Three years ago, my husband got appointed to Mt. Olive UMC (now called GracePoint at Mt. Olive), which is in a suburb north of Birmingham. We had lived in Huntsville for 2 years before that, and Union City, TN for 5 years before that. I work for Protective Life Insurance, and when we moved to TN back in 2007, they allowed me to become a telecommuter and work from home. So, for 7 years I worked from home.
When we moved back into the Birmingham area in 2014, my manager wanted me to come back into the office. We worked together and came up with a plan. I work 3 days a week in the office and 2 days at home.
On the first couple of ‘in the office’ days, I took I-65 South into town, hopped onto I-59 for a second, and proceeded onto Red Mountain Expressway. One day, traffic was terrible on the interstate, so I decided to take Highway 31 into town.
And there it was. A large building attached to other buildings, taking up several blocks. It was Carraway Hospital.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The hospital was closed down and the grounds were overgrown. The buildings were vandalized. A hospital that was once a pinnacle of the community of North Birmingham was now a place of broken windows and graffiti. And that illuminated, bright, blue star that stood atop of the building was now broken, dingy, and lifeless. My heart was crushed.
Then I reflected on how this tower of cracked concrete, bent metal, and broken glass was once used as a place of healing for one of my favorite families on this planet… the Basselin family. And I smiled.
The Basselin family has been friends of my family for years. I’m fairly positive that I met Mrs. Mary Basselin on my very first Sunday at Huffman Assembly of God when I was 4 years old. Mrs. Basselin was my Missionette teacher at church during my elementary school years. Then she became my math teacher in middle school and high school. She is one of the main reasons I became a math major! Her husband, Bro. Jay, was always around, goofing off. He was like a teenager in a man’s body. I specifically remember him taking our Missionette group on a tour of our new building (Cathedral of the Cross) before the construction was complete. He made everything fun. My family was at their house for dinner one night when their oldest son, Chris, was in a pretty bad bike accident and knocked some of his teeth out. And their youngest son, Tim, taught me to spit, shuffle cards, and how to be an authentic Christian. We even dated for a spell. Needless to say, this family was and is very special to me.
As I mentioned above, Bro. Jay was so fun. He was not your typical father. He still did things like he was a teenager. I couldn’t imagine a better father to sons. He rode dirt bikes, skateboarded, and water-skied with them. He had built a zip line and a skateboard ramp in their backyard. I have even seen a picture of all 3 Basselin boys on stilts! He was a super active dad that could do anything…. Until Thursday, November 5, 1987.
I was in fifth grade. I remember it like it was yesterday. That afternoon, someone from the office came into our classroom. She preceded to tell us that Bro. Jay had been in a terrible accident at Thompson Tractor, and that he was being airlifted to Carraway Hospital . She then said that we needed to pray. You could tell by her tone that it was a serious situation. Our teacher immediately led us in prayer. I still pray for Jay Basselin and his family.
Let me describe the accident. At the time of the accident, I believe Bro. Jay was 46 years old. He was a heavy equipment mechanic at Thompson Tractor. He and another man were assembling a front-end loader. Somehow, while he was underneath it, the machine lost stability and rolled over onto him. It was about a 6,000-pound bucket that crushed his skull into the concrete floor. According to the book, “Journey with Jay” by Jan Pein, his co-workers could not move it off him. They finally chose to use a nearby winch to free him.
A doctor on site did not think Bro. Jay could live through this and pretty much left him for dead. He coded at the worksite, but his co-workers resuscitated him. He was put onto a LifeSaver helicopter and coded again, but the EMT’s brought him back. And lastly, he coded once more in the ER at Carraway, and they brought him back… and this time it stuck! To this day, Bro. Jay will tell you that he died 3 times.
The doctors did not expect Bro. Jay to live through the night. They actually asked Mrs. Basselin to donate his organs. She did not, but let her faith guide her over the next few months as she made decisions regarding Bro. Jay’s health. She told me that one time, she was so desperate to hear from God, desiring to know what decisions she should make, that she laid down and pounded the ground while calling out to God. She’s a tiny lady, but has the faith of a giant.
Bro. Jay suffered from a depressed skull fracture. His skull was embedded into his brain. The doctors didn’t operate on him for 3 weeks because they were just so sure that he wouldn’t make it. He was unconscious for 6 weeks. He finally woke up and was moved to another floor at Carraway. He stayed at Carraway for about 3 months, then moved to a rehab hospital in Gallatin, TN. He remained there for 7 months.
Below is a link to a recent interview where Mrs. Basselin shared her story:
Mary Basselin – She Is Strong Interview
I remember going to Carraway one night to visit the Basselins. My Dad was their Sunday School teacher. My sister and I played with Tim and Chris in the hospital waiting room. My Dad shared this with me recently:
“Yes, I was their Sunday School teacher. We went as soon as we heard. I don’t know who called us though. Maybe your Mom took the call. But we went up there and it seems like they had a small waiting room for the family and we waited until they let us go in. I remember walking in and his head was completely bandaged. I was prepared to pray for him and Mary, but she was praying over him and talking to him… and I remember getting beside the bed and just praying along with her…. in the spirit mainly…. just helping her pray like Pentecostals do. I don’t know how long we prayed but it was a long time. She never stopped. Just took a breath and would start again. I (or we) finally left and I remember thinking, “I came here to bless her and she blessed me!” Mary is a Rock!”
The accident left Bro. Jay with some disabilities. He was totally blind in his left eye. He also had a rare type of amnesia, where he was unable to remember his family members, friends, and basic tasks. He couldn’t remember the words for things, like corn and apple. Even when his therapist, Jan Pein, would teach him and work with him on a certain word, he would forget within minutes. One chapter in her book described how he didn’t recognize his own reflection in a mirror! Bro. Jay did remember certain motor skills though, especially related to working with tools. He remembered hymns and how to speak in tongues! Bro. Jay once whispered to Jan, “God never left me. I forgot everything, but God didn’t forget me.”
As a child, I was always saddened by what happened to the Basselin family. Now, as an adult, I am awestruck and brokenhearted at the same time. I’m brokenhearted about how those young boys basically lost their father without really losing their father. Bro. Jay didn’t remember his sons or his wife. And the way those boys had always behaved and showed affection to their dad (roughhousing) was no longer the language of love that spoke to Bro. Jay. If anything, it made him angry and frustrated. At times, my perception was that Bro. Jay didn’t really want them around. My 2 daughters are basically the same age as Chris and Tim when the accident occurred. I can’t imagine what that would be like for my girls to go through something like this, where Scott wouldn’t even know who they are.
I’m awestruck by the fact that Mrs. Basselin went through this when she was about 42 years old. I turned 41 just a few days ago. As a wife, I cannot imagine what she went through. Almost losing your husband to death, only to have him back, but with a ‘broken brain’ – having no recollection of who she was. Having to teach him how to do basic tasks, including grooming and the intimate parts of marriage.
Their lives were forever altered that day in November 1987, 30 years ago this month. And as I drive by Carraway Hospital multiple times a week, I think of them… and I think of God. Of how God met them there, in the midst of their pain and confusion and probably even anger and doubt. To me, that rundown building is an altar.
I’m not a Bible scholar nor a theology expert, but in my simple studies of God’s word, altars were used often in the Old Testament. They were structures made of different types of materials, natural and man-made, where offerings were made to a deity. They were a place of slaughter and sacrifice.
But to me, altars represent more than just sacrifice… it’s where God encountered man. From then on, every time someone passed it or saw it, it served as a reminder of what God had done – a place of remembrance. I love how an altar is described in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary:
“Altars were places where the divine and human worlds interacted. Altars were places of exchange, communication, and influence. God responded actively to altar activity.”
Joshua 3 and 4 tells of a story where an altar was built, not necessarily for sacrifice, but for remembrance. In Joshua 3, God tells Joshua that when the priests walk into the Jordan River carrying the Ark of the Covenant, He will make the river stop flowing and stand up in a heap so that the Israelites could cross over. Joshua did as God commanded, and God did indeed stop the Jordan River and make dry land.
Chapter 4 then describes an altar being built out of stones from the middle of the Jordan River.
1 When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, 3 and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”
4 So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, 5 and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, 6 to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 7 tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
Then starting on verse 19:
19 On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. 20 And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. 21 He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea[b] when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”
So whenever the Israelites passed through Gilgal, they could see those stones and remember the goodness and faithfulness of God.
But Gilgal was also a place of sacrifice. In chapter 5, the Lord tells Joshua to circumcise all the Israelite men again. These were the men who had been born to the Israelites while wandering around in the desert and had not been circumcised. Their fathers were not allowed to see the Promised Land because of their disobedience. The Lord raised these orphan sons up and Joshua had them circumcised. It was painful, and they were forever changed.
Often times when we have an encounter with the Lord, there is a sacrifice – just like the circumcision. And sacrifice hurts. But although there is pain, there is Presence – His Presence. And in His presence, we are changed. We are altered at the altar.
To me, and probably Mrs. Basselin, Carraway Hospital is an altar. It is a place that is painful. A place that reminds me of how much was lost when Bro. Jay had his accident. But it’s also a place of God’s Presence and as the Bible dictionary mentioned above, it is a place of exchange. Where God met a man with a broken face and brain and body, and gave him life again. Where God met a wife who was weak in the flesh, yet strong in the spirit, and gave her back her husband. Where God met two boys who had lost their perfect father, and gave them a different kind of perfect father, although they probably didn’t realize it until many years later.
Interestingly enough, as I was doing some researching and reminiscing before writing this blog, I found an article in Converge Magazine that someone had written about Tim and a book he has authored. There was a quote that really stood out to me.
“The condolences poured in. “God has a plan…there’s a reason for this…” Basselin never felt betrayed by these cryptic promises, because he “didn’t trust them in the first place.” In the months following the accident, Basselin would go to his church and cry at the altar before God. “I loved going there and letting it out,” Basselin says. In the levee of pain that followed, Basselin found comfort in God’s presence.
There at the altar, he found comfort in God’s Presence. And that is my prayer for anyone reading this blog. If you are finding yourself in a painful place, a place of voluntary or even involuntary sacrifice, I pray that you will find comfort in God’s Presence. Also, eventually, as time goes by, you will be able to come back to this altar, and remember the goodness and faithfulness of God. Your altar might not be very beautiful to look at, like the current state of Carraway Hospital, but spiritually speaking, it is a glorious sight. A place of divine exchange and connection.
What a beautiful account of this experience. Thank you for sharing. I’ll always remember you as wonderful, compassionate, and diligent young lady.
Oh, thank you Mrs. Gillison! I am so grateful for all my Cathedral teachers. Now that I’m an adult, I really appreciate the sacrifice you made to teach there. God bless!