This morning, in church, I sat looking at a near wall-size photograph of Mount Kilimanjaro. Due to the angles of architecture, my chair just happened to be situated in a way that caused me to look straight at this behemoth of a mountain or, rather, for IT to look straight at me. It hung on an unlit wall in preparation for an upcoming VBS event. I didn’t notice it at first, but once I did, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to write here. Not for lack of things to write about, quite the contrary, actually. So many layers of thoughts, prayers, passions, commitments, projects, excitement, exhaustion. A fine mix of grief, work, hope and healing. I travel far, each and every day.
I have been dreaming of horses nearly every night. In the dreams, I am always riding them and we are always moving quickly, our bond deep and otherworldly. A good friend recently told me that she is getting the sense that I will be leaving sooner than I imagine. She told me that she is excited for me, but sad at the same time. She told me how proud she is of me. I love her for sharing these thoughts with me, even if I can’t imagine how or why I would be leaving sooner than planned. Since I am, indeed, planning on going to Uganda in August, I assumed she meant that she feels like I might leave for Africa sooner than expected.
And then this morning I woke up at about 4:30am, with the boisterous sounds of birdsong. I wanted to record the jungle-like animation. It was still dark out, but their chirps and calls were so much louder and more lovely than usual. With these sounds, I awoke with the stark realization that the leave-taking my friend was sensing could just as easily mean that I don’t have much longer left here on earth. It seems unlikely, the odds nearly impossible…but then again, that’s sometimes the way death comes. I continued to listen to the birdsong and realized how beautifully neutral I felt about this. At the center of all that neutrality was a deep feeling of love, a trust that I am safe.
In the first few months following Carl’s death, I admit: I wanted to die. I would not have committed suicide because I feared my spirit might be forever separated from Carl and God, but I prayed fervently for God to please take me Home. I prayed for a lot of things. Mostly, I prayed for God to help me. “Please God, help me, please help me.” And He did. Because I survived each and every horrible moment until one day I decided that I wasn’t so sure I actually wanted to die. When I got to that place, I asked myself what I would do if I got cancer or stung by a bee (which I’m highly allergic to) and was a bit surprised when I realized I would fight for my life. I had turned a corner. I was coming back to life and, in the weeks and months since, my desire to FULLY LIVE has grown with each day. When I finally found my way to Joy and the kids of the mountainous region of the Bududa District, Eastern Uganda, I knew for a fact that I no longer wanted to die. Now I have things to do. My life and my work is not over yet. Not even close.
The desire to live or die. What a weird thing to write about, I know. I write about this with honesty because, for some reason, it feels like a pebble left in the path of a story that’s still being written. As though someday I might return to these words and better understand something that is still a mystery to me.
I sat in church this morning, looking at that huge photo of Mount Kilimanjaro and thought about Africa and whether or not I might live to see it. Everything felt so surreal, an ocean of aloneness separating me from the chairs and people surrounding me. It wasn’t a bad feeling, just something I was aware of. A neutral but profound observation. I sat and looked at that mountain looking at me and thought of Carl’s surname: “BRATLIEN.” It means “steep mountain path.” His sister, Diana, mentioned this shortly after Carl’s passing one evening when we were all sitting around the kitchen table talking about our heritage. My mouth dropped open when she said it.
“What did you say?!” I asked in disbelief.
“Bratlien,” she said. “It means steep mountain path.”
And in that moment, I felt my whole world shift into place.
You see…for many years I had been living by a very clear vision. The vision is that my life (and purpose) will lead me through steep mountains. I didn’t know how or even where exactly…but I trusted (and continue to trust) it completely. I have made plans and decisions around this vision, my entire adulthood. Carl, my beautiful man…I could have never known that life would take me to a mountain that looks like any of this. I could have never known that you would die in a car accident. I could have never known that I would break so thoroughly. I could have never guessed that everything would so thoroughly change. But here I am. God, use me.
I cried a lot in church this morning. Silent, snot producing tears that are impossible to avoid once they start. I cried and felt alone in the sea until I reached over to my sister-in-law, Carmita. I reached to her from the deep waters. She felt the depth, saw the tears and reached for my hand. Everything fell back into synch, but the tears continued to flow, unstoppable. We were studying John 18, those final moments of Jesus’s life. I cried because Jesus was about to die and death still feels startling real to me. The sermon was about God using our brokenness as a way to draw us closer to Him, just as He did with Peter who denied Jesus three times, yet was restored. I cried because Jesus feels so close to me. Getting to the part of the story when He is about to die feels like I am experiencing the death of my very own beloved, by deepest friend, my everything. It hit me hard in a wholly new way. Bible stories no longer feel like just stories. God is in me, in my life, in this steep mountain path, in my love, in the people and animals around me, in my willingness to travel to the ends of the earth and even my willingness to die. I felt God in a way that broke me open–completely–all over again.
None of us know when our final day will come. But one thing I’ve come to realize is that I never want to forget how absolutely precious every moment of this life truly is. It’s been a painful road to this place with probably many more painful days ahead. But, dear God, I give you my heart–all of it. Please, take me to the mountain.
Dear God, as I wrote that last sentence, I just remembered the very last song that Carl ever sent me (we were having a constant conversation through songs). God On the Mountain. Oh, dear Lord…I listen and cry even harder than before. You knew all of this, all along. You have a plan for everything. You break me wide open. And I trust You like I’ve never trusted before.
I love you, Carl. My beautiful man…my steep mountain pass…my path to God.