IN HIS POEM “Come Up From the Fields Father,” Walt Whitman looks in on a family getting word from the battlefield. The poor soldier of whom Whitman writes will never be better, he says, but the stricken mother getting the message needs to be better. His few words tell as much as a whole book might. They remind me of a time in my own life.
Apricots were ripening on the tree by the driveway that July morning before dawn. In the front yard, leaves of the resurrection lilies lay heaped around the feet of the blooms risen on their tall, thin stems. My husband, Ken, our younger son, Dan, and I were sleeping in the white cottage we called home when there came a pounding on the front door. A floodlight streamed down the hall. Authorities had come to tell us there had been a freeway accident. Our older son, Tom, was dead.
If the horror of the accident was all over for Tom, for us it was just beginning. There were sisters, Sabrina and Su, to phone. Our call would cut their lives in two. There were duties to perform on that unthinkable day. We did them white-faced and sobbing. Friends called and brought us food. Flower arrangements began filling the living room. The friends kept us putting one foot in front of the other, and their flowers told us we were loved. But all we wanted was Tom.
The year following cannot—should not—be described. I journaled my grief in a little book with blue flowers on the cover. Into it I poured my anguish. I wrote the words a mourning mother says aloud with no irreverence at all: O God.
Early on I decided to live and pointed my body at living. I attended women’s Bible studies, signed up at a fitness club, and got my hair styled. With Ken I attended a grief seminar. I spent time with a counselor friend. “Jesus is trustworthy,” I told myself over and over. Yet tears fell on my breakfast cereal. They erupted in the grocery store. When my chest hurt, I decided I had better quit crying. But when I did not cry, I could not swallow my food.
A passage in Isaiah spoke to me deeply in those early days (and does still, decades later). It goes like this: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel: ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my just claim is passed over by my God’?” (Isaiah 40:27).
In the passage God’s people appear to have been complaining that God has not seen their situation and has not done for them what He ought. When I would read this verse, I always followed it with one that talked about how God keeps track of the stars. “Not one is missing,” it says, and I underlined it fiercely (verse 26). But I was struggling. God had let my son die. Was my way hidden from the Lord? What about my just cause?
To decide you will live when your child has died—and to actually live—are two different things. All that plodding year, questions hounded me. If I could have died for Tom, I would have done it in a minute. At times I lay across the bed and pleaded with God. “You said You would send the Comforter in answer to the prayer of faith. I need Him now.”
After that prayer, I could always get up and walk again, and gratefully I took that as my answer. But the questions I asked were sometimes worthy
of the Old Testament writers. “How did You ever think I could handle this?” I asked God. Implicit in this question was one I did not even recognize at the time: “Do You still love me?”
It was somewhere in the second year of my loss that a self-revelation occurred to me: You decided you would live, but you are not living. (I knew this was true.) You need a project.
A project? To a freelance writer such as I had been, “a project” could mean only one thing. And if we were talking about a project of any significance, we were talking about writing a book. But was there anything in the world that would stir me to write? Except for a few sorrowful verses, I had not been writing anything.
The story of the early Waldenses was one my mother introduced to me when I was young. These Christians had clung to their faith when it was illegal. In the high valleys at the foot of the Alps they’d farmed, tended livestock, and taught their children from contraband scriptures. The setting for their lives was like that in the child’s book Heidi. Theirs was the only story that stirred a spark of interest in my heart.
I ordered John Wylie’s history of the Waldenses in paperback and tried to read it. It was a copy of Wylie’s old book, complete with black and white etchings. The beautiful alpine valleys I loved to imagine were there all right, but the history was daunting. I was not a historian. I put the decision to write about the Waldenses on hold. Maybe it would be too much for me.
As devastated as he was by his own sorrow, Ken was aware of mine. He knew the thoughts I was entertaining and saw Wylie’s history lying about the house. One day he came home from the university where he taught with a startling suggestion.
“I have a work-related convention in Brussels in September,” he said. “If you’ll go with me, after the convention we can take a train down to northern Italy and see some Waldensian country.”
I am sure my jaw dropped. I do not enjoy flying. To cross the Atlantic had never been on my bucket list. But now—what was there to lose? I made what for me was an almost unthinkable decision. I would go.
From a phone contact, I learned about several high Waldensian valleys, one having a small town with a Waldensian church and museum in it. The town was Torre Pellice. (I couldn’t even pronounce the name.) “We’ll go there,” I said. In late August I started packing my bags, slipping Wylie’s history into one of them. In September we crossed the Atlantic.
As planned, on the Friday after the Brussels convention, Ken and I stepped off a little train at the end of a line in the hill country of northern Italy. We pulled our luggage up a hill into Torre Pellice, where the gray clouds hung low. It was drizzling and cold. Though there were Alps somewhere in the distance, we could not see them.
Ken went to find a motel while I stood with our luggage on a street corner at the top of the hill. It was Market Day. Locals swirled around me speaking their strange words and scarcely noticing I was there. Perhaps that street corner felt especially otherworldly because Ken and
I were alone. We had no travel agent, no tour group, no connections, no car. We had dropped into this foothill town like space aliens. And in a few more hours it would be Sabbath.
Once settled in our motel room, I huddled under a blanket while Ken went out for a walk. When he returned, he had a sparkle in his eye. “Guess what!” he announced. “I’ve found a Seventh-day Adventist church!”
Now some things, like opening blind eyes or calming a storm with a few words, I call a miracle. But I use the word sparingly. For me, providence covers most remarkable occurrences in my life. That on Ken’s short walk he would pass an Adventist church sign (in Italian) and, knowing a little Spanish, manage to read it and find the church smacked of providence. And that we would end up in a motel on the other side of the Atlantic within easy walking distance of a Seventh-day Adventist church? What would that be? The following morning we showed up at the small church meeting on the first floor of the pastor’s home.
As it turned out, on that particular Sabbath a group of youth from another town was visiting the little church normally comprised of a few seniors. Among the visitors was a professional translator named Hannah. Hannah took me under her wing.
“We are here because this afternoon we’re going into the mountains to see some historic Waldensian sites,” Hannah informed me. She grinned. “We promise some good Italian mud in the mountains!”
I pulled Wylie from my bag and showed it to Hannah. “I’m thinking of writing about the Waldenses,” I told her. “But I don’t see how I can go. I have only this one pair of shoes.”
Hannah looked thoughtful. “I think you should come,” she said.
That afternoon Ken and I (I, outfitted with “a pair” of plastic grocery bags over my shoes) rode in a convoy with young Italian Adventists into the mountains. The narrow road wound past chalets, fall flowers, and meadows out of Heidi. It was wonderful. But it was not until we were padding down a damp, wooded path toward a cave where Waldenses had worshipped and died for their faith that the sense of wonder swept over me.
I turned to Ken. “We never could have planned this!” I said. At that moment it seemed God laid His hand on my shoulder. “Your son died,” I could almost hear the words, “but I still love you.”
All that afternoon I filled my soul. We went into the dark, historic cave and prayed where a shaft of light reached through an opening in the rocks. We visited an old Waldensian church beside a torrent rushing out of the hills and climbed to the little Waldensian college where early pastors studied in safety above the snowline in winter.
“How often do you come here?” I asked Hannah as we left the college.
She thought for a moment. “Oh. I think we came about seven years ago.”
I made a mental note of one more providence. I would add another to my list when the pastor asked Ken how we found the church. “We saw the sign,” Ken explained.
The pastor seemed to marvel. “We just put that sign up about two weeks ago.”
In bed that night I relived my astonishing day. “Lord,” I said, “You’ve already done so much for me! But before we go, I would really love to see the Alps!” All day Sunday we were still immersed in gray clouds. On Monday at noon we would take the train out.
Monday morning as we were preparing to leave, Ken called me to look out a small window high on the bathroom wall. Through that little window I could see clouds moving this way and that. Splendid patches of blue appeared among them. Throwing on our coats, Ken and I hurried to the edge of town and looked across the valley. There they were—the Alps I would put in my book! They were dusted with snow and lay against the horizon like the sure, immovable love of God. On the train out later that day, I would sit facing back and treat my eyes to those white promises until they were out of sight.