From time to time my husband Leighton preached on what the Bible has to say about daily living. In a sermon he said that at some time everyone has a mountaintop experience, yet it usually fades into the highs and lows that mark the cadence of everyday life. My grief has been especially tenacious because our marriage was lived on the mountaintop of sustained joy almost every day for eighteen years. Life was a celebration of our love and sheer delight in one another.
When we’ve lived - even if only for a while - on top of life’s most beautiful mountain with the one now lost to us in death, grief may seem like a free-fall into the ordinariness of life. Over the course of Leighton’s illness, it felt like a part of me died - the part brimming with love for him, love for life, and hope for the future. And when he died, it seemed that my joy died, too.
At first, when grief was new and raw, I struggled to put Leighton’s horrible illness and death into some rational, immediate perspective. I needed a number or something that I could quantify to bring order and reason to the irrational guilt and chaos of my grief. And even though facts and figures can’t comfort us, according to Harold Kushner, “we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them.”
And so I did some figuring…we spent 6,686 days of our lives together. For ninety of those days we were painfully separated by his illness and the tsunami of dire medical events that my will could not fix or overcome. By all measures, ninety days - 1.3% - is a statistically insignificant number. By doing this little cerebral exercise, emotionally I gained a first toehold on peace – I realized I couldn’t allow ninety days of sickness and dying to qualify the other 6,596 days of our great joy.
Beyond that moment of reconciliation, I confess that life has been mostly an uphill struggle without him at my side. Perhaps you, too, are struggling to scale the heights of life when it seems the mountain has crumbled into the lifeless rubble that is our grief. We make our way forward in grief through the unshakeable love that forms and shapes the mountains of human stronghold in our life, “…and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2 NIV).
On a summer vacation to Colorado the year before Leighton died, we rode to the top of Pike’s Peak, a fourteen thousand foot elevation with a breathtaking vista that on a clear day seems like the view to all of life. As we stood next to each other he slipped his hand into mine. It was soft and warm and strong. In that exquisite moment of quiet spiritual communion we were alive to each other and the world. We read together the inscription on the plaque commemorating the poem “America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates, inspired by her 1893 visit to the mountain, about which she wrote, “All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
Our silent union at that peaceful place on that sparkling day was a cameo moment in life – one of those instants when we take a mental photograph of the scene, forever imprinting on our minds and hearts the smell, the taste, the warmth of that perfect oneness with all creation, a memory that lasts forever. Thanks be to God for the gift of love. Thanks be to God for the gift of life, beautiful life.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 46:2-3 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the serenity of your peace.