That August Sunday morning when my mom went into a coma from which she would never wake up, Seth and Jeremy drove out from Chicago to spend the day with me. Two teenagers who saw their friend and his family was hurting, so they did something. Nothing profound happened – I think we went out and watched a movie at the theater and talked and joked and made bad puns in the way adolescents do, grasping for honesty and connection in the midst of insecurity and uncertainty and a world that has seems to have very few shades of gray. I loved them for coming out, and reminding me that I was not alone.
One year later, I found myself driving down to Arkansas to visit Seth and his family. His sister Miriam had just given birth to a baby boy, and there were massive complications. I didn’t really understand what had happened, but she was close to death, and the whole family was gathered there, reeling from the pain of having this joyful moment of hope and new life be transformed into despair, tears, mourning, death. I didn’t know what to do, but my friend was hurting, and I just wanted to remind him that he wasn’t alone.
A few weeks later, Jeremy, Michael and I found ourselves driving from Chicago down to Charlotte, North Carolina in my little gray Honda Civic for Miriam’s funeral. Honestly, much of that trip was a blur. Death had once again struck close to home – this time with someone barely a few years older than we were. There was a shell-shocked quality to our journey. I was really starting to dislike the month of August. We were going to another funeral. At least we weren’t going there alone.
We drove through the night. After all, poor college kids (much less missionary kids) wouldn’t stay at a hotel. We were climbing over the Smokies as dawn approached, Michael and Jer asleep in the back, me at the wheel alone with my thoughts, music playing softly through the scratchy radio stations that would fade in and out, climbing, climbing on winding roads that reminded me vaguely of trips to the Peruvian highlands. And in that moment of silence, I remember feeling the darkness around us as a tangible thing. It obscured, threatened to swallow, and though it could be chased away by my little Honda’s headlamps for a few moments, it always lurked just in the corner of vision waiting to pounce. It was death, and it was out there. It would not leave me alone.
Just as the darkness threatened to swallow us completely, I realized that this was not the end. The sky started to lighten, slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly. It wasn’t light – not yet. It was just “not-as-dark.” But that was enough.
I probably prayed. I probably was silent. I do remember straining my eyes, trying to catch one more glimpse of the sky as the darkness dissipated and was slowly, every so slowly, replaced with shining, shimmering, resplendent light. I was in awe. I was full of joy. I felt that death had tried once more to snuff out hope, but light and life were not done. They would have the last word. Life.
There was this moment of convergence where we reached the high point in the pass and began our descent just as the sun broke over the horizon in pinks and golds and hues that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Thomas Kinkade painting. The winding road lay out before us, cutting over and through golden valleys drenched with clouds that towered above and below us, parts of the mountainside shimmering in and out of visibility as the clouds refracted the sun into rainbows and scintillating light shows. It felt like I was flying, piloting my little car through banks of clouds and the oceans of light all around. I had a hard time keeping my foot from crashing to the floor, coaxing every last bit of speed out of my little Honda – after all, we were trying to arrive in one piece… But the glorious reminders of beauty and life and not being alone were almost overwhelming.
At that moment, I realized that I had only turned down the radio – it wasn’t completely off. Faintly, almost too quiet to be heard, there was an epic guitar riff building… So I did what any child of the 80’s would do when confronted with Kenny Loggins’ masterpiece “Highway to the Danger Zone.” I cried out (waking up Jer and Michael) “I feel the NEED, the NEED for SPEED!”, turned it up to 11, and let the music carry us home.
I carried that moment for a long time as a talisman. When things got too dark, too heavy, too hard, I could remember that beauty, that joy, that life that flowed through me and creation and Kenny Loggins, and be thankful to be alive, and be thankful that even in the midst of the dark and winding roads, nothing is beyond redemption… Even Kenny Loggins and the “Danger Zone.”