Note: This story was written in December 2003 and appeared at that time as a column in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.
This will be a special Christmas for me. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Christmas on which I almost killed myself.
But don’t get the wrong idea. Had I succeeded, my death wouldn’t have been ruled a suicide. I had no death wish. On the contrary, I had a lot to live for. I was a 34-year-old man with a wonderful wife; children ages 2, 5, 8 and 11; a great old house and a good job.
No, my death, had it happened, could not have been ruled a suicide. But stupidity could have been listed as the cause of death because I made a poor decision – actually a couple of them – and the results could have been deadly.
The story began the afternoon of Dec. 24, 1983. It was bone-chilling cold, and it was snowing big flakes. A strong wind roared out of the west, causing blizzard-like conditions in eastern Iowa and western Illinois.
Our plans called for bundling everyone up and traveling across town to my in-laws’ house at 5 p.m., where, with members of my wife Sherry’s family, we’d enjoy the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of ferden and oyster stew her mother had prepared. Then we’d open gifts around the Christmas tree.
About an hour before it was time to make the trip, Sherry said she believed some exhaust fumes from our furnace were backing up into the house. I was sure she was mistaken, but we opened some windows a bit to let in some fresh air, and I went outside to look at our chimney, high in the air in the center of our roof. I didn’t like what I saw.
The brick chimney has a cap on it that I had once installed to keep birds out of it.
What I saw that Christmas Eve 20 years ago was that the chimney cap’s screen, designed to let the exhaust out, was covered with ice. It was so cold and so windy that day that the warm exhaust from the furnace was condensing on the screen when hit by the cold air. The ice on the screen had built to the point that almost no exhaust from the furnace could escape.
I went back inside and told Sherry that she had been right. There was only one thing to do, I said. That was to climb into the attic, go out a dormer window, make my way to the chimney and knock the ice off of the chimney cap’s screen.
Sherry protested. It was too dangerous, she said, and we should get a motel room for the night.
“No, I can do this,” I insisted.
We have a two-story house and a full attic. That means the top of the chimney is three stories high. But, though the roof leading to the chimney has a steep pitch, I had climbed it several times in the past to do work around the chimney. I had installed a TV antenna for one thing and the chimney cap for another.
We’d drop the kids off at her parents’ house, I told Sherry, to get them out of our house and its fumes. We’d return home for what I thought would be my quick fix to the frozen chimney problem. Then we’d go back to her parents for the family celebration. She finally agreed.
The blizzard continued as I bundled up that afternoon, with Sherry at my side, still protesting, and climbed up a ladder and into the attic.
“Tie a rope around yourself and let me hold onto the other end,” she pleaded as I prepared to climb out the front dormer window. I paused for a moment and considered that idea.
“No,” I said, “because if I do fall, I’ll pull you down with me.”
Sherry was still protesting as I bravely – and stupidly – climbed out the window and began making my way uphill beside the dormer, toward the chimney.
I had gone just 4 or 5 feet when my feet began to slip. The only thing to hold onto was the edge of the dormer roof, and that wasn’t much. There was snow on the roof, but that wasn’t why I was slipping. There was a layer of ice under the snow, and that’s something I hadn’t planned on. I had planned to use the rough surface of the shingles for traction, and that was no longer an option.
“Even if I make it to the chimney,” I thought to myself, “there will be nothing to keep me from sliding all the way back down.” Sherry had been right. This was too dangerous. I had to turn back.
Then it happened. As I cautiously turned to go back down, my feet slid out from under me. It was like falling on your fanny while roller skating. It happened in an instant, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I shot past Sherry, feet first. She had been leaning out of the dormer window, watching in shock. It all happened so fast, there wasn’t even time to scream.
Friends would later ask me if my life flashed in front of my eyes, as the expression goes, as I fell. “There was only enough time for the first 5 years of it,” I’d tell them with a laugh.
Off the roof I went. My arms were outstretched, grasping for something – anything – to hold onto. But there was nothing, only air.
I was still stretched out when I hit the front porch roof on my side. Through no conscious effort, I then spun around 180 degrees and sailed off the porch roof head first.
This was the most frightening moment of the entire ordeal for me.
“Now you’ve done it,” I thought to myself in the instant before I slammed to the ground. “You’re going to hit on your head, break your neck and kill yourself. You should have listened to your wife.”
But, thankfully, God had other plans for me. Again, through no effort of my own, I did a 90-degree flip in mid air and, instead of hitting the front yard head first, I landed flat on my back.
I lay there a moment. “You survived! You’re not hurt!” I thought to myself. Then I tried to get up. I was hurt. My torso was suddenly wracked with a burning pain, and I passed out.
When I woke up a few minutes later, snow was blowing across my face. “Why are you sleeping in the front yard?” I asked myself. Then I remembered the terrifying plunge off the roof.
My next thought was about Sherry. She had seen me fall. Why wasn’t she here checking on me? The truth suddenly hit me: She wasn’t at my side because she was in the house phoning the volunteer fire department of which I was a member and the volunteer ambulance service of which I was an associate member.
“Oh, my God. My friends will never let me live this down,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got to stop her from calling them.”
Sherry had hurried down from the attic after my fall and had come to my side while I was still passed out, she later explained. She couldn’t help but notice that I looked like a big snow angel, arms and legs outstretched, as I lay there.
She said my skin had a gray tint to it. But I was moaning so she knew I was alive. Sherry then had hurried inside to the phone in our kitchen to summon help.
After I had managed to get to my feet and painfully made my way to the kitchen, I found my wife nervously trying to dial the seven-digit number for the fire department on our rotary phone. She had made several attempts but her shaking fingers had kept her from connecting. (Twenty years ago, we didn’t yet have 9-1-1 and touch-tone phones.)
Sherry was shocked when I walked into the kitchen.
“Hang up the phone,” I begged. “I’m OK.” She protested, but I continued, “I’m an EMT; I’ll check myself out.” She hung up the phone.
Several inches of snow on the front yard and the heavy winter coat I was wearing had helped cushion the impact from my fall a bit, but I knew I had broken some ribs and was sure I also had a concussion. I can assure you that people aren’t kidding when they say it’s not the fall that hurts, but the sudden stop!
I felt pretty stupid about what had happened. I had successfully thwarted visits to my house by the fire department and ambulance service (although my firefighter and EMT friends eventually found out what had happened to me; few secrets are kept for long in a small town.)
My next wish was to keep Sherry’s family from finding out how dumb I’d been. I insisted we return to their house as planned and carry on like nothing had happened.
It wasn’t a very enjoyable Christmas Eve for me, although I was thrilled to be alive to experience it. I spent most of the evening sitting in pain on the sofa. When you break ribs, it hurts to sit down, get up, breathe, cough, sneeze and everything else that causes your torso to move.
When we arrived home that night, I coughed up a little blood. That scared me, so I agreed to Sherry’s wish that I call my doctor, Mike deBlois. He only lives a block away from me, but I didn’t have his home number so I called the physicians’ answering service.
“Please tell Doc deBlois to call Phil Roberts,” I told the woman who answered. “Tell him I fell off the roof tonight, and I think I broke some ribs.”
It wasn’t but a few minutes before my phone was ringing. It was Mike.
“You did what?!” were his first words. I related my story and my symptoms. I also confessed I had waited about six hours to call him.
“Well, if you’re still alive, you’re probably going to make it,” he said in all seriousness. “Have Sherry wrap your chest and, if you get to feeling worse, go to the emergency room.”
We still had a chimney that was mostly blocked, so Sherry opened some more windows to make sure there was plenty of fresh air in the house, and she put the kids to bed.
Both of us then sat up the rest of the night, taking turns dosing now and then.
I thought I should stay awake because of my concussion. Besides, I was in too much pain to sleep soundly. Sherry stayed up because she wanted to make sure the furnace fumes didn’t kill us.
It was weeks before I could move around without feeling pain. But I never complained about it. I just felt fortunate to be alive. And because I wasn’t permanently disabled or killed, God must have had a purpose for me, I reasoned.
I learned some valuable lessons on Christmas Eve 20 years ago. For one thing, if someone tells you that doing something – like climbing up a snow- and ice-covered roof during a blizzard – is too dangerous, listen to them.
And I learned that if you do something stupid and hurt yourself, you may as well swallow your pride and let those who care about you get you the medical assistance you need.
But most important of all, I learned that all of us need to live each day like it’s our last, because it very well could be.
Yes, this will be a special Christmas for me. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Christmas on which I almost killed myself, but through the grace of God, didn’t.
Copyright Dec. 10, 2003, by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.