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Heaven is for Real
A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back
By Todd Burpo Lynn Vincent
Copyright © 2011 HIFR Ministries, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE CRAWL-A-SEE-UM
The family trip when our nightmare began was supposed to be a celebration. In early March 2003, I was scheduled to travel to Greeley, Colorado, for a district board meeting of the Wesleyan church. Beginning the August before, our family had traveled a rocky road: seven months of back-to-back injury and illness that included a shattered leg, two surgeries, and a cancer scare, all of which combined to drain our bank account to the point where I could almost hear sucking sounds when the statements came in the mail. My small pastor's salary hadn't been affected, but our financial mainstay was the overhead garage door business we owned. Our medical trials had taken a heavy toll.
By February, though, we seemed to be on the other side of all that. Since I had to travel anyway, we decided to turn the board-meeting trip into a kind of marker in our family life—a time to have a little fun, revive our minds and spirits, and start moving forward again with fresh hope.
Sonja had heard of a neat place for kids to visit just outside Denver called the Butterfly Pavilion. Billed as an "invertebrate zoo," the Butterfly Pavilion opened in 1995 as an educational project that would teach people about the wonders of insects as well as marine critters, the kinds that live in tide pools. These days, kids are greeted outside the zoo by a towering and colorful metal sculpture of a praying mantis. But back in 2003, the giant insect hadn't taken up his post yet, so the low brick building about fifteen minutes from downtown Denver didn't shout "Kid appeal!" on the outside. But inside, a world of wonders waited, especially for kids Colton's and Cassie's ages.
The first place we stopped was the "Crawl-A-See-Um," a room filled with terrariums housing creepy-crawly critters from beetles to roaches to spiders. One exhibit, the Tarantula Tower, drew Cassie and Colton like a magnet. This stack of terrariums was, exactly as advertised, a tower of glassed-in habitats containing the kind of furry, thick-legged spiders that either fascinate you or give you the willies.
Cassie and Colton took turns climbing a three-step folding stool in order to get a look at the residents of the Tarantula Tower's upper stories. In one terrarium, a Mexican blonde tarantula squatted in a corner, its exoskeleton covered with what the exhibit placard described as hair in a "lovely" pale color. Another habitat contained a red-and-black tarantula native to India. One of the scarier-looking residents was a "skeleton tarantula," so named because its black legs were segmented with white bands so that the spider looked a little like an Xray in reverse. We later heard that this particular skeleton tarantula was a bit of a rebel: once, she had somehow engineered a jailbreak, invaded the habitat next door, and eaten her neighbor for lunch.
As Colton hopped up on the footstool to see what the rogue tarantula looked like, he glanced back at me with a grin that warmed me. I could feel my neck muscles begin to unknot, and somewhere inside me a pressure valve released, the emotional equivalent of a long sigh. For the first time in months, I felt I could simply enjoy my family.
"Wow, look at that one!" Cassie said, pointing into one of the terrariums. A slightly gangly six-year-old, my daughter was as smart as a whip, a trait she got from her mom. Cassie was pointing to the exhibit sign, which read: "Goliath Birdeater ... females can be over eleven inches long."
The one in this tank was only about six inches long, but its body was as thick as Colton's wrist. He stared through the glass wide-eyed. I looked over and saw Sonja wrinkle her nose.
I guess one of the volunteer zookeepers saw her expression, too, because he quickly came to the birdeater's defense. "The Goliath is from South America," he said in a friendly, educational tone that said, They're not as yucky as you think. "Tarantulas from North and South America are very docile. You can even hold one right over there." He pointed to where another zookeeper was holding a smaller tarantula in his palm so that a group of kids could take a closer look.
Cassie darted across the room to see what all the fuss was about, with Sonja, Colton, and me bringing up the rear. In a corner of the room decorated to look like a bamboo hut, the keeper was displaying the undisputed star of the Crawl-A-See-Um, Rosie the Spider. A rose-haired tarantula from South America, Rosie was a furry arachnid with a plum-size body and legs six inches long, thick as pencils. But the best thing about Rosie from a kid's point of view was that if you were brave enough to hold her, even for a moment, the zookeeper would award you with a sticker.
Now, if you have little kids, you already know that there are times they'd rather have a good sticker than a handful of cash. And this sticker was special: white with a picture of a tarantula stamped in yellow, it read, "I held Rosie!"
This wasn't just any old sticker; this was a badge of courage!
Cassie bent low over the keeper's hand. Colton looked up at me, blue eyes wide. "Can I have a sticker, Daddy?"
"You have to hold Rosie to get a sticker, buddy."
At that age, Colton had this precious way of talking, part-serious, part-breathless, golly-gee wonder. He was a smart, funny little guy with a black-and-white way of looking at life. Something was either fun (LEGOs) or it wasn't (Barbies). He either liked food (steak) or hated it (green beans). There were good guys and bad guys, and his favorite toys were good-guy action figures. Superheroes were a big deal to Colton. He took his Spider-Man, Batman, and Buzz Lightyear action figures with him everywhere he went. That way, whether he was stuck in the backseat of the SUV, in a waiting room, or on the floor at the church, he could still create scenes in which the good guys saved the world. This usually involved swords, Colton's favorite weapon for banishing evil. At home, he could be the superhero. I'd often walk into the house and find Colton armed to the teeth, a toy sword tucked through each side of his belt and one in each hand: "I'm playing Zorro, Daddy! Wanna play?"
Now Colton turned his gaze to the spider in the keeper's hand, and it looked to me like he wished he had a sword right then, at least for moral support. I tried to imagine how huge the spider must look to a little guy who wasn't even four feet tall. Our son was all boy—a rough-and-tumble kid who had gotten up close and personal with plenty of ants and beetles and other crawling creatures. But none of those creepy-crawlies had been as big as his face and with hair nearly as long as his own.
Cassie straightened and smiled at Sonja. "I'll hold her, Mommy. Can I hold Rosie?"
"Okay, but you'll have to wait your turn," Sonja said.
Cassie got in line behind a couple of other kids. Colton's eyes never left Rosie as first a boy then a girl held the enormous spider and the zookeeper awarded the coveted stickers. In no time at all, Cassie's moment of truth arrived. Colton braced himself against my legs, close enough to see his sister, but trying to bolt at the same time, pushing back against my knees. Cassie held out her palm and we all watched as Rosie, an old hand with small, curious humans, lifted one furry leg at a time and scurried across the bridge from the keeper's hand into Cassie's, then back into the keeper's.
"You did it!" the keeper said as Sonja and I clapped and cheered. "Good job!" Then the zookeeper stood, peeled a white-and-yellow sticker off a big roll, and gave it to Cassie.
This, of course, made it even worse for Colton, who had not only been upstaged by his sister but was now also the only stickerless Burpo kid. He gazed longingly at Cassie's prize, then back at Rosie, and I could see him trying to wrestle down his fear. Finally, he pursed his lips, dragged his gaze away from Rosie, and looked back up at me. "I don't want to hold her."
"Okay," I said.
"But can I have a sticker?"
"Nope, the only way to get one is to hold her. Cassie did it. You can do it if you want to. Do you want to try? Just for a second?"
Colton looked back at the spider, then at his sister, and I could see wheels turning behind his eyes: Cassie did it. She didn't get bit.
Then he shook his head firmly: No. "But I still want a sticker!" he insisted. At the time, Colton was two months shy of four years old—and he was very good at standing his ground.
"The only way you can get a sticker is if you hold Rosie," Sonja said. "Are you sure you don't want to hold her?"
Colton answered by grabbing Sonja's hand and trying to tug her away from the keeper. "No. I wanna to go see the starfish."
"Are you sure?" Sonja said.
With a vigorous nod, Colton marched toward the Crawl- A-See-Um door.
Chapter Two PASTOR JOB
In the next room, we found rows of aquariums and indoor "tide pools." We wandered around the exhibits, taking in starfish and mollusks and sea anemones that looked like underwater blossoms. Cassie and Colton oohed and aahed as they dipped their hands in man-made tide pools and touched creatures that they had never seen.
Next, we stepped into a massive atrium, bursting with jungle leaves, vines tumbling down, branches climbing toward the sky. I took in the palm trees and exotic flowers that looked as if they'd come from one of Colton's storybooks. And all around us, clouds of butterflies flitted and swirled.
As the kids explored, I let my mind drift back to the summer before, when Sonja and I played in a coed softball league, like we do every year. We usually finished in the top five, even though we played on the "old folks" team—translation: people in their thirties—battling teams made up of college kids. Now it struck me as ironic that our family's seven-month trial began with an injury that occurred in the last game of our last tournament of the 2002 season. I played center field, and Sonja played outfield rover. By then, Sonja had earned her master's degree in library science and to me was even more beautiful than when she'd first caught my eye as a freshman strolling across the quad at Bartlesville Wesleyan College.
Summer was winding down, but the dog days of the season were in full force with a penetrating heat, thirsty for rain. We had traveled from Imperial about twenty miles down the road to the village of Wauneta for a double-elimination tournament. At nearly midnight, we were battling our way up through the bracket, playing under the blue-white glow of the field lights.
I don't remember what the score was, but I remember we were at the tail end of the game and the lead was within reach. I had hit a double and was perched on second base. Our next batter came up and knocked a pitch that landed in the center-field grass. I saw my chance. As an outfielder ran to scoop up the ball, I took off for third base.
I sensed the ball winging toward the infield.
Our third-base coach motioned frantically: "Slide! Slide!"
Adrenaline pumping, I dropped to the ground and felt the red dirt swooshing underneath my left hip. The other team's third baseman stretched out his glove hand for the ball and—
The sound of my leg breaking was so loud that I imagined the ball had zinged in from the outfield and smacked it. Fire exploded in my shin and ankle. I fell to my back, contracted into a fetal position, and pulled my knee up to my belly. The pain was searing, and I remember the dirt around me transforming into a blur of legs, then concerned faces, as two of our players, both EMTs, ran to my aid.
I dimly remember Sonja rushing over to take a look. I could tell by her expression that my leg was bent in ways that didn't look natural. She stepped back to let our EMT friends get to work. A twenty-mile ride later, hospital Xrays revealed a pair of nasty breaks. The tibia, the larger bone in my lower leg, had sustained what doctors call a "spiral break," meaning that each end of the break looked like the barber-pole pattern on a drill bit. Also, my ankle had snapped completely in half. That was probably the break I had heard. I later learned that the cracking sound was so loud that people sitting in the stands at first base heard it.
That sound replayed in my head as Sonja and I watched Cassie and Colton scamper ahead of us in the Butterfly Pavilion atrium. The kids stopped on a small bridge and peered down into a koi pond, chattering and pointing. Clouds of butterflies floated around us, and I glanced at the brochure I'd bought at the front desk to see if I could tell their names. There were "blue morphos" with wings a deep aquamarine, black-and-white "paper kites" that flew slowly and gently like snippets of newsprint floating down through the air, and the "cloudless sulfur," a tropical butterfly with wings the color of fresh mango.
At this point, I was just happy to finally be able to walk without a limp. Besides the hacksaw pain of the spiral break, the most immediate effect of my accident was financial. It's pretty tough to climb up and down ladders to install garage doors while dragging a ten-pound cast and a knee that won't bend. Our bank balance took a sudden and rapid nosedive. On a blue-collar pastor's salary, what little reserve we had evaporated within weeks. Meanwhile, the amount we had coming in was chopped in half.
The pain of that went beyond money, though. I served as both a volunteer firefighter and high school wrestling coach, commitments that suffered because of my bum leg. Sundays became a challenge too. I'm one of those pastors who walks back and forth during the sermon. Not a holy-rolling, fire-and-brimstone guy by any stretch, but not a soft-spoken minister in vestments, performing liturgical readings either. I'm a storyteller, and to tell stories I need to move around some. But now I had to preach sitting down with my leg propped in a second chair, sticking out like the jib sail. Asking me to sit down while I delivered the Sunday message was like asking an Italian to talk without using his hands. But as much as I struggled with the inconvenience of my injury, I didn't know then that it would be only the first domino to fall.
One morning that October, right about the time I'd gotten used to hobbling everywhere on crutches, I awoke to a dull throbbing in my lower back. I knew instantly what the problem was: kidney stones.
The first time I had a kidney stone, it measured six millimeters and required surgery. This time after a round of tests, doctors thought the stones were small enough to pass. I don't know whether that was a good thing, though: I passed them for three days. I had once slammed my middle finger in a tailgate and cut the tip off. That was like baking cookies compared to this. Even breaking my leg into four pieces hadn't hurt as bad.
Still, I survived. By November, I'd been hobbling around on crutches for three months, and I went in for a checkup.
"The leg's healing correctly, but we still need to keep it casted," the orthopedist said. "Anything else bothering you?"
Actually, there was. I felt a little weird bringing it up, but the left side of my chest had developed a knot right beneath the surface of the nipple. I'm right-handed and had been leaning on my left crutch a lot while writing, so I thought maybe the underarm pad on that crutch had rubbed against my chest over a period of weeks, creating some kind of irritation beneath the skin, a callus of some kind.
The doctor immediately ruled that out. "Crutches don't do that," he said. "I need to call a surgeon."
The surgeon, Dr. Timothy O'Holleran, performed a needle biopsy. The results that came back a few days later shocked me: hyperplasia. Translation: the precursor to breast cancer.
Breast cancer! A man with a broken leg, kidney stones, and—come on, really?—breast cancer?
Later, when other pastors in my district got wind of it, they started calling me Pastor Job, after the man in the biblical book of the same name who was struck with a series of increasingly bizarre symptoms. For now, though, the surgeon ordered the same thing he would've if a woman's biopsy had come back with the same results: a lumpectomy.
Strong, Midwestern woman that she is, Sonja took a practical approach to the news. If surgery was what the doctor ordered, that's the path we would walk. We'd get through it, as a family.
I felt the same way. But it was also about this time that I also started feeling sorry for myself. For one thing, I was tired of loping around on crutches. Also, a lumpectomy isn't exactly the manliest surgery in the world. Finally, I'd been asking the church board for a long time to set aside money for me for an assistant. Only after this second round of kidney stones did the board vote to authorize the position.
Excerpted from Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo Lynn Vincent Copyright © 2011 by HIFR Ministries, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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