“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”—Psalm 23:4
“When walking through the ‘valley of shadows,’ remember, a shadow is cast by a Light.”—Austin O’Malley
I have often written about the willow trees in our yard. The elegant, softly whispered grace of their meandering limbs are like the hem of a ball gown, long and loosely flowing behind a woman riding the waves of the air disturbance she creates waltzing about a large dance floor. Unlike that gossamer dress, the willow is deeply rooted. It was this very image that came to mind this past weekend.
Father’s Day, our 29th wedding anniversary, our daughter’s birthday, and time set aside for writing were all on the agenda for the week. It was all planned out, or so I thought . . .
Father’s Day, Maddie’s 19th birthday, and our 29th wedding anniversary were all celebrations on the schedule for the week.
Saturday night. Call came in. It wasn’t good. Without revealing too much in order to honor privacy, John, my husband, and I ultimately headed to St. Mary’s hospital in nearby Huntington, WV on Sunday morning. One delay after another, led us to arriving later than planned. Nonetheless, it worked out as our loved one was being moved from ICU—where we probably would not have been able to see her–to another floor of the hospital.
As we spent time with this fragile soul, I took time to gently massage and caress her hands, arms, and shoulders. They were tense, tight, and cold. I kept trying to encourage the loved one to relax, but it was nearly impossible. I suspect she was subconsciously grasping for control of a situation that was nonetheless uncontrollable. The few words she spoke reflected a deeply rooted faith; but her limbs as well as the tears welling in her eyes, like so often in life, revealed her hidden fear.
A picture in St. Mary’s Hospital, Huntington, WV, from the 1920s of one of the hospital’s early operating rooms.
My heart ached as we departed from the tiny room. John and I made our way through the maze that is a hospital in order to find our way to the exit. We were already behind the so-called schedule in our heads, but all would be on-track soon, or so we thought.
With the whoosh of the elevator door, we stepped into the lobby. For a split second, the moment was surreal. The vortex of my mind saw two beloved men with whom John, Maddie, our daughter, and me had spent countless weekends at the local YMCA soccer field. For that mini-point of time, I was swept away into the past, and then just as swiftly thrust forward into the harsh reality. One of the men, approximately the same age as my dad, was sick—there was no doubt about it. The other man with him was his son. It was clear the son was trying to get help for his father. Wait, what was happening?
John and I made our way quickly through the crowded lobby and to these dear ones. I was swept into the arms of the older gentleman, and John warmly gripped the hand of the younger one in a handshake that had the conviction of warmth and genuine happy-to-see-you-gratitude. Sinking into the older man’s arms, my gaze glanced over his shoulder to his seated, and very frail, wife and worried daughter-in-law. Oh no . . . before I heard the truth, the pain of its bite fought to overtake my pounding heart. No, no, no . . .not this too.
I felt the grip of the man’s emaciated figure pull me tighter still as my arms tried to hug him with an even more tenderness for fear of hurting him. My dear sweet friends of years’ past, where had the time gone, and why are you hurting so? My mind raced through the maze of what-ifs before I heard the facts.
Well over an hour passed as we sat with these precious souls. John and I took turns speaking with husband and wife as well as son and daughter-in-law. Just as it is when friends reunite, the time apart matters not, our hearts resumed their previous rhythms. Hands held, shoulders stroked, eye gaze maintained with intention, ears perked to attention, all senses heightened. Words of faith and strength were uttered, but body language belied the substratum of fear that is our human nature.
An unplanned, impromptu phone call followed. I needed to connect with this couple’s daughter with whom, at one point in my life for many years, I spent nearly every day. I listened to her strong voice, so similar to her sick dad’s; but also, like her Daddy, that voice was filled with a dam of emotion, hovering below the surface of her brave declarations, threatening to break free. Even in roots of faith, a vein of fear was nicked in the rawness of life.
Arriving home to a torrent of anxiety. Our daughter had made a mistake—the kind you make when you’re entering those early years of adulthood. It was a minor one, but it burst within her a deluge of tears, self-criticism, and panic. Her faith in herself and her higher source wavered. And so it was my calling to once more sit, listen, connect, and offer my time and presence. Writing remained undone, and the schedule continued to fall to the wayside. This was not the plan for the day, but yet it was all perfectly orchestrated by a power greater than us.
As I write these intensely felt words, my eyes often wander to the willow trees outside. Not only have their roots deepened over the 17 or so years we have lived here, but also the branches have broadened and extend in all directions. Their shade now covers large portions of the yard, while the size and shape of their shadow shifts throughout the day as well as the seasons with the movement of the sunlight and the dressing and undressing of their leaves. And so it is with life . . .
Our lives branch and broaden not only from day-to-day, but also from life-season to life-season. As we move through the stages of life, we may form new connections, but all branches of our life remain intact. Sometimes we are stripped bare, like the limbs of a willow in the winter, or even broken by the strong winds of life.
Still, like the willow, there is opportunity for growth and strength when we root deeply into our core values of faith, family, and friends. Then, the shadow cast by our lives becomes more expansive and shifts shape. This shadow, like the valleys of darkness we all must endure, is merely the underbelly of light. Even though the willow must endure months of winter darkness, a time period in which it is disrobed of its brilliant emerald adornment, it redresses and is renewed each spring as the shafts of light begin to break through the winter clouds of bitterness.