In just under 2 years, both my parents died and I battled breast cancer. I now look at life differently...after experiencing the grace God gives us for the journey.
I checked my earplugs as our helicopter, a Bell 212, lifted off with rotors whirling, kicking up dust clouds on the pad beneath us. Seconds after take-off I could see, far below, beaver dams spanning glacial streams, pine trees carpeting secluded valleys and hillsides, and - stretching all around us - majestic rocky mountains dotted with glaciers.
As the valley slipped away, the grief that had dogged me for the past two years began to slip away as well; peace quietly filled my soul.
Everything in life has a season - a beginning and an end, as the writer said in the book of Ecclesiastes. I know grief has its season...and I've found that healing does, too.
My season of grief started with the death of my mother two years ago. Not long after she died, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and required a lumpectomy, followed by six weeks of daily radiation treatments. Ten months after I finished the treatments, my father learned he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Four months later, after living with my husband and me for his final three weeks on Earth, he joined my mother in heaven. It was an unrelenting season of unbearable loss.
During those two years I was never able to fully grieve or mourn one loss before the next one occurred. After my father died, my soul longed for respite, for stability - for an emotional "time out" that would let the healing begin.
Ironically, a phone call signaled the start of my healing and the first steps of a journey of grace - an invitation to join a small group of women journalists on a heli-hiking trip to Canadian Mountain Holiday's Bugaboo Lodge in The Bugaboos, an alpine provincial recreation area not far from Alberta, Canada's Banff and Lake Louise.
I was told helicopters would fly us to the remote lodge, which would be home base for our group and for nearly 40 other hikers for three days. From there, we would be flown each day to even more isolated mountain locations for hiking or mountaineering, all in the midst of massive glaciers and alpine meadows.
Now, while I had hiked all my life, I had never been heli-hiking. The thought of flying off to hike in remote mountains and meadows, far away from my daily life and the reminders of the changes that had transpired, was irresistible. Likewise, the very thought of spending time in far away corners of God's creation was therapeutic in itself.
I jumped at the chance.
And so, with my husband Richard's blessing, I left on what was to become a turning point in my spiritual journey.
Our group first met up in Banff, where we stayed at the beautiful Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The first morning there, I threw back the curtains at my window and absorbed the view: the Bow River flowed through the valley in front of me, darting in and out of the forest that filled the expanse; the mountains in the distance were crowned with clouds tinged with orange from the sunrise. I took a deep breath and stared at the scene: the serenity of that moment was almost unsettling; it was a good start to my journey.
At dinner that night, I learned more about what was in store for us in the Bugaboos, which one diner described as "mountains of grace." "Every day you're there, be sure to spend 15 minutes alone - listen to the wind and the sounds," said Martin von Neudegg, a director for Canadian Mountain Holidays. "That's what I do to plug in and re-energize."
It was advice I took to heart.
I thought of Marty's comment a few days later, as our helicopter took off for our first day of hiking. Twelve of us were buckled in, with earplugs cutting the din of the whirling blades and smiles stretching from ear to ear. We craned our necks, trying to get a good look out the windows, and were in awe of the panoramic view before us. When we landed, less than 10 minutes later, we discovered we had been transported to an alpine meadow surrounded by rugged mountain peaks; sunlight glistened off of patches of snow that clung to the mountainsides. Above us, the sky was an uninterrupted slate of - what else? Sky blue.
We jumped out of the helicopter and huddled at its side, as we had been instructed. It was after the chopper took off, and we stood up and looked around, that the awesomeness of this place struck me. There were no trails, no signs; it was impossibly unspoiled. There were no sounds - just the wind - and all around us were vibrant patches of unassuming flowers: Indian paintbrush, mountain fireweed, monkey flower, and others. A stream gurgled through the meadow, ice cold and crystal clear, and bordered by more patches of flowers. I felt as if I had been dropped into a vast sanctuary - one made without hands - with the mountains as the walls, the sky as the roof, and the carpet of flowers as the floor. It was heaven.
The record of creation in the book of Genesis, came to mind and I understood, for the first time, why it says so often, "...and God saw that it was good." This place, filled with indescribable beauty, is most often seen by God alone. And after all this time, He must still take pleasure in its remote and perfect design, in its inherent beauty. As I walked that afternoon, the loss that I had been living with, that had so filled my thoughts, diminished bit by bit. God's grace, revealed through his creation, resonated with every step I took.
After the afternoon of hiking, our helicopter returned and we were flown back to the lodge for dinner and lots of conversation about the day's events. One hiker shared that when he was hiking, he only thought about "the hiking and the scenery, and everything else went out of my head. I was focused on the moment."
Later, I thought about my experiences that first day, and what I had focused on. It was pretty much like my new friend said: the hiking and the scenery and the moment. And I realized that I hadn't thought much about my loss or my grief. I hadn't had those familiar moments of sadness during the day; no tears.
Perhaps the absence of distractions contributed to my new awareness as well: there were no cell phones, newspapers, telephones, televisions or radios to distract me from experiencing grace; I was surrounded by beauty and by the mountains - dependable, permanent and immovable - just like God's love. I had had no need for any skills or talents, save self-preservation; I didn't have to be anything or feel anything; it was enough just to be.
Now that I'm home, I think about that journey. I think about what I saw, and what I learned, and what I felt, and I wonder what other beautiful places God created on Earth and in the heavens that He alone will ever see. Mostly, though, I think about the journey of grace and how God, in His time, allows us to have beginnings and endings to seasons - even to seasons of grief.
© Sue Schumann Warner 2004
(First printed in the War Cry October 23, 2004)