I was driving to the “viewing.” She died quite unexpectedly, although she had been in declining health for a period of years. No one — not even those of use closest to her — anticipated that her life would end as suddenly as it did. I was still in a state of shock as I made my way to the funeral home.
I have no idea why her family decided to hold a “viewing” rather than a memorial service or even a traditional funeral service. They invited only a few friends and close family members, informing us that the “viewing” of her lifeless, embalmed, earthly body would last for precisely two hours. During that brief interval, we were welcome to drop by the funeral home, gaze upon her as she lay in repose, pay our respects to her family, and then be on our way. Ironically, she had been estranged from most of her family for many years and had neither spoken nor seen those who lived near her for more than a year.
I almost didn’t make the trip. After all, she was my friend. Through the years, I met various members of her family and some of her other friends, but never developed a relationship with any of those folks. Rather, my connection to them was solely through her. Now that she is gone, I thought to myself, I will never have any further contact with any of any of them. So I questioned why I was planning to drive several hours to pay my “respects” to a group of people who were virtual strangers to my good friend. I considered staying at home and raising a glass in private to a woman whose friendship meant so much to me for so long.
She lived in the mountains that she loved passionately on a small plot of land far from the main highway, surrounded by tall pine trees and populated by the many animals to whom she was devoted. So I was only able to visit her home when the weather was good, the roads clear. In the winter months, when the country roads that led to her door became impassable — sometimes for days at a time while the residents waited for the snowplough crew to finally arrive — we communicated by telephone and email. But, ironically, on this day, the weather report called for a break between storms. So, fingers crossed, I began the journey.
I could not explain why I felt compelled to attend when all logical dictated against wasting the time and energy to make the trip. But an unseen force pulled me toward that funeral home, even though I knew as I would not “view” my friend’s dead body, in part because she would have been appalled by her family’s decision to put her remains on display. She would have preferred to simply be recalled for her formidable and opinionated, but big-hearted and infinitely memorable personality, her laughter filling any room she entered, with a delicious meal and toast offered with a glass of the favorite Merlot she enjoyed heartily and often.
The sky was dark and foreboding as I navigated the interstate. At times, I considered turning back, fearful that the rain pounding my vehicle with such force that I could barely navigate would turn to snow. But I pressed on.
To my surprise, when I reached the exit that took me off the main highway to commence the last leg of the journey, the sun began to break through the clouds. Listening to some of the tunes my friend loved, I began to relax, enjoy the drive, and remember some of the many happy times I spent with my friend.
We spoke about our faith and beliefs on many occasions. Although she eschewed the institutional, patriarchal church many years before I did, she was an intensely spiritual and intuitive person. She read and studied the Bible throughout her life, and could quote, explain, and argue the meaning of Scripture with as much authority as any pastor I have ever known. Gathered around her dining room table, she delivered many informal homilies, holding her guests spellbound before sending them on their way to contemplate her wisdom and philosophies.
I wondered, as I drove, if she was at peace, fulfilled. We had talked many times over the decades about heaven, speculating about where it is, what it is like, how we would know and find each other when reunited there. “I hope you’re there and it’s everything you hope it would be,” I whispered aloud to her. “Save me a place at the table,” I said at the precise moment I glanced up at the sky in breathless astonishment.
The clouds directly in front of me had parted slightly to reveal a patch of perfect, iridescent, unblemished blue sky. It hung in mesmerizing contrast to the grayish-white background upon which it seemed to be superimposed — in the unmistakable, perfectly formed shape of a cross.
I reached into my purse for my cell phone and began looking for a spot on the side of the road where I could pull over and snap a photo. But the road curved and I realized that from the shoulder of the highway, the view would be obscured by the trees. I then noticed that the clouds were moving — another storm was imminent — and the distinct lines of demarcation that outlined the shape were softening. As I drove, through the windshield I watched the clouds gradually pull back together, deliberately folding in as though a curtain were being pulled shut at the conclusion of a performance until the patch of blue melded seamlessly with the surrounding gray as though it had never been visible at all.
For awhile, I thought I had imagined those few, surreal moments, but the overwhelming sense of peace that soon overtook me — and has remained with me in the ensuing weeks — evidenced the truth: The image of the cross was real and designed for my eyes to behold. That I had no opportunity to stop and snap a photograph was part of the plan and the message meant for me alone.
“We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!” (1 Corinthians 13:12.)
- Cafe Chat: “Tell of one specific time in your Christian walk that you were overwhelmed with God’s love for you.”
- What I Learned from . . .a Sidewalk Group Writing Project at Middle Zone Musings.