I glanced at the date at the bottom of my screen, but the glance turned into deeper vision as I fell into that place. May 17 will always be the darkest day for my family, the most unnatural of places, where a father watches his son depart; where an entire family is changed, in an instant, numb and wandering, looking for whys.
Perhaps it’s that point, when we actually realize that we’re numb, that we look around and find ourselves embracing, not clinging to stay afloat, but rather holding each other up. These are intensely personal thoughts and emotions, but shared as evangelism, as we each hold a piece of puzzle and struggle with how it fits into our own journey.
We place one foot in front of another and choose our paths alone. At times of insight, we realize that we have chosen to walk with others by no accident. We are, in fact, “here for a reason,” although sometimes it’s a struggle to know why. Not in the context of, “everything happens for a reason.” I stopped believing that a lifetime ago. But rather, in response this sometimes tragic life, how do I respond? Where do I go, both literally and figuratively? Which direction do I look for guidance, to make sense out of any of it? And whom do I find myself walking with, as I look around, when I finally emerge from the anaerobic depths.
I stopped being numb only when I finally realized that although sometimes those who I walk with are holding me up, and are “here for a reason,” this is my journey, and only I can choose to feel again, to breathe again, to live again.
Four years ago today, after hiking, falling, and crawling 540 miles from France, across the north of Spain on my first Camino de Santiago, I held my wife Sharon’s hand and entered the Cathedral of St. James. The pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle is life changing for everyone who completes or even attempts it, in very unique and individual ways. It was here that I began to look around and notice where I was, and those around me. Somewhere during the month, I began to look at myself from a different lens and realize how my words and emotions were changing. I don’t think these were my own eyes, this was someone else’s vision of me.
My story was one of great pain and loss, and I wanted to make everyone else know the pain, and cry with me. I hated this journey, I hated my life, and I hated everyone I encountered because they didn’t feel my pain. But, as I walked the Camino de Santiago, I began to feel again, to stop hating, to love again.
Somewhere along the path I had stopped enjoying the tears of others. Clearly it had been a struggle, but I saw myself and my swollen knees, black and blue and bloody from so many falls, struggling up and down the trails, continue to carry me forward one step at a time. And I saw myself embracing others, from Belgium, France, Germany, China, Morocco, Canada, Japan, Spain, and so many other places. They carried their own crosses of pain – their own unique struggles and grief. Others were there for a reason also, and my walking with them was no coincidence. My story began to change from one of death and loss to one of life and salvation. And the words and stories and memories I found myself sharing were those of love and happiness and support for others who were also hurting and struggling to find some sense in their own lives.
Working through grief is hard work, and it very different for each of us. There is no recovery, no return to the previous path, no “new normal.” Loss is not something to get past, to recover from, so we can “get on with life.”
In the movie foreshadowing so much of my life, The Way, when “Jack from Ireland” discovers that Dr. Tom (Martin Sheen) has lost his son and is carrying and spreading his ashes along the way, he exclaims, “That’s brilliant! Tragic of course, but brilliant!”
And so it is. Life is, in fact brilliant and beautiful. Of course there is tragedy and great loss. But it’s tragic because of its beauty, and we only see the brilliance of salvation because of the loss.
I don’t love my life in spite of my losses. Like my son I have things I struggle with. But struggles and losses don’t mean his life wasn’t beautiful, and meaningful, and love filled for everyone he encountered. His having lived for 19 years made the world a much better place. I have chosen to embrace my loves and losses, because they make me, me. Cullen was here for a reason, and so am I.
Each year since that accident have found me remembering the date in remarkable, meaningful places. Santiago twice, Morocco, Lourdes, and today, on the fifth year reflecting on his beautiful life, I’m at the Trappist Monastery where Thomas Merton wrote his classic Seven Story Mountain.
Today doesn’t have to be about loss. Many celebrate wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and other joyful celebrations. Please join me in thanksgiving for a beautiful life.
His, mine, and yours.