one man named Michael who owned a fine restaurant in Portobello called “Gallicia”, and one man named Monty who was a retired bartender…with more jokes and one-liners than a stand up comedian!   They became what I called the “Broken Heart’s Club” and to this day I will love them as brothers for the time we shared together.

The “Broken Hearts Club” St. Mary’s CCU Ward, London

It was during theses two days that I described to them the celebrations then going on across “The Pond”, in remembrance of the Independence of the United States of America in 1776 on July 4th.  Of course, these men knew something about our customs on this matter, but it didn’t occur to them that Americans might be celebrating an historical “butt-kicking” of gigantic proportions.  So, as we pondered these things and debated the nuances of political rivalries and the benefits of a national health system, I came to conclude that these men must be the first to attain the realization that England needed a counter-part to our auspicious Fourth of July Independence Day Celebrations in the United States. So, I described the “corollary celebration” that they should promote in Great Britain: “Good Riddance Day” – a day to celebrate that the population of the United States is no longer their problem!

I received my discharge report and a CD with digital images of the X-Ray movie taken during the angioplasty procedure and of my discharge reports:

St Mary's London-Cardiac Catheterization Discharge Report

July 4th…”Good Riddance Day” in England, my own Independence Day!
High Tea at Brown’s, celebrating Mums and Sis’ arrival…and my survival…
 

There are times since my return to El Paso that I quietly ponder this brush with Death, and the meaning of the experiences which led up to it, as described above.  This was my second meeting with the Grim Reaper, maybe my third, if I include an early childhood out-of-body experience and a later fall in a New Mexico cave in 1991.  There are deeper things in this world than we can know or understand.  I feel blessed to have been brushed by the sense of that underlying Deep Magic these experiences have infused in me.  Cristo Vive!

~ by Dave Etzold on January 2, 2012.

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