Over the past eleven months, Dan and I have been learning that preparation is an important part of walking this road of grief. We are learning to be prepared for certain dates, like his birthday, and certain events, like family get-togethers, and certain places, like the road that passes by the funeral home where we had his visitation. We realized, very soon after Izzy’s death, that social activities are not easy, and we don’t attend near as many as we did before our son died. We are not always aware of the need to be prepared, though. We were caught off-guard a few weeks ago when we attended the wedding of one of Dan’s nieces. It was important to us to attend her wedding, even though we had been having a deeply grieving period for the week or so before. Grieving is an extremely up and down path, and we never know when the down or really down times are going to hit. We thought some time away might be what we needed, so we took off three or four days before the wedding and headed toward the general area of the wedding, hoping to do some sight seeing and relaxing. It wasn’t relaxing, though. One or the other or both of us cried off and on the whole time we were driving and sight seeing, and we weren’t really sure why. I mean, we knew the constant underlying reason why; but, we weren’t sure why the depth of the grief and the constant tears, until we got to the actual wedding. Sitting in the pew behind the step-mom of the bride, in a beautiful Catholic church, we realized why the deep, deep sorrow of the past few days. This was our children’s cousin getting married. This was our son’s cousin. It was our daughter getting married a few years ago, and some day it will be our oldest son. But, we will never attend our middle son’s wedding. It dawned on us both about the same time, and we looked at each other, silently communicating our shared grief, then looked away before we both cried. I resumed pursuing the program of the wedding, hoping to distract myself. But, when I came to the last page of the program there was a paragraph acknowledging the loved ones who couldn’t be there with the happy couple to celebrate their most joyous of days – my son’s name was there along with other’s I didn’t recognize. My 25 year old son’s name listed along with names I assumed were grandparents, great grandparents, aunts or uncles. I could no longer distract myself enough to keep the tears from falling. I just let them fall.
We made it through the wedding and the reception without many more episodes of tears. It seems that once the “why” is identified and acknowledged, and the tears allowed to flow freely, the grief monster is satiated for a time. We left for home the next morning, resuming our original intent of relaxing and enjoying the drive. We were both more relaxed and able to enjoy, as we had faced the giant of one more “never will he”, grieved it, and moved on………at least for the moment.
We were leisurely making our way across north-east Iowa when I noticed an orange sign on the side of the road that had a Halloween ghost painted on it. I love all things autumn, including orange signs on the side of the road, so it caught my attention. The sign was advertising an attraction called “Spook Cave”, and I thought it was probably some kind of kiddie park with a Halloween theme. We saw an identical sign about 30 more miles down the road and Dan half- heartedly commented that we should go visit Spook Cave. I said I’d thought the same thing but wasn’t sure what it was, so I hadn’t said anything. I also told him that if it was some “demonically” themed thing he better not make me go! Dan likes, and can tolerate, scary movies because he is so logically minded. I, on the other hand, will wake up screaming in terror from a nightmare after watching a scary movie. So, no scary movies (or caves) for this girl! By the time we had discussed this we were a mile or so past the road leading to the cave, Spook Cave Road, so we turned around and headed back toward it, laughing at the times I’ve been terrorized by something Dan thought was hokey film-making!
The fact that this was an actual cave never really dawned on me; especially when we were traveling the mile or so down the quiet country road leading to Spook Cave. When we arrived, we were greeted by the now-familiar orange sign with the cheerful little white ghost painted on it, and saw immediately that Spook Cave is actually a nice sized camp-ground area with a pretty little pond in the middle of it, and it was bustling with typical campground-type activity – children scurrying around, men poking at fires, women cooking, and a man on top of his camper with a power washer in hand, washing off the top of his camper. There’s always that one! We slowly drove through the campground area, enjoying the beautiful grounds, the people, and the pond with the old-fashioned water wheel at the edge of the road. On the opposite side of the pond from the water wheel was a narrow covered walkway along the edge of the pond; and across the pond was the “opening” to the cave. I was beginning to understand what we were in for, but I was still optimistic! In my mind I pictured a large, comfortable speed boat coming around the bend of the creek that fed the pond and whisking us away for a leisurely ride around the cave. Ha! As we waited for our ride we sat at a picnic table with an older gentleman who told us that he had worked as a tour guide for Spook Cave some forty years before, and he was there sharing the attraction with his wife and grandchildren. The grin on his face, as he told me about the cave, made me a little nervous. Then he finished our conversation with “I can’t wait to see your face when you come out of the cave!” Just as he made that statement, a little skiff of a boat came around the bend. This “boat” made my dad’s fishing boat look like a luxury liner. It was about then that I started making comments about this flatlander changing her mind about exploring Spook Cave in a boat. At the “helm” of the boat was a girl that looked to be about 17 years old. What had I gotten myself into this time?!?! Come to find out, the older gentleman and his wife were not going on the tour, but his two grandchildren, a girl of about 12 and a boy about 8, and a friend of the girl’s, were going to be the only passengers besides Dan and I and the tour guide. So, we all loaded into the little boat while the tour guide assured me that, yes, she did know how to drive this thing, and yes, we were going to go into that “opening” we could see across the pond in the side of a hill, the top of which was only about 3 feet above the surface of the water, and only blackness could be seen through the opening. What had I gotten myself into this time?
Our tour guide seated us all, the three children on the bench closest to and facing her, and Dan and I on the bench farthest from her, a couple of benches behind the children. We motored toward the cave and through the opening, which seemed precariously close to Dan’s head – he being 6’5″ tall – and into the cave. As soon as we were into the cave the tour guide told us to watch our heads as we see the ceiling of the cave coming down lower and lower as we motor through at a very slow pace. Very soon we had to get off our bench and crouch down to get through this section without scraping our heads on a rough looking rock ceiling. At that point, I had to coach myself to keep from letting claustrophobia give me a panic attack! The low ceiling didn’t last long, and the giggling children made it fun. The tour guide was actually quite good at her job and made the tour very interesting. We learned a lot about the cave during the 45 minute tour; things like the fact that the cave remains a steady 47 degrees year round, and the name of the cave comes from the eerie sound the explorer heard in the 1950s when he first discovered the cave opening. It was a spectacularly beautiful cave, in the way only caves can be beautiful. There were several places where the ceiling was low enough we had to duck our heads or even get on the floor of the boat again; and there were two or three places where the ceiling soared up higher than we could see with the dim lights that were strewn throughout the cave; there was even one place in the middle of the cave that was open to the outside, but it was too small an opening and too far from the outside to let any light through into the cave. There were many stalactites and stalagmites to be seen, majestic in their silent hidden beauty, and we marveled at them as we floated past them.
In about the middle of the cave there was a metal box made of something like chicken wire that hung down from the low ceiling protecting a large cluster of stalactites. They were magnificent in their size, hanging down right in front of our faces. I was glad they were protected by the metal cage, as I was tempted to touch them. The tour guide told us that the oils from a human hand would kill them, so they were protected from any human touch.
As we almost reverently looked at the stalactites, the tour guide told us that they grow at a rate of about an inch every 100 years. They look like they are rocks in weird cone-like shapes, but they are actually alive and growing. When the man who discovered the cave first began working toward making it accessible to the public, he thought the cave would be more beautiful if it could be seen in natural light, so he drilled a hole in the top of the highest room and made a window of sorts for the natural light to come in. It wasn’t long before he discovered that the natural light killed the stalactites and stalagmites. These beautiful, unusual living rock formations that grew at a rate of 1″ per 100 years were killed by the sunlight. And, killed if a human hand touched them.
We motored a little bit past the hanging stalactites protected by the metal cage, and our tour guide stopped the boat and told us to place one of our hands about 4 inches in front of our faces, then she turned out the lights. The darkness we experienced is impossible to describe. Even with our eyes closed at night, we can usually “see” some light through our eyelids. But, this was like a darkness I’ve never experienced. My first thought was that I could fall out of the boat because I had no sense of uprightness in that utter darkness. My second thought was of those children in front of me; my mommy-ness took over and I was concerned they would be afraid. But, she quickly turned the lights back on before they had a chance to be frightened.
As we turned our little boat around and headed back toward the entrance to the cave I turned to Dan and said, “There’s a spiritual lesson here, you know.” “Oh, yeah?”, he said. “What is it?” I briefly shared with him what I saw in it, and later we discussed it in more detail. Now, several weeks later, I don’t really remember who said what, so I’ll share it as I remember it now. As we neared the entrance of the cave, and we began to see light again, I heard the Lord speak to my heart about the darkness we just experienced. We – myself, my husband and our four remaining children – are in a very dark place. We lost a member of our family we loved, enjoyed, looked forward to spending time with, and cherished with all our hearts. None of us have ever experienced a wound so deep and so long in healing. It feels like the darkest darkness I’ve ever experienced. But, even in this incredibly dark place, God is causing growth; it is extremely slow growth, but nevertheless our hearts are growing. Our hearts may feel like rock right now, but they are not. They are alive and growing in Him. And, contrary to what we as human beings would normally expect – that growth requires “natural” light – this growth does not. In fact, it will kill the growth. We don’t need “natural” light; we need only God’s light. And, just like the touch of a human hand can kill the stalactites, a wrong “touch” from another human can cause death to the growth we are experiencing. When someone says something insensitive to me, no matter their good intentions, it sometimes takes me days or even a week or so to get over it. We need time, God’s light and touch, and tenderness and patience from our fellow human beings to heal from this wound. And, even as the healing progresses along (at a snail’s pace) we are scarring. We will never be the same; we will never be “normal”. We have a new normal, a changed perspective on life and death, and our family has a different shape – where there were seven plus a few, now there are six plus a few.
The scripture that came to Dan when we discussed our cave lesson later was Psalm 97:2, “Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.” God is in the darkness with us, no matter what it looks like to me or Dan or our children, our friends or our family. He is with us still.
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”