We took a trip to the coast Saturday, to a spot we’ve visited many times over the years. Returning there, I was reminded of a previous trip—one I describe in the manuscript.
This excerpt is from Chapter 40—one of the last chapters in the book. At this point, Anna is three-and-a-half years old and has been in therapy for her Apraxia for about eight months. We’ve just weathered the blow of Julia losing her job, and my mom’s mental and physical health is deteriorating. Here is how I described the scene that day, a little over two years ago:
Heceta Head is a beautiful spot on the central coast, just north of Florence and about an hour and fifteen minutes from our apartment complex in West Eugene. The lighthouse—the most photographed of all the Oregon Coast Lighthouses—sits atop a cliff overlooking a small cove and a cozy little beach . . .
As much as I love the ocean, sitting and looking at the waves gets a bit tedious, so after an hour or so I took a walk of my own. I’d hiked up the short trail to the lighthouse and the light-keeper’s house many times, so instead I explored the north end of the beach. Along the cliffs, directly under the keeper’s house, I found a series of caves. I stopped at the largest one and stepped inside . . .
As I sat, I thought about the Irish monks who left everything they knew behind and lived in caves along the west coast of Ireland looking out onto the Atlantic. I thought about St. Brendan the Navigator setting out for the Isle of the Blessed, and maybe discovering America five hundred years before the Vikings and a thousand years before Columbus. He sailed into the unknown, trusting only in God.
This was a different ocean, but the view was probably the same—the waves, the rocks, the water stretching out beyond the horizon. An ocean that seemed bigger than anyone could imagine and yet was still small in God’s eyes. I opened my notebook and began to write.
Lord, today I’ve come full circle. I’ve always felt a special connection to you on the Oregon Coast, long before I returned to the Church. Then I found you in the Liturgy, the Sacraments, and the Sacred Tradition of the Church. But you took that away from me. You gave Anna a cleft and you confounded her speech, and I when I needed you the most you weren’t where you said you would be.
Or maybe I wasn’t where I needed to be. Have I been looking in the wrong places for the wrong things? Now I am without a church home and yet I’ve found you once again, in a cave at Heceta Head looking out at the ocean.
I felt small, but not at all insignificant. At that moment I knew that—in what G.K. Chesterton called the strange “topsyturveydom” of God’s creation—the smallest things are the most important; lilies, and sparrows, and a three-year-old girl with a cleft scar and apraxia of speech.
As I looked up from my notebook and back out over the ocean, all at once the vast scene before me became translucent—like tissue paper—and for a moment I could see the Uncreated Light that shines through from the other side; a fleeting glimpse of the One whom Dante described as “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.” I had stumbled across what the ancient Celts called “a thin place,” a brief intersection of Heaven and Earth, of time and eternity, and in that brief moment I could see Reality Himself.
“Wadya doin, daddy?”
Anna’s voice brought me back to the world around me. She stood a few feet from me, just outside the cave.
Anna looked up at the cliff above us and the rocks scattered about while Julia stood a few feet away, taking pictures of the pelicans as they took turns plunging into the surf. Anna furrowed her brow in contemplation and then smiled.
“I wanna tave too.”
“Well let’s find you one then.”
We stepped out on to the beach. Two smaller caves flanked the large cave I had been sitting in.
“Which one’s yours, Anna?”
She looked at both intently, then pointed to the one on the right.
“OK, that one it is.”
“De udder one’s Mommy’s.”
“So we each get a cave then.”
“Should we label them?”
Anna nodded. I picked up a large stick and we walked together to each cave.
“M, O, M, M, Y.” I wrote the letters as Anna said them, and we walked to the next cave.
“How about Daddy?”
“D, A, D, D, Y.”
“Good job.” We walked together to the last cave. I didn’t even have to ask.
“A, N, N, A, spells Anna.”
“I got it, sweetie.”
“Hey Anna,” Julia said. “Can I get a picture of you and your cave?”
“Sure.” Anna stood next to her name in the sand, put her hands on her hips and smiled again.
It was a beautiful day that I’ll never forget.
A few weeks later, on September 26, 2009, my mom passed away. As I stood back on that beach two days ago, back in that cave with the second anniversary of her death approaching, I felt the same closeness to God again. Here’s how Chapter 40 ends—after I learn my mom is nearing the end of her life:
I thought back to our trip to the beach, and I realized that I had learned something else that day.
The One Who Is, the Almighty, the Everlasting, to Whom the mountains rise and fall like the tide, cares deeply for His creation, and He cares most of all for the smallest and the most fragile parts. Lilies, and sparrows, and an eighty-two year old woman who had already lost her mind and her body and was now ready to go home.
It was a paradox, a contradiction, and yet I knew it was true, and that’s how I finally made my peace with God.