There are certain moments in life that define us spiritually, brief instances that cause us to pause and notice as a divine meaning is branded into our memories forever. One such epiphany happened to me as I was returning home from a visit with my dying brother. You see, drives home from the hospital were typically my moments of greatest vulnerability.
Drives to the hospital, however, were focused on trying to get emotionally and spiritually grounded. Those 1 1/2 hour treks afforded me time to prepare myself for whatever the day might bring–a dialysis treatment, a CAT scan, a dangerously high fever, surgery, vomiting, or worse yet, Jeremy needing to be put back on a ventilator. Every day was different and I could never predict what new medical crises I’d be facing with my brother. Before entering Jeremy’s room, I’d purposefully stand tall and imagine myself inflating with strength, courage, and positivity. It was important to me that my youngest brother didn’t feel responsible to care-take me in the midst of his agonizing 5 month battle with cancer. I was surprised, however, how often Jeremy, even in his weakness and suffering, would whisper, “You doing okay, Miss? You alright?” His remarkable concern always left me taken aback and misty-eyed. I’d swallow hard, regain my composure and shakily respond, “I’m fine Jer. Don’t worry about me. What can I do for you?”
Usually, what he most appreciated was when I helped him stretch his aching legs and gave them a good long rub down. At times, the days seemed tormentingly long. The hours crawled ahead at a turtle’s pace. My “shifts” lasted anywhere between 6 to 12 hours. Every once in awhile I slept overnight in the corner hospital chair. Regardless, I treasured these stolen moments with my brother…listening to his favorite music selections, laughing together at vintage SNL skits, or watching The Dog Whisperer in awe of Cesar Milan as he worked his miraculous dog-training magic. As Jeremy was bedridden, I’d assist him in sitting up and encouraged him to get a little exercise, acting as his spotter as he shuffled precariously around the cramped room. Jer loved being entertained with stories of his three little kids which he’d been separated from for far too long. We spent hours talking about travel adventures, childhood memories, and hopes for the future. And much of the time we did nothing at all. We’d just “be” with each other silently, in his room or in a “holding room” waiting for yet another medical procedure. “Being with” someone is soul stretching–especially when that someone is dying. It requires a depth of spiritual capacity.
After visiting Jeremy, I’d walk to my car, get in, and just sit there in the hospital parking garage. My Jeep became my safe house of sorts–my secret sanctuary that shielded me from needing to explain my heart wrenching sobs to others. I’d grip the steering wheel as my body wilted with sadness. This became a cleansing ritual which prepared me for my long drive home. Drive time became my time to talk with God as I battled doubts, fears and exhaustion from witnessing the cancer erase, piece by piece, my brother’s presence from us. I was disappointed with God. I could feel death looming like a circling hawk that has spotted it’s prey. Often I interrogated God, questioning why He seemed so detached from our pain, so withdrawn and undemonstrative in His compassion. On Burton’s bridge, an insignificant small-town over pass, I received my answer.
I had slept over at the hospital the night before, leaving early in the morning as the sun was just beginning to tug open the curtain of darkness. The roads were still clear of traffic and I was grateful for the solitude. As I neared home, I drove over Burton’s bridge which crosses the Fox River. That’s when I noticed something quite extraordinary. As I gazed at the beauty of the river, I saw that one side appeared crisp and clear, reflecting the tangerine sunlight. The other side had a heavy fog that blanketed the riverbed. Mist was not only rising off the water, but it enchantingly danced and swirled creating an otherworldly vision of beauty. I was so intrigued that I quickly veered into the parking lot of Kief’s Reef, a local biker bar known for it’s Friday night all-you-can-eat Fish Fry. The river beckoned me. I hopped out of the car and trudged up to the embankment to get a closer look.
As I stood taking in the view, I could feel a supernatural presence. The river felt steeped with God. When I listened closely I could hear the reverence. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the “thin places” the distance is even smaller. Such places give us a glimpse into the awe and mystery of God’s presence. This unexpected moment felt that way to me…like I had entered into a “thin place”. Somehow, I knew it was possible to touch and be touched by God. I stood there for quite some time savoring the mystery of it all.
There’s beauty in mystery. Mystery creates wonder, curiosity and awe. I was oddly perplexed at how the river could look so vastly different from each side of the bridge. My inner voice answered my questioning, “Melissa, you may often feel that God is distant from your heartbreak and concerns, but realize, just as there are two ways to see the river, there are also many ways to see God. Look one way, and all will look ordinary, typical, unsurprising and common. But, if you choose to turn your head in the other direction, if you pause and really hope to see, you’ll experience His presence dancing, spinning and twirling around you. It’s your choice. Which will you decide?”
Life has a way of turning our heads away from the ordinary in order to see the divine. Often it’s the deep trials that woo us into God’s presence. If we’re capable of turning our focus in a different direction, we’re then able to see God working in His mysterious ways. When we meet Him in life’s “thin places” there is a requirement to step from one direction to the other. I had been looking for God to answer my prayers, to heal my brother, and most importantly, to spare his life. God did none of those things. And, I now realize that, quite honestly, I was looking in the wrong direction. God was obviously at work even though my brother was dying. He was dancing in the midst of our grief, twirling as he wove relationships together, spinning deeper meaning and understanding into my life, my purpose, and my grasp of His abundant love for me. He had always been present. I’d been looking in the wrong direction. My head was turned only to the obvious. I hadn’t seen Him.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” Now admittedly, blackberry picking is fun. However, been there, done that. I guess I’m at a stage in my life where I long to see God ablaze in all His mystery and wonder. In search of deeper meaning, I’m taking off my shoes, turning in a different direction, and entering into the “thin places” as I encounter God in uncommon, unusual ways.