Walking Through the Valley (Or, For Dean and Naomi)

Image by Rosalind Chang via Unsplash

Death refuses to negotiate, that old son of a gun. It is a silent wanderer, coming and going as it pleases, and when it comes, there is no use bartering with it.

Still, we can’t help ourselves. We make an offer. We try to change its already-made-up mind.

* * * * *

I remember when he came into our lives. Dean was, and always has been, one of these people who is fiercely alive. He was at first the slightly older boyfriend of my cousin Andrea, but he never seemed older—he seemed like a kid. They married and he jumped into our extended family feet first, rivaling all of us when it came to athletic ability, courage, and competitive spirit (the last of which is saying something).

But there has always been something ineffably soft about Dean as well, so that when he talked trash over some outdoor game you knew that, at his core, kindness was somehow tangled up with his words. This softness became tangible when he had, first, his three girls, and then, tagging well on behind, his son, who I once saw him looking at with amazement, as if wondering, How could this remarkable thing have happened to me in my later years? When his youngest daughter battled cancer, I watched his eyes fill with love and sadness and slowly grow older, and when she came through it, he was still Dean, and Andrea was still Andrea, but they were something else, too, something more ordinary and more remarkable.

At a family gathering 18 months ago, I was talking with one of my cousins about the way my theology has changed in these recent years, how much of what I believe is crumbling or changing, and Dean, sitting at the other end of the table, heard us. He slid over to our end, leaned in, and listened. He asked a question here or there, but mostly he listened, his face intent and curious.

Dean died from Covid-19 this week. One of the last photos Andrea shared was of her and her kids looking up at the outside of the hospital from the sidewalk. The glass was reflective, so that they could not see Dean waving to them from his room. But he could see them.

Dean and Andrea and the girls live in Virginia and we did not see them enough. I tremble to think of the gap he leaves in his family’s life. And still we try to barter with death, as humans always do, have always done, perhaps, since the first death. I think of the last line of one of my favorite books, A Prayer for Owen Meany:

“O God — please give him back! I shall keep asking You.”

* * * * *

Earlier in the day we had learned that my Great Aunt Naomi had passed on, cancer being the vehicle. She was a writer; in another life, perhaps in a different culture (she grew up Amish) and under different circumstances, she would have been a famous author. Words meant a great deal to her, so that she didn’t waste them, or toss them here and there like too many of us do. She journaled as if her life depended on it; at times, perhaps it did. She lived with a kind of fierce courage, a deep foundation of grit and hard work and determination, someone from a different era completely.

When she saw me, it was always with eyes lighting up in a smile. She called me “Shawnee” and asked what I was writing. Once, she signed up for one of my writing classes and came to all eight weeks. She was around 70 years old at the time, and when she read her writing, we all listened, breathlessly.

* * * * *

And so in this Valley of the Shadow, we go about our ordinary lives that suddenly feel quite remarkable. Lucy makes an apple pie and Maile teaches her the intricacies of a flaky crust and we tell stories of the other great pie makers in the family, matriarchs who have gone on to that far green country. We play cards and the noise of the kids that normally scrambles my brain feels somehow like a balm. Leo has a tired tantrum and says through tears and a broken heart, “But I WANT to be annoying!” I wish Cade wasn’t at work.

It is the ordinary that becomes extraordinary in this valley. It is lying next to Maile in bed and holding her hand while reading Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall; hearing Lucy singing a Ray Lamontagne song in her bedroom for no one but herself; hearing the three chimes distant in the house as Cade gets home from work after nearly everyone else in the house has fallen asleep.

It is the crooning of Patti Griffin:

Where is now my father’s family
That was here so long ago?
Sitting round the kitchen fireside
Brightened by the ruddy glow

We shall all be reunited
In that land beyond the skies
Where there’ll be no separation
No more marching, no more sighs.

That song could be sung by my children now, in these latter days. I am the father now, and it is my family that’s leaving, my family who used to sit around the kitchen together, my extended family who we long to be reunited with.

* * * * *

I escape the light and warmth of home, take Winnie on a walk through the dark city. We stand in the open green together and take in the steeple that rises over the Lutheran church, and the Bethlehem star that still splits the skyline over Lancaster General Hospital. We walk the late-night sidewalks, and though it is only 9:30 p.m., we do not pass another soul.

And, after a time and an age, we come home through the alley. Winnie flinches at the gate. She always does. There is something about it that spooks her, so that I have to coax her through that narrow space of darkness. And I realize this is what we all must do—walk each other up to the gate of death, some of us balking more than others, some of us passing willingly, and help each other through.

Sometimes there is scratching and clawing and struggling, even a bit of panic, but eventually I calm her, and we pass.

Only one thing is certain—no matter how we barter with death, we will all have a turn to pass through that gate. But it’s not something to be afraid of.

Home is on the other side.

* * * * *

I woke up this morning, and I thought it was all a bad dream.

Learning to Laugh Through Our Tears

There are a few musicians who have become so central to my experience of life that I remember with vivid detail the first time I heard their music. I remember hearing U2’s Joshua Tree sometime around 1988 in my cousin’s bedroom. I was only 9 or 10 years old, in awe at being allowed into his “grown-up” space, and the song “Where the Streets Have No Name” came on, cementing itself in my little mind. Continue reading “Learning to Laugh Through Our Tears”

Finding Light on the Darkest of Days


Mostly, I remember Christmas Eve at my mom’s parents’ place, their little house lost in the middle of all those rolling hills and farmers’ fields. It was a small, cozy house, alone in the valley, a light on those dark Christmas Eve nights. We always arrived with hugs and shouts of “Merry Christmas!”, Grandpa looking at us with his lopsided, mischievous grin, and Grandma’s round face kind and beaming Continue reading “Finding Light on the Darkest of Days”

What Our 6-Year-Old Leo Wrote a Book About

He sits quietly with me at a small, old-fashioned school desk in the basement where we’re preparing a space for my office. He is six years old, writing a book, a book that is nothing more than printer paper folded in on itself, stapled to keep it from falling apart. But he works on this book for hours. Finishing it, he is as proud as I’ve ever seen him.

* * * * *

What I remember most about Leo’s birth begins two years before his actual birth, with a miscarriage. A long, painful day filled with blood and tears and contractions and a weary grief that was like a long needle, pushing the pain into my joints, into my bones. It led to a box we buried in the woods, standing around it as a family with four children, thinking it was set in stone. There were six of us, and that was good, a blessing. Something to be cherished. But never more than that.

Still, that miscarriage, Maile’s second, left us feeling empty again.

Hours after Maile miscarried, we attended my grandmother’s funeral.

This loss is where Leo’s story begins, at least for us.

* * * * *

Nearly two years later, Leo. Unexpected. Unhoped for, if only because we had stopped hoping. The kind of gift you can no longer bring yourself to think about.

And ever since he arrived, it’s like he knows what his existence came up out of, the light he brought. He is smiles and long hair and cleverness. He is light and kisses and spindly arms around my neck. Leo carries with him the kind of joy you feel when hope is regained.

A friend of our lost her son weeks before Leo was born, and I think of them all the time when I see Leo, and a different kind of grief mingles in me. It’s a what-if kind of pain, a wondering.

* * * * *

Leo sits at the small desk in my office. He confirms the spelling of words he is only just now learning.

“God is G-O-D?”

“You got it.”

“How do you spell guide?”


He works his way through the book, adding drawings, words that are arranged willy-nilly on the page. He asks if he can read it to me, so I stop working and swivel around, facing him. Every page has something on it, but there’s one page in particular that jumps out at me.

It’s the picture of a boy, a stick figure with large eyes and long hair. And written beside the drawing are three words.

“God guide Leo.”


* * * * *

I watch him work on his book and am suddenly aware of all the long years between us—him, 6 years old, and me, 44 this year. That’s 38 years. I have a few memories from when I was his age, but they seem long ago, like from a book I read and can’t quite remember how it goes.

When he’s my age, 38 years from now, will I still be alive? Will he have a little boy, one who asks him to sing “There’ll be a light for me at the river” or “Great is Thy Faithfulness”?

I hope he’s at least as happy as I am. I hope he has someone in his life who brings him as much joy as he brings me.

* * * * *

I keep his book in the bottom drawer of a desk my grandfather used, a desk that is now mine. I was around Leo’s age when that grandfather died. Such a strange world we live in, with so many twists and turns, so many unexpected crossings. What is this life, and where is it leading us?

How can we ever find our way, without a little guidance?

Pandemic Dreams, or Finding the Hidden, Flourishing Things

Photo by Todd Cravens via Unsplash

I’ve had haunting dreams recently, in which friends and family die, and I wake with a somber sense that these days are not what they were meant to be. Maybe that’s not possible, things being or not being what they were meant to be. “Should have been” seems a heavy load to place on a day, or a year, or a lifetime. Still, it all feels off.

In one of my dreams, from about a week ago, I am walking with a young girl along a pier. The water is rough and the waves crash against the wood. We walk to a certain point, and in the distance, I can see a kind of sideways hurricane, a swirling of air that I know leads to the afterlife. In my dream, I start to cry, because I know I am staying and the girl is leaving, going into that abyss. Before she walks away from me, she leans in close and says, “I’m sorry I have to leave you. I’ll tell Maile you said hello.”

I wake up gasping for air, confused, my heart racing, relieved by the sudden realization, “It’s only a dream.”

Only a dream. What, exactly, do we mean by that? Only a dream?

In another dream, a close friend is in his hospital bed, not seriously ill. I leave to go to the bathroom, and when I return he is gone—there is only a note taped to the light above his bed—“He died while you were gone.” I wander the hospital halls, trying to find out what has happened. I call his wife. I call Maile. We are all devastated. Then I find a doctor who tells me the note wasn’t about my friend. It was written about someone else.

I wake up, the relief I felt in the dream still palpable in the morning air around me.

* * * * *

The first thing I do every morning is walk our puppy Winnie out to the green across from the hospital parking garage. There, we stand on the small swell of grass and watch the morning traffic go by. If it is a clear morning, the sun is just rising behind the hospital, the sky turning pastel shades of pink and orange and baby blue.

I marvel that some things continue on as usual, even now, even in the middle of this year. People wake up and go to work. The sun rises. Dogs are walked.

There is an intimidating man in the alley, covered in tattoos, carrying a Bud Lite through the early morning. He stops. Looks at me. Asks my dog’s name. I walk over and he bends down, gently rubbing her ears, going on and on about his own dog, a Mastiff named Buddy.

There is light coming in over the brick buildings, casting our shadows into the alley.

People are so rarely as scary or as stuck-up or as angry as they look. That’s just what loneliness does to us, makes us look other than what we are, makes us see people for what they’re not.

* * * * *

Later in the day, I carefully cut the kale leaves in our tiny backyard garden. The kale has done very well this year. It seems to love the weather. No matter how many times we trim the leaves, they come back, softer and greener than before.

I wonder what else is flourishing in the midst of these strange days. What else is growing after being trimmed back?

What am I missing? Do I have the eyes to see such flourishing, even in the midst of everything that 2020 is throwing at me?

What small, nearly hidden thing is flourishing in your life, in the midst of this year?