I remember the sun.
It was late afternoon, a hot Alabama day, one of the newest of spring. I was on my way to the store, having no concept of what was about to befall me. As my car crowned a hill, the sky flashed in a bright apricot paste. In front of me, near the intersection, I saw a man. The man had the look of a frantic boy who had dropped into a lake the signet ring that long ago his father gave him. Palms upturned, head swiveling back and forth in horror. Beneath him, two bodies lay on the ground, flaccid. Behind him, a motorcycle was overturned, like a starfish on a beach, and a woman was on her cell phone. I slowed the car. Stopped it. Opened the door. Got out. Slowly, I began to walk toward the grim scene. I tried to jog, but my legs could produce no more than a hurried hop, because what I diagnosed made me want to run back to that car, drive away, and never think of it again…
Terry and Sheila Grammer met at church, over forty years ago. Both grew up in the Northport area of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, near Lake Tuscaloosa. They were soon married and became known as a thick-as-thieves pair, friends insisting that “if one goes to Wal-Mart, so does the other.” There was no Terry without Sheila, and vice-versa.
One distinct fascination that the Grammers shared was a love of motorcycles. They relished in the freeborn spirit of the road, the drone of the beautiful machine as it bisected the bucolic countryside, the wind and air. Particularly in the spring and early fall, motorcycling gave their week a sense of correctness, happily punctuated with the illuminating impressions of Americana.
So on March 8, 2014, Terry and Sheila gallantly loaded up for one of these excursions, from their home in Northport. The pair, along with Tracy and Donna Tierce, twisted up Highway 69 and then linked up with I-65 North. The day’s destination was Old Cookstove Restaurant in Danville, a famous Mennonite eatery hailing “Great Home Cooked meals by Grandma Yoder.”
After a sumptuous meal, the Grammers struck up a conversation with a man named Dana, who began to testify about a horrific motorcycle accident he had experienced and the Lord’s mercy shining out of it. He described being thrown up into the air and “angels letting him back down to earth.” Dana also shared with them his favorite verse, Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Dana persuaded the caravan of Terry, Sheila, Tracy, and Donna to follow him south until the contingent made Dodge City, where Dana split off. By then, it was afternoon, and Grammer & Co. had a tricky drive ahead before nightfall.
Once in the town of Jasper, the Grammers and the Tierces had a stretch of streets to negotiate before hooking back up with Hwy 69. They turned left at Walker Baptist hospital onto Viking Drive, where the brute sun pummeled their faces.
As Terry manipulated the bike, Sheila hugged tightly. Behind them, Tracy and Donna followed. All, of course, were helmeted and careful motorists.
The bikes barreled down Viking Drive, as T.R. Simmons School approached on the left and the sun gave its fierce gaze.
The light at the upcoming intersection flicked red, but from Terry’s angle it was camouflaged by the orange sunglow. Tracy radioed Terry, informing him to stop, but it was too late.
To Terry’s right, a truck was already making a left turn. Tracy and Donna, safely behind the proceedings, braced for disaster.
“Terry locked the brakes up, and there was smoke coming off the tire,” Tracy remembers. “I thought ‘he’s gonna miss it, he’s gonna miss it’, but then he clipped the rear bumper.”
That afternoon, I had taken one of my famous Saturday afternoon naps. I woke up parched, and needed to run to the store for something to drink. I tossed on a Polo shirt, shorts, and dock shoes. Even though it was a quick store run, I made sure to put on a belt. Little did I know that someone would need it later, and I’d never see that belt again.
Still groggy, I hopped in the car, meandered downtown, and made a left onto 19th Street/Viking Drive, where my first meeting with Terry and Sheila Grammer would take place.
I should note that twenty years ago in biology class, I dissected a dead cat’s head with a hacksaw. I have split open frogs. I have seen scabs, blood, and broken legs. But nothing adequately prepared me for the real-life scene I was about to witness, and, through no desire of my own, become a major player.
About the time I was ambling up to the scene, Tracy was pulling off to the side of the road to help his friends. The man and the woman on her cell had already pounced on Terry and Sheila. It was revealed quickly that the woman was a nurse.
I looked down at the supine Terry, whose knee was sticking out of his leg. I saw about five inches of white bone, and the blood was pooling up and dripping on the sidewalk. Sheila was tucked under him, unresponsive. They had on their leather gear and blue jeans.
“Does anyone have something they can wrap his leg with?” the nurse exclaimed.
I remembered my belt.
“I’ve got a belt,” I suggested.
“Wrap it around his leg, above the knee,” she said hurriedly.
I unfastened my belt and slung it out of the belt loops. I descended to one knee and tied it, as a tourniquet, around Terry’s lower quad. He was moaning in agony.
From that vista, I had a bird’s eye view of his knee and lower leg. I noted the immense size of the knee (place your index finger and thumb around your knee and you’ll realize how big that bone is). But I didn’t want to look. The leg was tottering like a puppet, and I thought at any moment the leg would become unhinged.
By then, a crowd had collected and was seemingly shading, walling all of us. (I remember that when I went down on one knee, my shorts came down, such that my rear-end was showing to the people behind me. But I didn’t care. No matter. This perilous situation required more attention than keeping up appearances.)
As I held the belt tightly, arms out wide as if holding a broom on both ends, two men materialized near Terry’s head. My shoulders began to ache terrifically. Sweat began to dot up my shirt. My knee throbbed from the gravel below it.
Terry continued to writhe and cry out “My leg! Oh my leg!”
I felt so terrible for him in that moment.
“Pray with him!” I said to the two men.
I would like to say that two men began to pray, but I do not remember it. Others did, however.
When the accident happened, Gail Johnson was working in a doctor’s office, just a hundred or so yards away. Like others, Gail would quickly fall into her proper place, like pieces on a chessboard. “I heard a noise,” Gail recalls. “I knew there was an accident. So I came outside and started walking down the street. There were two men on the corner. They were younger men. One was tall, one was of regular stature. We looked at each other and I suggested that we pray. We knew it was bad. So I took them by the hand and we started praying. I mean, we were ripping it up. We were speaking life and praying life. We were praying ‘THEY WILL LIVE AND WILL NOT DIE IN THE NAME OF JESUS.’ At one point, I was praying in tongues. They were too. They weren’t shocked at all. It was normal, natural. It was interesting to me, because there was such unity between us. All three of us understood what we were supposed to do. We knew what we were on that corner for.”
The police began to arrive at the scene, including Jasper Police Chief Connie Rowe. Chief Rowe had witnessed many accidents in her life, so her sense of calm and control was something everyone needed. It was as if she added a pacifying element to the cruel moment.
“David Clark and I knelt down with Terry and I started asking him questions to see if he was cognizant,” Rowe, who is now a state representative, recalls.
Rowe held Terry’s hand and locked eyes with him.
“He spoke clear-minded,” she remembers. “And he kept asking ‘How is Sheila?’”
While Rowe rubbed Terry’s hand and continued to gaze into his horrified eyes, Terry traced his eyes across the sky, right over Rowe’s head.
“There goes Sheila,” he said, raising his hand and pointing. “There she goes right there.”
Rowe is careful to describe this moment. It is clear to her that something otherworldly had occurred.
“He knew that she…it was more than he knew things weren’t right,” Rowe says. “It was though he had some insight into potentially what was happening. His eyes followed her for several seconds.”
Where Sheila’s spirit was heading, no one knew. But her body was lying on the ground underneath him. Once the medics arrived, it was clear that things were serious.
“I could hear them working on her, and I knew things were bad,” says Rowe.
Sheila was out cold. From my close vantage point, I wasn’t sure if she was alive or dead. I lamented that I could do nothing for Sheila, but my attention was affixed on Terry and his gruesome leg.
I should note further that my recollection of these moments was not of a surreal experience. There was nothing in my being or my body that thought that. No. There was a sense of sublime realty I have never felt before and have never felt since. It was as if the veil between this world and the other side had been lifted. It was as if I felt a sense of realness, of palpability, like I could touch the air or lope across the great divide between this world and the next.
Gail Johnson felt that, too. As did Rowe.
“We knew the Lord had gone before them,” Gail says.
Gail remembers that she could not see the victims, or see me, for there was an impediment (a vehicle? people?) obstructing her view.
“Even if we couldn’t see, He [the Lord] had angels all around,” she says.
One of the medics who attended to the Grammers was wearing a wristband reading Philippians 4:13, a nod to Dana’s previous testimony just an hour-and-a-half earlier.
Once the medics loaded Terry and Sheila, everyone began to walk away from the scene. I had blood on my hands, my shirt, my shoes. A paper towel and Wet Wipes were produced, and I gave my hands and forearms a thorough cleansing.
Gail had been standing on that corner, near a power pole, for several minutes. As she was walking back toward her office, she took one final glance toward the scene. She saw a man getting out of a vehicle by the side of the road, and walking toward the accident.
The following Monday, I received a Facebook message from Gail that read:
Can you call me at my desk when you get a chance 221—–? Something strange happened that day that I want to tell you about.
That Monday, I happened to be traveling up the same road Terry and Sheila never made that afternoon—Highway 69 between Jasper and Tuscaloosa—when I phoned Gail.
“Hey Gail, what’s up?”
“”Well I have something I wanted to tell you…”
“Ok. What’s going on?”
“I was eating with my niece Amanda yesterday and I told her about the accident. I told her that as I was walking away from the scene that I saw something.”
“You saw something. What’d you see?” I said with anticipation.
“I saw your daddy,” Gail said.
Now, this might have been easy to digest, if my dad were alive. But he had died over two years previous, and nobody claimed to have seen him walking around since.
Gail continued. “Amanda said, ‘Well, Al was down there at the accident.’ I said, ‘Al Blanton?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
“Wait. You saw my dad?” I inquired.
“Yes, it was your dad. He was walking toward the accident. And he looked young. Even though it was far away, I could see his face like it was up close.”
“And you didn’t know I was there?”
“Not until Amanda told me.”
I should admit that I do not, and will never fully understand the complexities of God, but I believe that from time to time, He sends missionaries or angels to situations that occur on this planet. Perhaps my father was one such missionary. I wondered if, through some eternal delegation, God sent my father to look after his son, or someone else.
While God was busy writing his signature on the situation, Terry and Sheila were airlifted to UAB Medical Center, with their future still in flux.
Family and friends at the scene or who were quickly apprised of the situation were assured that Sheila’s condition was tenuous, “touch-and-go.” Her head trauma was severe and one of her legs was severely broken.
“Nobody knew what would happen,” Tracy Tierce assures.
Carol and Sandy Morris, family friends, were alerted, as well as Cheryl Leonard, Sheila’s sister. They all hurried to UAB.
Once at the hospital, the Morrises, Tierces, and Cheryl learned that Terry and Sheila were already in surgery—Terry for his leg and Sheila for traumatic brain injury. They waited for hours in the waiting room, where they discovered a tense ether.
Around 2 a.m. they learned both Terry and Sheila had survived surgery, and, miraculously, Terry’s leg was going to be salvaged.
This was not what I had deduced.
After the ambulance had loaded up both Terry and Sheila on stretchers, I phoned my friend Kyle Dutton, who met me at a local Mexican restaurant after I suggested to him that “I need someone to talk to…I have just seen something horrific.”
Over chips and queso, I intimated to Kyle the following:
“That leg is coming off tonight. There is NO WAY they are going to be able to save it. They are going to have to amputate.”
Chief Rowe agreed. “When I left the scene, I was thinking that she will not live and he will lose that leg.”
But the next morning, Chief Rowe sent me a text message and told me doctors had saved the leg. I was stunned. Not only was I worried about whether Terry and Sheila would survive, I could not believe the leg was able to be reattached. It had been dangling by a few ligaments, like a Christmas ornament (only it was a flesh and bone). Carol says that the knee was saved primarily because all of the major arteries and veins were still intact.
A few months before the accident, Terry and Sheila had asked Carol, a nurse, to be their agent for a healthcare proxy, in case something happened to them and medical decisions had to be made. In retrospect, Carol thinks it odd that something did happen to them, and even though she felt the weight of responsibility as the caretaker, she would soon learn who reserved real control over Terry and Sheila’s lives.
“That Sunday after the accident, I went to Englewood Baptist and I got anointed for Terry and Sheila,” Carol recalls. “I realized then that it wasn’t in my hands. God said to me, ‘I’m in control.’ So God showed me that until you go through something like this, you don’t really know what faith is. It wasn’t my decision. It was God’s decision.”
While Terry was starting the long road of recovery, Sheila remained in a coma. Many came to the hospital to pray, including family, friends, and a motorcycle ministry called the “T-Town Christian Cruisers.”
Terry was obviously in better shape than Sheila; he was up and aware. His leg would mend, so he made it clear that his primary concern was his wife.
“I can’t live without her,” Terry told friends and family. “She is my life. I don’t care if I have to take care of her for the rest of her life. I’ve got to have her with me.”
Terry would spend hours bedside with his wife, holding her hand and trusting the Lord. Family, too, leaned on prayers and divine healing.
Eleven days after the accident, Sheila woke up. Doctors said she wouldn’t be able to talk, since she had been intubated with a throat tube. “I said, ‘They don’t know her!” says Cheryl.
It was a cold reality. Sheila’s prized hair had been shaven, and when she looked at herself in the mirror for the first time, she said out loud, “Lord, where have I been?”
Days went by and Sheila eventually passed a swallow test (with a small swig of Mountain Dew).
Terry’s recovery was swifter, and he was paroled to a rehab center where he continued to recover admirably. He was eventually sent home, only to discover mounting bills and medical expenses. He pined for Sheila as he remained wheelchair-bound, phoning the hospital and relying on reports from loved ones.
Because Terry could no longer work, he was not receiving a paycheck. So Yellow Creek Baptist, where the Grammers went to church, rallied. Neighbors rallied. Family rallied. Friends rallied. Plates of food, power bills—all paid for. Grass was cut and the Grammer household was maintained. Yellow Creek gave Cheryl a $500 gift card for groceries and sundries.
The Grammers felt one large Christian embrace.
“We didn’t lack for anything,” Terry says. “The church took care of our bills.”
But God was up to more. Before the accident, there had been a family split, an estrangement between two factions of the Grammer family, lasting quite a long while. “None of that mattered,” says Cheryl. “When something like this happens, the problems you have with family doesn’t matter anymore.” Terry’s sister Kay took two months off of teaching to assist Terry and Sheila in their rehabilitation. It was evident God was working not only to heal the physical conditions of Terry and Sheila, but the emotional, spiritual, and familial as well.
For the Grammers, any lukewarm notions of faith quickly disintegrated. “Before the accident, we thought we could handle everything on our own,” Terry says. “We had put God on a shelf. We weren’t dependent on the Lord.”
Yet today, Terry Grammer and his wife Sheila sit at a restaurant in Northport, Alabama, talking all about the Lord. Their faith in Him is supremely evident.
After the accident, a Facebook page was created—‘Prayers for Terry and Sheila’—which I followed. I had also gotten updates from Chief Rowe, who was monitoring closely.
Months had gone by since the accident, and I thought about it from time to time. I knew that Terry and Sheila were ok, but I felt a pull to tell this—their, mine, God’s—story. Finally, I connected with Carol and lady named Reba Bishop, operators of the Facebook page.
So because of them, there I sat, at that same restaurant in Northport with Terry and Sheila Grammer. To my left was Terry, vertical and fully recovered. Walking again, albeit with a slight limp. Going around the table, clockwise, there was Sheila, Cheryl, Carol, Sandy, Donna, and Tracy. I asked questions and everyone chimed in with their recollection of the story.
As they talked, I quietly thought to myself. I thought, “These are good, salt-of-the-earth people” and I felt honored to be intertwined in some celestial, sacrosanct way with this incredible story. I thought it incredible that Sheila Grammer was alive. Even with the possibilities of traumatic brain injury, she had no major medical problems. I thought it incredible that Terry Grammar was walking again.
I could go on forever about God’s grace and mercy, the miraculous nature of it, the incredible spirit surrounding this accident, these people, but I will concede for a moment to Rep. Connie Rowe, regarding the time when Terry and Sheila Grammer ambled into her office months after the accident.
“I am not ashamed of my spirituality,” Rowe says. “There have been four or five times in my life where I have felt the presence of the Lord on a personal level, and this was one of the most spiritual moments I have ever been a part of. I have a deeper appreciation for the power of God. So when they walked into the police department together, it blew my mind. It was never give up, God can do anything, the power of prayer all rolled into one. It was living, talking, walking, breathing truth.”
And so when I look into the eyes of Sheila Grammer, and she says tearfully, “The Lord’s good to us”, I understand. I believe.
I notice a small cross dangling from Sheila’s neck. I glance at Terry Grammer beside her.
Living, breathing truth.
“There goes Sheila,” I think to myself.
While I may not understand what occurs in the heavenly realms, and I will never understand what Terry Grammer saw that March afternoon, I will remember a few things from this experience. I will remember the miracles of God. I will remember the faith of praying people. I will remember the mighty love that exists between husband and wife.
But more than that, I will remember how privileged I was to witness the power of Jesus Christ, firsthand.
Yes, these are the things I will remember. This is the veneer and patina left from the story of Terry and Sheila Grammer.
So when the great and trying ordeals of my life come—and they will surely come—I will remember that cross.
I will remember the Son. 78
A final note from Al: When my mother first heard this story, she told me that she and my dad had attended Yellow Creek Baptist Church one Sunday in 2010. Dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Mom remembered that they had met a woman who was a bus driver. Her recollection was a bit hazy. But when I spoke to Terry Grammer about it, I asked him if someone in that church was a bus driver. “That’s Cheryl,” he said. “Cheryl drives a bus.” I said, “Do you remember a couple that came in a long time ago? My dad had lung cancer at the time.” He said, “Yep, I remember talking to him. He talked to all of us. Me, Sheila, Donna, Tracy. He was very talkative.”
Yep, that’s the guy.
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