“Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
“All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
How can I be thankful for something that has caused me great pain? The hardship I am most thankful for…that seems to me to be an example of complete opposites. One is generally thankful for blessings received, isn’t that so? On the other hand, life occasionally does smack you upside the head with a Lesson Brick, and if you are wise, you learn from it. I’m old enough now that I’ve had quite a few Lesson Bricks and the lumps and bruises to show for them…
June 1, 2006…the phone rings. It’s my niece Rachel. She sounds strange, like her voice won’t cooperate and come out of her mouth. I ask her what’s wrong and she says that her brother, my nephew Michael, is dead. He had gone to a party with his friends and for some stupid reason, he drank a 45 ounce beer, following it with the equivalent of a fifth of whiskey. He was so drunk, she said, that he could barely stand up and my sister Shelley had to help him downstairs to his room, help him get into bed and sleep it off. Only he never woke up again. At the age of 17 years and two weeks, Michael had managed to kill himself. With alcohol. Thinking that is the worst that the summer of 2006 can hand me, my husband and I drive to Eagle River to be with my sister, who is in a thousand kinds of shock. Several days later, we hold Michael’s funeral. His friends want to see him in his coffin, so there he lies. Lips are purple from the asphyxia. He looks like an alien. A dead alien. A dead 17 year old alien. It’s an awful experience and to add to the surrealistic atmosphere of it all, the priest starts leading those in attendance in a Rosary. A ROSARY? Really? Ah well. We barely recover from the horror of Michael’s death…three weeks pass…we are grieving, angry and bewildered.
My daughter is almost 18 years old in the summer of 2006. It’s June 24. At our church we are blessed with a wonderful youth leader. His name is Dennis and he lives to serve God. Everyone loves Dennis. Dennis models Christlikeness. Dennis never travels anywhere without a passel of teens in attendance. He’s like the Pied Piper of Anchorage, only instead of rats, he brings in tow a group of teens. On this particular day, Dennis is leading a combined youth group with teens from three local Nazarene churches, as well as some young men who are visiting missionaries. The group is large and has an outing planned. Behind Service High School in Anchorage there are miles of ski trails that in summer are wonderful hiking trails. Both of my kids are with this group. Several hours into the early evening, my phone rings. It’s Dennis. He sounds strange. He sounds too calm. My ears begin to burn. He says that my daughter fell from a rope swing. He tells me that she’s okay…which doesn’t track, because if she’s okay, why is he calling me with that abnormally tranquil tone in his voice? He finally tells me that she’s hurt and that the ambulance can’t get all the way out to where she is, so they’re having to walk her out to meet the ambulance. My husband and I are trying not to freak while we wait for the ambulance. An eternity passes, then there it is, the big red ambulance with my baby inside it. Paul drives our car to the hospital while I ride in the ambulance with our daughter. She is in so much pain that she’s not really lucid, but all they give her is a non-narcotic pain med. I learn that day that ambulances do not have shocks…and the ride to the hospital is brutal. Finally we get to the ER and they take her into a room. We wait some more. They take her off for X-rays and CT scans and oh my God my daughter is hurt…then the neurosurgeon on call shows up. He’s read the X-rays. He looks entirely too serious. He takes me out to the X-ray reading thingie and shows me that my baby has an L1 compression fracture. Of her spine. I think my knees give way. Finally she is taken up to a room because now we have to wait for an orthotic guy to come and measure her for a clamshell brace, which she will live in for almost six months. We spend ten days in the hospital…and that is a story for another time.
Now we fast forward to July 10, 2006… We are at WalMart, trying to find shoes that my daughter can wear because, hello? Clamshell brace. No can bend. No can tie shoes. Yeah. As we are trying shoes on her, my mother in law calls and tells me that Papa (her husband, my father in law and the grandfather of my children) hasn’t come home from his hike up Flattop. Flattop is the most accessible of the mountains surrounding Anchorage and my father in law, at 75 years of age, can hike up it in less than an hour. It’s his training hike for when he goes Dall sheep hunting. That morning he has had breakfast and headed to Flattop, where he plans to better his time. So he hasn’t come home yet and my mother in law is beginning to be very worried, because on the news she hears that an elderly man has fallen down the mountainside – the rock-strewn mountainside – and that Search and Rescue are trying to get to him to bring him down. I get the shoes for my daughter and tell my mother in law to try not to worry, that we are going to go to pick up my husband, who is working with our friend Mike on a project at New Hope on the Last Frontier. I start driving to New Hope. The phone rings again. It’s our friend Wanda and her voice sounds…very strange. She says they’re bringing Gene’s body down the mountainside now. I start screaming…no…no…no…no…no…no…NONONONONONO…oh God no……no…no…no…no…no…no…NONONONONONO…oh God no…I scream all the way from the intersection of Minnesota and Northern Lights Boulevards, down to 13thand E Streets where Paul is working on a project at New Hope with our friend Mike. All this time my poor children are in the back seat, wondering what the hell is wrong with Mom…and I cannot answer their questions. I do not know how we manage to get to New Hope unscathed. Then I stumble out of the car to embrace my husband and I can’t speak. I’m crying so hard I can’t speak. Finally I manage to whisper to him that his father is dead. My father in law, a man I love deeply…is gone.
And that, my friends, is the Summer From Hell. In the space of just five weeks, two members of my family are dead and my daughter has a fractured spine. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” On this one point, I will concede to Herr Nietzsche the high ground. What then is the lesson from all of this seemingly senseless horror and suffering? I learn to find great beauty in sorrow. I learn that people are capable of unimaginable acts of compassion, kindness and love. When Michael died, when Kate broke her back, when Papa died…our church surrounded us with such great love that I can never begin to repay it. Within thirty minutes of Papa’s death, people brought food. The men of our church organized a garage sale a few weeks later of all the tools and Man Stuff that my father in law had collected over the years. Then they organized a garage sale of all of the other Stuff that my mother in law wanted to sell. They did repairs to her house. They…there were too many acts of compassion to list them all here. So the hardship that I am most thankful for is the Summer from Hell, because if we could survive that…we can survive anything life throws at us. With God’s help.
I leave you with this short and incredibly sweet song from Home Free…Serenity.
At the end of the day
When the sun leaves me to my fear and pain
And the stars appear to shine on my dismay
And I pray my tears be a cleansing rain
I can smile
If just for awhile