The Story Behind the Story of 'Charlie'

I heard a voice…distant, elusive.  It was hardly a clarion call…more like a whisper.  Insistent, it grew more urgent in tenor as the bliss of oblivion lifted in favor of intense, searing pain.  Wednesday, September 10, 2014…the day I heard the call.

“Show them…” it said, calmly at first.  “Showww them,” it repeated, over and over.  Finally, as the general anesthesia waned, and my blood pressure rose to 200/140 from the pain of surgery, the voice had my full attention. 

“Show them…WHAT?!” I challenged, from within my head.  Gradually, I distinguished other voices:  my wife, fretful of how this surgery would end; my surgeon, beginning to voice concern at my skyrocketing BP, a nurse scurrying as I groggily rasped:  “Ten milligrams of Dilaudid, please!” 

You see, as a 12-year opioid addict, I was quite literate in the language of my addiction, with its false allure and cognitive deceptions.  So, as I surfaced from an eight-and-a-half-hour surgery, I knew what it would take to calm the restless seas of my nervous system, at least for a bit.  But I couldn’t yet open my eyes, due to a protective coating of salve placed over them by my surgeon, having to keep me in an inverted position for much of the procedure.  Without my eyesight, my ears became more attuned. 

Then, that voice…louder, more urgent:  “Show them!” 

“Show them WHAT??!” I rasped.  “Who the hell am I talking to…?!” I insisted.  That was the puzzling part:  the voice sounded neither male nor female.  Indistinguishable.  I repeated the question, and I heard my wife and surgeon pause and murmur, wondering aloud to whom I was speaking…she giggled, he chuckled.  Now, I was a bit miffed. 

“Hey, who else is in the room, talking to me?” 

From the collective response, it was clear to me that they thought the Dilaudid had kicked in.  

Again, the soft voice of a warm presence whispered, “Show them.” 

“Okay, that’s it…who are you?  What do you want?  And what the hell do you mean, ‘Show them’?  Show them WHAT?!” I pressed silently, within my fevered cogitations. 

“Show them my grace.”  This time, the voice was resolute, but calming – balm to soothe a weary soul.  Yet, I was anything but soothed.  What the hell is happening? I silently asked, …and HOW do I show somebody your grace?  And by the way, who ARE you?!  I bristled within my battle-scarred synapses. 

“Are you feeling better now?” my wife asked. 

“Better than what…?” I retorted. 

“You were saying things a minute ago…to nobody.  Did you know that?”

“Besides you, doc, and that nurse, who is standing here by the bed?” I insisted.

“No one, dear.” 

At that moment, I began wondering if it was, in fact, simply the Dilaudid. 

Show them my grace… This time, the voice sounded like more than one…a strange intermingling of feminine and masculine attributes.  My pain levels were high, my state of consciousness was rapidly returning, and I was frustrated.  So, I decided to challenge the voice once more, beginning to wonder if this was just one of the demons occupying space between my ears. 

Your grace?!  I pondered.  Silently, I answered with a question, What grace? The next voice I heard filled me with fire. 

Show them your life in the absence of my grace. 

There it was…an answer I couldn’t possibly comprehend, yet couldn’t ignore.  And yes…the Dilaudid was kicking in. 



The morning after surgery, physical therapists arrived at my bed…announced they’d come to “walk me.”  Dreading this moment, I feared the little walk would reveal no substantial reduction in pain.  As I took tentative first steps with PT’s on either side, I even expected that the old sensation of fiery pains would still be there…would always be there, acutely reminding me of my flawed mortal coil. 

Barely reaching the hallway, sweating profusely, legs wobbly and my soul filled with trepidation, I felt…nothing.  It must be a fluke! I skeptically answered my own questions. Probably just general anesthesia not yet worn off.  The PTs said they’d return.  For the next six hours, I pondered whether I even dare hold out hope for the surgery’s intended curative properties. 

Later that afternoon, the PTs returned with a walker, a belt, other devices intended to keep a body like mine upright – to ensure I wouldn’t fall, despite my lack of strength.  This time, standing beside the bed for a couple minutes, I began to take stock of my senses, my wits, and the dreaded nerve pain to which I’d grown accustomed.  The verdict?  The years of mounting, cripplingly familiar pain was…gone!  To be sure, there was pain…the pain of surgery, of shaved facet joints, of an installed titanium cage from L3-S1 of my lower spine.  Of screws and other hardware mounted onto my prematurely-aged skeleton.  But this pain would resolve.  What I couldn’t fathom was how filled to the brim I was with energy and youthful exuberance. 

Later that night, alone in a hospital room with only the pulse of my IV tower and my troubled thoughts, I pondered what The Voice had said: 

Show them your life in the absence of my grace. 

What could it possibly mean?  

In the ensuing weeks of recovery and increased stamina – and the absence of physical pain – three things became clear:

  1. I needed to finish my physical rehab by doing exactly what my doctor and PT’s prescribed, to become as healthy as possible.
  2. It became apparent to me that without physical pain, I had no business any longer using opioids. I had to break free of my addiction, and prepare myself for a different life.
  3. That different life required that I do something: that I show them.  Still, I had no clue exactly what that meant. 

From October through January, I battled my pernicious addiction.  With the help of a special doctor and a compounding pharmacist, I was able to ramp down a little more each week, until I was finally free of the physical symptoms of withdrawal.  The psychological addiction…?  That would require many more months and a deeper commitment. 



February, 2015.  I sheepishly approached my wife early one morning, telling her that I needed to go away for a while…that I thought I needed to write something. 

“What are you planning to write?” she logically asked (hate it when she does that).

“I’m not sure.”  (Her blank stare said it all.)  “All I know is, it’s some kind of story.”

“What kind of story?”


“Well, is this fiction, or what?”


“Well, where are you going?”

“Back to the Thumb Area (of Michigan).”

“Why can’t you write it here?”

“Because I need to go there first.”

“Why…?!  How do you know this?”

“I don’t know.”

“But have you ever written fiction before…?”

“Nope, not really.” 


It wasn’t exactly the kind of airtight case one might hope to present one’s spouse as justification for “going away.” 

A quiet pensiveness unfolded as I stood there, and finally offered, “I think I’ve been asked to do something.” 

Finally telling her about The Voice and the directive, she graciously said, “Uhh, okay.  But I want you to have at least an outline of what you’re going to write.” 

Let’s just say, my ‘outline’ left much to be desired.  Truth was, I had no clue on what path I was about to embark.  



Mid-June, 2015, I kissed my wife goodbye, drove off under a summer solstice, and began a journey that would show them my life in the absence of His grace.  When I arrived on the shoreline of Lake Huron that Sunday eve, thirteen-hundred miles from my home in North Texas, and peered eastward at the fog hovering over the water – the waves lapping my feet – I suddenly knew how terrifying a leap of faith could be. 

Plodding back to my little cabin, I dropped to my knees at bedside, and said in a trembling voice, “Okay, God…ya’ got me here.  You better start talking, because I’ve got NO IDEA what you want from me!” 

Slumping into an ancient oak chair at a worn oak desk in the cabin, I opened my computer, stared at a blank screen for an hour, then slid under the covers and into a heavy slumber.  Greeted at dawn by dappled sunlight through pines, I trudged the eighty yards back to the lake, peered out over the sapphire sea, and wrote a poem.  It flowed effortlessly, and was finished in my mind before I put pencil to paper.  I had my ending.  Now, I just needed to find the story. 

Armed with only that tiny success, I got myself together, drove the small, coastal town of Harbor Beach, to the public library…and spent the next four weeks researching, poring over family histories, traveling around the thumb, scouring old historical records, and discovered more about my ancestors and other early settlers of The Thumb.  I felt a growing sense of urgency around tying together many of these loose threads, to weave a tapestry of historical tragedy and untold truths about the lives of those who came before…and about my own life. 

…Show them your life in the absence of My grace… 

It became my mantra, resonating beyond the words, to a process of discovery that would unfold mysteries I’d never known, yielding answers that would bring me face to face with truth…and terror.  By day, I scoured records in the public library, walked among tombstones, interviewed varied and interesting people…a police chief, a priest, a graceful 95-year-old matriarch with a long memory and colorful stories.  I visited abandoned graveyards, darkened churches steeped in lore, and climbed an ancient, storied lighthouse cloaked in tales of the supernatural. 

By night, I wrote with a zeal I’d never known.  A story was developing…beginning to take shape in my mind.  It was a story that I, at first, thought I was to tell about myself.  But that was NOT what I was called to do. 

…Show them your life in the absence of My grace… 



In the months – now, eight-plus years – following those four weeks of research and fevered writing, I’ve become…illumined. After literally hundreds of rewrites, and countless hours of additional research, I’ve slowly realized that the story I took for granted to be my own wasn’t mine at all.  It’s a story about each of us…our universal search for meaning, wrestling with our demons, pining for redemption…and our relationship to a vulnerable and merciful God.  It is a story told in two parts: 

  • Charlie’s Ladder - The psychological journey that leads to healing our minds
  • The Last Altar Boy – A seven-day road-trip into hell necessary for healing our souls. 

Our protagonist, Charlie Houden, clearly has issues.  He’s tired of seeking answers that never come from his religion.  He’s broken…by tragedy and demons to whom he was long ago exposed.  Charlie is each of us…and we are Charlie. 

If – as implied in various verses of the New Testament – it’s true that Hell is not only the presence of evil, but the absence of God, it is this gnawing sense of absence with which Charlie struggles…declaring God to be akin to an “absentee landlord.” 

This nagging sense of separation from God haunts our protagonist as he embarks on a journey of the mind, climbing from the depths of his own depression, to find hope and purpose in exorcising the demons from his own head and heart.  That same mind will hatch a brilliant – if slightly mad – scheme to save his soul, and that of his daughter’s, from God’s separation. 

Just one problem:  Not all of Charlie’s demons reside within his head.


So, there it is…the story behind the stories, for “those with eyes to see.”  In many ways, feels like I’ve been writing these two stories my entire life.  Soon, with God’s grace, they will belong to you.  You see, unlike Charlie, I have always known that I dwell within the shadow of His wing.  What I had to earnestly account for was my life in the absence of His grace.  In their telling, these two stories make possible the comprehension of true forgiveness and redemption. 

I encourage you to read them, to consider what it means to be part of a family in turmoil, to be a soul bereft of its own purpose, to be tormented and taunted for your faith…to awaken from ambivalence.  Finally, to realize that only through forgiveness is redemption truly possible. 

What would you risk to reclaim your sanity and your soul…?


Peace.  Shalom.

Photo and digital magic, HJ McEnroe

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1 comment

Ready for the book. I have wanted to do the same, but could never make myself go there! 😢

Vivian Shaw

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