“How do you think these roads got here?” my sister asked me, on the way home from burying our small nephew. The place where we buried him was tucked between the blue ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, farm land sprawled out around us, men came to bail hay in the field by the graveyard while we lowered the casket into the earth, held each other, and released balloons into the sky. We sang and cried until our voices were hoarse. The mountains stood sentry.
We were heading into the big After, all of us, the rituals and ceremonies and the comforting thrum of activity around them, were all done. Now it was time for whatever happened next, after catastrophic loss. Time to find the God behind the God I thought I knew. Time to live after knowing everything I loved I could lose.
There are two ways to get places in Pennsylvania, the mountain road and the valley road. When the trees break, the mountain roads come with sweeping views, you can see 50 miles away. You can see the valley floor between the low, blue ridges, littered with farms, trucks on the interstate, the great big sky doming between mountains. It’s easy to know where you are, when you can see like this on a mountain road.
The valley road winds through old farms and woods, sometimes you can see the mountains around you, but most often, the roads suddenly shut up around a hundred or two hundred year old trees and blind corners, and you can’t see what’s next. Sometimes, the clouds nestle between the mountains and shroud the valley roads in mist. Even in the midst of a bright and shining summer afternoon, the valley road can be smothered in eerie fog. The valley road can be disorienting, you have to trust it knows where it’s going, which was the way it was when my sister and I drove along the valley road, on the way home from the funeral. Smothered in mist, this valley road paralleled a rushing creek that was in a hurry to get somewhere. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, time stands still when you’re in the Valley of the Shadow, but the creek and road pulled us along toward something. Whatever was next.
“My guess? Probably started with deer trails, that turned to trails the Native Americans, who were hunting the deer, used. And then early settlers used those trails because they navigated around physical obstacles in the landscape, and led to food and water, which then established themselves as roads. And now we have these tiny lanes snaking through valleys and going switchback up mountains.”
“I guess that makes sense,” she said. She seemed unconvinced.
I imagined each individual life having it’s very own topography: mountains, valleys, deserts, wildernesses. The terrain as individual and particular as the experience. I forget, living in Atlanta, what it’s like to be in the valley. We have hills and hollows, but we don’t have mountains and valleys. It’s easy to forget the joys, struggles, and peculiarities of other geographies that I don’t regularly inhabit, to honor other paths. I forgot, what it was like, driving along the valley road. It pulled us on, through the mist.
“I’m not sure where we are,” my sister said. “I haven’t been this way in so long, where does this road come out?”
“I’m not sure. Want me to turn on the GPS?”
“No, not yet, I think I remember the way.”
A stop sign, the mountain road intersecting the valley. The silver mist cleared enough to reveal the nimble bodies of two deer, lowering their heads to drink from the river.
“There are two deer, right there, drinking from the river, do you see?”
“I see,” she said.
There were no other cars. We pulled out, each given to our own thoughts.
I didn’t know this God well. The one who lets small children die. Or the one who, at least, did not stop it. Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. I felt him in the silence. He was here with me, enormous and present. And filled with terrible glory that was not comfortable. Here was the God behind the God I sang about as a child, the one that I glimpsed sometimes when I prayed in silence. Here he was, beside me in the valley, the Yahweh who demanded Abraham sacrifice Isaac. The God who showed Job all the glories of creation and said, “where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you understand.”
I didn’t understand.
I wanted my Shepherd-God to carry me through this valley, safe and tucked away from the searing pain of loss and all that it implied. My identity as a mother wasn’t safe or stable; my children weren’t guaranteed long, blissful lives; love will tear you down and build you up a thousand times without breaking a sweat; I knew the truth, everything will be stripped away before the end, whatever end that is. I wanted desperately to be carried. But here was this God demanding I stand and walk under my own strength (was it my own strength?) in the silence.
Are you good, God?
Are you loving?
Who are you?
Who am I?
The answering silence was full of something I couldn’t hear or understand: crackling electric energy? A cosmic thrum? A chorus singing a hymn?
This wasn’t the first nor the last time I prayed like this or walked through a valley. The answer is always the same. I still don’t understand it.
This, what was it? A name? I am that I am.
The valley road dumped out suddenly into town. We lurched to a stop at the stoplight. We didn’t know the road would end so soon or suddenly. Ahead of us, we saw the highway branching off across the river, homes, churches, gas stations lined up in neat little rows.
“I know where we are now,” my sister said. “I know the way home.”