Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Breaking trails through this year's snow

Maybe it's because I grew up in New England, playing on the neighbors' sledding hills in the winter, but I LOVE the snow.  

Given where I live now, it's easy to forget how much I love the snow, until I'm taken by surprise all over again by it.  It's a "do-I-laugh-or-cry?", breath-catching moment, like what happens when someone surprises me with a gift.  (That part is not very New England, I guess... I'm not nearly stoic enough to live there anymore.)   I got that feeling on Sunday morning, driving up Highway 50 toward Echo Summit, when my aging minivan rounded a bend just past Kyburz and we were suddenly in the midst of tall, snow-marshmallowed pines, with the morning sun showering sparkles on the breeze between them.  

This year's snow-play-day was another step in our journey through the calendar for the kids and me, a round of "first"s without Andre.  I've been warned that each "first" will be difficult.  But this one seemed surprisingly easy, mostly.  And we even had enough snowgear for my nearly-six-foot-tall son, who is, at age 14, now as tall as his father was.  Over the years, I had bought a stockpile of the good stuff: alpaca socks, insulated, waterproof gloves, polypropylene thermal underwear, a good down-filled coat, LLBean winter boots, for Andre, hoping to keep him comfortable on our adventures.  He usually rejected wearing them, for one reason or another, and was usually uncomfortable on our adventures.  This year, it was easy to divide up that stockpile between my older kids and me, and keep everybody warm. 

 It sounds awful somehow, to talk about things being "easier" for the kids and me, when we are not even 6 months past Andre's death, but that is the unvarnished truth.  It's the telling of that truth that's been problematic lately.  I catch myself wondering if it's really ok to be honest and say that I am doing rather well.  Is that a betrayal of Andre's memory?  Do people think I'm being disrespectful of the dead?  In the moments when I'm feeling defensive and judged, I  suppose I could go on chugging the "whine" of "people just don't understand", but that seems unproductive at best, and certainly unloving in many different directions. Whether or not people are judging me negatively as I emerge into my new life, is really not my concern, I guess.  Most likely, it's just my own defensive sense of wanting to do it all "right", that's sneaking up behind me and bopping me on the head (another chorus of "Little Rabbit Foo-Foo, anyone?  )  What's becoming clear to me, at a level deeper than intellectual assent, is that there is no clear template, no plowed trail through the snow, for how this process of simultaneous grief and healing is supposed to proceed.

On Sunday, after the kids and I got to our sledding hill, put on our warm gear, and took the first couple of runs down the groomed sledding runs, I decided to rent some snowshoes and take off into the woods (leaving the kids on the sledding hill, using the buddy-system that they are quite good at) for a walk through the quiet.    

As I walked along, my heart felt incredibly light, not like the heart of a mother of four fatherless kids, not like a middle-aged widow.  I felt playfully alive.  I texted a friend (yes, I know... leave the technology behind, silly woman!), and chuckled to myself about what a perfect day it was turning out to be.

I stomped along a little farther into the woods, experimenting with what it was like to follow the paths that other snowshoers had made, and comparing that to what it felt like to break my own trail through the snow, guessing at what might be under my feet in the deep snow:  was I walking close to solid ground or floating over the bent forms of smaller, buried trees?  Was that a boulder I just stepped over?  Would I continue to be able to walk along, with my feet only barely sinking, thanks to my snowshoes, or would I suddenly find myself buried up to my armpits? What might it feel like to lose my balance and topple over?  Would I be able to get up?  A couple of times, I passed other snowshoeing parties.  One man called out to me from the packed trail, "you know, it's easier over here".  Maybe it was, I don't know. 

Eventually, I found myself in a clearing, with the sounds of Hwy 50 and the muffled sounds of the sled-riders just a murmur.  In that peaceful cathedral of tall pines on that Sunday afternoon, I found myself thanking God for all the incredible blessings in my life: for my kids, for the beauty around me, for the quiet, for my health, for the many, many people I love; people who have shown their love for me in so many ways over the past months, for my plans to return to school, for God's provision for every single one of our needs over the past months of uncertainty... I was rejoicing.  

And then... BANG !!

It was just a tree-branch popping under the weight of snow, but there is a part of my brain that, given the right trigger, still can't be stopped from kidnapping me right back to that awful moment, that single gunshot, that ended Andre's life in front of me.  (By the way, did you know that mascara that says "waterproof" isn't actually waterproof when you're standing in the middle of the woods, alone, sobbing into your mittened hands?  I guess that kind of disclaimer doesn't fit on the tube...oh well. )  As the loops of horror-film replay ended, I heard a voice inside me realizing, "He left all this behind in that one awful moment!  How could he do that?"  and I felt buried under an avalanche of pity for my sad, angry, frightened, lost husband, a man so unable to receive the beauty of life, the love of a wife and kids, the devotion of friends, the mercy of God, that he chose to leave it all behind in a single, horrible moment.  And then came the guilt: how dare I stand in this beautiful place, thinking about how easy the season had been, compared to what I was told to expect, feeling joyful, warmed by the distant laughter of kids (including his kids) on the sledding hill, his alpaca socks on my feet, wearing a warm scarf given to me by a friend I would never have met while Andre was alive?  How dare I? What kind of widow am I? 

Again, thanks to technology, I was able to phone one of my many wonderful, "call anytime" friends for a  long-distance intervention, still standing out there in the snow among the pine trees, and I was finally able to pull myself together and trek back to the sled hill, my kids and my life at present.  

What that moment, and the conversation that followed, brought into focus for me is that I am mostly breaking trail through this season of my life and I can never be sure when I will trip over a hidden obstacle, or lose my balance and topple over.  True, there are others who have walked similar paths, walking their own way among the hidden obstacles out here in the woods of widowhood.  But their path is not my path.  

I am not completely alone, thank God.  I can reach out and share my small triumphs, and I can cry out for help when I'm lost.  For that, I am unshakeably grateful.  But I am finding that I can't really walk well along the paths that other people have travelled, at least not in this part of the journey.  I just have to keep walking the path where I am, accepting that I will likely run into sinkholes and boulders where I least expect them.  But snowshoes help keep me walking above most of it.  

In the writings of one of the Old Testament's minor prophets, Habakkuk, there is a verse that says:

 The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.  Habakkuk 3:19  

I had to look up what "hind's feet" were.  They are the feet of a female deer, a hind.  The deer was known for being sure-footed, even in the high, unstable places. 

 Snowshoes, hinds' feet...different forms, same result.  

Time to get back on the path and keep walking, I guess.  It's a new year, you know.  

Just in case you need a bit more snow imagery to carry around (especially my reader-friends in South Africa and Australia), here's a poem that truly LIVES in me... again, blame my New England roots. 

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep. 

-Robert Frost 


  1. "there is no clear template, no plowed trail through the snow, for how this process of simultaneous grief and healing is supposed to proceed."
    it is good that you have discovered this truth and that your journey will be just that...your journey. i continue to pray for you and thank God for the progress you are making on this journey. i thank Him for the mercy He is showing you and ask Him to grace you with mercy still. i pray for c, p, m, and r and know that you all remain in my prayers.
    i love you, dear one, and thank God for the place you hold in my heart.

    1. You are such a light, gracious one.

  2. What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing two things that I have experienced also: exhilarating joy and healing, followed by heart-stopping pain. I was also surprised that Christmas was not as painful as I had expected -- I found myself mostly focusing on enjoying and communicating with the family around me. There wasn't so much pain, as enormous emptiness, a giant absence. Anyway ... it's a complicated roller coaster and thank you for sharing your journey.

  3. Thanks, Ellen. You and your family were in my thoughts so often as my family and I navigated this season. I'm so glad you guys could be together, even while you recognize the unfillable space left by Jeanne's death. She lives on in each of you, and even though I did not know her well in-person, I can read her warmth and passion for life in you. She has not left this world completely empty of her presence.